A few years ago, we wrote about food trucks in a blog entitled, “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Starting Your Own Food Truck.” In truth, we weren’t prescient enough at the time to know quite how explosive the trend would be. Street food in general and food trucks in particular have become a huge business. These days it’s not unusual to see upscale food sold from trucks by cooks who see the food truck as an opportunity to flex their culinary muscles and to reach more people than is possible in a restaurant. Every city in the United States is dotted with food trucks, while many foodies believe that New York City is the food truck capital of the country.
Where It All Began
An article on mobile-cuisine.com says that New Amsterdam (now NYC) started regulating street food vendors in 1691. In the 1800s, street food vendors in New York sold oysters and clams (which were cheap eats at the time); however, as immigrants continued to bring their own food traditions to the United States, the food that street vendors sold changed to hot corn, pickles, and sausages. In 1866, Charles Goodnight invented the Chuck Wagon to feed cattlemen and wagon trains going West. Almost 100 years later, Oscar Mayer began driving his wiener-mobile around the highways of America selling his meats, and ice cream trucks started navigating the streets soon thereafter. Mobile food vendors continued to peddle their inexpensive offerings throughout the 20th century, finding success in areas such as construction sites where lunch was needed and restaurants were far away.
The beginning of the modern food truck movement dates back 10 years ago, to the recession of 2008. The U.S. labor market lost over 8 million jobs at the time, but a few savvy people with the dream of entering the culinary business saw it as an opportunity to do it their way and on their own terms. That’s when food trucks started appearing – slowly at first but then in greater numbers and with many more menu options. Ten years on and the food-truck trend shows no signs of waning. Based on research from Statista.com, the food truck sector is still surging, and this year, the industry is expected reach $1 billion dollars in annual revenue in the United States, which represents an increase of over $100 million dollars from just two years ago.
New York, New York
That fact that food trucks seem to be popping up every day in New York and in other major cities across America, makes it seem as if it’s an easy and no-fail way to make some money. However, it’s more complicated than it looks, especially in New York. The NYC Health Department has a thick list of rules and regulations that cover the legalities of mobile-food vending, which could intimidate even the most determined entrepreneur.
Anyone who decides to open a food truck anywhere in NYC must have a license, after which the truck will have to pass an inspection confirming that the truck is sanitary. The owner of the truck will have to take a food-safety course and, with proof of completion, he or she will be awarded a permit and a decal to display on the truck… also according to regulations. When it’s time to scout for location, the city mandates that no food seller can vend “within any bus stop and taxi stand, and within the portion of the sidewalk abutting any no-standing zone adjacent to a hospital; within 10 feet of any driveway, any subway entrance or exit, or any crosswalk at any intersection.”
The rules also relate to the way food is cut, meat is deboned, temperatures are calculated, and ice is cubed. The truck must be kept clean, and it must have a sink with running water that may be used only for hand washing. Personal appearance is also important and operators may not wear sleeveless shirts or show bare midriffs. If a food-truck operator violates these “personal hygiene” regulations in any manner, there will be a fine.
If You Can Make It Here
Despite the somewhat draconian rules and regulations, clearly meant to protect consumers from food-borne diseases and worse, the New York City food truck biz is booming. Over time, the number of food trucks on the streets of all five boroughs has skyrocketed, making the competition tough and the business more cutthroat. Nonetheless, there are trucks in NYC that consistently serve interesting, original, and delicious food, and we’ll list the leading lights here.
1. Hard Times Sundaes
Formerly parked in a modest corner of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, this truck quickly achieved cult status among burger fans, and it moved to more-accessible Williamsburg. Hard Times Sundaes owner Andrew Zurica cooks up his juicy single-, double- and triple-stacked burgers that come with free raw or grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles and jalapenos. Zurica opened the truck after his Luncheonette restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and he decided it was time to take his signature burgers to the street. Repeatedly voted the #1 food truck in NY by critics and customers alike, Hard Times Sundaes – which is more about the patties than the ice cream treat – is the place to go when nothing but the perfect burger with the freshest ingredients will do.
