What's different in this new wave of food trucks, and sometimes carts, is that they sell trendy food, not staples like hot dogs or muffins.
They started showing up about 10 years ago, led by pioneers including Kogi, a Korean barbecue truck in Los Angeles, said Kevin Higar, an analyst at Technomic Inc., a research company that studies the food industry.
Food trucks are just starting to become popular in cities such as Dallas, Higar said. Chicago is behind the rest of the country because it has ordinances that restrict trucks from parking within 200 feet of a restaurant.
Last month, Chicago ended a ban on truck operators from cooking onboard their vehicles.
In some cities such as Los Angeles, food truck growth is leveling off because governments limit the number of permits issued for mobile food vendors, Higar said.
Congestion is one reason for limits - everyone wants to be in the high-traffic areas.
In some cities, lots are set aside for a specific number of trucks or carts. But permits may also be limited because of pressure from traditional restaurants that don't want the lower-priced competition.
Weakness in the economy and high unemployment have encouraged more people to start truck and cart businesses, Higar said.
Some people who start food truck businesses include people who lost jobs, don't have prospects for a new one, and want more control over their lives, he said.
Another group includes people in their 20s and 30s who are interested in a career in the food industry. Rather than work for someone else, "they want to be able to express themselves and do it in their own way," Higar said.