It’s just 8:30 a.m., but Chris Hodgson is busy flipping Angus burgers and putting the finishing touches on crab cakes with arugula and mango slaw. He has to work fast; a line has already formed in front of Hodge Podge, the mobile eatery that he has parked, for a few hours at least, near a farmers market on Cleveland’s east side.
In two short years, Hodgson has garnered attention from foodies by launching two ambulatory ventures (the first was the Asian-inspired Dim and Den Sum) that serve high-quality inventive dishes you wouldn’t expect at a walk-up.
Hodgson may have had the first gastro-truck on the scene, but he isn’t the only one on the move. There’s a whole new crop of chefs in the region who aren’t waiting for customers to come to them. They are hitting the streets, taking food to the people and putting the “go” in gourmet. They’re also making us hungry.
The menu changes frequently at most food trucks. At Dim and Den Sum you might find a shark week Sammie ($8), a perfectly seared shark steak on a crunchy-crusted brioche bun with capers, spicy srirachi aioli and seaweed salad. Or maybe roasted chicken mac and cheese ($6), which brilliantly blends mozzarella, smoked Gouda, cheddar and goat cheese.
At Hodge Podge, we never pass on the now-famous sweet potato tots ($3), perfectly seasoned bites of crispy potato joy with truffle ketchup on the side. Add to that order a fig burger ($8), which tops marinated figs with herb goat cheese and watercress, and you’re set.
In service to this story, though, we press on. Our next stop is Jibaro World Eats parked at Clark Field in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, where co-ed football games are well under way. Owner Elvis Serrano is busy making lunch dishes with a distinctly tropical vibe — a nod to his Puerto Rican heritage. “I like to make some traditional recipes, but I tweak them,” Serrano says. “They usually marry sweet and spicy together, but they aren’t necessarily hot. I like people to taste the flavor, not the hotness.”
While Serrano experiments with elk, bison and goat, his most popular dish is the tropical jerk chicken ($8) that he serves alone or stuffs into a burrito with rice and beans and garnishes with pickled carrots and watercress. A side of fried plantains lends an authentic Puerto Rican feel. “The jerk chicken was a special at first,” he says. “But it became one of our top sellers.”
The Roaming Buffalo, on the other hand, has developed a niche serving local specialties. The next day, we head east and catch up with the food truck tailgating outside the Ralph Wilson Stadium just before a Buffalo Bills home game. Football fans sporting face paint and team gear stop to grab some regional favorites.
“This is a rolling tourist attraction,” says owner Christopher Taylor. “It’s all about Buffalo. Eventually we’d like to expand around the country and be able to share our local heritage.”
Buffalo wings are an obvious choice, so we opt instead to try Taylor’s take on a beef on weck ($7). To the uninitiated, it looks like a roast beef sandwich, but it’s the kummelweck roll topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds that makes it distinctly Buffalonian. “The salt opens up the taste buds,” says Taylor. “It goes great with the beef.”
The sandwich isn’t complete until the locally produced Miller’s horseradish goes on the side. The Roaming Buffalo shines a spotlight on ingredients sourced locally, down to the hot dogs (Sahlen’s), toppings (Miller’s horseradish and Weber’s mustard) and beverages (PJ’s Crystal Beach Original Loganberry).
The emphasis on fresh and locally sourced ingredients is one of the keys to a successful mobile eatery. Inventive menus, fast service, high-traffic locations and social media like Facebook and Twitter also contribute to putting food trucks on the culinary map.
“You can finally get the quality you expect from a restaurant, with the convenience of a stand,” says Hodgson.
The only challenge is tracking them down, but it’s a journey worth taking.