2. The Cinnamon Snail
Opened back in February 2010 as the country’s first vegan, organic food truck, the Cinnamon Snail has become one of New York’s most beloved institutions. While The Snail also has two brick-and-mortar locations, and their trucks no longer roam the city streets as they used to, they still show up at festivals and farmers’ markets to serve “tasty and compassionately crafted food with the goal of luring unsuspecting non-vegans to the dark side, where they will reside forevermore in a carrot castle with a broccoli king and queen …” Lofty words, true, but the Cinnamon Snail menu, which is 100% vegan, includes items like Chipotle Seitan Breakfast Burrito with smoked chili grilled seitan, scrambled tofu, fresh jalapeno, marinated kale, and chipotle mayo; Blue Corn Pancakes made from heirloom blue corn and spelt, with toasted pine nut butter and maple syrup; and French Lentil Burgers, with artichokes, caramelized onions, marinated kale, and roasted garlic aioli on a grilled pretzel bun. Although The Snail has curtailed its food truck business significantly, many food truck aficionados will always have a warm spot in their heart for this pioneering enterprise.
3. King of Falafel
Fares “Freddy” Zeideia is a sort of local celebrity in Astoria, Queens, where he was serving his award–winning falafel, shawarma and kebabs from his truck years before the food-truck trend really took off. With a desire to replicate the taste of home, King of Falafel opened its first truck in 2002, on the corner of Broadway and 30th Street in Astoria, Queens; in 2010, Freddy expanded to a location on the northwest corner of 53rd St. and Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, and the rest is history. The King of Falafel claims that everything they make is from scratch, using the best ingredients and flavor combinations. Zeideia has since opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Manhattan, as well, but his NYC and Queens trucks continue to operate, doling out favorites like beef-and-lamb shawarma, and original creations, like falafel burgers served in pita (which is baked daily) with za’atar and tomato.
4. Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwiches
Man does not live by burgers and meat alone. On the hot, steamy streets of New York, ice cream is often just the thing, and the Coolhaus fleet of roving ice-cream sandwich trucks, which gained a cult following in LA, has conquered the city by specializing in ice cream sandwiches with complex flavors that are also design-themed. The New York operation features a long list of artisanal flavors—including blackberry-ginger, Thai iced tea, and pistachio-truffle ice creams sandwiched between red-velvet, snickerdoodle, and double chocolate cookies. Choose from one-story, two-story or skyscraper (five scoops and six cookies) versions. The business was founded in 2009 by Natasha Case and Freya Estreller, two architects who decided to take a chance on food. They opened at the Coachella music festival and have since expanded their food trucks to hubs like New York, Dallas, and Austin, Texas. Coolhaus has garnered rave reviews from foodies everywhere and has amassed fans from around the world.
5. Souvlaki GR
Since 2010, Souvlaki GR has served New Yorkers with authentic Greek food based on family recipes that have been passed down over generations. Souvlaki GR is known for big flavors starting with the truck’s namesake, the souvlaki. Charcoal-grilled beef or chicken is wrapped in a warm pita and drizzled with homemade sauce. Complete the meal with a classic Greek salad or Greek fries for a meal that will set you on the direct flight from NYC to Mykonos. The Souvlaki GR wraps are filling, authentic, and sustaining – just what you’re looking for in street food.
6. Korilla BBQ
The tiger-striped Korilla BBQ food trucks offer tacos, burritos, and rice bowls filled with Korean-style meats like beef bulgogi, braised short ribs and spicy chicken—plus house-made kimchi and other hot sauces to pile on top. This is kind of a Korean-Mexican fusion truck and its huge fan base waxes enthusiastic over the generous portions, the fresh ingredients, and the fabulous flavors. The Korilla truck can usually be found in Midtown Manhattan during the day, though trucks have been spotted in Soho and other locations. (Korilla has also opened restaurants in various spots across Manhattan and Brooklyn.)
7. Wafels and Dinges
Since 2007, Wafels and Dinges has been making a name for Belgian waffles throughout New York City, and though it specializes in desserts and not the meat-and-potatoes that hungry New Yorkers seems to crave, it has been named the best food truck in New York City multiple times. Founded by Thomas DeGeest and Rossanna Figuera Wafels and Dinges, “All the world is a wafel and all of us are merely dinges” and it’s hard to disagree. The popular truck offers warm and toasty waffles stacked with an array of sweet toppings like cookie spread, fresh strawberries, Belgian-style chocolate sauce, and classic maple syrup. The truck offers both savory and sweet waffles (called wafel in Belgian) and a large assortment of dinges (toppings).
Food Trucks are Here to Stay
Food trucks boomed because of cooks wanting to share their skills, flavors, and recipes with the public in accessible and affordable ways, while diners yearned for quick, inexpensive, delicious, on-the-go, authentic meal solutions. The widespread popularity of this culinary idea, particularly in busy cities like New York, led to tough competition. Yet, despite, the tough environment, the seven food trucks listed above continue to excel by offering their and unique and delicious fresh foods.