Catching Up
With Food Trucks
A CultureMap®
by Annaliese Griffin
Published on 7/10/13

Street-food vendors in the U.S., long associated with the immigrant experience and the needs of time-pressed workers, today offer something for everybody, from tacos, sambal, plantains and kimchi to organic ice cream, schnitzel, coq au vin and grass-fed-beef burgers. This map traces the evolution of mobile cuisine from Wild West chuck wagons and turn-of-the-century pushcarts to today’s hottest food trucks, chefs and farmers markets.

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Lower East Side
to  Lunch Trucks

Manhattan’s Lower East Side has long been a landing place for immigrants, including Irish, Ashkenazi Jews, Ukrainians, southern Italians and Puerto Ricans. In the 19th century many new Americans arrived in New York speaking little English and lacking the capital needed to start a business. The Lower East Side was dotted with sweatshops and factories offering employment to anyone willing to toil in a dangerous, low-paying job. Pushcarts presented an alternative: Vendors could rent a cart from a depot each morning, buy goods wholesale—anything from brooms to potatoes to oysters—and set up shop wherever there was foot traffic. Orchard and Hester Streets were two of New York’s most pushcart-choked thoroughfares, resembling open-air markets more than city blocks. Hawking such items as hot yams, pies, gingerbread and corn on the cob—all ready to be eaten on the spot—these vendors of goods and produce were the progenitors of today’s food truck entrepreneurs.

Mobile vending remains a popular business for immigrants throughout the U.S. Many cook the food of their homeland and haul it to factory parking lots, construction sites and neighborhoods where their compatriots live or work, providing a welcome taste of home.

Lunch Trucks
to  Street Vendor Project

Every locality has its own set of rules governing street food and vendor licenses. In New York City, street carts and food trucks are categorized as “mobile food vendors,” whether they sell sushi, falafel, pizza, ice cream or hot dogs. This designation comes with sometimes demanding regulations: Such violations as failing to display a vending license or setting up inches too close to the curb can incur crippling $1,000 fines. The Street Vendor Project was founded by New York’s Urban Justice Center to help vendors, many of whom are immigrants with little capital or familiarity with the American legal system, navigate regulations, fight unfair tickets and gain a voice in city politics.

Street vendors often must satisfy several bureaucracies at once, such as a city’s consumer affairs, health and police departments. While some food trucks and carts may have garnered an unsavory reputation over the years, in many cities, including New York, mobile venues are as well regulated by health departments as brick-and-mortar restaurants—and the stereotypical, unhygienic “roach coaches” are increasingly remnants of the past.

Street Vendor Project
to  Foodies

As part of its advocacy work for New York City street vendors, the Street Vendor Project hands out the annual Vendy Awards to those who offer especially delicious fare. Judges have included celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and social-justice advocates, joined each year by a randomly selected citizen judge; proceeds from the event go to the SVP. The Vendys capitalize on two distinct aspects of foodie-ism: finding the best, the newest, the most authentic or the most distinctive street food and improving the food-service system and its working culture for those who toil in it. In recent years avid eaters in New York City have embraced a wide range of vendor offerings, from Patacon Pasao’s old-country Venezuelan cuisine (peddled in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights) to the Mediterranean-Moroccan fusion cuisine sold by Bistro Truck to the chocolate soft-serve cones sprinkled with wasabi-pea dust or ground cayenne at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.

Lunch Trucks
to  Korean BBQ

A new breed of mobile food vendor has popped up recently, catering to clubgoers and hipsters as well as hungry lunching workers. Going beyond steamed hot dogs on the street corner and soggy tacos in the parking lot, they either serve cuisine that is new to truck vending (schnitzel, French bistro classics) or offer an unusual twist on the old standards (say, vanilla ice cream topped with pumpkin butter, crushed graham crackers and dried cranberries).

Southern California’s Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, serving Korean-Mexican fusion food, such as short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas, may be the perfect poster child for today’s food truck culture. Kogi’s chef, Roy Choi, attended culinary school and has worked in high-end kitchens in New York and Beverly Hills. He and his partners started with one truck in 2008 and now have a mini-empire, with five vehicles hawking his fare on varying schedules at different locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Rather than relying on factories and office buildings to provide customers, Kogi trucks often park near bars and clubs, from six p.m. until nearly three a.m., to serve the pre- and postparty crowd.

Lower East Side
to  Essex Street Market

In the late 19th century and into the early 20th, Manhattan’s Lower East Side became an entryway for immigrant entrepreneurs. Some of these new Americans rented pushcarts and sold their wares outdoors. In 1940, in an effort to clear pushcarts from the streets, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened the Essex Street Market in a large brick building in the neighborhood. With the benefits of a roof and running water, the market gave former pushcart vendors unable to afford a storefront of their own a place to do business in what amounted to one of the country’s first food courts.

The cultural makeup of the Lower East Side changed over time, from Italian and Eastern European Jewish through the 1940s to predominantly Puerto Rican by the 1960s and ’70s, and so did the market’s vendors. Italian grocers and Jewish appetizing stores gave way to fruit stands and bodegas. Gentrification began in the 1980s, and currently the Essex Street Market is a mix of old and new, including Saxelby Cheesemongers, the first in a new wave of foodie businesses to set up shop.

