Philadelphia food trucks cooking up tasty times

The Navy Yard, which has become one of the new gathering places for Food truck conclaves every Thursday. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The Navy Yard, which has become one of the new gathering places for Food truck conclaves every Thursday. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (CRAIG LaBAN / Staff)
Posted: May 03, 2013

It's the "trucker's" moment in Philadelphia's food world now - especially when it comes to lunch. That's when some of the area's most exciting new food options are making the scene, rolling in on four wheels with a griddle full of creativity and an entrepreneurial dream.

Channeling a Shane Victorino craving for Super Spam musubi? Check. Tiny Poi Dog at Temple University is your new Hawaiian snack shrine. In need of stunningly rich peanut butter ice cream sandwiched between double chocolate chip cookies? Look for the sky-blue '63 International Harvester truck run by Zsa's Ice Cream.

Or how about one of the city's finest burgers - hand-butchered sirloin, dry-aged and ground daily by the spatula-wielding dervish inside the tiny, shiny yellow cart called Spot? Meet Josh Kim, Philly's latest burger prophet.

"A lot of us are artists in a way," says Kim, the unofficial mayor of 33d and Arch, noting the artisanal character that partly defines this new wave of ambitious food trucks.

And the gallery is getting crowded - especially around this corner on Drexel University's campus that he has rightly crowned Philly's "Food Truck Mecca."

Since The Inquirer's first big look at the rising scene in late 2011, this world of trucker-chefs has exploded. Membership in the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association has ballooned from 34 at its founding in 2012 to 104 a year later, with 40 of those members not yet selling to the public, says George Bieber, the group's treasurer and membership director. The growth easily outpaces the disappearance of a couple of notable pioneers: Guapo's Tacos and Honest Tom's.

Everything from braised duck buns to arepas, cassoulet, and Korean cheesesteaks has appeared on menus.

New locations, like the Navy Yard and "The Porch" alongside 30th Street Station, have become hot venues for weekly food truck gatherings. Once-isolated culinary deserts like Philadelphia University now see the local produce-fueled Farm Truck parking near campus almost daily.

Bieber opened his own Sunflower Truck Stop as a creative outlet and mobile extension of the Sunflower Cafe, his Pottsville breakfast favorite. And other restaurant vets, like Carolyn "Mama C" Nguyen and Michael Sultan of Street Food, have turned to a budding fleet of trucks (with their second, Taco Mondo, just debuted) as a lower-cost alternative to owning a restaurant.

Start-up costs for a truck or cart range widely, from $30,000 to $100,000-plus, although that's still a fraction of the financial risk involved with a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Even so, the typically DIY truckers often find themselves working 15-hour days in season. And these rehabbed rolling kitchens inevitably have their own issues: "I just had to repair a $2,200 head gasket," says Sultan.

That hasn't deterred a host of career-changers - from college professors to real estate investors, stained-glass artists, and disillusioned sales pros - from leaping onto the caravan. In January, Marti Lieberman launched her custom mac-and-cheese truck, Mac Mart, after a brief stint in fashion and blogging.

"Now I'm booked almost solid [for events] through September," she says.

Yes, hiring food trucks for weddings is all the rage. But Philadelphians don't need a special party invitation to get a taste of what the fuss is about. Anyone with a Twitter feed can follow their favorite trucks' daily ramblings.

That's what I've done for the last three weeks, scouting more than a dozen new contenders, as well as some yearlings I had yet to taste. Here's my list of highlights:

Poi Dog: With three advanced degrees in classic literature between them, Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca officially erase any notion one can be "too educated" to run a food cart: "We're educated for everything," says Aranita. That's abundantly clear at one of my new favorites, their Temple-based Poi Dog, dedicated to homespun takes on Aranita's native Hawaiian flavors. The "Super Spam Musubi" will surely gain new respect for the famed mystery meat, a pink slab of which is griddled then tucked inside a parcel of sushi rice with crispy taro sticks wrapped in seaweed. But also: Don't miss the tender, smoky Kalua pork, or the chewy, sweet coconut butter mochi flowers for dessert.

Spot Burger: In short order, Josh Kim and his mustard-yellow Spot Burger cart has become a powerhouse draw to 33d and Arch - and for good reason. A former butcher and experienced cook (among other things), Kim hand-butchers his own sirloin, dry-ages the meat, and grinds his burgers daily. The result: a noticeable upgrade in flavor that few restaurants can match. Spot offers funky variations (like the Umami topped with kimchi). But the straight-ahead signature patty alone is worth the trip, and, remarkable for a cart, "spot-on" cooked to medium-rare. The hand-cut fries are worthy, too.

