Keep on Food Truckin’
By Mary Paganelli Votto
Photography by Thomas Veneklasen
Tucson is home to lots of terrific food trucks, from the vintage Model T truck serving homemade ice cream to the elaborate barbecue truck with attached smoker, you will find a wide variety of cuisines available from these movable feasts.
The first challenge is where to find the food trucks. They typically move around, alighting on a corner or in a neighborhood and rarely staying in one place for more than a few hours. You can follow most of the trucks on Twitter, check their Facebook page or head to one of the many roundups around town that attract large numbers of trucks in one place.
David Aguirre, director of Dinnerware Art Gallery, organizes some of the largest roundups in town. These mobile food courts take place at least 8 to 10 times a month at various locations and attract anywhere from 5 to 15 trucks. “We bring the kitchens and chefs to the neighborhoods,” explains Aguirre. He conceived of the roundups as a way for people to sample all the food that trucks have to offer in one place. “Food trucks are not fast food,” he laughs, “they are great food.” Attending one of the many roundups will give you a good feel for the kind of offerings that these trucks are dishing up, from gourmet Mexican to French crepes, smokin’ barbecue and hand-made pizza.
The roundups, which provide “a time out for the whole family, including those with four legs (on a leash), offer something for every member of the family. You can sit at the same table and everybody can be eating a different style of cuisine. No rush, you can hang out and bop over to the truck and pick something up and share — it’s a tasting frenzy and an outdoor dinner.” All of his roundups take place from 5 to 8 p.m. Watch for the hand-lettered signs on the roadside and you’ll frequently see Aguirre madly waving a sign above his head. For the most up-to-date schedule, go to the calendar page at www.tucsonfoodtruckroundup.com.
You also can find groups of food trucks gathered at Bookman’s at Ina Road (3733 W. Ina Rd., 579-0303) and Bookman’s Grant Road (1930 E. Grant Rd., 325-5767) for their occasional Food Truck Fridays, held 6-9 p.m. in the parking lots. Check http://bookmans.com/events), twitter @BookmansTucson or call for dates.
The Tucson Food Truck Coalition, an independent organization of owner/operators whose goals are to further the industry in the area, provides additional venues, ensures the quality of participants and, as well, organizes food truck events. Their website, www.tucsonfoodtruckcoalition.com, features event information, a synopsis and videos of each truck along with bios, menus and contact information, according to Lance Jones, coalition member, website developer and operator of Trucking Good Cupcakes.
Just like restaurants, all food trucks are inspected by the Pima County Health Department. The trucks (the Pima County Health Department refers to them officially as Mobile Food Units) are subject to the Pima County Food Code and undergo a number of inspections. “Mobile Food Units are bound by the same regulations as fixed food establishments. They are held to the same standards,” explains Priscilla Urbina, sanitarian supervisor with the Office of Consumer Health and Food Safety, “I would say that the public should feel safe when eating at mobile food units.” Before a food truck is even in business, her office reviews the plans for the construction and design of the vehicle as well as the menu to ensure that food preparation will be handled properly. Food trucks selling prepared food are required to be affiliated with a commissary, a licensed food facility that serves as a base. Typically, the commissary is where food is received, stored and prepped, and dishes and equipment are cleaned. This facility also is inspected by the Pima County Health Department to evaluate food storage and handling procedures. Once the food truck is operational, it is routinely inspected to check that food is properly stored and handled according to the Pima County Health Department Food Code.
Starting and running a food truck is a major investment of time and money — there’s a lot of work that goes into getting that final product. It often can take $30,000 to $50,000 just to get started and from six months to a year to turn the truck into an approved kitchen shell — and that’s before the cooking even starts!
Here is a sample of the mobile feasts that await you.
D’s Island Grill JA
This bright green truck hangs out at the corner of Grant and Sixth dishing up delish Jamaican food. Owner Duane Hall hails from Morant Bay, Jamaica, and moved to Tucson in 2001. A former cook at Loews Ventana Canyon, Hall made the transition to his food truck in 2010. “I wanted to eat Jamaican food but there wasn’t any,“ he confides, “so I decided to cook it myself and share it with Tucson.” He creates inspired curries, stews and heavenly jerk chicken. His most popular items are the made-to-order beef patties (both the crust and the filling are made from scratch daily from his secret recipe); and his oxtail stew, thick with meaty bones, tomatoes, onions, scallions and butter beans and fragrant with thyme. Hall also serves up fresh juices like watermelon-ginger, carrot-pineapple and sorrel. Queen Latifah is a fan — she stopped by the truck and he was so starstruck that he didn’t even get her autograph! You will find his truck at the southwest corner of Grant and 6th, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Jamie’s Bitchin’ Kitchen
Chef Jamie gets around. She pilots her truck of Cuban/Caribbean-inspired cuisine all around Pima County, setting up to feed her legions of fans who wait patiently for her famous Cuban (a panini-style sandwich layered with marinated pulled pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard) and blackened chicken tacos with Cuban black beans and rice. Chef Jamie has lots of culinary experience under her belt. Before launching her truck, she worked for The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, Metro Restaurant Group and Skyline Country Club. So what’s with the name? “Before I had the truck, I was constantly complaining,” she confesses, “and people were always calling my food ‘bitchin’ so I just put the two together. My mom told me, ‘Don’t name your truck that!’ and I said that for once I wasn’t going to listen to her. Now she loves it!” Her truck can always be found at Downtown Second Saturdays at Scott and Jackson; Aerospace on Pantano between 22nd and Golf Links, Tuesdays 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Modular on Hemisphere Loop Thursdays, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Sunday’s at Costco Drive, in front of Competition Hobbies, 12-5 p.m.; and in Green Valley, Wednesdays off exit 65 at the flea market.
