On the mobile-eats circuit, snagging a spot on the rotating roster in the southwest corner of Love Park (16th Street and JFK Boulevard) is the Big Top for new food truck exposure — and one of the few zones that caters to a business crowd rather than students. Of course, there are old-school steak and ethnic carts galore ringing the periphery (including my new favorite, NY Gyro, for halal-grilled chicken and rice on 16th Street nearby), so competition is fierce.
But the tomato-red Pitruco Pizza is the star worth setting your Outlook calendar by (Mondays and Wednesdays). Run by a Harvard-educated Ph.D. (Winkler-Rhoades), a former tennis pro (Jonah Fliegelman), and ex-Food Trust worker (Eric Hilkowitz), Pitruco, which roasts its puffy-lipped Neapolitan-style pies in a wood-fired one-ton oven, has already landed itself in the conversation about Philly's best pizza. The "salame" pie brings soppressata rounds atop a tomato sauce infused amatriciana-style with pancetta. The "sausage" has pork meatballs lolling in creamy flows of nutmeg-scented bechamel. My favorite, though, is the minimalist margherita, a near-ideal round of basil-plumed red sauce topped with sweet clouds of Italian bufala mozzarella. At $8, there may not be a better pie for the price in Philly.
LOVE Park, though, has other draws. Guapos taco truck (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) brings the celeb factor of Jose Garces, plus the glimmery mosaic of thousands of bottle caps tiling its sides. The tacos are inspired directly by those from Garces' Distrito, filled with everything from tender chipotle-braised short rib and crispy fish to the Latin-Asian fusion of duck barbacoa tacos topped with kimchi (my favorite). In general, except for a sloppy tostada verde, these have been excellent. But they're not transcendent enough to bypass less-expensive Honest Tom's if you hit him first at nearby Aviator Park (20th and the Parkway).
The new Lucky Old Souls truck (Tuesday and Thursday) is another worthy project, but still inconsistent. There's no denying the quality and flavors of the grass-fed beef patties, the hand-cured bacon, and the special house-smoked poblano mayo. But at $9 for the signature burger, LOS must do a better job cooking the burgers to requested temperature (mine were way overcooked twice) and turning orders in less than 10 minutes. Best menu item? An absolutely addictive milk shake sparked with black pepper and sweetened with maple syrup.
If that isn't enough dessert, there are cupcakes four days a week. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Buttercream (also known as "the cupcake lady") gets credit for inspiring LOVE Park to start its truck program to begin with. But I far prefer Sweet Box (Tuesday and Thursday), whose cupcakes are moist with silky icing, especially the chocolate-peanut butter variety, which incited a feeding frenzy back at the office. Meanwhile, Rival Bros., from former La Colombe ambassador Damien Pileggi and Pub & Kitchen chef Jonathan Adams, is brewing up serious house-roasted coffee beans — the "Whistle & Cuss" blend pulled in crema-topped shots off a La Marzocco espresso machine; or a lighter roast dripped to order as a pour-over in Third Wave-style. Get your java early, though, as Rival's been rolling away by 10:30 a.m.
Temple's mobile food scene is often overshadowed by University City's to the west, but it's a rich, diverse, and vibrant scene that has acquired serious new energy in the last few months, especially around 13th and Norris. That stretch has long been anchored by the Creperie, but I'm not a fan, as our cardboard-thick rounds might as well have been tortillas straining to hold overstuffed burritos. There's competition now from not one, but two new grilled-cheese trucks on the same block — Say Cheese Philadelphia and the Busz, which has a separate twin truck also serving burgers. The Busz gets props for high-tech flat-screen TV menus, the credit card option, and locally roasted Green Street coffee. But the food service-like burger was cooked to death, and the grilled cheese didn't have nearly the finesse of Say Cheese, whose build-your-own triple deckers are indeed, as owner Alan Krawitz, says, "grilled cheese 2.0." Say Cheese has plenty of fancy combos involving meats (buffalo chicken, chicken and pesto, or the "gobble gobble"). But our simpler combo on griddled slices of Pullman brioche of Cooper sharp cheese, mild banana peppers, and spinach was the one I'd repeat. Say Cheese makes the LOVE Park scene Fridays.
