As food trucks finally begin to gain traction along the Main Line, we peer into a few of the most magnetic of the cramped kitchens for a taste of their ingredient-driven, meticulously-prepared innovations.
By Mike Madaio
Food trucks are a true sign of the times: Talented, uncompromising chefs determined to make a name for themselves in spite of their lack of resources. But the trucks aren’t a product of the times. They date back to the Wild West, when chuckwagons fed cowboys and remote workers. As America urbanized, food trucks sprang up in the center of the activity and catered to blue-collar workers in need of a fast, cheap lunch.
The evolution’s moved toward a gourmet end, but the essence remains the same: fast and cheap. It’s by no means a lucrative business, but it’s effective in getting a chef noticed and even developing a local following. Which translates to a restaurant—the goal of most food truck chefs—opening in full stride, rather than cold and unsure.
The setting itself appears to be the next phase of the progression. Bold chefs—or, maybe more accurately, chefs frustrated by the lack of parking and overregulation—are slowly beginning to migrate beyond Center City and the West Philly campuses to test the uncharted waters of the suburbs.
West Chester University could be considered the epicenter of the Main Line’s budding food truck scene, if for seniority alone. The greasy spoon variety have been profiting from the student body’s insatiable appetite for burgers, cheesesteaks and pizza for the last 20-plus years, a span that was not entirely unremarkable. The hot dogs coming from the Varsity Dawg cart were said to be the country’s best in 2006, according to Gourmet Magazine.
The established audience helped to draw a new, more challenging breed of food trucks to the campus over the last year, led by Ka’Chi, which serves a toned-down, or “less threatening,” as its owner and chef, Sung-Yoon Kang, describes it, Korean menu. Korean food, of all of the mainstream Asian cuisines, has long been relegated to the backseat in this country, but that, too, appears to be changing, thanks in no small way to accessible trucks like Kang’s. Korilla BBQ and Seoul Sausage, both Korean trucks, were the loudest noisemakers of the first two seasons of the Food Network series, “The Great Food Truck Race.”
Kang finds lots of creative ways around apprehension, like his kimchi grilled cheese, a decadent melding of sautéed kimchi, cheddar and Muenster on Texas toast. “It’s kind of like an Asian reuben without the meat,” Kang says. “Unless you add bacon, of course.” (Add bacon.)
The rice bowl is just as simplistic and savory. It’s fresh cabbage with white or kimchi-fried rice and your choice of either marinated short ribs, ginger soy chicken, spicy pork or tofu. I went with the pork, which had a nice bite and was a smart complement to the crisp, sweet cabbage. Plenty hearty on a cold afternoon.
“It’s not pickled pig’s head or anything,” Kang says. “It’s just normal food with different marinades or spices.”
Farm to table, without the table
When school’s out, Kang heads over to The Artisan Exchange, a weekly indoor market just outside of downtown West Chester where local farmers sell alongside artisan chefs of various kinds. Joining him there is Nick El Atieh, the owner and chef of Lulu’s Café on the Go, a Mediterranean-minded truck that first appeared on the West Chester campus last August.
“Food trucks and farmers markets go hand in hand,” says George Bieber, whose truck, The Sunflower Truck Stop, can be found most Saturday mornings at the Phoenixville Farmers’ Market. The market crowd goes a bit beyond the curious and adventurous West Chester students because it steps up to the eye-level order window with an awareness of the chef and the thoughtfulness with which he’s cooking on the other side of it. Case in point: Bieber says, “We try to source as many of our ingredients as we can from the market vendors”—bison from Backyard Bison in Upper Bucks County and eggs from Jack’s Farm in Pottstown, for example.
The veggie quesadilla—roasted yams, quinoa, queso fresco, pumpkin seeds, jack cheese, salsa roja and cumin-seasoned sour cream—is a veritable farmers market in and of itself.
The Sunflower Truck Stop is unique in that it’s an extension of a restaurant, Shorty’s Sunflower Café, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in Pottstown that Bieber also owns. As such, he treats the truck as a playground of sorts for himself and his cooks. “Our café customers have set expectations, and we can’t confuse them,” Bieber says. “So we’re taking advantage of this to be more experimental.”
Take the Truck Stop Biscuit, a perennial Phoenixville Farmers’ Market crowd pleaser: bacon, egg and cheese topped with a seasonal spread—a cider-spiced mayo when I passed through—all piled atop a fluffy, made-from-scratch biscuit that would be perfectly at home on a North Carolina dinner table. And the Truck Stop Fries: thick-cut russets doused in rosemary-lemon zest salt.
The basic aim: “We’re just trying for fresh, seasonal food made with love,” Bieber says.
There’s a food truck in the driveway
Private parties are another track being mined. Both the Ka’Chi truck and The Sunflower Truck Stop make themselves available. But the one making the greatest inroads is the Chester County-based Dia Doce truck, whose owner and baker, Thais Da Silva, last March, won an episode of the Food Network series, “Cupcake Wars.” For good reason; they’re the moistest and, thus, best cupcakes that I’ve ever had.
“We started out at farmers markets, and we still do many of them, but now the majority of our business is corporate and private events,” Da Silva says. “You can rent the truck for 30 to 60 minutes. It’s quite fun.”
Just because Da Silva’s a baker in a savory-dominated movement doesn’t mean that she’s any less conscientious than her peers. Dia Doce’s menu tends to follow the seasons. An example: Lemon and Lavender cupcakes—a lemon cake filled with lemon curd and topped with a lavender frosting—headline in spring and Pecan Pie cupcakes—brown sugar cake with toasted pecans folded in, frosted with brown sugar buttercream and chocolate drizzle—in fall.
Da Silva appears to be among the minority satisfied with remaining a mobile operation, even with the rush of interest that accompanied the TV appearance and the $10,000 reward. “We’ve been at this almost two years and I still love the flexibility of a truck,” Da Silva says. “I think that everyone with a storefront has thought at some point, Man, I wish I had a truck. Some of my favorite food in this area comes from trucks. And I love seeing more and more open. I don’t think there could ever be too many food trucks.”
With the aforementioned finding traction throughout the Main Line, the question becomes, is the Main Line their final destination or merely a proving ground? Dia Doce’s already dabbled in Philadelphia, and Kang and Bieber both say they’re considering dedicating at least part of their schedules to the city. But the close proximity may prove to be more blessing than curse. For one, a food truck owner doesn’t need to commit to one location over the other. He’ll go wherever there’s a potential following, which, at this point, remains very much a feeling-out process for everyone.
At least as high on the list of considerations for a gourmet-grade chef is the ability to remain close to quality ingredients. And if the growing number of innovative restaurants choosing to open near their favored farms and markets and, in turn, outside of densely-populated neighborhoods can serve as an accurate barometer here, we’re likely looking at the start of a more prolific food truck culture rather than catching a fleeting glimpse of one.