The first time I tried to have Café de Wheels’s celebrated Wheels Burger, my quest was not successful. If part of the charm of eating at a great new restaurant is the simple fact you know it’s great (and new) before everyone else, the charm of a great food truck is the simple fact you know it’s there—and where there is.
This means using Twitter, where proprietors of mobile kitchens broadcast their location (“First stop Fountain Square then Molly Malone’s Covington”), hours (“open at 11 maybe a bit before”), specials (“free coffee w/Text order”), and regrets (“sorry no guac today”) in 140 characters or less. On weekdays, Café de Wheels and other trucks—Señor Roy’s Taco Patrol, The Coffee Guy, New Orleans To Go—are most reliably found downtown at Fifth and Race or Court and Vine, two of the city’s four official “mobile food vending zones.” But on nights and weekends, they are more likely to wing it. I learned this the hard way.
Last fall, on the Friday night of Halloween weekend, I knew Café De Wheels’s long black truck was stationed in front of Atomic Number Ten on Main Street for Final Friday, and later was supposed to roll a few blocks west to Grammer’s, where it would keep the flat-top burning until closing time or later. Shortly before 1 a.m., I left a show at Southgate House, crossed back into town and made for Liberty and Walnut. Grammer’s was overstuffed with costumed revelers but there were no burgers to be found. Only after calling it a night and catching up on Twitter did I find out that the truck had done such crazy business during Final Friday that it stayed late at Atomic Number Ten, and then had to re-supply before feeding the horde at Grammer’s. I had no one but myself (and maybe Southgate’s signal-blocking subterranean performance space) to blame for failing to stay up to date with the truck’s Twitter feed on my mobile phone.
Still, having consumed my share of 3 a.m. poutine and wood-fired pizza-on-wheels elsewhere, I was just happy to learn a Cincinnati food truck can go out and start a shift at one in the morning. For that matter, I’m happy the city has trucks in the first place, as they’ve rapidly become a necessary part of any self-respecting urban restaurant scene. To adventurous eaters, trucks have always been a magical and thrifty source of both authentic ethnic cuisine (particularly Mexican and Asian) and oddball fusion foods (hot dogs wrapped in bacon, the “Korean tacos” pioneered by L.A.’s Kogi BBQ, and much, much more). For unadventurous eaters, well….
“Plenty of times people will say, ‘Food off a truck?’” acknowledges Señor Roy’s co-owner David Neal. “With that condescending little twist at the end.”
If you’re one of those people, welcome to the year 2011. To cling to the old “roach coach” stereotype about food trucks is to be part of another sort of stereotype—Mark Twain’s dreaded apocryphal quotation about Cincinnati. Since Café de Wheels and Señor Roy’s first came along a little more than a year ago, the city has issued licenses for 20 food trucks and Councilmember Laure Quinlivan says she has more than a half-dozen informal requests to raise that number. In Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas—two cities where I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last two decades—there are hundreds of food trucks or carts, many parked in semi-permanent, “food court”–type locations, with the best of them receiving national acclaim from food and travel mags (and blogs). There’s also the reality show The Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network, which in its first season featured purveyors hawking everything from banana pudding and frog’s legs to bánh mì. Two-hundred-and-seventy-one trucks recently vied in an online poll to be part of Season Two.
Since the economic downturn in 2008, food trucks have become a symbol of American ingenuity; they’re a dollar-and-a-dream endeavor for people hit by layoffs or in need of a career change, providing lower overhead for the investors, more efficient cooking for the cooks, and less expensive meals for the consumer. “And the best part is, the food is really good,” says Fountain Square managing director Bill Donabedian, who’s worked with several trucks and independent food vendors over the last few years. “It’s not as if you have to settle for OK food.”
Indeed, Café de Wheels finished 19th on this magazine’s “40 Best Burgers” list last year. Owner Tom Acito is completely cool with that—for now. After all, the 18 burgers ahead of his all came from proper restaurants. Still, Acito lays the gauntlet down. “I do want to compete with those guys on a food level,” he says. “Not a vibe.”
Behind every food truck, there’s a building. For Acito and Café de Wheels, it’s a gray cinderblock rectangle with two loading bays on an industrial block in Newport, home to the commercial kitchen for the Relish Restaurant Group (the owners of Lavomatic Café, the Bistro, and Local 127) and Savor Catering. Here Acito rents two prep tables, storage space (including in the walk-in freezer and refrigerator), plus whatever burner/oven usage and dishwashing he requires. Chef Roy Silcott—who partnered with David Neal to start up Señor Roy’s Taco Patrol—prepares his taco fillings and fresh salsas there too.
