Hitting the road with the taco trucks

McCusker plans to open a restaurant on 44th Street soon.
McCusker plans to open a restaurant on 44th Street soon. (Photos: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 11, 2011

"DUDE, YOU KNOW what would be so rad? A food truck. We should totally start a food truck." If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that one over the years, I could probably . . . start my own food truck, dude!

The first time I heard the idea was years ago in a smoky, hazy dorm room at the University of Vermont. The patchouli-smelling guy who uttered it eventually did go on to nominal food truck success, selling grilled-cheese sandwiches at Grateful Dead and Phish shows. The last time I heard the sentiment was a few weeks ago, when a friend told me her dream was to quit her job and sell organic pancakes from an Airstream trailer.

I guess I would be lying if I said I didn't occasionally think about tossing away this whole writing nonsense to sell tacos through a truck window.

I've always been a little envious of Honest Tom, a/k/a Tom McCusker, 29, who's been living the dream by selling tacos from his truck, often parked near my office at Drexel University.

He also sells breakfast tacos at the Clark Park Farmer's Market in West Philly on Saturday mornings, and, currently, on summer weekdays at Aviator Park by the Franklin Institute and Moore College of Art.

You've perhaps seen Honest Tom's groovy, psychedelic, tie-dyed truck with the skull (designed and painted by Shira Walinsky, of the Mural Arts Program). It would not have been out of place at a Dead show two decades ago.

Tom, who graduated from Drexel's hospitality management program in 2005, started his truck the way I've always imagined all great food trucks start - spontaneously, and with no plan or experience. "I took this motorcycle trip to Austin with some friends. My friend's mom's ex-bandmates live there," he said. "We were eating breakfast tacos every day from taco trucks down there."

He was so taken by the idea of eating tacos in the morning that he decided to replicate the taco truck in Philadelphia. Lunch evolved from breakfast. And then came Tom's crowning achievement: Sweet potato tacos, the sweet potatoes grilled like meat and served with tomatoes and guacamole on a corn tortilla - one of the best lunches, vegetarian or otherwise, in the city ($6 for two).

I follow Tom on Twitter, where he gives updates on his whereabouts, and his tweets reinforce the refreshing lack of business plan. "Rained out today, slept in." Or: "Shakespeare in the park in clark park tonight (maybe, depending on the heat)." Or: "Made a bad call on these thunderstorms, sorry if anyone missed us today." Or: "Breakfast BOMBED yesterday so we're sleeping in and sticking to lunch." Or: "Crowned Philly Mag Best of Philly 'Food Truck' today. Award party tonight. Long story short, closed tomorrow."

2 convenient locations

Given his free-spirited approach, I was surprised to learn that Tom will put down roots and open a storefront taco shop in a few weeks on 44th between Locust and Spruce, just down from Local 44. I guess as we civilians dream of opening food trucks, food truck guys dream of opening real restaurants.

Once the shop opens, he'll still keep the taco truck going during the day. But to hear Tom tell it, running a food truck is a lot harder than you think. "You can't just pull up to a crowded area and say, 'Here's your dinner.' It take a few months to get a steady crowd." He works 14 to 16 hours days, and weather really hurts the bottom line. "This spring sucked," he said. "For every good day, there was three bad days."

"I was thinking the truck was going to crumble this winter," he said. "I was thinking I'd move to Florida. I had a lot of ideas." Instead, he decided to sign a lease on what will become a takeout taco shop.

"This has been insane," he said. "I went into this so naively. I thought, dude, you just put in a couple sinks in and you're good to go. But they were like, dude, you can't just do that." The plumbing - a "disaster," he said - has been holding things up for weeks.

Tom's outlook? "Well, I've already learned the hard way with creditors. I've already seen what happens when the repo man comes. This couldn't be much worse than that."

Still, things seem relatively on schedule, the space looks great, and I for one am very excited for the opening. The neighborhood needs more offerings like this, and Honest Tom's Taco Shop will certainly be a good complement to Local 44's forthcoming carryout bottle shop.

A taco-truck convoy

Tom isn't the first taco impresario to attempt the transition from truck to storefront. Tacos Don Memo, for instance, began in 2006 as a cart on 38th between Sansom and Walnut. It was so popular that, a few years later, owner Leo Saavedra opened a real Mexican restaurant in Upper Darby near the 69th Street Transportation Center. Don Memo makes perhaps the best authentic al pastor and carnitas in the area ($2.50 each, or $7 for three).

When Honest Tom parks at 33rd and Arch, University City becomes a fabulous Taco Triangle. Beyond Honest Tom and Don Memo, there is also Cucina Zapata, the Thai-Mexican truck on Ludlow Street behind Drexel's main building, which serves delicious, innovative chicken satay and Thai short rib tacos ($5 for two).

Which means that Philadelphia, which only a few years ago had zero good tacos, is now rich with them - everywhere from Los Gallos, the grocery store/taqueria at 10th and Wolf in South Philly, to Pura Vida, with its Guatemalan tacos at 6th and Fairmount in Northern Liberties, to the collection of taquerias around 9th and Washington.

All the taco buzz has inevitably drawn flashier trucks into the mix. Jose Garces put the capital T on trend when he opened his own taco truck, Guapos Tacos, usually found in LOVE Park at lunchtime. I've certainly heard some grumbling about Guapos' prices, which can top $8 for two, but the quality is outstanding. I particularly loved Guapos' chipotle short rib taco and the duck barbacoa.

I asked Honest Tom how it felt to be in competition with one of Philadelphia's luminary restaurateurs. "I'm sure Jose Garces doesn't even know who I am," he said. "A lot of customers come up and say, 'F--- Guapos!' And I'm like, 'No, no, dude. I'm not getting involved in all that.' Guapos does what they do, and we do what we do."

He also told me how people are always asking him for advice on how to live the food truck dream. "People always come up to me and are like, 'I want to get a food truck, too.' Then most of them say, 'But I don't want to quit my day job.'

"I'm just like, 'Dude, how do you think you're going to run a food truck then?' "


Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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