The most exciting flavors I tasted on Temple's campus, though, were just a little farther south. Among them were an exotically sweet and spicy pork banh mi Viet hoagie at Simply Yummy (Montgomery near Broad), but especially, the "hot spice pots" from the as-yet-unnamed Asian vegan truck on 13th Street near the Bell Tower owned by Chiso Ji and mother, Luyi Zhang. I'm dubbing it "Black Fungus" because these crunchy dried Asian mushrooms, pictured on the side of the truck, are among the highlights floating in Chiso's soulful and fiery broth. Also threaded with a hearty nest of translucent taro noodles, the crunch of daikon and napa cabbage, plus bundles of snappy bean-curd skin, this $5 bowl of spicy Asian comfort is a serious value I'd make a special cold-weather trip for.
The prize for most charming food truck on my wanderings, meanwhile, goes to Yumtown, which Lanie Belmont and Andrew Tantisunthorn have parked on 13th just south of Norris for the last month. Belmont, a Rhode Island School of Design grad, put her art degree to good use by painting a garden whimsy of vegetables, leaves, and banners around the skirt of their 1985 Ford step van ("It's as old we are!" she says). Tantisunthorn, meanwhile, a former line cook at Green Eggs, helped create a brief but satisfying blackboard menu crafted entirely from seasonal and local ingredients. We loved the Joy, a hoagie stuffed with moist, beer-braised pork, cider vinegar-tanged red cabbage, and house-pickled jalapeños. But vegans should be flocking to the wittily named Edgar Allan Potato, which pairs roasted sweet potatoes with Asian-grilled tempeh and a cuminy black bean hummus. In a world so long dominated by variations on fast food, this is honest, wholesome cooking.
Penn has long held the title as West Philly's Food Truck Valhalla, but many of the newer roving trucks, too eager to wait for a spot in University City's official lottery-controlled zones, have taken to the sidewalks just north of that district at Drexel.
It takes determination to find seven-month-old Cucina Zapata, the graffiti-painted truck tucked into the alley-like industrial corridor of Ludlow Street, down the hill behind the engineering school. But if you like Thai food and tacos, this is one spot that satisfies both cravings in one Styrofoam box. If that sounds odd, trust me: Tortillas and Thai-braised short ribs (not to mention chicken satay) were made for each other. And surprisingly, tilapia fried in a crust of Cap'n Crunch is more than a gimmick (the delicate sweetness in the breading is a sneaky counter to Thai spice). But I'd return simply for a straight-ahead bowl of vegetables lavished in a coconut-rich and rustic red curry.
Market Street and 33d Street, meanwhile, is the prime crossroads for the rest of the exciting new crop. Just north of Market is the stretch trailblazed last year by Honest Tom, when he's not at Aviator Park, and he's been followed by members of the LOVE Park gang on their off days (Pitruco, Rival Bros.), plus the colorful and wide-ranging menu of Vernalicious. I wasn't wowed by Verna's Americanized banh mi (too sweet and saucy, the roll too squishy). But going down-home with the Texas toast grilled cheese with pulled pork sandwich was a hit. Even better was the grilled hunk of mac-'n'-cheese with smoked sausage slathered in barbecue sauce.
Right at 33d ande Market, however, I found all the fixings for a complete multicourse meal. I began with the savory satisfaction of lamb- and herbed-pork links from the Renaissance Sausage, softer than your typical sausage, but fully flavored and homemade. Then came a visit to the crepe cart called La Dominique, where sculptor and crepe maestro chef Zbigniew Chojnacki took a break from the steady stream of orders for Mexican crepes to pour an authentically delicate round of batter that, when griddled brown, was folded around slices of tiramisu beneath shavings of chocolate, a slice of orange, and powdered sugar.
All that was missing was a little boost of caffeine, and I found it at the neighboring Melange Tea, a quilted steel cart wrapped in orange fabric curtains with a sign that read: "This is not a hot dog cart." Indeed, there are dozens of loose-leaf teas (and Chemex coffee) to choose from. A dizzying choice.
"What kind of crepe did you order?" asked owner Boris Ginsburgs before proceeding to make pairing suggestions, leaning toward green tea (to echo the sweetness and orange flavors of the tiramisu). I went for the Green Snail Spring (Bi Luo Chun) and watched as Ginsburgs meticulously measured, time-steeped, then aerated the tea until it reached the perfect temperature. All the while pontificating on ancient tea history to a gathered crowd of faithful.
"I'm writing an encyclopedia on tea," he said, which explains his frequent absences and, indeed, the fleeting and innately elusive nature of the mobile-food movement.
"Your best bet," he said, speaking as much to me as to the crowd behind me, "is to follow me on Twitter."
"In theory, I'll be here again tomorrow. In reality, I could be gone seven months."
Follow food trucks on Twitter (feeds given when available)