Satisfying a craving for the exotic these days can mean going only as far as the nearest food truck. The roads of the Triangle are rife with food inspired by the bustling taquerias of Mexico, the celebrated creperies of Paris, the beaches of Brazil and the streets of LA's Koreatown. You just have to know where to find it.
Cooks in growing numbers have taken their shows on the road, roaming the Triangle in trucks—and sometimes old school buses—offering locally sourced and internationally influenced cuisine that tempts even those hesitant to eat street food. Our evolving mobile gourmet scene mirrors the established culture of street food carts in cities like New York and San Francisco.
In hopes of tracking down the best of these, I followed my gut, and a few Twitter feeds, leading to popular and hidden trucks throughout Wake, Orange and Durham counties. I discovered that it's possible to meander up to a truck window at almost any hour, any day of the week, for a fabulous meal. Whether I was early rising, late-night reveling or craving a hearty lunch, I found original meals, freshly prepared, that knock the bun off any soggy hot dog. Here's a day-by-day guide to the Triangle's best mobile food. Spread it out over a few weeks, though. Your waistline will thank you.
Start the week with Mom's meatloaf. Mom's Delicious Dishes (2929 Capital Blvd., Monday–Friday, 9 a.m to 2:30 p.m) regularly parks at the Mobil gas station off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, a little more than one mile from the Beltline. It's also been spotted at office parks in RTP. The truck's striking burnt-orange paint reminds me of my grandmother's 1970s kitchen. The tag line announces, "Mom's delicious dishes feed your tummy's wishes!" And my belly stops grumbling.
Tear into a soft sub roll, crunch through iceberg lettuce and sink your teeth into a thick slab of ketchup-smeared meat. You may think this is a standard meatloaf recipe until a burst of fennel explodes onto your tongue, leaving a lingering jolt of spice. Sausage?
"Nice palate," says Thao Beck, a former caterer and the mom inside the truck. "I make it with sausage, ground beef and lamb, all organic."
The 6-inch sandwich comes with a side salad of organic greens, topped with grilled local cauliflower, and a drink, for $7.
Other menu items include $3 sides like mac 'n' cheese and half a dozen homemade doughnuts, powdered or cinnamon. Beck's main ingredient?
"I put love in it, honey!" she says in a raspy, squeaky voice, her speech peppered with contagious laughter. "For me, it's comfort food brought up to date, with a little bit of flair."
Beck, who is from San Francisco, was raised by Vietnamese parents in Ohio. She launched the venture with business partner Ardath Church at the end of May. They met working at Trader Joe's, where Beck buys some ingredients. The rest come from the State Farmers' Market. Her cooking is influenced by her mother's kitchen, as well as the high-end international restaurants she's worked for in California. (Locally, she worked at Jibarra, which is her commissary kitchen.)
Daily specials include Vietnamese spring rolls, chipotle shrimp or grilled mahi tacos, and panini made with portabello mushroom or ham and brie. For now, it's cash only.
"Growing up, my friends were always at my house because there was always food. And it was different food, like egg rolls," she says. "I think it's funny. When I worked at Trader Joe's, [co-workers] would say 'Thao, you always feed us.' I think I would die if I couldn't feed someone."
Compared with Durham, Raleigh's food truck scene is an abridged version. Beck and Church attended the June 6 Bull City Street Vendor Rodeo in Durham, hoping to strengthen the food truck community.
"We want to put the Triangle on the map," says Church, who is from New York City. "There's a part that's very urban, very cool, about food trucks." The women aim to enter New York City's Vendy Awards in two years, "the Oscars of food trucks," in Beck's words, where trucks are honored for categories ranging from food to design.
Another Raleigh entry in the mobile food scene is the new lunch cart out at buku (110 E. Davie St.) downtown. Plans are in the works to expand to a truck that will roll through the Capital City during the late-night hours. Chef William D'Auvray describes a menu that adds to the restaurant's global street food concept without replicating the items found indoors.
"We make these really cool French baguettes, small in diameter. We spike them in the middle and fill them with turkey mole," he says. "A dark, sweet, chocolate, peppery mole. With some lettuce, shredded radish added to it." He also hints at adding a griddle to the truck for made-to-order snacks, like pupusas, El Salvadoran-style tortillas traditionally stuffed with pork and cheese.
For an energy boost, head to Carrboro Raw (104 Weaver St.) for Nice Pulido's blends of organic fruits and vegetables spiked with potent herbs high in vitamins and antioxidants. It's amusing to see her work as she stuffs giant kale leaves into a Vitamix and zaps them into liquid.