Isabella’s Ice Cream
Dominic and Kristel Johnson scoop out some great homemade ice cream from their 100-percent electric modified Model T. Isabella’s has the only green trucks in town and they are fully committed to eco-sustainability — solar panels on top of each truck power the freezers, your paper cup and napkin are biodegradable, the funky wooden spoons are recyclable and the wood paneling on the trucks is reclaimed from local sources (allegedly, the floor of McKale Center!). Top-selling flavors are the coffee bean and minty chocolate ice cream. The ice cream is made at their own facility at Mercado San Agustín with all natural, locally sourced ingredients. Kristel loves to experiment with flavor combinations, using seasonal fruit and herbs in her many vegan sorbets. Flavors include rose and honey lavender. “The food truck is really neat,” she enthuses. “We get to meet so many people and we’re always dealing with happy people — it’s a fun job!” You can always find Isabella’s at the Second Saturdays Downtown, or check their twitter and facebook pages to see where they are. They do lots of special events and festivals, too.
Planet of the Crepes
Culinary Institute of America-trained Jessica Kraus creates some mighty delicious crepes in her mobile kitchen. She pours her homemade batter onto piping hot griddles for a crispy texture and fills them with amazing ingredients. Each creative crepe is a giant 16 inches. Favorites include the smoked chicken breast with a melt of aged cheddar, green chiles and avocado; vegan pesto on a gluten-free crepe; and the addictive strawberry banana with French custard. “I love to see the reaction from first-time customers who always say ‘Wow, this is good!’” laughs Kraus. “It makes me love what I do!” She keeps the crepes coming at several spots in town: Fridays at Jesse Owens Farmers Market; Saturdays at Oro Valley Farmers Market; Sundays at St. Philip’s Plaza; and every other Tuesday at the National Bank of Arizona at 333 N. Wilmot from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Craving a crepe and no time to stand in line? You can text your order in for pickup at 271-6083.
Seis Curbside Kitchen
Jake Muñoz and wife Erika offer the diverse cuisine of six (seis) different regions of Mexico from this sophisticated black truck. A native Tucsonan and a 15-year veteran of Macayo’s, Muñoz has spent lots of time researching the varied cuisines of Mexico and recreating them for his long line of customers. A signature dish is the Yucatan Toc Chuc Chicken, grilled chicken that has been marinated in achiote and fresh citrus. This tender, tasty bird can be had taco style with shredded cabbage, cilantro, red onion, and chipotle crema topped with cotija cheese or on a bed of organic mixed greens with cucumbers, bell peppers, toasted pecans and a sprinkle of cotija. Barbacoa is another popular choice — a stew of slow-roasted shredded beef cooked in deeply flavored homemade pasilla and guajillo chile sauce enhanced with dark beer from local breweries. “Growing up here in the Hispanic community, we knew people were missing out on these great traditions and recipes from the different regions of Mexico,” he explains. “We wanted to bring that food to the different communities, and having a food truck was the best way to do it.” They park their truck Wednesdays and Fridays at Borderlands Brewery on Toole from 4 to 7 p.m.; Thursdays at Dragoon Brewing Company, 1859 Grant from 4 to 8 p.m.; and at the National Bank of Arizona at 333 N. Wilmot, Thursdays 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
The trucks just keep on comin’. Here are some more great food trucks around town. Regular locations are noted.
• Bobby Dean’s Hickory Smoked BBQ – hickory smoked barbecue
Tues-Sat, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Casablanca Plaza, NE corner of Oracle and Rudasill Rds., in front of Alan’s Shoes
• Foodie Fleet – pressed sandwiches
Wed. and Fri., Metro Wildcat, 501 N. Park Ave.; Sat., Dragoon Brewing Company, 1859 W. Grant Rd.
• Guero Loco’s BubbaQue – barbecue
• Hellfire Pizza – funky pizza and sandwiches
Danny’s Lounge on Ft. Lowell, Friday and Saturdays, 10 p.m.-2:30 a.m. and Sundays 12-8 p.m.; Second Saturdays Downtown at Jackson and Stone
• Pin-Up Pastries – whoopee pies and cake pops
Second Saturdays Downtown.
• Street Delights – desserts
• Trucking Good Cupcakes – cupcakes
Second Saturdays Downtown.
• Smokin’ Hot BBQ – traditional regional BBQ with a twist
• Jones Street Bistro – eclectic American