One Monday morning last fall, I rode along with the Café de Wheels crew to see what it takes to get the truck cooking with gas (propane, actually). Acito and his two chefs, Alex “A.C.” Cunningham and Victoria Watkins, start their day with separate shopping trips—the boss scooting over to Restaurant Depot in his car to pick up some staples (salt, oil, ketchup, and frozen skin-on french fries), the employees out to Findlay Market in the 25-foot long truck. Once back in Newport, they head into the kitchen with 10 grocery bags of fresh produce and spices while Acito does the dirty work—draining the truck’s gray water and bringing in the stovetop grates and oven vents for cleaning. “Chefs make mess, owner clean up,” he jokes a little later. Though, by that point, it’s because the truck needed to leave for the day’s lunch stop, the University of Cincinnati courtyard, and Acito wasn’t going.
At the silver prep table, A.C., a 23-year-old west side native (who has since left Café de Wheels for fuller-time employment at a bricks-and-mortar restaurant), furiously slivers zucchini, beets, and carrots with a grater, then uses two chef’s knives at once—one traditional and one the ridged, Japanese Santoku style—to mince flat-leaf parsley at double speed. “I played drums for a little bit growing up,” he says—not a big surprise given his short, black, punky buzz-cut and pierced lip.
The parsley is joined in the bowl by thyme, sunflower seeds, two kinds of beans, cooked brown rice, and many other things. While the Wheels Burger may be CDW’s top item, in some ways its veggie burger, the Mt. Healthy, is the most sui generis thing on the menu; it has as many as 26 ingredients and, unlike the stuff you buy from the supermarket freezer, even looks like a raw meat patty, thanks to the beet coloring. Acito and his chefs pride themselves on doing as much cooking as possible on the truck itself, but as a matter of pure practicality, the prep kitchen is also used for the slow-and-low-cooking of the pulled pork, as well as the balsamic caramelized onion topping that makes the Wheels Burger the Wheels Burger.
A former commercial film editor who came to Cincinnati for a job at Lightborne, the Over-the-Rhine multimedia studio and design house, Acito is voluble and wiry, with big dark eyes, close-shorn salt-and-pepper hair, and a soul patch shaped like a quotation mark bisecting his chin. Originally from New York, he spent much of his career in Los Angeles, where food trucks have always been part of the landscape, supplying meals on movie sets and as working class fare. “The current food truck culture of celebrity chefs and the like did not yet exist,” Acito says. His favorite thing was driving to San Felipe in Baja California. “There are so many tiny taco stands where the food is just ridiculous. People pull over, eat, talk Spanglish with the locals and continue on their way…and then stop by again on the way back. That’s what street food truly is.” And it’s the ideal he seems to be striving for.
When everything is ready to go, Acito raps on the two propane tanks mounted on the back of the truck, resulting in a clank-clank-clank high-pitched enough to tell him that a refill will be necessary soon. But for today, “it should be enough—hopefully.” And then the truck is off, headed back over the Big Mac Bridge and exiting onto Reading Road. Victoria cracks up loudly when I ask if there have been any close calls on the road. Turns out A.C. sacrificed the driver’s side mirror to Sixth Street on practically his first day on the job.
The CDW truck, which was manufactured by a custom outfit in Florida, is really no different than any other tiny restaurant kitchen: Rubber traction matting, triple sink for washing dishes, separate sink for hand washing, freezer, refrigerator, fire suppression system. Next to the stove top, various ingredients (sliced pork loin for the Cuban sandwiches, pulled pork, pickles, the onion marmalade) are kept on ice, while the ground beef, chicken breasts, and veggie burger mix stay in a reach-in fridge below the cutting board-topped prep space. Taped inside the truck near the service window is an official City of Cincinnati mobile food and beverage vending permit and food service operation license.
Once A.C. has parked the truck behind McMicken Hall on UC’s campus, Victoria, a tall African-American woman with hair tied in a neat bun under her black chef’s cap, dons sanitary gloves and lays 11 strips of bacon on the flat-top under Lodge cast iron presses. There’s already an order for a veggie burger, so she adds flour and seasoning to the mix A.C. made earlier and forms a patty, then asks him to butter up the grill. The truck usually takes credit cards using an iPhone app, but they forgot to bring the dedicated phone today. They still get lots of tweets and phone calls though, some from downtown customers who don’t realize that the truck is up in Clifton. UC means a lot of Groupons, which also means people trying to cheat by using Groupons twice. “I can smell it when it’s coming,” Victoria says. “I got six kids.”
A Wheels Burger order comes in and Victoria sacrifices the one she was about to have as her own lunch for the customer. When it’s close to ready, A.C. puts a piece of ice on the grill under the pan covering the burger, which steam-melts the cheese immediately (try this at home!).
