Food trucks have zoomed in number from 12 to 200, and their cuisine is ever more soulful, creative, diverse. And delicious.
As Cristina Martinez heated a wide maguey leaf on the food cart's griddle, her husband, Benjamin Miller, reached into a warming box holding slow-cooked barbacoa lamb, and the earthy aromas of Capulhuac, Mexico, suddenly wafted over this South Philly corner at Eighth and Watkins Streets.
"You want rib meat, leg, or spine?" asks Miller, assembling a one-pound package of moist flesh to be gift-wrapped inside the maguey leaf, with a pint of lamb consomme, spicy cactus salad, and a stack of fresh tortillas on the side.
Either one. All of them. I'll take some of their chile-laced "pancita" offal tacos, too. Because no matter which part of the Barbacoa cart's lamb I put on a tortilla, this deeply flavorful, tender meat - carved from a whole animal steamed for 10 hours over broth aromatic with garlic and epazote - warmed me with a hum of profound satisfaction.
It should come as no surprise that such a soulful meal - one of the best things I've eaten all year - came from a kitchen on wheels. Philadelphia's food truck revolution, rolling now for five years, is heading into an exciting new phase.
"Three years ago, there may have been a dozen trucks, but today I'm guessing there may be 200 regionwide," says George Bieber, president of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association and owner of the Sunflower Truck Stop, whose signature is a crab-dip-stuffed grilled cheese. "For every one that has closed, three new ones join the party."
The PMFA, a local food truck advocacy group now with about 100 members, recently became affiliated with the new National Food Truck Association, an umbrella group hoping to unify the rapidly growing national movement.
Locally, the concepts are as diverse as ever, serving everything from various sweets to samosas and snails. And many of the best new trucks lately have, like Barbacoa, turned to traditional ethnic flavors for inspiration - from pierogies to Belgian waffles to falafel - though with more attention to scratch cooking, creativity, and quality local ingredients than in the past.
And like the Barbacoa cart, which parks just two weekend mornings in a seemingly random location, many have found audiences in spots beyond the usual college zones, from farmer's markets to a growing suburban market on corporate campuses.
"Food is fun and it's a community event," says Meghan Spurlock of Liberty Property Trust, which has drawn between 400 to 800 people to regular new "food truck rallies" at its office parks in Horsham, Malvern, and King of Prussia. The gatherings were inspired by similar truck gatherings in the city at the Navy Yard, where Liberty also owns properties.
The Navy Yard, LOVE Park, the Porch at 30th Street Station, Drexel University's campus (both 33d and Arch and Market Street), and late nights at the Fishtown crossroads of Frankford and Girard Avenues remain prime Philly hunting grounds for the latest truck fare.
And with so many new offerings emerging seemingly every moment, I encountered surprises with every visit over the last two months of scouting. Some are still so new I've yet to taste them - like PieStand, whose fried savory pies just won a top prize at the Vendy Awards competition. Or Seoulfull Philly, a Korean-inspired truck set for its kimchi-fired debut next week. But part of the thrill of our dynamic truck scene is knowing there is always a new flavor parked around the corner yet to discover.
Here is my take on five relatively new "truckers" that have impressed me already this season:
South Philly Barbacoa
Chefs Benjamin Miller and Cristina Martinez, who met at Amis (he was in garde-manger before leaving to cook at Kanella; she was the baker), had planned to open a restaurant in this residential South Philly neighborhood. But when the space fell through, their cart, launched as a taste-teaser in January, had already earned such a cult following from the potent combo of social media-savvy hipster chefs and Mexican immigrants who live in the neighborhood that the couple simply stayed.
And there's a reason traffic backs up at 10 on weekend mornings: The lamb, marinated in orange juice, then cooked whole over steaming broth in a giant pot lined with maguey leaves according to the tradition of Capulhuac, Cristina's hometown just southwest of Mexico City, is easily some of the best Mexican food in Philly. Served either as a taco ($3) or a pound package to go ($30), the meat is so velvety it melts, especially good beneath crunchy green nopal salad and charred tomatillo sauce made with farmer Tom Culton's chiles. The traditional side of consomme, made with chickpeas and drippings from the slow cook, is also sublime. Even so, the hidden gem here is really the pancita, a full-flavored pork sausage mixed with ground lamb innards, chiles, and onions that steams alongside the barbacoa inside the lamb's stomach. It sounds scary, like Mexican haggis - but don't be afraid. These pancita tacos are so good, they could become the dish that seduces wary Philadelphians to the earthy pleasures of offal.
Stops: Eighth and Watkins (Sat. and Sun. mornings). Follow: South Philly Barbacoa Truck on Facebook.
Mom-Mom's Polish Food Cart
Much like Barbacoa, Mom-Mom's is a mighty little cart, not a truck. And similarly, the couple have a Vetri connection, too. A dinner at Osteria is what really inspired Kaitlin Wines and Ryan Elmore to delve deeper into the world of food. And Elmore eventually helped open Alla Spina from behind the bar. The thematic inspiration for Mom-Mom's, though, is drawn from the daylong Polish babka fests that Wines experienced with the maternal side of her family, the Chmielewskis. The hearty rice-and-meat "golabki" stuffed cabbages that disappeared quickly from the cart despite the blazing June heat on a recent lunchtime at the Navy Yard is a testament to the universal appeal of that homey tradition. Smoky Czerw's kielbasa, braised in Yards spruce beer with caramelized onions, then topped with cheddar ale fondue, is a fitting nod to one of Port Richmond's Polish sausage artisans.
