In recent years during the recession, chefs and cooks have evolved the idea of food trucks into a trendy, niche concept for diners, who enjoy a diverse range of palates. Roving food trucks and carts, selling Korean BBQ and Vietnamese noodles, have become hugely popular in many urban centers, especially downtown areas.
Downtown Denver is embracing this concept by allowing these food trucks, with cutting-edge street food, to gather at the civic center area twice a week. Organized by the Civic Center Conservancy, the non-profit organization sets up a gathering place for both diners and chefs to gather at the park between the hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for anybody working or visiting downtown Denver. In 2010, about 15 trucks were retrofitted and revamped to be used as food trucks, according to The Denver Post.
Traditionally, food trucks head over to construction sites, both residential and business, to cater to workers, serving hot dogs, burgers and sandwiches. However, with the downsized housing market, owners of food trucks had to rethink their customer base.
With a spin of street foods from carnivals and fairs, the up-scale food trucks are creating bite-sized morsels reminiscent of backpacking cuisines. For example, backpackers can tuck away a sandwich, food on sticks or wrapped-up morsels of chicken with veggies.
National trend of mobile kitchens
The National Restaurant Association says the category is projected to top $630 million in nationwide revenue in 2011, up 3.6 percent from 2010, which would outstrip the 2.5 percent growth estimate for the entire restaurant business.
This national trend is showing great interest in mass media. Just check out the television series, The Great Food Truck Race, or download an iPhone app called Eat St. Even a book called Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels has been published in recent months.
With a wide range of food offerings, some lunch trucks are targeting the Asian cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and China. These trucks are found all throughout downtown Denver, with appearances at farmer’s markets and neighborhood fairs around the suburban areas of Aurora and Littleton.
In Asia, food stands have been around for ages. For example, traveling around Vietnam, visitors will see local vendors selling their specialties such as pho noodles with beef or BBQ insects on a stick. In the Philippines, you can hear boys screaming balut in a singsong way to announce they are walking near by ready to sell you the uncooked duck embroyo.
Asian carts and trucks
Thai Food Cart on 16th Street Mall, between Stout and Champa, is one of the best Thai food outside of Thailand. Established in February 2009, Anna applied for the license through the county of Denver. Her web site is www.thaifoodcartdowntowndenver.com.
During the peak time of lunch, the line winds down the middle of the pedestrian mall. However, veteran diners don’t mind the wait because the food is cooked fresh in front of your eyes.
Another Thai food truck: Walk down further east on 16th Street Mall between Glenarm and Cleveland, another lady serves up dishes from Thailand. Working with a mask around her face, she meticulously measures, cooks and serves the dish on plastic boxes to patient diners, who are savoring the aromas from her cart cooking. Don’t expect a short wait at this cart either. Lines of 10 or more diners weave down the street.
Manna from Heaven serves up Vietnamese inspired lunch bites in the form of sandwiches, small noodle dishes or beef and chicken entrees. The company’s name, “Manna from Heaven” refers to a biblical reference from the Old Testament and takes it one step further with their mission of serving “one meal at a time.” The company sets aside 10 percent of each meal sold to feed the hungry.
The food truck is trying to gain a spot on the Great Food Truck Race on the food network. In its second season, the food truck concept is gaining national attention as more diners search for these eateries throughout cities in downtown areas. The husband and wife team of Manna from Heaven wanted to create a concept, allowing their family to work as a team. Putting more emphasis on their food truck, the owners declined to reveal their family name, sharing only their first names of Vo and Larry.
Vo revealed three key elements that attracted her to this food truck business. They included “serving people, connecting to strangers in a brotherly love and the ability to do missionary work in helping the homeless by donating a percentage of the sales.
Stick It to Me: The lunch truck called, “Stick it to Me,” serves a wide variety of foods, namely Korean food. At 23 years old, Nate Barnett, co-owner of this food truck, can claim being one of the youngest owners in the Denver food truck community.
“I wanted to bring food to the masses,” shared Burnett, who serves dishes from Korea including Korean BBQ organic beef; Korean sandwich filled with cucumber, diakon, pickled carrot and cilantro; or Korean salad including ingredients of organic mixed greens, pickled carrot, diakon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno, Sriracha hoisin aioli, sweet and tangy Asian vinaigrette.
Maui Shave Ice: This cart sells its summer treats near Sloan’s Lake in Edgewater at the corner of 26th and Tennyson Avenue during the weekend. Dessert flavors feature 50 different tastes, even an unusual selection such as dill pickles.
Island Noodles: Cuisines from Hawaii lure the lunch crowd to its mobile kitchen at Civic Center Park on Tuesdays. This food cart showcases affordable entrees, reminiscent of the Hawaiian islands.
For anyone on budget and wanting a nutritious meal, visit this lunch cart for its 21 vegetables mixed with soba noodles.
Most of the food trucks will showcase its calendars as a way to announce the locations and event on a specific date. Some use twitter or facebook as a way to announce their current location to faithful followers. Twitter is the near-universal method through which food trucks advertise their location.
The learning curve is steep—new truck growing pains include the permit process and developing a strategy for the best locations. And the paperwork can be “cumbersome” because the trucks can cross through multiple tax zones driving daily from downtown Denver to Aurora.
While the business aspect can be daunting, navigating through a small space inside the trucks, every inch of space is used—almost like a jigsaw puzzle. Dessert trucks will have their fares made before driving around. But others will use a propane stove to create the various menu offerings.
You can find Mary Jeneverre Schultz on Tuesdays and Thursdays sampling lunch entrees at the Civic Center Park during the summer months.