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.
Bulkogi Korean BBQ, a new truck to hit the Durham scene, transports Korean-style tacos, a popular California trend, to the South. Jin and Jenny So, with the help of their teenage daughter Christine, wheel out homemade Korean plates and fusion dishes six days a week at the Wachovia parking lot on Ninth Street in Durham. (Hours are Monday–Thursday 5–9 p.m., Friday 6–9 p.m., Saturday 5–9 p.m.)
Bulkogi is a traditional Korean-style beef, marinated in a variety of ingredients including soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil.
Spicy pork tacos, the most saucy of the tacos, are a favorite, with chunks of marinated, grilled pork atop a corn tortilla. (The tortillas are store-bought at El Mandado in Raleigh.) The bulkogi beef taco is sweeter, and the barbecue chicken is both sweet and sour, with a hunk of kimchi on top.
Jenny, who cooks all the food, is tight-lipped about her secret ingredients. But with Christine translating, she did tell me that the added sweetness in the kimchi is not from sugar and that she's conscious to use natural ingredients.
"She makes a new batch of kimchi every week," says Christine. "There are a lot of ingredients added to the cabbage, like chili powder, onions, garlic. My mom likes to add a little sweetness, so she'll put in ground apples or grapes."
The most traditional menu items are this summer's specials. The Bi Bim Bap is rice topped with shiitake mushrooms, soybean sprouts, spinach, carrots, sometimes squash and egg, then drizzled with another from-scratch secret recipe: a fiery red-orange hot sauce. The Kimchi Bok Keum Bap combines rice, bulkogi and vegetables in a stir-fry. Both plates are $10; cash only.
If you haven't ventured to Sam's Quik Shop in Durham to visit the red school bus, or Indian Food on Wheels, hightail it over there. Michael Gomes' food is nothing new to the area. He owned Taste of India in Raleigh, Kashmir and Kebab and Curry in Durham and helped start Sitar Indian Palace, which his wife's family now runs.
But the truck seems to allow his talent to flourish. Spices shine in each dish. Ginger and garlic mesh perfectly into a sweet and savory combination. When a cardamom pod hits your teeth, the flavor bursts into your mouth, complemented by the graceful, clean taste of cilantro. Compared to baigan bhartha and saag paneer I've had at other restaurants, Gomes' versions reign. The eggplant and the spinach in the dishes are cooked without additives like broccoli paste or onions, a practice Gomes says he's witnessed in some restaurants.
And while his samosas seem to be on permanent hiatus (too much work, he says), the aloo tiki chaat—extra spicy chickpeas over potato cakes, drizzled with yogurt and sprinkled with chopped cilantro and onion—is a fine replacement.
The menu—hand-written on a whiteboard at the window—changes twice daily for lunch and dinner. Gomes cooks all day long, serving around 120 to 150 people a day.
If you're tempted to choose a beverage from Sam's monstrous beer selection to accompany your meal, Sam's employee Jamie Guptill recommends a hoppy IPA to counteract the spice. I tried a Sisters of the Moon from Kinston-based Mother Earth Brewing, and it balanced the spicy curry dish nicely.
Gomes shares the truck with Taqueria Rubio. He opens at 11 a.m., and the taqueria picks up the truck at 7:30 p.m. every day except Tuesday, when Gomes stays at Sam's until 9 p.m.
The finest day for food truck hopping is Saturday. A litany of trucks turn out for the Durham Farmers' Market, Johnny's in Carrboro and summer street festivals.
The smiles of an eager crowd reflect off Daisy Cakes' 1978 Airstream trailer every Saturday morning at Foster and Greer in Durham, as folks line up for the famed cupcakes of Tanya Catolos. A pastry chef at the Washington Duke Inn, Catolos works 15 to 20 extra hours per week to prepare hundreds of nostalgic treats. Her husband, Konrad, a chef at Piedmont, helps run the operation.
Daisy Cakes are distinctly gourmet. The dense cake maintains a fluffiness, as does the frosting. The chocolate frosting is whipped into an airy swirl, and the cream cheese frosting is flavorful while remaining light, expertly topping off a classic red velvet cake.
But it's the cupcake of the week that really gets people talking.
"I think the most innovative one we've done is bacon and eggs," Catolos says. "It's a maple cupcake with cream cheese frosting, a lemon cream filling so it looks like an egg, and we do candied bacon as a garnish. People love it."
Stay tuned for strawberry rhubarb this summer (also available in flaky Pop't Arts for breakfast).
The Liberación Juice Station captivates the community wherever it may roll. Find Zulayka Santiago and her green bus every Saturday morning at the Durham Farmers' Market and around the Triangle at music festivals. Her "shot" of wheatgrass, ginger and lemon quickly turned into top foodie gossip at this past spring's Shakori Hills Music Festival ("I heard it gives you mad energy!"). She shares her wheatgrass wholesale order with Carrboro Raw's Nice Pulido (they get it from an organic farm in Mint Hill, N.C.), as well as large produce orders from Eastern Carolina Organics that they couldn't get through individually in a week.
What smoothie should you try first?