Mom-Mom's excellent riffs on pierogies, though, are an expression of personal creativity, from the cheesesteak filling made with sharp provolone to an occasional ode to the famous Vetri onion crepe - the supple homemade dough filled with onions caramelized for 11 hours, then enriched with white truffle fondue. Their most unusual? For dessert, Mom-Mom stuffed an entire cupcake from the Cupcake Carnivale truck inside a dumpling, lemon buttercream frosting and all, sauced with wild blueberry sauce and a dollop of vanilla sour cream. A new classic? Maybe not. But for those who've tired of the cupcake truck trend, this little cake met an especially sweet brand of pierogi justice.
Stops: Garden Variety at Second and Poplar (Fri. and Sat. nights), Navy Yard (Wed.), Clark Park (Thurs.). Follow on Twitter: @MomMomNomNom; 609-425-8865.
"Would you like a sample?" says Maisa Ojjeh, leaning out from the window of her Station One truck with a smile and a crisp morsel of falafel in hand. I'd nearly walked by on my way down 13th Street near Norris. It had been a disappointing day scouting Temple's truck scene. Vendors serving variations on Middle Eastern fare are common, and this one, a plain white truck with a generic name, Station One, didn't look promising. But then I took a bite. This falafel was different. Shaped Syrian-style like a small doughnut for maximum crunch (instead of the usual disk), it was fresher and more flavorful than most. That's because Ojjeh, who came to Philadelphia a year and a half ago to escape the civil war in Syria with her children and husband, Bashar, has done her best to re-create the flavors of Damascus from her truck. The falafel is handmade daily from freshly ground chickpeas seasoned with coriander, cumin, and cilantro. The baba ghanoush is smoky from an initial charring of the eggplant on a grill. The "samposa" turnovers were not as crisp as I'd hoped. But the ground beef kabob, my second-favorite menu item, is zingy with parsley and spice. And while the pilaf was simple, it was aromatic with the nutmeg, ginger, and curry of homecooked rice.
"This is a new experience for us," says Ojjeh, who has never been a professional cook. "But I feel happy when people express their admiration for the food, because I'm putting my heart into it."
Stops: Weekdays on 13th Street just south of Norris Street; Follow: Station One on Facebook; 267-269-6897.
Belgian waffles are among the great street foods of the world - especially the deep-dimpled Liège-style jeweled with coarse pearl sugar that caramelizes on the hot irons to a sweet crunch. I covet mine slathered in gingery-sweet Speculoos biscuit spread. But Philly was without a good version of that style since the Bonté chain went out of business - that is, until Foolish Waffles rolled onto the scene in April. It was two years in the making as former law firm manager Robin Admana and her partner Florence "Flo" Gardner (who still works in nonprofit fundraising) went through three vehicles (their current ride is an old Snap-On truck) and two waffle irons (currently a Dutch-made fired with gas) and countless hours of kitchen training (Admana worked for the Lucky Old Souls truck and Kraftwork) and recipe testing.
Their simple classics still aren't ideal - the caramelized crunch on my Liège was spotty. But when Foolish goes playfully American with its flatter Brussels-style waffles, using them to wrap creative savory fillings like a puffy burrito, truck food is rarely so much fun. The breakfast sandwich - scrambled eggs, habanero cheddar, bacon, and maple syrup - is an a.m. combo platter rolled up into one. My favorite was their lunch take on chicken-and-waffles, a textural riot of crunchy buttermilk-crusted thighs, tangy apple-cabbage slaw, and zingy bourbon-pickled jalapenos drizzled with spicy-sweet chile honey, then rolled inside the soft cushion of a warm waffle wrap. Next time I'm eager to try the crispy pork belly banh mi waffle - or better yet, the adobo waffle still in development as an ode to Admana's Filipino heritage.
"I'm just waiting a little," Admana says. "The other day was the first time that Flo and I actually paid ourselves. And it was such a great feeling."
Stops: The Porch at 30th St. Station (Tues.), LOVE Park (Wed.), Clark Park (Thurs.), Chestnut Hill Farmer's Market (Sat.). Follow on Twitter: @foolish waffles.
Heart Food Truck
Many food truckers aspire one day to own a restaurant. Michael Falcone has traveled the opposite direction, shedding the brick-and-mortar confines of Funky Lil' Kitchen, the Pottstown BYO he owned for nine years, for the freedom to roam three counties (Montgomery, Chester and Philly) in his colorful Heart Food Truck with fiancee Tonda Woodling. The name, it turns out, refers to my two-bell review of FLK, where I wrote that Falcone "cooks from the heart." Nearly a decade later, Falcone's steady devotion to seasonal, sustainable, and quality local ingredients still appeals. That could mean a breakfast sandwich with pork roll from Country Time Farm, smoked Lancaster cheddar, and Amish eggs on a roll from the Collegeville Italian Bakery. +Or something as cheffy as escargot with creamed ramps or spring onions over oatmeal cooked with mushroom stock ("a slow-mover," Falcone concedes with a wink). My favorite, though, was essentially a sandwich version of an FLK cheese plate, with Birchrun Hills Farm blue cheese, tender greens, and sweet strawberries providing a ripe snapshot of the Head House Square farmer's market where the Heart parks Sundays.
The difference-maker to his truck happiness, Falcone says, is a different set of customer expectations. Restaurant diners, he said, too often arrived with a preconceived notion and a chip on their shoulder. "With the food truck," he says, "they come up to the window smiling, and leave pleasantly surprised to get such quality from a truck."
Stops: Phoenixville Farmer's Market (Sat.); Head House Square Farmer's Market (Sun.). Follow on Twitter: @HEARTFoodTruck.