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Food trucks driving local dining trend

Not long ago, most food trailers were dismissed as roach coaches by the general public, and seemed to park only at construction sites and in poorer neighborhoods. Nowadays, trucks and trailers are producing upscale fare that many restaurants would be proud to feature on their menus. And they are popping up all over the place, like a gourmand's whack-a-mole fantasy.

In just the past year, a handful of trucks have emerged on the forefront of the trend in Cowtown: Salsa Limón on Berry Street, The Wiener Man and Taco Heads in the West Seventh Street corridor, the two Yum-Yum! trucks stationed downtown, the Yes! Taco truck in Near Southside, and the Trough Burger Wagon in the West Seventh area, just to name a few, have all staked out semipermanent turf.

Others, such as Chef Point on Wheels, Il Cane Rosso, Sassy Hot Dogs, Holy Smoke BBQ and Red Jett Sweets, have a more nomadic existence. There are plenty of other trucks on the horizon, including So Cal Tacos.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the city's board of adjustments granted a special exception to the mobile vending ordinance to create a food truck park, just north of Montgomery Plaza on Weisenberger Street. The park will be ready to go by this fall, and many observers believe it will create a convoy of new food trucks rolling into Fort Worth.

I sought to understand what a typical day in the life of one of these mobile kitchens is like. How do they prepare for service? How can the staff withstand the heat? Where do they go to the bathroom? What would inspire someone to open a trailer/truck? How do they deal with all of those drunks?

Ramiro Ramirez, owner of Salsa Limón, put it best: "It's a little like working inside a cage at the zoo," he said, "but the animals are on the outside."

From the inside out

From the outside, the Salsa Limón taco trailer looks a bit like a UFO, or a really fancy toaster that lights up. Two people fit inside comfortably, but a third who has no idea what he's doing, or where to stand, was a little much.

There's an air-conditioning vent in the middle of the ceiling, so it isn't as hot on the inside as it looks from the outside, but not surprisingly, the side that houses the flat grill and stove is significantly warmer.

After awkwardly introducing myself to cashier Yolanda Murguia and cook Ezequiel Piña (who didn't speak English), I was ready to jump into the fray.

More than a few times, after a night of bar-hopping, I've been the guy staring into a food-truck window like I was looking into the eyes of God. Now, I get to see the operation from the other side of St. Peter's gate. I strapped on a pair of latex gloves, put on my Salsa Limón hat and was ready to go wrist-deep into pig parts.

Both my co-workers (or baby sitters, as they no doubt saw it) and I arrived at 4 p.m. to open at 7 p.m. Piña cleaned and chopped vegetables and meat, while I filled plastic to-go containers with three salsas: habanero, green and red. Ramirez came by with supplies from the "mother ship," his restaurant in La Gran Plaza.

Many trailers/trucks don't have the luxury of a storefront and must shop for supplies. Bryce Tomberlin, owner of the Wiener Man hot dog stand, for example, goes to the farmers market every day for vegetables. Sarah Castillo, owner/manager of Taco Heads, said she constantly makes runs to Fiesta Mart and Target for supplies. Ramirez has a mailing address, so he is able to order from distributors, who won't deliver to food trailers.

Though the trailers don't have addresses, all seven of the trailers/trucks visited for this story have hitched their wagon (so to speak) to a nearby business. Salsa Limón is parked in front of the Cellar, Yes! Taco sits in front of SiNaCa Studios, Taco Heads is stationed behind 7th Haven bar. In some cases, the trailer will leach electricity from its host building, like a gastro remora. In other cases, like the Wiener Man, the truck is powered by a generator.

After the prep work, I was ready for my training. I expected it to be something like the movie Training Day, but with less PCP, and almost no gun violence. It was clear that the staff didn't entirely trust me to cook the food, but Piña was a good sport and showed me the ropes, while Murguia interpreted. Piña spoke to her for what seemed like a full minute, and Murguia turned to me and said, "You have to clean the grill a lot."

Murguia taught me how to take orders, but since she writes everything in Spanish for Piña, I couldn't really do that. What I could do was greet customers. My first was a young guy wearing a red "McStud" shirt, who ordered a lengua (tongue) burrito. After a short game of telephone, Piña got the order and placed the meat on the grill I had recently cleaned. At that point, I actually felt like I had contributed.

It was kind of a slow night, with a few pockets of excitement. I occasionally stationed myself outside of the trailer and tried to drum up business -- like a carnival barker or a barbacoa pimp. The real fun started when the drunks emerged from the nearby bars. I got out of the way at that point. I knew better than to come between a hungry drunk and his or her food.

Rise of the truck

Though there have been food trucks in Fort Worth for years, the recent gourmet truck trend started on the coasts and made its way to Austin before trickling into DFW.

Tomberlin speculated that one of the reasons the DFW area is seeing so many food trucks is the down economy. It would cost him several hundred thousand dollars or more to open a restaurant, whereas a food truck -- in his case, a converted UPS delivery truck -- only cost him several thousand dollars.

"It's hard to finance a restaurant in this economy," he said. "It's much easier to finance a food truck." And food trucks, he added, have the advantage of being mobile, so they can go and find customers.

Tomberlin decided to create Wiener Man while researching a sandwich shop that he wanted to open. He realized that opening a restaurant might be too costly, and he was keenly aware of the food-truck trend. He now views his truck as a testing ground for a potential restaurant idea -- a culinary dress rehearsal.

When Wiener Man opened, it was in the Avoca Coffee parking lot on Magnolia Avenue, and served lunch and dinner. Now, because of the summer heat, it doesn't open until 8 p.m. Tomberlin moved his Wiener mobile to the West Seventh corner, just behind Poag Mahone's Irish Pub -- a stone's throw from Taco Heads.

Sarah Castillo said that she opened Taco Heads because she recognized that there was a late-night dining void in Fort Worth. Having gone to school in Austin, a city that seems to boast as many food trucks as Seattle does coffee shops, she was comfortable with the concept.

"There was no late-night food whatsoever," she said of Fort Worth, "Just Ol' South or Whataburger." (That has since changed, with the recent arrivals of Café Brazil and In-N-Out.)

Someday, she said, she would like to open a restaurant; and though she loves the food-trailer game, "It's a tough business."

Ramirez, who has a background in marketing, had a different trajectory than Castillo and Tomberlin. He already had a restaurant when he decided to open the trailer. From a marketing standpoint, it serves as a billboard for the brand and appeals to social media-savvy millennials. It also helps him to reach a broader audience. At La Gran Plaza, he's a borderline celebrity. The taco trailer is a way to reach middle-class white consumers.

"Traditionally, taco trucks targeted working-class Hispanics," he said. "But like many trends, the food trucks worked from the bottom up, and now they've been embraced by everyone. You'd be surprised at the variety of people who come by."

Power of electricity

Though inexpensive and trendy, the taco trailer is not without its challenges. When Salsa Limón opened, it had electrical problems -- the trailer lost power several times during its infancy.

"We had four electricians come out to fix the problem," Ramirez said. "Each one said the previous one didn't know what he was doing. I would get calls at 1 a.m. from staff telling me that there is no power."

Ramirez and his crew had to take all of the perishables out of the refrigerators, put them in coolers and transport them back to the mother ship four times during that first week.

Castillo also had electrical problems. Before Taco Heads hooked up to 7th Haven, it was powered by a generator. One night, she said, an old man ran off with her gas tank. She also ran into a problem with the city's code-compliance department. She was forced to delay her opening until she moved a sink threee inches.

Tomberlin says he believes that his biggest challenge is still the stigma attached to food trucks. He points out that he uses bakery-fresh bread and gets his produce from a farmers market, but some customers think that any food from a truck should be priced like a vending machine.

"People are still getting used to the idea of food from a truck," he said. "We're still battling the mentality that [truck food] is supposed to be really cheap. When they think of hot dogs, they still imagine Sonic or 7-Eleven hot dogs. Once people try it, they'll realize that they are getting a good deal."

Most food trucks cater to the late-night crowd, and everyone who's ever worked in one, to paraphrase Tomberlin, has seen more than a few people stagger up to the window. He once had to rescue a box fan that an over-served bar patron tried to steal. The young man, he said, just slung it over his back and walked around with it.

Tomberlin says he doesn't believe that food trucks are necessarily competition for restaurants.

"I think we complement restaurants," he said. "A lot of people come here after they've eaten at a restaurant earlier in the night and just want a good late-night option."

Here to stay?

The future for food trucks in Fort Worth looks bright. Everyone interviewed for this story said they believed that the creation of the food-truck (don't call it a trailer) park will be a good way to attract a broader range of people to the concept.

here are still some zoning issues to work out in Fort Worth. For example, a truck can't park in a single spot for more than an hour without a special permit. The restriction makes it impossible to operate without a semipermanent location in town, and negates the advantages of being mobile.

In Dallas, where the food-truck trend has exploded as well, food trucks/trailers can rotate in and out of a single location, giving area diners more variety. That not withstanding, the food-truck owners all said the city has been very supportive.

The Fort Worth Music Festival, formerly Jazz By the Boulevard, will be crawling with trucks, including Salsa Limón and Taco Heads. The event, to be held Sept. 30-Oct. 1, will feature other food vendors, but the organizers made a point to reach out to some food trucks.

A new trend is emerging for the existing food trucks. Both Taco Heads and Salsa Limón are launching breakfast menus -- though neither will serve lunch until the sun relents a little. Yes! Taco already serves breakfast and lunch every day on Magnolia Avenue.

Tomberlin is planning a food-truck festival in the fall. Though he doesn't have a date yet, he said that he plans on featuring several trucks and live music.

"It's a bubble," Ramirez said, "and with time, the strong players will have staying power. But it takes a lot of work, and unless you realize that, then the quality will start dropping."

But, he warned, "There is such a thing as market saturation."

Tarrant-area food trucks

The food-truck frenzy is going full throttle in DFW; seems there's a new one hitting the road nearly every week. So we've tried to map out some of them, but if you've discovered some that aren't on our list, post a comment on this story here or on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

1 Central Market Herban Eatery Assault Truck

Home base: Central Market, Fort Worth

Eats: A changing menu of Central Market gourmet goodies

Deets: Parked on the Central Market patio 6-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. On Twitter: @cmfoodietruck1

2 Chef Point Cafe on Wheels

Home base: Watauga

Eats: "Better Than Sex" fried chicken and bread pudding.

Deets: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays, at 1220 Pennsylvania Ave., Fort Worth; www.chefpointcafe.org.

3 Il Cane Rosso

Home base: Deep Ellum, Dallas

Eats: Wood-fired, thin-crust Neapolitan pizza

Deets: 5-8:30 p.m. Thursdays, at Times Ten Cellars, 1100 Foch St. in Fort Worth; www.ilcanerosso.com.

4 Salsa Limón

Home base: La Gran Plaza Mall, Fort Worth

Eats: Tacos, tortas, quesadillas and burritos

Deets: You'll find the truck parked at 2916 W. Berry St. in Fort Worth (next to The Cellar, in the TCU area) from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Sunday; www.salsalimon.com.

5 Sassy Hot Dogs

Home base: 9621 South Freeway, Fort Worth

Eats: Gourmet hot dogs, including the WTF, a flour tortilla loaded with 10 ingredients, then deep-fried to a crispy crunch

Deets: Open 10:30 a.m. until a varying evening closing time, Monday-Saturday; www.sassyhotdogs.com.

6 Ssahm Korean Tacos

Home base: Dallas

Eats: Gourmet Korean barbecue tacos and burritos

Deets: Roves DFW, with Wednesday stops across from the Apple Store on University Drive (beginning at 5 p.m.) in Fort Worth; www.ssahmbbq.com. On Twitter: @ssahmbbq

7 Taco Heads

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: "Damn fine tacos"

Deets: Parked next to 7th Haven, 2700 W. Seventh St. in Fort Worth. Hours: 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-11 a.m. Monday-Friday; www.facebook.com/Tacoheads.

8 The Trough Burger Wagon

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: Burgers, dogs and sandwiches

Deets: Next to Durty Crow, 2801 Crockett St. in Fort Worth.

9 The Wiener Man

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: Hot dogs like the Alchemist (bacon-wrapped and deep-fried, with spinach, avocado, pico de gallo and more) and a Rahr wiener (steamed in Rahr's Ugly Pug brew)

Deets: Parked at Poag Mahone's, 700 Carroll St. in Fort Worth, from 7 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday; www.wienermantx.com.

10 Yes! Taco

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: Gourmet tacos and Mexican dishes

Deets: Parked at SiNaCa Studios School of Glass, 1013 W. Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth, 7 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday; www.yestaco.com.

11/12 Yum-Yum! Trucks

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: These two trucks -- serving tacos, burritos, quesadillas and cheeseburgers -- bill themselves as the "first gourmet food trucks" in town. They serve breakfast and lunch, starting at 7 a.m.

Deets: Truck No. 1 is parked at Houston and Weatherford streets; Truck No. 2 is at Tenth and Taylor streets.

Crazy Sisters

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: "Authentic Mexican tacos," gourmet burgers, sammies, homemade desserts and daily specials

Deets: The truck roves around DFW, largely in Tarrant County (Hurst and Bedford); www.crazysisters.net. Best way to find the sked is via Twitter: @CrazySistersDFW

New and coming soon:

Red Jett Sweets

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: Cupcakes! Slogan: "Have sugar. Will travel."

Deets: This truck recently hit the streets of Fort Worth, so keep an eye out; www.redjettsweets.com.

Good Karma Kitchen

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: Gourmet gluten-free vegan and vegetarian treats

Deets: Not up and driving yet, but its Facebook updates say it won't be long now; www.thegoodkarmakitchen.com. On Twitter: @KarmaKitchenDFW

So-Cal Tacos

Home base: Fort Worth

Eats: California-style fish tacos and burritos

Deets: Getting ready to roll. On Twitter: @SOCALTACOS

Food Truck SmackDown!

Mark your calendars for this competition. Participating trucks include Gandolfo's NY Deli, Nammi Truck, Taco Heads, So-Cal Tacos, Squeals on Wheels and more. There'll be a silent auction and live music. Proceeds benefit a water project in Kicukiro, Rwanda. The event ($60-$125) is at 7:30-10:30 p.m. Oct. 21, at Sunset Lounge, 3030 Ross Ave. in Dallas. More info: www.dfwfoodtruckfoodie.com.

-- Heather Svokos and Eric Griffey

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