photography by Justin Fox Burks
On a gorgeous Thursday afternoon in mid-May, a dozen food trucks turned downtown’s Court Square into a carnival of sociability and sustenance, serving balsamic chicken sliders, smoked sausage slaw dogs, and vegetarian tacos with roasted garlic aioli.
By noon, lines circled the trucks, but people didn’t mind the wait, especially if they could watch self-effacing chefs like Barrett Round and Tommy Turan season gumbo, sauté shrimp, and laugh about their new food truck called Scratch.
“We got the truck a week ago, and the generator already blew up twice and our point-of-sale machine stopped working,” Round says. “It’s been crazy, but fun.”
In many ways, the energetic chefs from Scratch exemplify the trends of a burgeoning industry where food truck operators train at culinary schools and menus are healthy, fresh, and gourmet. Although food trucks aren’t new (the first chuck wagon rolled across Texas after the Civil War), the arrival in 2008 of vendors like Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in New York City were game-changers. A struggling economy, the public’s insatiable appetite for cooking shows like Eat St., and the explosion of social media also spurred the gourmet food truck trend.
"With almost 100 trucks trying to operate, that means there's a big appetite in the city for mobile food." — Taylor Berger
Today, more than 7,000 gourmet food trucks operate across the country, including 1,500 in Austin and 2,500 in Los Angeles County, according to Richard Myrick, editor of the online trade publication Mobile Cuisine. Add in coffee and sandwich “roach coaches,” street cart vendors, and taco trucks, and the number jumps to nearly 3 million.
In Memphis, the parade of food trucks is more modest, but still surprising. A year after the city council passed a food truck ordinance, 45 vendors hold operating permits and another 30 to 40 permits are pending, says Taylor Berger, co-founder of YoLo Frozen Yogurt & Gelato. And at a meeting in early May, more than 40 people showed up to form a Memphis Food Truck Association, with 15 volunteering for the board of directors.
“The only way we can speak is as one voice,” Berger told the group. “With almost 100 trucks trying to operate, that means there’s a big appetite in the city for mobile food.”
While some trucks stay under the radar and focus on catering and special events, others are highly visible thanks to regular posts on Facebook and Twitter. Menus and locations change daily, which makes it difficult to compile a dependable list of food truck favorites. Still, we’ve tried, and here are a dozen of our best picks for early summer.
(centralbbq.com) takes its top-ranked specialty to the streets in a colorful tie-dye truck that’s hard to miss. Find the truck every Saturday at the downtown farmers market, where cooks use Newman Farms Berkshire pork for their barbecue sandwiches.
Crumpy’s on Wheels
(@crumpsonwheels) also operates two restaurant locations, but look for its truck near Winchester and Riverdale and order fried green tomatoes, a foot-long Crumpy dog, or a basket of fries loaded with chili, cheese, and jalapeños.
Fuel Food Truck
(@fuelfoodtruck) is an extension of Fuel Café, so the truck’s meat and poultry are humanely raised and taste great, especially the Bison tacos. Eric Proveaux jumped into the truck race early, and he shows up everywhere, including the new dog park downtown.
(@karenfebles) is a bright yellow truck with a personality as sunny as its operator. Karen Febles uses fruit and vegetables from her family farm in Ripley to juice cold and frothy smoothies with yogurt, soy milk or coconut milk, and a choice of sweeteners.
(kona-ice.com) makes everyone feel like a kid because customers can customize their shave ice from 10 spouts with the truck’s most popular flavors. Inside the truck, owners Cheryl Sessions and David Maxey offer novelty combos such as tangerine, mango, and pineapple.
Mark’s Grill Food Truck
(@Marksgrill) could be the most extravagant food truck in the country. So says Mark Hamilton, who spent 14 months and over six figures customizing this big red beauty with more bells and whistles than a commercial kitchen. Try Hamilton’s stuffed bacon blue cheese burger and “real deal” Philly cheese steak.
(@memphismunchies) has been trucking since 2009, serving deep-fried hot dogs, smoked sausage slaw dogs, hot wings, fried pies, and handmade Granny Smith candy apples in 30 novelty flavors. Typically seen at special events, Tabitha Birdsong plans to hit the streets this summer, primarily in Midtown and Whitehaven.
Revival: Southern Food Company
(@revival food) typically splits its time between the University of Tennessee Medical Center and downtown’s Court Street. Chef Crash Hethcox combines regional whims and family recipes for gourmet Southern food like crispy pig ear topped with creamed collards and Krispy Kreme bread pudding.
(@mobilescratch) is a joint effort by chefs Barrett Round and Tommy Turan who promise this: “We keep things simple, but we do it right.” They combine New York City and New Orleans sensibilities into such dishes as Creole gumbo and chicken BLTs with house-made ranch dressing.
(901-412-3885) has been smoking ribs, turkey legs, and pork shoulder over charcoal and hickory since 1992, mostly at special events. Try his barbecue bologna, a thick slab that peeks out of the bun for an extra round of nibbling.
A Square Meal on Wheels
(901-573-9264) is operated by Derrick Clark, a recent graduate from L’ecole Culinaire in Cordova. Clark, who converted a Cintas van with some finds from Craig’s List, is proud of his thriftiness and his fried pickles, fish tacos, and 100 percent Angus beef burgers.
YoLo Frozen Yogurt & Gelato
(@yolofroyo) sells its popular frozen yogurt from a vintage Airstream trailer, painted a lovely pastel blue, so it's easy to gravitate toward artisan frozen yogurt flavors such as island coconut and dreamy dark chocolate.