A Moveable Feast

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BY AMY PENNINGTON

PHOTOS BY LARA FERRONI

 Growing up as a kid on Long Island, I lived in the last house on a dead end street, adjacent to a large swath of woods. It was quiet down there and allowed us kids to play in the street with abandon. What it didn’t allow for was regular trips from any ice cream trucks during the dog days of summer. At best, ice cream trucks would hover near our bus stop two blocks away. What was a daily visit for some became forbidden fruit for my sister, brother and I. Most kids grow up with the ice cream man. We grew up stalking him.

This food sleuthing has carried over into my adult life. Recently, I pulled my car across two lanes of traffic to visit a new taco truck, only to find out it wasn’t a ‘taco’ truck, it was a ‘maco’ truck—some sort of local business’s work truck. My budding fascination with food on the go has been well satiated as of late with the advent of the mobile food vendors.

Two years ago, Skillet Street Food took Seattle by storm offering up a farm-focused burger with bacon jam and a savory plate of poutine—not your usual roach coach offerings. It’s been an evolving trend as more food-focused folks get off their feet and opt for wheels to tout their culinary prowess.

It Started With Tacos

Taco trucks have been long-standing culinary beacons, at first unannounced trailers, trucks and buses in remote locations; now on street corners from the far stretches of White Center to the heart of Fremont. Some people balk at the idea of eating fried meat from the window of a truck, but for food sleuthers, doing so is a guaranteed badge of honor.

On a recent drive north, I stopped at the ultimate taco truck set-up for rainy Seattle—the taco bus, El Carreta, complete with stainless steel counters and stools. Ordering the carnitas was the best decision I made all week. At once juicy and fatty, crisp and flavorful, it was one of the best tacos I’ve tasted in a long time.

Most taco plates come with a slew of usual suspects—corn tortillas, radishes, and limes for squeezing. A few joints offer a little riff on that. Taqueira Amigas up on SR 99 and 156th (which incidentally, does not serve carnitas) served their asada with a big slice of avocado. Taqueria el Rincon just south of White Center offers two kinds of salsa and adds dried herbs to their pork. Whatever the offerings, taco trucks have become nearly glamorous despite their urban-rustic digs.

The Innovators

Back in the summer of 2004, a wood-fired pizza oven magically appeared one day at the Ballard Farmer’s Market. The fire blazed away as a busy couple worked to toss in pizzas one after the other. Serving up thin-crusted and slightly charred pizza at the market has turned into a full-on production, with multiple ovens that are used at both private events and several markets in Seattle. Little did we know then that Marshall and Errin Jett were on the front edge of a trend with their Veraci Pizza.

James Beard award-winning chef Holly Smith is no stranger to trying something new. With the turn of the century, Holly took a leap of faith and opened her own restaurant, Café Juanita. In the kitchen, she joked that she would have to start selling ice cream, as an overzealous pastry chef kept packing the freezers full.

Then, in the summer of 2008, she showed up at the Fremont Market—with a beautiful gelato cart in tow. Fans clamored for her seasonal flavors like burnt sugar gelato and Lillet Blanc sorbetto. This year, Holly has added a second cart, and will hit as many of the local farmer’s markets as she can—Mercer Island, Lake City and Edmonds among them. Holly’s flavors tend toward the boozier end of the spectrum—Lillet, Marsala and Prosecco take turns on her menu. She’s not sharing any flavor secrets yet, but will look to the fruits of summer as inspiration.

Josh Henderson started his business, Skillet Street Food in an unusual way. After five months of renegade behavior in late 2007, he received his official city permits and began legally serving up hearty fare out the window of a silver Airstream trailer. In the early days, one never knew where that silver bullet would show up, adding to the mystery of it all. Now, they operate on a regular schedule serving breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday in Seattle, with service to the East Side kicking off sometime this summer.

Another Airstream is in the works, and will introduce Skillet to a whole new shade of green when they use their spent fryer oil as biodiesel. Up next for Henderson? A street food market. He is currently talking with the Mayor’s office and will reach out to kitchens city-wide to pull together Seattle’s first street larder, offering good home-cooked food to city folks both day and night. “I grew up in Hong Kong and India eating food on the street at night,” Josh says. He hopes this community-driven effort brings that same energy to Seattle. “I hope this can create another ripple in the market where people actually go out and do stuff,” he says.

The Little Guys

Hallava Falafel, based in Georgetown, would be nearly impossible to find if it weren’t for the various bright yellow hand-painted signs, each with an arrow pointing in the general direction of the big yellow truck housing falafel maker, Rick. He learned his falafel skills in Israel and is quite secretive about the recipe, only hinting at some ingredients tongue-in-cheek—garbanzo, water and baking soda among them (about as helpful as pointing out the noodles in great mac-and-cheese). He offers two choices of filled pita, both with beet salad, a combination of spinach and romaine, pickle spears and typical condiments like tahini and tzatiki. The schwarma sandwich, filled with a generous helping of herb-scented shaved meat, and a traditional falafel sandwich are hugely portioned and immensely satisfying. He works alone and serves lunch Tuesday through Friday, along with late-night snacks on Friday evenings.

Half Pint Ice Cream is aptly titled, given the stature of proprietor Cle Franklin. A one woman powerhouse, Cle parks her petite ice cream cart at several farmer’s markets around Seattle. Her focus is on an array of innovative homespun flavors, and this year she has started experimenting with ice cream cakes. She also brings her cart to private parties where she can set up an elaborate ice cream sundae bar.

With a kaleidoscope of options, it’s no doubt that the idea of a moveable feast will continue to expand as people wrap their heads around the idea of street food carts. Personally, I’ve been daydreaming about bringing a big cooler full of dry ice to the beach with me this summer to sell ice cream sandwiches, perhaps creating a whole new generation of kids stalking the ice cream lady.

 

When not chasing down ice cream trucks, Amy Pennington can be found cooking and gardening. Find out what she’s digging up on her website amy-pennington.com/go-go-green-garden.

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