Essex Street Market
to  Food Truck Pods

By providing a leg up to immigrant entrepreneurs on New York City’s Lower East Side, the Essex Street Market became a place where recent immigrants could go to find the flavors of home. Over the years, the market has provided a cultural overview of that ever-changing neighborhood. Today Puerto Rican grocers from the midcentury wave of immigration offer local produce, while newcomers selling artisanal chocolate, cheese and salumi—making a full circle back to the Italian contingent that was so important in the neighborhood’s past.

In Portland, Oregon, downtown gatherings—in local parlance, “pods”—of food trucks have become modern, wheeled versions of the Essex Street Market. The pod at SW Fifth Avenue between Stark and Oak Streets, on the bus mall, was one of the first and is one of the best, with food purveyors of many cuisines, from Thai to Indian to all-American. As the Essex Street Market and surrounding Lower East Side once did in New York, the SW Fifth Avenue food truck pod provides a snapshot of Portland’s immigrant community—predominantly Latin American and Southeast Asian—and its optimistic young entrepreneurs.

to  Korean BBQ

Perhaps no mobile food purveyor has captured the collective imagination of foodies like Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go in Los Angeles. Founded in 2008, Kogi serves Korean-Mexican fusion food, including dishes like kimchi tacos and spicy pork burritos with salsa and sesame toppings. It’s not just the cuisine that makes Kogi a modern success story; it’s how quickly the trucks rose to fame. Today’s food trucks, more so than traditional restaurants, live and die according to how well they exploit the latest social-networking platforms. Just months after starting up, Kogi was reported in news outlets as far away as England. Local press played a role, but it was largely food bloggers on sites like Eater and Serious Eats—not to mention the loyal fans following the truck’s Twitter feed—who spread the word, attracting crowds of hundreds to Kogi’s spots each night. The changeable locations, offbeat menu, late-night hours and the city’s nightclub scene made Kogi more than just a mobile restaurant for L.A. foodies. It was a scene, a find, a notch on the avid eater’s belt. That kind of hip identity is to food trucks what a five-star review is to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

to  Food Truck Pods

Some foodies travel the world, amassing lists of the acclaimed restaurants they’ve patronized. Others are wholly dedicated to local, sustainable eating—they pickle and preserve, grow their own produce and shop at farmers markets. One subset of foodies focuses on food trucks and values diversity over all else. They seek out Czech schnitzel, ultra-hot Goan curries and African peanut stews. Luckily for Pacific Northwest foodies, all those dishes (or at least all those cultures’ cuisines) can be found in downtown Portland at various food truck “pods” filling the lots alongside the bus mall.

The pod at SW Fifth Avenue and Stark and Oak Streets, located in a parking lot surrounded by office buildings at the confluence of the city’s bus routes, is filled every day with mobile food purveyors of many flavors and ethnicities. While Portland is home to a robust fine-dining scene and has long been a hot spot for locavores, these food carts lure eaters looking for the unique. With few plates priced at more than $10, this makeshift food court attracts budget-minded travelers and locals alike, as well as another type of foodie: the cheap-eats maven.

Anthony Bourdain  (b. 1956 | American chef, TV host, writer)
to  Foodies

When Anthony Bourdain published his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000), he gave diners a peek behind restaurant kitchen doors and made them feel in the know. In the decade that followed, foodies came to embrace chefs of all stripes, and Bourdain continues to comment on the world of prepared food.

Foodie-ism, the elevation of all things culinary to a nearly cultlike level, has been popular in the U.S. since at least the 1950s and ’60s, when Julia Child, James Beard and former New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne popularized gourmet cooking. Now icons, they made being well fed as culturally paramount as being well-read. Taking the obsession with food further, Bourdain writes for foodies who not only have dined at the best restaurants in Manhattan and Paris but also want to know which market stall in Barcelona has the best braised octopus and where they can find Mexico City’s tastiest goat tacos. Bourdain’s fascination with diverse cuisines, insistence upon authenticity and seemingly limitless appetite for new gustatory experiences have fostered a foodie culture that is as interested in curbside roti as in tableside champagne service.

Anthony Bourdain  (b. 1956 | American chef, TV host, writer)
to  Lunch Trucks

Of all the celebrity chefs and food-obsessed personalities to grace the airwaves over the past few years—those of Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and the many stellar cooks who populate the Food Network—none has seemed to love eating anything and everything as much as Anthony Bourdain. His first television program, A Cook’s Tour, on the Food Network, followed him as he traveled far and wide and sampled lots of dishes, perhaps none as outlandish as a beating cobra heart in Vietnam.

Bourdain’s show No Reservations, made for the Travel Channel, often highlighted international street food. On one stop he visited the Red Hook ball field food vendors, a group of Latin American cooks who set up at a soccer field in Brooklyn. On-screen, Bourdain is gracious to whoever is feeding him at the moment, but he makes it clear that he would rather eat a cabeza taco (made from steamed cow’s head) from a street cart than a fancy dish from a tourist trap in Acapulco. Bourdain didn’t by any means “discover” street food, but he has been the most vocal proponent for a dining option that can yield authentic, delicious regional cuisine.