Five Days of Food Trucks
Dusk was settling over Broad Ripple Park as it emptied out on a humid Wednesday in July. It was a classic summer scene as a few people, trying to soak up any last minute of a sunny day, lingered at the pool and the shadows of the umbrellas on deck-side tables started to grow.
Across the parking lot, a newer staple of summer was unfolding.
Eleven food trucks from across Indianapolis had rounded up, bumper to fender, to sell their fare to a nonstop flow of hungry Hoosiers. This was Cluster Truck, a mid-week gathering of mobile eats.
I didn't know where to start or what to eat. Should I get brick-oven pizza (Byrne's Grilled Pizza) or New York–style pizza (The NY Slice)? Mac and cheese (Mac Genie) or tacos (Taco Lassi)?
That was a Wednesday, and I was in the middle of a very tasty mission: I was spending a week eating at Indianapolis food trucks to see what the hype was all about. For five days I ate either lunch or dinner – or both – at one of these of mobile restaurants. I saw the good (often) and the bad (few and far between).
I never ate a truly bad meal and everything was affordable. In fact, all but one meal was under $10. Wait times were reasonable: Truck food isn't as quick as fast food, but it's not as slow as a sit-down restaurant, either. I usually waited five or 10 minutes for my meal. Healthy portions were scooped into take-out containers or cradled in foil.
I didn't introduce myself as a reporter at the trucks, so I had a regular diner's experience.
One week was hardly enough to take in the variety of this city's fledgling food truck fleet. I had a gourmet hamburger, shrimp curry, fries loaded with pulled pork and a trio of tacos. But there's so much more: gluten-free, Paleo-diet food at Caveman Truck; Korean barbecue from Seoul Grill; baked potatoes at Circle City Spuds; vegetarian nachos from Nacho Mama's; pasta and cannoli from Little Eataly; and cupcakes from Scout's Treat Truck.
FOOD TRUCKS 101
I was surprised to learn that Indy has roughly 50 active food trucks, according to @IndyFoodTruck, a Twitter account that's run by Matt Hanger, a software engineer. His Twitter feed is essential to foodtruck enthusiasts, because Hanger tweets and retweets locations of food trucks across the city every day.
Food trucks have been popular on both coasts for more than 10 years, but portable restaurants have become a legit phenomenon in the past five years – and even more recently in Indianapolis. While a few trucks have been navigating the Circle City for the last couple of years, the Super Bowl in February was the unofficial launch for many trucks, which are now a favorite – and a staple – destination for lunch around downtown Indianapolis, mostly by Monument Circle, and around Broad Ripple at dinner.
"To have the city and the Super Bowl say, 'Hey, we're going to support the food trucks,' it was a great confidence boost for everybody," said Nitin Naidu, owner of Spice Box, a truck that serves Indian food. "It was a great endorsement. That created a sense of legitimacy."
While the majority of Indy's food trucks are in their first year, most said they'll try to be a year-round option. But prime season typically runs from April to September or later, rain or shine, day or night.
"I think one of the biggest challenges is how can we be smarter than winter," says Lisa Moyer, owner of Scout's Treat Truck, which is devoted to snacks like cupcakes and popcorn. "You have to think outside the box so we're [operating] 365 days out of the year, 12 months, instead of eight or nine."
TWEET TO EAT
Tracking down a truck isn't difficult, if you know where to look. Twitter points diners in the right direction. The social network has become the leading place to find the trucks' real-time locations – in a concise 140 characters or less, of course.
Twitter was indeed the first place I went during my week of food-truck feasting. Before heading to Cluster Truck, a weekly happening on Wednesdays at various locations in Indy, I checked Twitter (searching for #ClusterTruck) and saw mac and cheese from Mac Genie in my future.
Meanwhile, Indy's largest food truck gathering, First Friday Food Truck Festival, is at Old National Centre every month.
At other times, the trucks are peppered throughout the city – stationed outside a brewery or at a farmers' market, parked near a busy intersection or appearing at events that draw a big crowd – making social media essential. When a mechanical problem means a no-show or trouble finding a parking spot causes delays, it's all chronicled online for potential diners to see.
"It's our bloodline," Moyer, of Scout's Treat Truck, says of Twitter and Facebook.
For all the business social media can bring to a truck, it can also do the opposite. Owners are acutely aware of what a bad review on Twitter or Yelp can mean for their truck.
"That's where food trucks' names are made – on social media," said Adam Perry, owner of Taco Lassi, which serves tacos with an Indian spin. "I think if you get a bad reputation on social media it can kill you as a truck. If you get a good reputation on social media it can make you as a truck."
FARM TO STREET
As I grazed the mobile food scene, I kept an eye out for locally sourced ingredients.
Food truck fanatics point to Duos as Indy's poster truck for local sourcing. Glance at the menu, and you might find ham from downtown's Smoking Goose, kale from an urban farm and bread from Amelia's, the artisan bakery inside Bluebeard, a new Fountain Square restaurant.
But for the majority of truck operators I spoke with, gathering local ingredients has been tougher than expected for a variety of reasons.
"Initially, the thought process was we could find a bigger chunk of our menu locally but it's just not feasible," says Naidu, of Spice Box. "Either it's because of availability or price. It's not due to lack of wanting to do it, but it's not as feasible."