A native of Brazil, Pulido grew accustomed to the juice bars along the country's coast, and in New York City, her first home in the States. Surprised that health-conscious Carrboro didn't have a juice shop, she bought a truck off Craigslist, commissioned a local artist to paint it (a mural in progress) and set up shop. She is stationed in a lot across from Weaver Street Market, between the Spotted Dog and Jade Palace. A relaxing, shaded nook to the left of the truck is flanked by natural wooden benches. Sip on a Mui Amigo (a blend of orange juice, carrot and papaya) while Latin rhythms play over speakers, enticing you to samba.
Quirky combinations, like the lettuce, pear and cinnamon I tried, prove deliciously and surprisingly refreshing. Some juices may even be mistaken for potions. Need to cast a spell on your lover? That'll be $5 for a 12-ounce Berry Lucky, a blend of watermelon, raspberry, cucumber and almond butter spiked with maca, an Andean root with legendary aphrodisiac properties. (16-ounce drinks are $6.50.)
Or try a hemp milk, made from the cannabis seed and blended with lucuma powder (another Andean fruit). At $2.50, the milk is rich, smooth and lactose-free. (Pulido also blends cashew and almond milks.) Hemp, an essential amino acid, is found in the nutrient-rich Nunonana smoothie, a popular drink concocted by Pulido's young son consisting of hemp milk, cacao powder, banana, cinnamon, pure vanilla extract and honey. Pulido suggests adding a half cup of spinach, and maybe some blueberries, "so kids get their greens and don't know the difference!" She lets customers play around with the combinations.
Carrboro Raw accepts cash and cards; there is a $10 minimum.
Correction (June 28, 2010): OnlyBurger is stationed at American Tobacco Campus on Thursdays, not Wednesdays. We regret the error.
The OnlyBurger—perhaps the area's most popular mobile vendor—gallivants through the Triangle like a king as followers watch every move on Twitter and line up in droves. It's a simple concept: burgers and fries, done impeccably well.
On Wednesdays, OnlyBurger will most likely be stationed at Durham's American Tobacco Campus during lunchtime. They knock out an average of 60 to 80 pounds of antibiotic-free ground beef a day, according to co-owner Brian Bottger, whose business partner is Durham Catering's Tom Ferguson. The 100 percent chuck comes from a ranch in Montana but is processed at Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro. "Cliff takes a big chunk of that fat off, so it's about 85-15 lean beef," Bottger says. The burgers are a quarter pound. Turkey burgers are also available.
Tomatoes come from Eastern Carolina Organics. The lettuce isn't local, because Bottger insists on the crunch of iceberg.
"It doesn't grow around here, and a lot of local farmers don't want to touch it," he says. "They give me a sneering look, like, 'Why are you using iceberg?' But to me, that's what you eat on a burger. It's crunchy."
A Saturday morning staple at the Durham Farmers' Market, OnlyBurger often picks up a few heirloom tomatoes and eggs for the special market burger, a smaller 2.5-ounce patty topped with a local fried egg and fried green tomato. They whipped it out at the most recent First Friday in Raleigh, too, stopping even the hipster bikers on fixed-gears in their tracks. They also have an occasional blue cheese burger special, spread with a thin layer of homemade onion jam.
About three to four employees work on the small truck at a time. "It's tight," Bottger says. "It's greasy. It's hot, but it's ... cozy."
The truck also runs the Duke campus circuit, where late-night parties are notoriously rowdy. Bottger remembers an outdoor fraternity gig in the pouring rain that turned into "a mud fest, like Woodstock. People were hanging off the truck."
"The younger employees working the late-night shifts would tell me harrowing stories," he says.
Twenty-three-year-old Patrick Phelps-McKeown recalls manning the OnlyBurger truck at a college music festival at a farm.
"It turned into a sea of drunken people standing around the window, demanding meat," he says. "It's a different dynamic from a restaurant. There's no line. Some big football player bro wants a hamburger, he'll surge through the crowd and wave money at us. There's this pandemonium. And I'm thinking, 'I'm at a farm, cooking a hamburger and listening to some band cover Toad the Wet Sprocket. How did I get here?' There are definitely moments like that."
OnlyBurger organized the first Bull City Street Vendor Rodeo in Durham earlier this month and hopes to foster a growing community of food trucks through local collaboration. OnlyBurger will open a restaurant next month at Hope Valley Square at 3710 Shannon Road. What's next? A second OnlyBurger truck and plans for an OnlyPasta truck, serving just that, prepared fresh daily.
The truck accepts cash and cards.