Chefs use pop-ups to experiment with menus before committing to a restaurant’s large expenses, but in Austin, Texas, food trucks have paved the way to new restaurants.
With “Keep It Weird” as the city’s slogan, Austin has long been known as a bright spot in Texas counter-culture. A visit to the state capital means waiting for the Congress Street Bridge bats to take flight at dusk, listening to local bands, hanging out in cool bars and eating great barbecue and burgers.
Austin’s food truck culture is also making its mark.
For years, a food truck was nothing more than a box truck that opened in the back or a step van with a window cut along one side where customers order and pick up their food. To eat a meal, patrons stood on the sidewalk trying not to drip food on their clothes.
After Roy Choi’s Kogi made a splash in Los Angeles, food truck offerings went beyond packaged sandwiches and Mexican fast food. Nowadays, if you are a fan and want to find your favorite truck, you’ll check on Facebook and Twitter. Then it’s a mad dash to get to the location before the truck packs up and drives away.
Not trucks but trailers
The quality of food and diversity of cuisines served from food trucks may have improved but, in most cities, the customers’ experience hasn’t.
In Austin, eating at a food truck has evolved, starting with the fact that the majority of food trucks aren’t trucks at all. With tires merely props, these trucks are trailers. Since they never move, trailers have creature comforts like picnic benches and umbrellas. There’s even an ATM machine and a patch of AstroTurf at a trailer on South Congress at East Monroe called Bar-B-Que-T.
Many trailers are set up in parking or dirt lots, creating gypsy encampments with a country fair atmosphere where customers wander from trailer to trailer, sampling food from half a dozen cuisines. Some reflect a chef’s passion as in pork-centric Pig Vicious or, conversely, in the Vegan Yacht, neighbors on a parking lot at East Sixth and East San Marcos streets.
On South Lamar Boulevard, three trailers share a dusty lot. Besides Odd Duck, the small plate, farm-to-trailer dinner-only food trailer, a favorite of locals, and Trey’s Cuisine, serving Tex-Med[iterranean], Gourdoughs Big Fat Donuts celebrates America’s love of sweet and savory with specialty donuts like the “Flying Pig,” a maple-syrup-glazed donut topped with four pieces of crispy bacon.
Trailers that look like, well, something else
Some have completely lost their “trailer-ness.” Entering the tent draped G’Raj Mahal Café, all that is missing is sitar music to complete the sense of having entered a proper Indian restaurant.
A comprehensive menu of subcontinent comfort food — including samosas, pakoras, raita, naan, whole wheat chapatti, white flour batura, curries (vegetable, meat, chicken, fish and vegetarian), tikka masala, creamy saag, biryani and half a dozen tandoor kababs — suggests that G’Raj Mahal Café has a large kitchen.
Walk through romantic alcoves and enter the large central dining area, which is, as the menu says, “In the Back Yard” of 91 Red River St., and you’ll discover the restaurant kitchen is a step van. With afternoon breezes blowing against the tent walls and the sweet scent of cumin, sautéing onions and peppers, coconut and turmeric coming from the kitchen, you can be forgiven the romantic notion that you are anywhere but Central Texas.
Next-door, you’ll find a food trailer cleverly disguised as an African shack.
At Cazamance, co-owner and chef Iba Thiam, originally from Senegal by way of Paris and New York, greets customers as they arrive. With a wave of his hand and a smile, he offers a seat on one of the rough-hewn benches set around picnic benches shaded by a large tree and tenting stretching over the dining area.
The menu has a good variety of selections, offering Yassa chicken with mustard and lemon juice, Moroccan lamb sausage (a favorite among regulars), roast pork (a daily special not always on the menu), the Dakar boy’s lamb burger, and, in addition to the fresh vegetable salads, vegetarian dishes including hummus with avocado, lettuce and a black olive feta dressing and roasted curried garden vegetables.
Entrees come either with rice, as a wrap or in a bread bowl, curiously named “Bunny Chow.” Soups vary daily and can include curry vegetable soup and peanut vegetable soup.
Moving beyond the trailer
A step up from the usual taco wagon, El Naranja is parked in the driveway of a dilapidated house at 85 Rainey St. El Naranja serves a mix of favorites from the Mexican interior, including tacos (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp), guacamole made to order, daily soups, molotes, mole and tamales.
The slow braised pork (tacos carnitas estillo michoacan) and shrimp (tacos de camaron) are tender and sweet, benefiting from toppings of crunchy, raw onions and sprigs of fragrant cilantro. There is a choice of a green sauce (medium heat with a touch of sweetness) or the thick red sauce (fiery).
