San Antonio is not renowned as a city of fast-breaking trends and unbridled innovation. We tend to be more deliberate about things. Not since chili con carne made its appearance in the bustling markets of mid-nineteenth century SA have we been in the vanguard of culinary creativity. Following this lead, most of us would suspect that we have lagged behind places such as Portland and, yes, even Austin, when it comes to food truck culture. Yes and no.
While it’s true that the proliferation, both in number and variety, of mobile kitchens here is a recent phenomenon, it’s equally correct to point out that casual (and, we assume, largely unregulated) taco trucks have long been a fixture at specialized locations such as construction sites. Turns out we may actually have been innovators. Just under the radar.
But no longer are food trucks lurking in some kind of taco-fueled twilight zone. Roaminghunger.com, a website that tracks such things around the country, counts 51 units in San Antonio. And though the number is subject to constant change (and is likely an under-count, for that matter), it’s still astonishing.
Apart from the inevitable impetus provided by national publicity including Food Channel shows dedicated to the topic much of our awakening can be attributed to Cruising Kitchens, a local outfit that produces high-end food trucks at its location on Bulverde Road inside Loop 1604.
Cruising Kitchen’s owner, Cameron Davies, first began by building blinged-out custom cars for athletes and other luminaries, but has since abandoned that business to concentrate on food trucks for San Antonio and now around the country. CK’s shop manager, Matt Marshall, says they’ve done dozens of trucks since that first one for Wheelie Gourmet, a mobile kitchen distinguished both by smart graphics and an exotic menu with North African leanings.
“We’re building four right now,” says Marshall, though none is destined for use locally. At an average price of around $70,000 to $100,000, according to Marshall (who also says they have done really simple trucks for as little as $30,000), that adds up to an impressive yearly tally.
Davies has not been content to merely build trucks, however; he also established the city’s first food truck park, Boardwalk on Bulverde (www.boardwalkonbulverde.com), adjacent to his manufacturing facility. On a normal day, according to Marshall, there are nine or so trucks in attendance, and they range in character from Dirty Dawgs (hot dogs) to Society Bakery (polite pastries), passing through burgers, chicken and comfort food along theway. There’s even a truck fitted out with a brick oven for pizza though it’s not one CK can claim responsibility for having built.
Such has been the success of Boardwalk, despite its out-of-the-way location, that wagons have been pulled into a circle (metaphorically) in several other locations around (and out of) town and a nonprofit group has been established to support the growing community.
The San Antonio Food Truck Association (www.safta.net) was put together by truckies from K-Hill BBQ, Rickshaw Stop (recently named No. 7 food truck in the United States by the Huffington Post’s thedailmeal.com), Lagniappe Today, Wheelie Gourmet and Cheesy Jane’s, and, according to Denise Aguirre, owner of The Point Park and Eats on Boerne Stage Road, “it means something to belong though we take both members and nonmembers.”
(SAFTA is also where she sends folks who call her saying, “I want to start a food truck can you help me?”) At The Point, Aguirre says she handles over 50 trucks (Pork U, Texasada Mexican Street Food and Crepe Nation among them) on a rotating basis, though she tries to keep a couple of “flagship” participants for stability’s sake. Juggling trucks and live entertainment ranging from indie to jazz not to mention keeping a bar going as well must be working. “This is a competitive business, but The Point is a happening spot,” says B.R. Anderson of B-Daddy’s BBQ, a participant who once operated a park on 281 N. himself.
The Point’s clientele is not the same as one would find downtown, says Aguirre. Accordingly, Alamo Street Eat-Bar (www.alamostreeteatbar. com), run by the genial folks who have the Friendly Spot in nearby Southtown, calls itself an “urban gourmet food park,” and it can certainly boast of hosting some of the city’s best practitioners of peripatetic eats. Zum Sushi, whose other locations include Rackspace headquarters on Walzem Road, says it’s the city’s “first mobile sushi truck.”
It celebrated a year in business this July and wisely confines itself to rolls ranging in price from $7.99 to $12.99. Where sashimi on a styro plate might seem out of place, the Spicy California roll, accompanied by a crunchy seaweed salad, is perfectly at home in the setting. Equally at ease are outfits such as Chris Cullum’s Attaboy Burgers, housed in a converted Airstream trailer, and Wheelie Gourmet, which puts in regular appearances with the likes of the Chicka-Chicka (preserved lemon is important here) in a very crisp pita.
