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The New Airstream Cuisine

Some of the most satisfying food in America can now be found curbside, served out of sleek airstream trailers or trucks retrofitted with kitchens. The nine recipes here reinvent “truck food”—from crêpes stuffed with smoked salmon to chocolate–peanut butter mousse.

Wafels & Dinges

The way Thomas DeGeest tells the story, the Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs called one day and designated him the country’s Special Envoy for Wafels. It’s an apocryphal tale, but the Belgium native runs his waffle truck—which he parks at various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn—as if the title were real. After quitting his job as a consultant at IBM, DeGeest went back to Belgium to learn from master waffle-makers and perfect his own recipes. “Having experienced IHOP and Waffle House, I knew the quality of waffles in the U.S. could be, let’s say, improved,” he says. He came back with ideas for two styles of waffle—the dense, chewy Liege wafel, which is sweetened with sugar pearls that burst and caramelize when cooked on the truck’s hot waffle irons, and the light, crispy Brussels waffle. As for toppings, there’s a selection of dinges—Belgian slang for “whatchamacallits,” DeGeest explains—including dulce de leche, maple syrup and Belgian chocolate-fudge sauce. Says De Geest, “It’s great running a business where the customers always smile. It’s hard not to be happy when you get a waffle.”

Flip Happy Crepes

The 1966 Avion trailer parked on Austin’s Jessie Street is one of the city’s busiest food trucks—and definitely the most unique. Flip Happy uses its giant crêpes like tortillas, filling them with savory stuffings like juicy pulled pork and caramelized onions or smoked salmon and tangy cream cheese blended with lemon, dill and capers. The truck—where hour-long waits are common—is the brainchild of Nessa Farrow (who handles the sweet crêpes), Andrea Day-Boykin (the savory) and Day-Boykin’s husband, Patrick Gannon (everything else), who spent months perfecting crêpe batters before opening Flip Happy in 2006. “My partners and I are all perfectionists,” Day-Boykin says. “None of us likes to give up the griddle.”

RoliRoti

Thomas Odermatt, the son of a Swiss butcher, moved to California in 2001 to study organic farming. Instead of returning to Switzerland, he re-created part of his family’s business in San Francisco a year later, building a truck from European parts and outfitting it with a rotisserie so he could make the same kind of spit-roasted meats at farmers’ markets that his father sold on the weekends at his butcher shop in the Swiss Alps. Odermatt borrowed his mother’s recipes, like a succulent pork rib roast served with tart onion marmalade. “It’s good old European-style barbecue,” he says. “The rotisserie is the best way to bring out the meat’s natural flavors.” A proponent of seasonal meat, Odermatt frequently changes RoliRoti’s offerings. “I find the best time of year for each animal,” he says. “In the spring, it’s the bunny and the lamb.” Odermatt’s 85-year-old father, Otto, frequently visits his son’s burgeoning rotisserie enterprise, which now includes a deli in Napa. “Whenever he visits, we take a pig and butcher it together,” Odermatt says. “He likes the pork here.”

Skillet

Finding Seattle’s Skillet truck takes some work; the 1962 Airstream-turned-mobile kitchen operates in locations all over the city (a schedule is posted on Skillet’s website, skilletstreetfood.com). But the silver trailer still has a cult following, thanks to its edgy, frequently updated menu, which features an eclectic assortment of dishes like poutine, Thai red curry soup and hazelnut-crusted chicken. Skillet’s pride is its juicy burger, made with fatty Kobe-style beef and topped with Cambozola cheese (a creamy hybrid of Camembert and Gorgonzola) and Skillet’s homemade bacon jam (a sweet-smoky condiment made from a secret recipe that calls for bacon and caramelized onions). Skillet owners Joshua Henderson, a former private chef, and Danny Sizemore, a kitchen equipment salesman, have already purchased two more trailers, and an additional takeout restaurant is in the works.

DessertTruck

People sometimes mistake DessertTruck for a Mister Softee–like ice cream vendor—until they get close enough to read the menu listing items like salted molten chocolate cake, caramelized banana sandwiches and pumpkin custard. Launched in 2007 by friends Jerome Chang (a pastry chef at Manhattan’s Le Cirque restaurant) and Chris Chen (a Columbia Business School student), DessertTruck offers restaurant-quality sweets, including three chocolate-based confections of varying intensity. “People’s idea of dessert falls into two extremes: brownies and cookies or high-end, plated dishes,” Chang says. “We want to fall somewhere in the middle.” Their parfait of fluffy peanut butter and chocolate mousse, topped with a sticky caramel sauce and crunchy caramel popcorn, is a perfect example.

Torchy’s Tacos

Austin is the capital of truck food, with dozens of mobile restaurants, most of them specializing in tacos. So when chef Michael Rypka—who had spent 20 years cooking in restaurants with acclaimed chefs like Norman Van Aken—decided to open his own taco truck in 2006, he knew he’d have to set himself apart from the competition. He created a menu of amped-up street food that utilizes his deep fryer: fried avocado tacos, fried chicken tacos and Baja fried-shrimp taco, filled with crispy jumbo shrimp and warm cabbage slaw dressed with a tangy chipotle sauce. Now Rypka operates two Torchy’s trucks around Austin, where lines routinely snake around the block until late in the evening.

Seoul on Wheels

While most food trucks pick a spot and park there all day, Julia Yoon wants to feed as many Korean barbecue aficionados as possible, so her Seoul on Wheels truck makes daily stops in seven different locations around San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. At each stop, Yoon serves a variety of Korean classics, including bulgogi: thin slices of tender rib eye steak marinated in apple juice and soy sauce and quickly grilled over a hot fire (the dish’s name translates to “fire meat”) until they are charred and develop a delectable sweet-salty-smoky flavor.

Lucinda

Jersey City office workers line up at breakfast and lunchtime at the Lucinda truck for owner Joanna Garnett Raeppold’s ultrafresh Mexican food, like giant chicken burritos. To achieve the most tender, flavorful filling possible, Raeppold slowly simmers the chicken, then tosses it in a smoky-sweet sauce made with chipotle peppers and brown sugar. Hers isn’t the only Mexican food truck in the city’s bustling business district, but Raeppold and her canary-yellow truck stand out among their peers; on the job she wears bright red lipstick and a flower behind her ear to mimic the truck’s logo—the bikini-clad, ukulele-strumming Lucinda. Although she says competition among food trucks is always friendly, it took months to find Lucinda a permanent parking spot after opening for business in 2006. “There’s a strict code of ethics among food trucks,” she says. “I won’t take their spot; they won’t take mine.”

Published May 2008
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