"It's been a tie between Old School (local strawberries, blueberries, banana and orange juice) and Green Liberación (local kale, bananas, ginger, raw almonds, flaxseed, prunes, apple juice)," she says. "Older folks will try the signature smoothie, but a green, funky-looking drink doesn't appeal to everybody. The fruity option is a good standby."
Santiago used to direct El Pueblo, Inc., Raleigh's largest nonprofit organization focused on Latinos, and a community spirit is inherent in her work. If there's a lull on the bus, she'll slip out for a few seconds. Decked out in a sparkly headpiece, colorful dress and patterned tights, she'll swirl a hula-hoop around her hips or swoon over a neighbor's baby.
"It's all part of decolonizing the imagination for me," she says. "This whole business has been an exercise in that, affording myself the freedom to embrace joy as my life's work. Any excuse for me to put on glitter and a costume, and I'm all over it. Some people limit that to childhood, but I think part of us reclaiming our ability to dream is to be able to tap into the whimsical side of ourselves and the magic that's available to us in our everyday life. It's reflected in the color of the bus, in the product I'm creating, reflected in my tights and my hats and every little detail."
Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, says her mission is health-conscious.
"Part of me launching this business as a Latina and woman of color is recognizing our addiction to sugar," she says. "I come from a lineage of diabetes—my grandmother, my mother, my sister. It's about raising the level of health consciousness, to be able to identify how addicted to sugar we are and try to wean off of it."
Any of her presweetened drinks are lightly sweetened with all-natural products like agave nectar and stevia drops. For a lighter drink, try an herbal tea infused with a kick of ginger.
Once you've checked out Durham in the morning, head to Carrboro. Parlez-Vous Crepe is parked at Johnny's until 2 p.m. You'll find Jody Argote there, serving a long line of customers (sometimes the wait is 30 minutes) and gabbing in French all the while. A former French professor, Argote spent time in France as a Fulbright scholar and apprenticed at a friend's creperie.
Both savory and sweet, Argote's crepes are as mobile as her truck, decadence neatly wrapped into handheld wax paper cones designed by her husband. They dole out at least 200 crepes every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
While the crepe with seasoned local fried egg, spinach, caramelized onions and cheddar is a standout, the monthly specials include innovative ways to use local, seasonal ingredients. Asparagus thus far has been a personal favorite. This month, the special combines basil from Dutch Buffalo Farm with fresh mozarella, roma tomatoes and cracked black pepper for $8; in July, Argote adds a special with homemade peach salsa made from local fruit.
Don't go to Johnny's looking for a hearty crepe on July 5; Parlez-Vous will be at the Festival for the Eno. New weekly locations include Durham's Third Friday Art Walk at Golden Belt from 6 to 9 p.m. and the Saxapahaw Farmers' Market on Saturdays from 5 to 8 p.m.
Venture to Wake Forest on Sunday, just across the Raleigh border at Fonville Road next to Paddle Creek Outfitters. At a mobile trailer modeled on a log cabin, you'll find Ivan Perez working his six-rack barbecue pit that sits on the outside part of the truck. Habana Blues BBQ (9745 Fonville Road) specializes in smoked Eastern style 'cue, ribs, chicken and a Cuban sandwich made with roast pork.
Perez is of Cuban descent and was raised in Chicago, where he ran a poultry processing plant and didn't know anything about "any damn barbecue."
"When I bought the business, the gentleman I bought it from didn't give me any secrets, any tips. I've had to tweak it, put my flavor in it," he said. "Let me tell you, it was hard for me to do barbecue down here. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would be doing this for a living, honest to God. But now that I'm doing it, I really enjoy it."
He toyed with different recipes before settling on his vinegar-based version. The smoked cooking technique gives it real flavor. Perez gets to the truck at 3:30 a.m. every day to start the slow cooking, ready by 10 a.m., opening time. He's there till 6 p.m., selling to fisherman, kayakers and families with large takeout orders, selling up to 200 pounds of 'cue on the weekends, double that on a holiday, not including the juicy ribs and chicken.
"There are a lot of Southerners, when they hear my accent, they say, 'What the heck are you doing BBQ for?'" says Perez. "A Cuban from Chicago doing Eastern Carolina barbecue? And they can't put two and two together. So I grab a sample cup and I say, 'Just try it.' About 98 percent of the people come back and say, 'I'll take a sandwich' or 'Give me a pound.'"
His wife, Ana Mirka, helps with the Cuban-style dishes, including the pressed Cuban sandwich made with roasted pork, a Spanish rice with pigeon peas (native to her Puerto Rico) and a fricase de pollo, which is chicken marinated and cooked in a sauce based in tomatoes, beer and red wine, for catering orders. For dessert, Ana Mirka serves flaky turnovers filled with guava paste and cream cheese, baked until golden brown.
Order a sampling of Habana Blues specialties to go, or eat it after a kayak trip at Paddle Creek.
Corrections: OnlyBurger is stationed at American Tobacco Campus on Thursdays, not Wednesdays. Also, Parlez-Vous Crepe mistakenly included an ‘s’ in the print version of this story.