I started writing this article on April 11th, a few days after starting my work on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival out of the Capital Gallery building at L’Enfant Plaza. Food trucks surround the building between 10:00am and 2:00pm and around 11:30am of each day the topic of office chatter would inevitably turn to which trucks we were planning to visit that day.
– “I don’t know, which ones are outside, could you look out the window? You know there’s any app for that…”
– “I don’t even need to think about that one – if those Vietnamese tacos are out there, I’m getting them.”
– “Have you had the ham and gruyere at Crêpes Parfait?”
– “Jeez, when did falafel become so popular??”
At lunch time folks would disappear to get their various fixes – their cheesesteaks, their tacos, their kimchi salads – before reassembling on the rooftop to enjoy these gourmet finds among good company and with a pretty solid view of the monuments. I did the same for a while, but around late May my lunch breaks morphed into errand-hour and I could no longer afford standing in line for 15 minutes for a gorgonzola melt. A friend visiting from Argentina recently expressed his fascination with food trucks, vowing to one day bring these sneaky little mobile eateries into his own city. Our conversation reminded me of this I article I had begun to write on the food trucks outside my office and now that my work in that building has come to an end, it’s time to publish the thing. Although I’ve failed to achieve my initial goal – namely, to try a different one each day – I did end up getting a taste of the trend – some good things, some not so impressive.
The Salsa Room Baked Empanadas truck caught my eye on my very first day on the job. Why? Well, if I were to psychoanalyze myself (and I do this a lot), it might have something to do with the fact that I associate empanadas with individuality. While living on a teacher salary in Buenos Aires, I often relied on these meaty little pockets, as they were very satisfying and disproportionately so to their price, which was around $1.30 a piece. Now that I’m on my own again, financial independent and no loger slugging on my parents’ sofa, these treats seem to offer me guidance from the past, a friendly pat on the shoulder as if to say, “No… you don’t need you that organic roasted eggplant spread in the tiny jars or that imported Brie or those gourmet whole grain crisps (not crackers, crisps). You don’t need perfectly ripened avocados, 3 types of milk/cream, expertly prepared home cooked meals covered in aluminum foil. Just have an empanada. You even get a choice of protein!” As it turns out, my salary now is about 3 times what it was back then and the empanadas here cost about 3 times what they cost in BsAs, so it works out. Hence, this truck on Day 1.
The Salsa Room’s brick and mortar home-base is up in Arlington and the truck hit the streets to feed office-stuffing like me only about half a year ago. The employees are Bolivian, though the menu has a bit of an all over the place Mexican fusion thing going on. It is no doubt designed to satisfy the suited white guy in accounting – let’s call him Bill – who just wants a cheese quesadilla with some salsa (any chili will do). What sets the place apart, however, are the Bolivian style baked empanadas-like pastries called salteñas which the truck also offers with a choice of beef, chicken, chorizo, veggie or cheese and jalapeño filling, each at $4 a pop. Although the truck markets them as “empanadas” (because Bill doesn’t know just what the heck a salteña is and is not really willing to try anything too crazy before his big meeting at 1:30pm), salteñas are different from their Pan-South-American cousins. There are significant differences in shape and size – salteñas are larger, football shaped, with a nice ribbon of dough sealing together the top edges. They are juicier than Argentine empanadas and the stuff inside is more like a stew rather than a pastry filling. The consistency of the interior is typically achieved in the same way as that of xiao long bao is, by adding some gelatin to the broth of the stew before inserting it into the pocket of dough, so that the gelatin melts and turns to liquid soup while the dough bakes crispy and golden brown. They are typically quite tricky to eat without spilling any of the juices inside. Really makes it obvious who’s the local and who’s the silly gringo.
I went with the chorizo. The tell-tale sign that this was a salteña and not an empanada was the spoon provided alonside the thing. I have never had to use a utensil of any kind to eat an Argentine empanada and my first reaction when seeing it was that I wasn’t about to start now. When I ripped a corner off the salteña, it turned out that the filling was actually not soupy enough to require the use of a spoon. I could have easily picked the thing up and eaten it with only a bit more difficulty than experienced with a generously stuffed jelly donut. The crust was beautifully baked, crispy, buttery and flaky, golden brown, perfectly delicious and savory. It also maintained its texture all the way through, without become soggy from the filling. The chorizo sausage inside appeared in juicy lumps, with the perfect ratio of chewy to soft, and was mixed in with a slightly sweet but mostly spicy sauce that tasted great. An unexpected but very welcome surprise was that the chorizo was mixed with green peas, beans and a few tender chunks of potato to make the whole thing a bit heartier. Some raisins were also added for a touch of sweetness. Excellent
On a particularly hot summer day I was drawn to the El Fuego truck by the ceviche, and by the thoughts of cool, fresh seafood in tart lime juice associated with it. Reading the article above, however, I ended up ordering the Pan con Chicharrón, a roasted pork sandwich paired with fried sweet potato slices, Peruvian onion relish and the truck’s signature “El Fuego” sauce made of ají amarillo pepper. This thing apparently won an award at the Mistura International Gastronomic Festival in Lima, earning owner Manuel Alfaro somewhat of a big-deal rep on the mean streets of cuisine. And, judging by the sandwich I had, he certainly deserves it. Unfortunately the photos below got washed out in color due to the overwhelming sunshine beaming down, but it was a rather pretty sandwich.
Two slices of toasted, crunchy white roll of surprisingly good quality provide the foundation. The roast pork butt is moist and tender, fatty as hell, but who actually prefers lean pork anyway? In this case the fat is treated correctly, roasted until caramelized and crispy on the outside and melty soft, smooth and buttery on the inside. Perfect little pools of it are dispersed here and there within the meat. I’m not sure it can technically be called chicharrón, because it is roasted instead of fried and certainly not made either of the skin or the ribs of the pig, but the thing is very moist, slippery fat and delicious. The pork is layered onto a bed of thin slices of fried sweet potato, which give the sandwich a great color, a mushy soft, velvety texture and a rooty sweetness which vibes naturally with the sweetness of the piggy meat. The relish of pickled red onion and green pepper slices adds a wonderful crunch and freshness to the comfy, warm pork while the ají amarillo sauce wakes everything up a bit, hydrating the meat and the sandwich all together with its creamy texture and adding a good heat to the mix. Reminded me of a much improved version of the Pork Chop Bun I had in Macau, but fattier and more complex both in flavor and texture.
Already hungry at 11am, I peeked out the window one day to get an idea of the food truck layout. Everything looked pretty standard – the taco and Philly cheese steak stand were parked right out front – but there was an additional white and yellow truck with a sign that read “Big Cheese,” along with a big old slice of smiling bread painted on. This simplistic but well intentioned smile of the bread brightened up the dreariness of the office for me and I was tempted to get one of their grilled cheeses. I changed my mind a few minutes later when I realized that it had rained all morning and the benches outside would be all wet. I decided to opt out of food trucking and visit the café downstairs instead. But then on the elevator ride down, Bill said something like, “Yeah, you know, because it’s National Grilled Cheese Day.” Bill isn’t too adventurous when it comes to ethnic foods, but boy does he take his grilled cheese seriously! His tone was convincing enough for me to use my only napkin to wipe the rain off a bench and hop over to the Big Cheese food truck.
The menu is pretty simple. They have about 5 gourmet grilled cheese specialties ($7.50 each), along with gazpacho ($3.00) and some random packaged snack bars. I asked the dude what his favorite was, and he chose the Midnight Moon, which comes with shredded goat gouda, caramelized onions on multigrain bread.
I enjoyed the sandwich, but charging $7.50 for it is a bit of an outrage, no matter how large it was. For $5.50 I would have no complaints. The cheese was nice and sharp, though it did not melt as much as I would’ve liked for it to, and remained mostly in shredded solid form, a bit too rigormortis in texture for me. The finely chopped and caramelized strings of onion were a nice addition, as their mellow sweetness calmed the sharpness of the cheese well and they added a nice textural contrast, with strings of it connecting my mouth to the thing as I took each bite. My favorite part, though, was the bread – coarse and thick, toasted to a perfectly crunchy texture, the crust bedazzled with nutty sunflower seeds which toasted along with the bread. A few mini-gherkin cornichons were provided in a little bag on the side, some refreshing acidity to contrast with the warm, hearty sandwich.
The Red Tops American Food Company truck sells hand-made sausages in a few different varieties. They have an Italian, a Kielbasa, a Bratwurst and a Chicken Sausage, as well as the more complex Chicken Chorizo (with pineapple and bacon) and Italian Chili Cheese. To any of these, you can add chili, cheese or bacon as a topper and I’m pretty sure they all come on the same wonderful buns which are huge, buttery, soft and chewy all in one. On a recent lunch break, I was craving a sausage and decided to get their Special, which, as I found out, is soon going to become one of their regulars. It seemed to be way more involved than the other stuff on the menu, yet was the same price. The difference in price turned out to be based on the smaller size of the actual sausage, but it was still pretty filling so I really wasn’t complaining.
This special was the North African Lamb Sausage, which was sprinkled with chopped tomato and onion and dressed with tzatziki. The sausage itself comes from the local Logan Sausage Company in Alexandria, which makes a pretty wide array of other popular tubed meats, including Butifarra, Merguez and Linguica.
In this case, it was a lamb sausage which the truck guy warned me would explode in my mouth when bitten into. I thought this to be quite a useless warning – after all, what sausage doesn’t rush forth its juicy, ground meat interior when the casing is cracked by contact with the teeth? The kind I would definitely not pay a dime for, let alone $8.00! The flavor of the sausage was pretty great, with that earthy, mineral lamb flavor bleating forth through the fat and juices. The classic combination of lamb with tzaziki was spot on, with the garlic and onion enhancing the flavor of the lamb, while the cool bits of cucumber and tangy yoghurt base calmed these crazy flavors a bit. The crispy cool onion and tomato added a beautiful color, an essential acidity, a crunch and some hydration, as well as a temperature contrast to the warm sausage and warm-by-association tzaziki. The bread, as I mentioned, was also wonderful – soft but chewy in some places, almost cake-like in texture. My only major qualm with the thing was that the sausage was a bit too skinny in proportion to the big pillow of bread, and those fatty, spicy juices pressed out of the sausages ended up swallowed up by the bread around it, instead of being allowed to dance on my tongue a bit. One small tip of the sausage was also quite chewy in that it’s casing had not been grilled through completely and it remained a bit raw and difficult to eat. Otherwise, a great lunch, indeed!