Food trucks have been around for decades, but now they're going gourmet

Food trucks have been around for decades, but now they're going gourmet

October 30th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Vinay Hazare, left, serves EJ Miller, center, and Anna Thomas grilled cheese sandwiches from the Muenster Truck.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

WHAT'S ON WHEELS

Food trucks

• Local Slice: Wood-fired pizza

• Famous Nater's World Famous: Gourmet sandwiches

• Mountain Waffle Wagon: Waffle sandwiches

• Rolling J's Bistro: Gourmet sandwiches

• The Muenster Truck: Grilled cheese sandwiches

• Rock 'n' Tacos: Tacos

• California Smothered Burrito: Burritos

Carts

• King of Pops: Handcrafted popsicles

• The Missing Link: Hot dogs

Where are they?

The trucks usually operate at Center Park in the 700 block of Market Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and at the Chattanooga Market from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays at First Tennessee Pavilion, 1826 Reggie White Blvd. Weather and special events can alter that schedule, so if you're trying to track one down, the best option is to check either the Chattanooga Street Food Project Facebook page or each individual truck's Facebook page or get on their email list.

As the owner Famous Nater's World Famous sandwich truck, Nathan Flynt has "a huge spreadsheet of sandwich ideas and things I want to do."

But even he was wary of the beef tongue sandwich. He knew he wanted to offer it on his food truck menu but, fearful he'd sell only one - and it would be to himself - he waited. Once he did offer it, he sold a case worth of the dish, which is popular in other parts of the world, by the end of the first day.

For years, the menu of most food trucks in the Chattanooga area included barbecue, hot dogs and hamburgers, snow cones, corn dogs, tacos, funnel cakes and maybe the occasional bowl of gumbo or chili.

Nothing wrong with any of those items, and many of those trucks still exist today, but food trucks have gone gourmet all over the country, and Chattanooga chefs with an entrepreneurial bent have jumped on the bandwagon. These days, you are just as likely to find sandwiches that feature beef tongue or something called The Hot Onion that includes whipped cream cheese, jalapeno jelly and fried onion rings on a waffle.

The Chattanooga Street Food Project was formed a little over a year ago and today boasts seven trucks or trailers and two carts, according to Flynt, president of the project. There are other independent mobile vendors operating either full- or part-time in Chattanooga, and a few, such as the city's first gourmet food truck, Southern Burger Company, have opened traditional restaurants.

There are also restaurants such as Terra Nostra, The Yellow Deli and Lupi's Pizza that have outfitted a food truck to do catering and special events such as the Chattanooga Market.

The street project organization was created as a way to set standards, improve education and marketing and to serve as a support group for the owners and operators, Flynt says.

"We found that operating alone doesn't work as well as working as a group, and we get more traffic if we all use our social media contacts to let people know where we are," Flynt says. "And we wanted to come up with some rules and to have some standards regarding what we wanted street food to look like."

Seen as restaurants on wheels by local governments, the trucks must have the same business license as a regular restaurant, meet other city and state requirements and are regularly inspected by the Hamilton County Health Department. To be part of the street project, each truck must score a 95 on the health inspection, Flynt says.

One of the requirements is that the mobile food trucks must be just that. They can't stay parked and operating in one place without meeting other requirements such as permanent plumbing and electrical hookups.

In her recently released book, "The Southern Food Truck Cookbook: Discover the South's Best Food on Four Wheel," author Heather Donahoe writes that she first heard of Famous Nater's from her brother, who happens to be Flynt, and who isn't known for risk-taking when it comes to cuisine.

"Naturally, I expected [Flynt's] food truck preferences to be equally timid. Turns out, my finicky little brother was spot on," she writes. "Taste buds really can grow up.

A typical daily special at Famous Nater's might be 12-hour braised pork with pork jus, grain mustard, parsley and a poached egg: or maybe it's The Jimmy Carter, a pulled pork sandwich festooned with peach jalapeno relish and cream cheese."

Certainly no stranger to food-truck dining, Donahoe's "surprise" echoes what a lot of people discover when they step out and try one of these trucks. The menus rival those of many finer restaurant in quality, if not quantity. Often the person doing the cooking used to cook at one or more of the upscale brick-and-mortar places before deciding to become his or her own boss.

Flynt, for example, has a decade's worth of experience, having cooked at a couple of restaurants in Atlanta before doing the same in Boston, then working here at Hennen's before helping to open Public House in Warehouse Row. Going the food truck route allowed him to own his own eatery, albeit on wheels, and on a smaller scale.

"I knew I could cook food, but I wasn't as confident with the rest of running the business," he says.

Jacob D'Angelo has a similar background, having trained in kitchens in the Northeast and around Chattanooga for almost 10 years.

"I started at TGI Friday's. It allowed me to figure out that I loved this and I wanted to learn more, so I started looking for chefs to take me under their wings for almost nothing if they would teach me," he says.

He and his mother, Sharon Smith, decided to go into business together and they have created Rolling J's Mobile Bistro. Their truck, which they bought used, was re-outfitted in West Tennessee with enough equipment to make even Emeril Lagasse feel at home.

Smith, whose family operated the city's first food trucks back in the 1970s, wouldn't share a dollar amount but says "it cost more than I wanted to spend, but it is an extremely nice truck."

The full kitchen includes a grill with an oven and a two-burner cook top, a double fryer, a steam table, a prep area and a commercial refrigerator. Rolling J's went into business a little over a week ago and plans to serve Southern gourmet sandwiches, daily soup specials, a meat-and-two special and probably "something Cajun" like chicken and andouille sausage gumbo

Bruce and Hedi Smith opened their Mountain Waffle Wagon almost two months ago. He says he bought his used truck for about $3,000, spent three times that to get it running just right and another $20,000 on the kitchen setup.

His biggest challenge has been convincing people that not all waffles are sweet. His batter is yeast-based and contains very little sugar and no vanilla.

"I think the people don't understand what a waffle sandwich is, but once they taste it, they are usually surprised. They think a waffle is something you eat by itself or they think they are sweet. "

Bruce Smith says he'd originally planned to rotate his menu items, but he made a quick discovery.

"People expect to find chicken on a waffle with honey mustard sauce. On a day I sell 100 sandwiches, more than half will be chicken and waffle."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.