Spice Box gathers tomatoes from local farmers' markets and Naidu's sister's garden, and about 15% of its chicken comes from Gunthorp Farms in Lagrange, Indiana.
Perry of Taco Lassi said it's difficult for him to source locally because his truck is always on the move.
"It makes it hard when you don't have a storefront to get deliveries," Perry said. "You can't get scheduled deliveries. We have a goal to do that sort of thing."
MEALS ON FOUR WHEELS
When I set out on this delicious expedition, I knew of a few trucks I wanted to hit, but for the most part I didn't have an itinerary. At each truck, I chose something on the menu that was unique and sounded tasty. I end the week a few pounds heavier and very impressed. Here's a look at where I went, what I ate and how it tasted.
Who: Groovy Guys Gourmet Fries (on Twitter: @GroovyGuysFries)
Where: Corner of North Meridian Street and Monument Circle
What: Pulled pork fries, with BBQ pork, cheese and jalapeños
Who doesn't like fries? Especially ones topped with cheese and meat? These fries didn't disappoint. The pork is locally sourced and the BBQ sauce was more sweet than spicy, which was a nice way to balance the jalapeños. And the combination of the cheese and the seasoning on the fries was a perfect touch. The huge portion was plenty for lunch.
Who: Spice Box (@SpiceBoxIndy)
Where: At Market and Pennsylvania streets
What: Butter chicken and shrimp curry with white rice and naan
This was my second option for lunch after another truck said it would be a 15-minute wait at the peak of the lunch hour while it caught up on orders. I ordered a two-dish entrée, and picked butter chicken and shrimp curry. I've never been a big fan of Indian food, but Spice Box appealed to me – and likely to the masses – with its moderate heat. I would have liked more rice to soak up the generous scoops of chicken and shrimp.
Who: Mac Genie (@MacGenieTruck)
Where: Cluster Truck at Broad Ripple Park
What: Buffalo chicken mac and cheese
I almost never pass up an opportunity to get buffalo chicken mac and cheese, and this was among the best I've ever had. It wasn't overly spicy to the point where you couldn't enjoy it, and the drizzle of ranch dressing was just enough to cool it perfectly.
Who: West Coast Tacos (@WestCoastTacos)
Where: Corner of Illinois and Ohio streets
What: A three-taco combination of pork, chicken and steak
The pork was my favorite of the three tacos. Meanwhile, the steak and chicken tasted oddly similar. I was hoping for a bit more variety in flavor. Street tacos come with minimal topping, letting the meat and seasoning shine through. These had a memorable kick.
Who: Johnson's BBQ Shack (@jbbqshack)
Where: Corner of Delaware and Market, in front of City Market
What: Rib tips, two-rib sampler and bottle of water
I love BBQ. I mean absolutely love it. And these rib tips were among the most tender, succulent, fall-off-the-bone good as I've ever had. Ordering tangy BBQ sauce is a choice you won't regret (but there are hot and sweet varieties, too). The ribs were a bit dry, but I found out later that even the owners thought the ribs were off that week.
Who: Scratch Truck
Where: Meridian Street at University Park
What: Scratch burger, fries and Mexican Coke
This burger was flat-out delicious. Set on a bed of arugula, the patty was juicy and thick. Scratch Truck recommends skipping ketchup, and it was the right choice. The blend of flavors from the gorgonzola and bacon marmalade with the burger, toasted bun and arugula was blissful.
FOOD TRUCKS JOIN FORCES
Lisa Moyer figured out quickly that if food trucks teamed together they could be more successful and effective than if they worked alone.
Her Scout's Treat Truck joined with a dozen or so other likeminded food-trucks operators to form the Indiana Food Truck Alliance. Together, the operators formed a code of ethics that includes a respect of restaurants and code enforcement. They won't park within 100 feet of restaurants and if city code enforcement asks them to move, they do so without argument.
The group meets at least once a week to put on Cluster Truck, a gathering of the trucks somewhere around Indy. Their location can be found on Twitter by using the hash tag #ClusterTruck.
The grouping has also helped them become more successful. Moyer said the alliance has joined the J. W. Marriott's extended catering staff, so when the hotel is planning menus for large groups they could opt to have a meal featuring food trucks.
Some or all of the IFTA works corporate events together, as well.
"It's kind of an organic thing that sprung up," says Adam Perry, owner of Taco Lassi, one of the trucks in the alliance. "They're definitely our kind of trucks."
– Josh Weinfuss
FOOD TRUCKS IN BLOOMINGTON AND COLUMBUS
The food truck scene is especially hot in Indy, but trucks roam the streets of Bloomington and Columbus, too:
• The Big Cheeze truck slings grilled cheese sandwiches with a twist in Bloomington. The sandwiches are stuffed with fun ingredients like buffalo chicken, pulled pork and macaroni and cheese. Find the truck's locations on Facebook and Twitter.
• More food cart than food truck, Happy Pig anchors itself at Atlas, a Bloomington bar, for late-night noshing and Sunday afternoon brunch. Pork is the star here. Try the Notorious P.I.G., a pork belly and egg sandwich with maple syrup.
• Flatrock Flatbread Company brings its mobile wood-fired brick oven to the Columbus Farmers Market to make locally topped pies, with options like onions, chorizo and Smoking Goose saucisson rouge from Savory Swine, a new Columbus meat shop. Find Flatrock on Facebook.