It's a chilly Tuesday evening by Miami standards, but that hasn't stopped some thousand food-loving folks from flocking to Biscayne Boulevard and 109th Street for an outdoor meal. Choices include hamburgers, tacos, fried-fish sandwiches, pork belly bao, more hamburgers, and a handful of other easily handled street foods, all culled from a collective of culinary trucks. The event is the Biscayne Triangle Truck Roundup (BTTR), so-named because the parked trucks form a triangle just off of, and quite visible from, Biscayne Boulevard. Part of the reason for the swelling crowd is that many people see the lights and action while driving by and assume a carnival is going on. They are correct.
BTTR is just one of an increasing number of food truck "courts" that have popped up. These gastro get-togethers are spurred by social networking, and have soared to fad status at the speed of a tweet. They are a spinoff of the initial food truck fad and have appeared of late, one after another, as if from sinister alien truck-pods. In fact, many of the giant vans are made by Food Cart USA, which helped organize the first, Miami Street Food Court, which took place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at SW 65th Street and Bird Road in Coral Gables.
Other mobile food courts, which are regularly described on our food blog, Short Order, include Street Food Fridays during lunchtime on the first Friday of each month; The Tamiami Truckers Food Court every Friday in Kendall; The Miami Street Food Court Thursday evenings at NE 47th Street and Biscayne Boulevard; and Wynwood Truckers Meet Up on Saturdays.
It's official: Food trucks are trendy.
They attract throngs of people herding through dusty makeshift paths between parallel rows of parked vans. The bare, often glaring light bulbs of each truck offer illumination while an aroma of fried funnel cakes — and fried everything else, from potatoes to pickles to Oreos — wafts through the air. As I said, it's carnival-like, except instead of the open window of each truck offering, say, the opportunity to shoot a water pistol at moving duck targets, there's a chance for a crisp duck sandwich at Dim Ssäm a go go (Sakaya Kitchen on wheels). Homemade pickles, red onion, cilantro, and ssamjang-mayo adorn the duck ($7). Add a side of gingered Brussels sprouts ($4) — so good as to reinvent the vegetable altogether — or any of the other dozen or so Asian-inspired treats on the chalkboard menu, and you have a great little meal.
Nonsense. You're going to want to make that an appetizer and keep going for more. Just steps away, gastro-nerds can segue into an "old dirt dawg" or Bánh mì oxtail taco from chef Jeremiah's gastroPod, a converted vintage 1962 Airstream. The former features a short-rib hot dog in a potato bun with "stupid slaw"; the bánh mì bangs away with oxtail trotters, country pâté, carrots, pickled radishes, and nuóc chám. Dim Ssäm a go go and gastroPod are the top truck stars as far as serious culinarians are concerned. There's a wait, though, which is testament to the general public's ability to sniff out the best treats. The savvy taste of the masses is likewise evidenced by lengthy lines at The Fish Box, Jefe's Original Fish Taco & Burger, and Latin Burger and Taco. The Fish Box has been wheeled out by Miami favorite La Camaronera. Its "famous fried shrimp" is available, as is "the original" minuta sandwich of cleanly fried snapper (tail extending from the bun) in fresh soft bun, with onions and stripes of tartar sauce and ketchup ($5). The Ensenada fish taco ($2.50) at Jefe's is another of the standout handouts. Double-wrapped in soft corn tortillas, the fried, beer-battered filet of fish is topped with shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, homemade crema, a wedge of lime on the side, and pico de gallo that is not for the faint of heart.
I don't come close to sampling the barrage of burgers proffered (hamburgers are to these food courts what handmade candles are to crafts fairs), but the double-patty macho at Latin Burger ($6.25), made with ground sirloin, chuck, and chorizo and topped with melted Oaxaca cheese, caramelized onions, and avocado sauce, is peerless. The super-loko burger from Dos Lokos Burgers ($7) might be tasty too, but gratification comes instead via a mountainous pile of garnishes: ham, cheese, hardboiled egg, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, potato sticks, squid, watermelon, toothpicks — who knows? It's quite lip-smacking, if difficult to eat.
Ms. Cheezious and CheeseMe have grilled cheese sandwiches covered (who would have expected two grilled cheese sandwich trucks and none specializing in pizza or hot dogs?). The former offers composed sandwiches such as goat cheese, prosciutto, tomato, and arugula on marble rye bread ($8) or Havarti cheese and spicy apples grilled between multigrain bread ($7). Most truckees go with the build-your-own approach, a choice of five or more breads with pick of eight cheeses ($4 or $5, depending on cheese). Add-ins such as tomato, shaved ham, or bacon cost $1 or $2 extra. American cheese and bacon between Texas toast is executed in textbook style: the bread lightly buttered, gingerly pressed, and griddled to a golden brown, and the cheese oozing out in extreme slow motion.
The owners of Cheese Me Mobile Grilled Cheese & Sliders, on the other hand, apparently forget they are selling sandwiches from a truck. How else do you explain a charge of $9 for a tuna melt with provolone cheese or $11.50 for a pulled pork, slaw, and cheddar sandwich? Cheese Me's basic choice of a cheese/bread sandwich starts at $6, and rises $2 for a tomato slice, $3 for meatier additions. I don't order a sandwich here because I don't want them to Fleece Me.
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A taco trio ($6) at MexZican Gourmet Food Truck goes two-for-three: The Puebla chicken taco is dry and the sauce uninspiring, but cochinita pibil dripping with lusciously seasoned juice, and a "legacy" taco of brisket, chorizo, and chicharron are the top tacos we try. Thirsty? Most trucks sell soda and water, but others such as Montaco Truck offer freshly made beverages such as mint limeade and watermelon juice. Miso Hungry is getting good reviews thus far, but I haven't encountered it at any of the soirées I've attended. On any given night and location, some favorites will be scheduled, others won't be. You've got to shrug it off and keep on truckin.'
Slow Food Truck's ono, a pulled pork sandwich with ham, pineapple, and crisp shallots ($7), is another winner. "Slow food," in this case, is actually fast food cooked slowly using locally sourced, quality ingredients — the pork from Buckhead Beef in Auburndale, Florida, the soft bun from Sunshine Bakery in Fort Lauderdale. If slow fast food seems counterintuitive, consider the concept of stationary mobile vans. I mean, if my father had to drive ten miles for me to have a Carvel cone from a parked truck, my childhood would have been spent without ever knowing what soft-serve ice cream tastes like.
A great way to cap off a food truck court meal is with ice cream — specifically, coconut-white chocolate tartufo from Sugar Rush. Krispy Kreme bread pudding and creamy Meyer lemon tart are terrific too, all freshly baked at the vendor's Sweetness Bake Shop & Cafe in South Miami. At $3 apiece, one could enjoy the trio for the same price charged by many a restaurant for a single serving of tepid tiramisu.
There is greasy, poor-quality fast food being peddled from some vendors here as well. Restrooms, recycling bins, and places to sit are in short supply. Waiting times at popular trucks can get lengthy. But people of all stripes gathering together in festive spirits to feast on fabulous, affordable street foods is a fad to relish. Hard to say how long these food truck congregations will last, but the trucks themselves will surely show more staying power than Hula-Hoops or Tickle Me Elmo.