Miami Food Trucks Keep on Trucking
A year ago, Miami had only barely caught on to the food truck trend that already was sweeping New York, Los Angeles, Portland and several other cities. It was late 2009 when the trucks started rolling here - first Latin Burger, then very shortly after, the gastroPod. Now, only a bit more than a year later, there are more than 50 trucks on the road or about to launch (you can follow all of them on this Miami Food Trucks twitter list I compiled, or check Burger Beast's Street Food Locator).
Though some people were ready to dismiss the food truck phenomenon as a goofy and ill-fated trend like pet rocks, white-rimmed sunglasses, or jeggings, the turnout at recent gatherings like the Biscayne Triangle Truck Roundup ("BTTR") Tuesday at the Johnson & Wales North Miami campus, and Street Food Fridays at the Adrienne Arsht Center, would suggest it has staying power. These events, where as many as 20 trucks set up shop, and which lately have included additional amenities like tables and chairs, porta-potties, and live music, seem to have been a real win-win deal for truckers and their customers, with hundreds of people coming out and almost all of the trucks doing brisk business. It's been busy enough that some of the truckers have started expanding - gastroPod and Sakaya Kitchen (Dim Ssam a Gogo) both are adding second vessels to their fleets.
Indeed, one of the biggest problems facing the food trucks lately is not finding customers, but finding places to operate. Both Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami have recently started cracking down on some food truck gatherings, though their rules and policies remain ill-defined and inconsistent. In the meantime, events like BTTR, the Wynwood Food Truckers Meetup, Street Food Fridays and others have still managed to go forward, and trucks continue to find places to do business.
While I've welcomed the food truck invasion, I've also been concerned at times with the quality and the variety - or lack thereof - available. For a while, it seemed like every new truck hitting the road was doing burgers, or tacos, or both.[*] Now it's true that everyone who has a soul loves burgers and tacos, but I had my doubts that Miami really needed twenty, or forty, trucks all serving the same things. But lately the mix has improved. I can't claim to have tried anywhere close to all the new offerings out there, but here are some thoughts on a few. (In earlier posts I shared my thoughts on gastroPod, Latin Burger, Sakaya Kitchen's Dim Ssam a Gogo, and Jefe's Original.)
I've previously professed my fondness for the minuta sandwich at La Camaronera, a fish market turned stand-up restaurant on Flagler Street. Now you can get that same sandwich all over the place thanks to the Fish Box, La Camaronera's food truck. There is also a fine fried shrimp sandwich, or an occasional lobster special, but my favorite is still the minuta: freshly fried fish, tail wagging out of the bun, topped with chopped raw onion, tartar sauce and ketchup (I also highly recommend a hit of the hot sauce from the squeeze bottle on the ledge of the truck).
Yes, I gripe about the prevalence of tacos, but the thing I like at the MexZican is the torta - a Mexican sandwich, filled with the meat of your choice, the bread smeared with avocado, refried beans, and mayo, a sprinkle of Oaxaca cheese, topped with shredded lettuce. MexZican uses a nice crusty football-shaped roll, and their carnitas, my favorite of their proteins, are simultaneously crispy and unctuously tender, with a backbeat of spice.
The MexZican Gourmet
The punnily named Miso Hungry truck brings some variety to the local food truck scene by taking an Asian spin. "Miso Boxes" with fried rice and veggies come with curry chicken, rendang beef, "Chinese chicken" or a vegan tofu option. So what did I try? The "Miso Burger." (Go ahead, call me a hypocrite). This is a different style of burger, though, with ground pork instead of beef, marinated in "Asian spices," topped with fresh lettuce, a cilantro mayo, and crispy fried onions, packaged in a crusty ciabatta style bun. It's a nice change of pace, with the burger still remaining relatively juicy despite the pork needing to be cooked all the way through. Stronger Asian flavors and a hit of heat (sriracha, maybe?) would make this even better.
A new addition to the scene, Mr. Good Stuff is bringing Venezuela to Miami's streets. They made their debut at Street Food Friday week before last, and I tried a "luna" (a cornmeal arepa split to form a sandwich) stuffed with braised brisket, pickled onions and cheddar cheese. I won't vouch for the Venezuelan authenticity here, and a little more attention to detail would be nice, as it was somewhat sloppily assembled, making it tricky to get a bite that incorporated each of the elements. But the flavors were great and I can definitely see myself becoming a repeat customer. You can peruse the full menu here, courtesy of UrbanDaddy, which matches the corn in the arepas with some corny names for their offerings - the "Good as Pluck" chicken salad, "Ho-Lee Chow" Asian pulled pork, "Lord of the Fries" cajun fries (topped with sliced hot dog, bacon and cheese, no less). They also have a great-looking truck, with artwork designed by local artist "LEBO" a/k/a David LeBatard.