A peek inside the house reveals a renovation in progress. Bathtubs are lined up in the living room. Walls are stripped, ready for painting. The plan, according to Ernesto Torrealba, he and his wife, co-owner, chef and renowned Mexican culinary expert Iliana de la Vega, will open the restaurant and take the trailer on the road.
Recently, Cutie Pies made the transition from micro-mini trailer to brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Talking about her baked goods, Jayne Buckingham, the self-proclaimed “Pie Queen,” proudly points to the fudge brownie pie, which she says with a sly smile, “Solves all your problems for five minutes.”
With an armful of awards and a big fan base, Buckingham recently opened a shop at 7329 Burnet Road. Now she has a place to call her own to sell her mini-pies, whole pies, savory pies, and — no fooling — pie shakes.
Food trailers are a business plan
In Austin, Cutie Pie’s experience amounts to a business plan. Start a food truck or trailer with modest start up costs, build a fan base and move into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Some food trucks and trailers that become restaurants still keep a truck on the street to maintain their street cred. Torchy’s Tacos, an Austin institution popular for serving a huge variety of breakfast tacos, has expanded into brick-and-mortar restaurants, keeping only one trailer.
Lucky J’s held onto the same dual approach with an audience-pleasing combination of Mexican and American comfort food, using waffles as tortillas.
The taco fillings are an eclectic mix: the Lucky J (fried chicken), Ms. M (Swiss cheese and bacon), Waffle Breakfast Taco (bacon, egg, potato, onions and cheddar), Chili Cheese Fry (potato, onion, cheddar and chili sauce) and Grandma Andy (bananas, peanut butter, Nutella and honey).
Franklin Barbecue, one of the most popular barbecue joints in Austin, until recently, sold all of its food from a trailer. Kyra Coots, a fan, reminisced about those days. “The old place had uncovered benches and in the winter when it rained you got wet. People didn’t care. They’d wait two hours miserable, but when they were eating their barbecue, they knew it was worth it.”
Recently, Franklin Barbecue came in from the cold. Moving to 900 East 11th St., a small space on the east side of Interstate 35 near an entrance to the University of Texas. Now the old trailer sits forlornly in the back next to the smoke trailer.
“At Franklin’s,” Coots added, “you’re definitely here for the meat. It’s not a sides place.”
The brisket, pork rib, and pulled pork are hand-cut, seasoned and smoked by handyman, co-owner and chef, Aaron Franklin. Only the sausage is made by an outsider provider, the Texas Sausage Co.
Stacy Franklin, Aaron’s wife and co-owner, explains the genesis of the business, “Aaron was really into barbecue, fooling around with it for years. But he didn’t really get it until we opened.”
This is seat-of-the pants, learn-as-you-go cooking.
A simple dry rub of kosher salt and coarse black pepper goes on before the meats are smoked from 9 a.m. until 7 a.m. the next day. The meat coming out of the smoker in the morning is the meat served in the restaurant that day.
The handwritten sign in the window explains how it works, “Hours: Seven days a week, 11 a.m. — till the meat runs out!” Which means, people in the know start lining up an hour before opening time.
Ordering at Franklin’s retains part of the trailer experience, albeit inside a nicely appointed interior. Standing in line, customers inch their way to a glass barrier behind which Aaron wields a sharp knife, carving-to-order whatever meat you want and laying the hot, fragrant barbecue onto a square of waxed paper.
The meat is weighed and handed to the cashier where you pay your bill. Adding two slices of white bread, any of the house-made sides and sauces — if you want any — and you’re on your way to one of the dozen Formica tables inside or the handful of wooden picnic tables and benches outside on the covered patio.
Locals recommend passing up the lean for the fatty brisket. A thick slab shows why the brisket is so popular. Juicy, tender and flaky, the brisket has a lot of good, meat flavor with salty-peppery heat. The pork ribs are good too, but when Aaron asks you what you want, ask for the fat, middle ribs. The small ribs on the end can be dried out.
The pulled pork is moist and tender and benefits from a good dousing of the port vinegar sauce.
Austin is paving the way for the next wave of restaurant development. By using trailers to turn underused dirt and parking lots into outdoor food courts, chefs have a low cost way to develop their menus and fan base before taking on the more expensive commitment of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Other cities would do well to pay attention to the way chefs have embraced Austin’s food trailer experiment.
Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.
Photos, from top:
Cutie Pies in Austin, Texas
Franklin Barbecue, Austin, Texas, barbecue sausage, pork rib, pulled pork, fatty brisket and white bread.