Among the most ambitious tenants of Alamo Street (and other locations) is chef Pieter Sypesteyn’s Where Y’At “serving gourmet New Orleans street food.” Where a lot of truck owners are first-timers trying to sound out a dream, native New Orleanian Sypesteyn started out with serious food creds. Having worked with Andrew Weissman at both Le Rêve and Il Sogno, he might have been expected to make his next move to an executive chef position at an upscale restaurant or maybe a brick and mortar place of his own.
But Sypesteyn seems content, for the moment, turning out soft-shell crab and grits, New Orleans BBQ shrimp and one of the city’s most profound bread puddings from his colorful kitchen on wheels. Even a dish as humble-seeming as crumb-coated and deep-fried boudin balls with spicy remoulade comes across as a culinary accomplishment.
The fixed-in-place bar at Alamo Street can supply a worthy beer on tap to accompany your order from any of the trucks; the hoppy Stash seemed to click with both rolls and balls. Another tenant of Alamo Street is Pieter Sypesteyn's Where Y'At, serving gourmet New Orleans street food such as Shrimp Creole, above left.
Yet another kind of clientele is being courted at a new park scheduled for a soft opening at the end of summer. The Block Food Park & Patio Bar (www.theblocksa.com) is nearing completion on Roadrunner Way just south of UTSA, and developer John Onstead, an ’09 UTSA graduate, says he’s intent on providing some of the student cohesiveness that was missing in his days there a goal that is being furthered by the recent appearance of a football team that students will now be able to watch on a 1,500-square-foot covered patio cooled with fans and misters and outfitted with flat and projector screens.
Onstead says there’s nothing around like the facility he has envisioned; not only will it have a well-outfitted bar and restrooms, but there will be room for six or seven trailers, all allowed to dispose of grey water in an environmentally responsible way.
“I started the project in 2011,” he says, “and in 2012 the city passed codes to deal with food trucks.” Unlike many who almost reflexively think the city obstructionist, Onstead considers the codes a positive development. “Before, there were just mobile vending laws, but, unlike Austin that finally woke up [to the need to regulate] at the tail end of the [curve], San Antonio has caught it on the front end.
The [new] codes are what are allowing places like Alamo Street to operate.” And the city hasn’t been content simply to pass codes. Downtown Operations (www.sanantonio.gov/dtops) coordinates vending schedules for such public locales as Main Plaza, Travis Park, Madison Park, the Weston Centre and Alamo Plaza a site that last saw active vendors in the form of chili queens in the late ‘30s.
Look for trucks such as Totally Shredded, Bite Street Bistro, Cheesy Jane’s and Wheelie Gourmet at these locations and should you be in the vicinity of Port San Antonio, also look for trucks such as Mr. Meximum and Porky J’s BBQ, courtesy of a collaboration between the San Antonio Food Truck Association and Port SA.
Knowing the locations and hours of truck parks is, of course, one way to be sure of snagging something you like at a place near you. But as many of these trucks really are “incubators” and test kitchens in transition to a more fixed operation (Texasada and The Point’s Aguirre are teaming up on a permanent location to be called Taps & Tapas that is under construction in the Five Points area, for example), the only way to really keep on top of who’s where when is to embrace Facebook and Twitter. “I live on [them],” says Aguirre. “Social networking is the lifeblood of the food truck business,” reinforced B-Daddy’s Anderson.
Of course, non-networkers can always continue to find trucks at places they might go anyway. Saglimbeni Fine Wines on West Rhapsody hosts a single, curated food truck each Saturday to complement its weekly wine tastings.
Past participants have included Spice Sea Gourmet, run by C.I.A.-trained chef Whitney Matthews, and Jason Dady’s DUK (short for Dady’s Underground Kitchen) Truck a facility Dady considers good training experience for his chefs at Bin 555 and Tre Trattoria. Reliably stationed midday from 11 to 3 at Nacogdoches and 410 is Smoke Shack BBQ, a truck that readers of the Express-News recently voted Best Barbecue in San Antonio.
Food trucks are also parked outside The Brooklynite near downtown on many evenings as well. Operators such as The Queen of Smoke are happy to deliver your smoked prime rib sandwich inside as the perfect mate to a rummy Brooklynite cocktail, or maybe a gingery Dark and Stormy.
And at weekly farmers’ markets such as the one at the Quarry, trucks such as Winner Winner Chicken Dinner will help sustain you as you shop for farm-ripe tomatoes. Can’t escape ‘em, so might as well enjoy ‘em.