Mr. Good Stuff
Aaron's Catering, another newcomer, might immediately jump to the front of the pack in the "fanciest truck" category. In addition to flashy pictures of elegant dishes architecturally plated on metal stands, the truck actually has a flat screen TV built right into the side of it. Speaking of flashy, Chef Brian Aaron describes himself on his website as a "Master Chef, entrepeneur and visionary" and claims to be a practitioner of "science cooking." The actual food on the ground, at least what he was serving Tuesday before last at BTTR, is not quite so lofty: braised short rib and polenta, a burger, fried mac and cheese, yuca bites. I tried the fried mac and cheese, the presentation of which was not quite as stylized as in the pictures on the truck: a few planks of mac and cheese each about the size of a deck of cards, coated in panko crumbs and fried. But there was nothing wrong with the flavors: nice creamy, cheesy pasta encased in a crispy shell, touched but not overwhelmed by a hit of truffle oil. A cheesy dipping sauce didn't really add that much. I did like a house-made, herbaceous basil and citrus soda he was pouring.
Aaron's Catering Express
|photo via Ms. Cheezious|
Of the two, my better experience has been with Ms. Cheezious, which offers about a half-dozen "composed" grilled cheeses, as well as DIY versions which can include American, Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, Blue, Brie, Havarti or Provolone, additions of bacon, turkey, ham, prosciutto, tomato, or spiced apples, and a few choices of breads. The "Grilled Harvest" I tried was a nice pairing of havarti cheese and spiced sautéed apples on slices of multi-grain bread. It was fine, but not anything I'd go back for. Yet when I was at the last Street Food Friday, I heard someone who had stood in line for nearly an hour for a Ms. Cheezious grilled cheese proclaim that the wait was well worth it. So try for yourself.
|photo via CheeseMe|
I was less enamored with my CheeseMe experience. Like Ms. Cheezious, CheeseMe offers a list of composed "house specialties," or you can style your own with a choice of cheeses (aged provolone, cheddar, buffalo mozzarella, blue, gruyere, fontina or American), breads (Texas toast, "New York style," pumpernickel, whole wheat, brioche, or an English muffin), and fillings (described, somewhat disconcertingly, as "insertions") ranging from traditional items like bacon and tomato to more esoteric ones like braised short rib, pulled pork, and three onion marmalade. I tried one of the specialty sandwiches, the "McShane," which includes pulled BBQ pork, cole slaw, and cheddar cheese on garlicky Texas toast, and it didn't work at all for me.
One of the beauties of a good grilled cheese is how the cheese, the bread, and any fillings are merged by the melting of the cheese to become a nearly homogenous bite of gooey-crispy-cheesy-bread. That didn't happen at all with the McShane, which was more like a big pile of pulled pork that someone had accidentally spilled on top of a grilled cheese. This might have been acceptable if any of the inidvidual components really stood out, but the Texas toast was too thick, the pork and the cheese were both just sort of blandly fatty, and the cole slaw lacked enough brightness of flavor to cut through it all. But my primary gripe is with the pricing: most of their "specialty" sandwiches are $12 - with no side dish, that's an expensive sandwich anywhere, without even taking into account that it's being served from the side of a truck on a paper dish. A bare bones DIY bread and cheese combo starts at $6, but just adding bacon or ham will bring that up another $4, a slice of tomato or another vegetable $2 more. To me, it doesn't make sense for something that is easily duplicated at home for a fraction of the cost.
It's been something of an informal rule here at FFT that we would not ever utter the word "cupcake." Maybe it's the same obnoxiously self-righteous sense of superiority that makes the word "foodie" rankle so much. Maybe it's just that I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Maybe it's that "cupcake people" (like "foodies") use altogether too many exclamation points for my taste. But I have to break that rule for Sugar Rush, a truck from the folks who run Sweetness Bake Shop in South Miami, because - well, because their cupcakes are really quite good.
Their mini-cupcakes are a dollar a pop, and come in a variety of flavors - they've got your old-school chocolate and vanilla (or black-and-whites done both with vanilla cake and chocolate icing, and contrariwise), a fine red velvet cupcake, and more exotic twists like their Guayabera (with guava and cream cheese frosting), Oreo Overdose, and Mudslide (with chocolate coffee cake, Kahlua whipped cream filling and Bailey's frosting). I have been the hero of the house when I've brought back a dozen of these for the kids to sample. They'll also break out some special items occasionally like bananas foster bread pudding, home made Oreos, and whoopie pies.
Dolci Peccati is not the ice cream truck that used to traverse neighborhood streets with creamsicles and rocket pops. Rather, they serve up gelato - dense, creamy Italian-style ice cream - usually offering about a dozen flavors. You won't find anything quite as adventurous or inspired as, say, the ice creams at San Francisco's Humphry Slocombe, but perhaps that's asking too much. I would have liked their salted caramel more if it were a bit more salty, and their rum raisin if it were a bit more rummy, but these are still fine treats for a warm day - made even better by a few sauces you can squeeze on yourself, including, most interesting, a balsamic caramel that brought a nice pop to the rum raisin and is probably fantastic with strawberry. And I'll admit it: I'm charmed any time a woman 20 years my junior calls me "honey." That may not be what they mean when they call it "the sweetest truck on the road"' - but it works.
[*]This is not a slam on Latin Burger and Taco (@LatinBurger). As the first to hit the road here, they're grandfathered in. Plus, the "Macho" burger remains one of the best of the breed, with rich spicy chorizo added to the grind, and a topping of oozy Oaxaca cheese, sweet caramelized onions and creamy, mildly spicy pimiento mayo.