Kami: It's no wonder Jin Jang's Kami cart is twinned on the Arch Street sidewalk beside her mentor Kim's. But if Spot is mustard-yellow, her Kami cart is a vivid gochujang red - a perfect emblem of the classic Korean spice that infuses her menu. Sort of. Her take on bibimbap is as traditional as it gets, with grilled spicy pork atop fluffy rice pinwheeled with colorful veggies. But her Korean "cheesesteak" is anything but normal. The meat is bulgogi beef and onions marinated with sesame, soy, garlic, Asian pear, and Sprite (for "tenderness"). And then the unlikely: cream cheese. It melts. It flows. It works. Really!

Local 215: Our restaurants have seen a recent influx of out-of-town chef talent. Alex Buckner saw opportunity in Philly's truck world, too. Leaving behind overcrowded New York, he has been a fixture at Drexel and the Navy Yard with house-made lamb merguez, Scotch eggs, and restaurant-style braised meats served in creative finger-food ways. The crispy pork croquettes filled with juicy shredded meat, pistachios, and whole-grain mustard were among the best things I recently ate from a truck. I wish the aioli-dabbed duck buns were wrapped in something softer than laffa bread. But the delicate sweet potato tempura, streaked with spicy-sweet sriracha-hoisin, easily compensated.

Street Food: No truck operates with more restaurant-style ambition than Carolyn Nguyen and Michael Sultan's Drexel-based Street Food, whose ever-changing menus have featured fresh-made pastas, cassoulet, seafood stews, lobster, and even foie gras. The execution hasn't always been precise (a "spring hot chocolate" was more like a melted shake). But Street Food's tacos are fantastic, including one with spicy braised chicken, chickpeas, and crispy house-made chorizo, and another with chorizo and chipotle-marinated shrimp that are worth driving for. That they just unveiled another truck, Taco Mondo, is very good news.

Foo Truck: Don't call George Pan's flour tortilla-wrapped creations "burritos." They are Foo-wiches, square in shape and griddled crisp, with Asian-inspired fillings that are delicious by any name. Vegans should go for the quinoa salad enriched with spicy green coconut curry; or the house-made tofu with banh mi-inspired slaw. My favorites, though, are all spherical: the sesame- and soy-braised beef meatballs to start; and the vivid crimson red velvet cake balls dipped in chocolate to finish.

Mac Mart: Marti Lieberman's career in fashion and blogging didn't last long. But judging from the unmistakable "Mac Mart Pink" hue of her custom mac-and-cheese truck, she didn't forget her sense of style. The central product here is no-nonsense goodness, just toothy elbow noodles glazed in creamy white sauce with the tang of half-a-dozen cheeses. Things get interesting, though, when customers accessorize. Crumbled bacon, tomato, ranch dressing, and panko crumbs make the B.R.A.T. mac a customer favorite. But I loved the BBQ. Tangy-sauced chicken, crumbled corn bread, and macaroni are already smart companions on their own at any picnic. They're even better together in a bowl.

Delicias Food Truck: Truck devotees know tacos. But arepas? Lynette Gueits has been on a mission to spread the corn-cake gospel since she bought Siu-Lien Fung's truck in September, and recently added a second Delicias truck. Though Gueits is Puerto Rican, the recipes have remained largely faithful to the Venezuelan tradition, from the shredded adobo-braised flank steak with beans and plantains for the Pabellon, to the arepas themselves, which are handmade and griddled on the trucks like corny Latin English muffins. For something lighter for summer, try La Reina Pepiada, cool shredded chicken salad blended with guacamole and pico de gallo.

Cloud Coffee: Hubbub and Rival Bros. set the local coffee-truck standard. But it took two Tyler School of Art grads, Matthew Craig and Kristen Mills, to conceive the Cloud Coffee cart as a sort of performance art. Their mere presence at the steps of their alma mater is fuel for caffeinated art dialogue ("a bit of institutional critique," says Craig). It's fortunate the locally roasted ReAnimator beans are so good. As I photographed the Pollock-esque foam work atop my "Salty Artist," Mills made it clear she wasn't concerned with trivial latte art: "Oh, you wanted it pretty?"

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