“Yes, the Wheels Burger by itself is $5.50,” A.C. tells another customer. This is something of a sore point. For a handmade, cooked-to-order burger, $5.50 is not really that expensive, and it irks Acito when customers expect cut-rate prices. “People think that just because I have a food truck it’s going to be cheaper, but the whole concept is a rolling restaurant,” he says. It’s not necessarily fast food either, though he knows Cincinnatians won’t wait 40 minutes for a Cuban sandwich like they might in Hollywood or Austin. (Conversely, David Neal of Señor Roy’s sees low price—they offer two tacos for $5 or three tacos for $6—as an important part of the appeal, but self-corrects himself every time he uses the word “cheap,” revising to “inexpensive.”)
Just like any stationary restaurant, food trucks have to make choices based on cost. Acito is not hand-cutting french fries, for instance, but he makes a point of using local ingredients, like hoagie rolls from Shadeau Bakery for the Portabella Philly, ground chuck from Avril-Bleh & Sons Meats, and spices from Colonel De Gourmet. Recently he had to raise his prices—the Wheels Burger is now $6—because some of his suppliers have. He also started making his grilled cheeses with a custom brioche baked by Savor—partly a culinary choice, partly because his landlord made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Lucky for me, Acito isn’t on the truck this day. My brief turn on the french fry station results in too much waste; it’s hard to know exactly how many potatoes should be dumped into the fryer for one order, and unlike most fast-food chains, CDW won’t serve a french fry that is past its time.
The common thread of food trucks everywhere is chaos and improvisation. Of his motivation to start up Café de Wheels, Acito says, “I didn’t know any better. There were no food trucks in Cincinnati, and I hate conformity.”
The main reason Portland is “Cartopia” (the name of its best-known “pod,” as well as a book about the city’s “food cart revolution”) is there wasn’t really any regulation. Over time, 150 mostly permanent carts arose in seven different, mostly private, downtown lots. “No one came around and said they couldn’t do it, so they multiplied,” says Brett Burmeister of the website Food Carts Portland. “And having the carts congregate fed into the city plan to build community.” From there, they spread into Portland’s neighborhood equivalents of Northside, Clifton, Mt. Lookout, and beyond.
Both Acito and David Neal told me their trucks were free to roam the city streets, except for south of Central Parkway; what they really meant was, north of Central Parkway you might get away with it—if you find a space, or partner with a friendly local business. To improve things in the central business district, the truck owners approached Quinlivan, who helped start the pilot program. Among the other 20 licensed trucks are ones belonging to Habañero, Fireside Pizza (which has its own wood-burning oven), and a wheeled outpost of Gold Star Chili. The city recently added a fourth space to augment an existing (little) one at Sawyer Point, which ought to be a hot spot during baseball season. The truck owners want more places to go, but they also like having regular, clustered locations. “Instead of being competitors, let’s be partners,” says Neal. “One day someone may want tacos, the next a burger, the next a po’ boy. Just get’em in the habit of visiting that spot.”
Quinlivan knew helping the trucks would be good for the city, but even she, a former TV broadcaster, was surprised by how much media attention they have gotten, and also by a study that said the trucks had created or maintained 80 jobs. Acito has shown his appreciation for her help by naming a sandwich after her: the Councilwoman Grilled Cheese (Swiss, provolone, ham, and tomato).
Restaurant owners in Portland have been known to complain that the trucks are unfair competition. Fountain Square’s Bill Donabedian says he’s heard a bit of that in Cincinnati (though Quinlivan says she’s received no formal complaints and chose the pilot spaces carefully). “My response to that is get your own truck,” Donabedian says. “The world is a constantly changing place. You can either boo-hoo about it or find ways to compete. Innovative and tenacious business owners will make this city great.” Quinlivan fantasizes about Jean-Robert de Cavel or Aunt Flora’s House of Soul (formerly at Findlay Market, now in Silverton) opening trucks—which actually isn’t so fantastical. Such extensions and spin-offs are common in other cities. Acito, meanwhile, is considering a food cart under the Café de Wheels brand—a name that can encompass any kind of food, though it is @TheBurgerTruck on Twitter. He hasn’t ruled out trying bricks-and-mortar either.
Trucks are both a symbolic and quite tangible part of downtown Cincinnati’s quickening (if long a’borning) urban pulse, especially after hours. The Saturday night after I didn’t get to eat at Café de Wheels, I left another rock show, this one at MOTR Pub on Main Street, a little after 2 a.m. It wasn’t all that long ago you couldn’t even buy an ice cream cone at 2 p.m. near Fountain Square. In the Queen City of today, however, it felt good to know that I could score pork tacos until 3 a.m., which is how late Señor Roy’s stays parked on Fountain Square most weekend nights. What they call a “taco al pastor” is not quite up to my Texas-nurtured standard of authenticity, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. And it was there.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue.