Food trucks have been around for years. Remember the ice cream man? All of those peanut and popcorn vendors at the state fair? But, recently, there has been an explosion of food trucks in several larger cities, from LA to NYC, San Francisco to Austin. We’re about to find out why.
The origins of food trucks date back to the chuckwagons that accompanied cattle drives. The concept was the brainchild of Charles Goodnight. In 1866, he converted a former Army supply wagon in order to cook hot meals for the cowboys.
Throughout the 1890s, nighttime ‘lunch wagons’ gathered outside factories in large cities across the nation. ‘The Owl’ was a brand of lunch wagon, which was especially popular in New York. It was built by none other than Henry Ford.
These horse-drawn wagons offered biscuits, early forms of hot dogs, milk, and coffee. By the turn of the century, most had claimed a specific location to call home. The wagons transformed into diners.
Those that remained mobile evolved into ‘roach coaches.’ These are the vending trucks often found near construction sites, which sell simple sandwiches, cereal in the morning, hot dogs, and a variety of sodas. In the Southwest, these are better known as Taco Trucks.
How did Austin food trucks go gourmet?
A variety of factors came into play. The economic downturn put many construction companies out of work, so the food trucks’ clientele dried up. At the same time, high-end restaurants were laying off their top-notch chefs. Consumers had grown tired of restaurant chains and their repetitive menus. Then social media was added to the mix, as were iPhone apps that allowed people to track food trucks. The end result: inexpensive, quality goodies for the masses.
The trend has become so popular that both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel have shows focusing on food trucks. Some trucks are even Zagat-rated!
In Austin, food truck popularity ignited when the magazine Bon Appétit blogged about two trucks. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of food trucks tripled. Today, there are over 1,600 food trucks in Austin alone. Next week, we’re about to look at some of the best.
Thanks to Austin’s food truck culture, budget-friendly and gourmet are no longer incompatible concepts.
Mellizoz Tacos deserves an award for niceness. When I asked if I could have the veggie torta without the sauce, which I was allergic to, the chef whipped me up a vinaigrette on the spot. It was drizzled over caramelized mushrooms and onions draped across a bed of arugula, balanced on a bun. Mozzarella cheese and fried avocado completed the dish. Generally, I’m not a fan of fried goods but this was off the chain. If the US airdropped packages of fried avocado in place of bombs, we’d have world peace after the first bite!
Lane ordered the padre taco, which consisted of braised pork, avocado, pineapple, and salsa, served on a soft shell taco. She was rhapsodizing about how tangy and moist it was when she glanced at our Chiweiner, who was hunkered down next to the gearshift, awaiting death (this is her usual mode when in a car). Over the years, we have taken Bambi to doggie cafés and offered her numerous delicacies, which she would happily scarf down, if at home. However, she refuses to eat in public – just call her an eating disorder dog. She’d gone eight years without so much as a nibble outside the house, but now she was sniffing the air hungrily. We held out some of the pork. Bambi suctioned it down, licked her lips, and begged for more. Forget official awards, Mellizoz Tacos is the only Bambi-approved dining establishment on the planet. And she has high standards… trust us.
Mellizoz Tacos can be found at 1503 S. 1st Street (between Elizabeth St W. and Monroe St W.)
Wurst Tex (closed)
Despite the name, there’s nothing bad about Wurst Tex, which offers a new take on brats. Ever wondered what elkwurst would taste like? Probably not, but you can find out here. One menu item is called the Predator & Prey and is a hotdog made from rattlesnake and rabbit!
If you don’t feel like devouring the food chain from top to bottom, try the pork bratwurst, which is soaked in live oak beer and topped with either grilled onion or sauerkraut. It comes on a thick, super-fresh sesame seed bun and the pork is good quality. Doctor your meal with Wurst Tex’s special sauces, such as curry ketchup or spicy brown mustard.
Wurst Tex is part of a cluster of food trucks stationed in a parking lot at 1603 S. Congress, like groupies at a stage door. It’s right across from SoCo (South Congress) shopping icons such as Allens Boots and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. These food trucks make a great refueling stop while shopping.
A pizza food truck didn’t seem like the best idea to me – it would be impractical to cram a wood-fired oven into a van. Besides, pizza is already cheap and available for delivery, so you’d have thought that the market was saturated. But there was one thing I’d forgotten: freshness.
Spartan must go through vats of spinach because that forms the base for their build-your-own salads. Choose any two pizza toppings and dressing for $5. Prices go up with each extra topping. I paired blue cheese and bacon with my mound of spinach and drizzled balsamic vinegar over the top. Spinach can turn yellow and funky quicker than Popeye downs a can of the stuff, but this was plucked from the earth fresh.
I paired my salad with a slice of Zeus (Greek gods are bargain basement these days at $3). The tomatoes were perfection and the crust was thin and crispy, but the flavors didn’t marry so well together – kind of like Zeus and Hera. That said, there are plenty of other Greeks on offer. I think the Medusa would be more my speed.
Spartan is parked in a lot off 6th Street (cross street Waller). Due to the one-way system downtown, you may need to take 5th or 7th street then cut over.
Way South Philly
Judging by how lost this food truck is, you’d have thought I was the one in charge of navigating. Lane and I certainly didn’t expect to find authentic Philly Cheese Steaks in Austin.
Bear in mind that neither of us has been to Philly, so we’ve never tested this signature dish in its hometown. That said, Lane was quickly sold on the Apollo – the sandwiches are named after characters in the Rocky movies, which makes sense given that the infamous ‘Rocky Steps’ are in Philadelphia.
With the Apollo, the cheez whiz is replaced by blue cheese, which ups the tang factor. The sandwich was extremely moist and was served on very fresh bread. Seriously, we wondered if the food trucks shared the same bakery because, at each stop, the bread had that ‘baked this morning’ quality.
Way South Philly shares a parking lot with Spartan (among other food trucks). Head to 6th Street and Waller.
Dessert on wheels… it’s a diet disaster in the making. Bring on the catastrophe.
La Boîte Café
It’s not strictly accurate to call La Boîte a food truck. As the name suggests, it is actually a box – specifically a recycled shipping container. The decision to house a café inside a metal tin was an ecological one; although the pastries served are so fresh and flaky that I’d believe the shipping container just arrived from France.
The menu is as petite as the café and features croissants, brioche, macaroons, sandwiches, coffee and iced tea. The almond croissant was heartier and less buttery than most, which we considered a plus. The fleur de sel macaroon was fresh, light and creamy and the orange blossom iced tea was floral without being overpowering.
We visited the location at 1700 S. Lamar Blvd (cross street Collier) where there is outdoor seating and dogs are allowed. However, there is also a second café at 1006 Congress Ave.
The Frigid Frog
The Frigid Frog is not unique to Austin or to Texas – these vans can be found in states such as Arizona, Washington and Kansas, to name a few. Given how hard it is to find authentic Hawaiian shaved ice on the mainland, this can only be a good thing. How is this different from your average snow cone? Well, the ice is shaved rather than crushed which gives it a smoother texture.
Frigid Frog is generous with the syrup servings and there are more than fifty different flavors and combinations to choose from – Lane recommends the black cherry. You can also pick up a bacon or chicken flavored doggie cone – half of the proceeds support animal shelters. None of the syrups contain high fructose corn syrup.
When your shirt is stuck to your back like a second skin, few things are more refreshing than shaved ice. You may need to tap on the closed window to get service. We suspect this is to keep the Austin heat from penetrating the blissfully cold truck interior. Can’t say we blame them.
The Frigid Frog is one of the trucks parked at 1603 S. Congress.
Mambo Berry (closed)
You can pick up sandwiches, salads, and tamales, but let’s face it, you’re here for the frozen yogurt or smoothies. After all, Mambo Berry picked up the 2011 Critic’s Choice Award for best drink.
I opted for the classic strawberry limeade smoothie and added protein powder. There are various supplement powders available, including a multivitamin one and an immunity booster. I refuse to term drinks flavored with food dye and E numbers smoothies, but this is the real deal: it’s made from actual fruit and non-fat fro yo. The strawberry limeade was zesty and refreshing – a great lunch on a sweltering day.
Lactose intolerant? No need to despair. Mambo Berry will whip you up a dairy-free delicacy on request.
Mambo Berry is located at 801 Barton Springs Road, midway down the block between S. 1st and Bouldin Ave.