Moveable feasts

Food trucks — restaurants on wheels — are popular in many cities, but in Baltimore they're just shifting into gear

  • Lesa Bain, left, owner of the Curbside Cafe food truck, and her sister, Sunny Jenkins, right, serve burritos and drinks to customers at the corner of Wyman Park and Keswick roads in Hampden.
Lesa Bain, left, owner of the Curbside Cafe food truck, and her… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
September 08, 2010|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

Sara Lauver and Sigrid Lauren slipped out of the office at lunchtime and headed around the corner to meet up with their new best friend. Their buddy had sent a tweet, letting them know she'd be idling at the corner of Central and Fleet.

Well hello again, Curbside Cafe, you and your mobile burritos. Missed you.

"I've been thinking about it all week," Lauver said, after leaning into the truck window and ordering what's becoming her usual — a grilled veggie with balsamic marinated tofu wrapped with all the fixings — including avocado, corn relish, cheese and tomato.

It was Lauver's and Lauren's second visit to the truck. After the first, Lauver brought the burrito back to her desk at Laureate, took a bite and immediately joined Curbside Cafe's Twitter account so she'd know when they came by Harbor East again. Then she sent out her own tweet: "Nom, nom, nom."

Baltimore is only just flirting with food trucks, even as other parts of the country have fallen completely in love with the concept of the moveable feast. Though Baltimore's trucks can be counted on one hand, in places like New York, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore, food trucks are fighting for street space and selling things like artisan ice cream, gourmet waffles and lobster.

On the Food Network's primetime lineup, there's even a show called The Great Food Truck Race, where the mobile restaurants offering foods like crepes and Vietnamese sandwiches zip around the country, competing to see which truck can make the most money.

In Baltimore, it's just hamburgers and burritos. And a cupcake truck ferrying dessert. At least for now.

Though there's been talk of trucks that would bring us Caesar salad, creme brulee, sushi, Cajun food, cheesesteaks, barbecue, hot dogs and our hometown favorite, crab cakes, for now they remain just that: talk.

"Baltimore is just a little slower to evolve," says Brian Sacks, who shut down his fledgling food truck, Juana Burrito, earlier this year after just a few months. But Sacks is so sure the city is on the verge, he's starting a consulting business and a food truck school. "The culture will build. It's just a little slower."

But Bill Irvin, the co-owner of the granddaddy of the city's food trucks, Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon, which just celebrated its first anniversary, is convinced that Baltimore's conservative food culture isn't ready to embrace food trucks — at least not no-name ones with challenging menus.

The burger truck has flourished, Irvin says, because it's associated with Kooper's Tavern in Fells Point, and it's hawking basic burgers.

"In Baltimore nobody really had food off of a food truck — unless they work at a construction sites," says Irvin, who owns the burger truck with Patrick Russell. "The whole idea is new to us. Some people are just far more advanced in the food world than we are."

Starting a food truck business is considerably cheaper than trying to get a traditional restaurant off the ground. A truck costs about $100,000 — as opposed to a couple million to equip a restaurant space. Free social media is all the advertising that's needed.

Christine Richardson, who launched her IcedGems cupcake truck last spring, thinks people are more open-minded. Her truck has done so well that over Labor Day weekend she opened a real bakery, at 213 Main St. in Reisterstown.

And though her sales have been hard-won, Lesa Bain, who owns Curbside Cafe with her husband, Shawn Smith, says the truck has been a great way to feel out the food business. She averages about 40 customers a day. At about $6 a burrito, she's not exactly sitting pretty. The burger wagon, by comparison, has been averaging about $1,400 a day, Irvin says.

Bain thinks her truck can get there. Eventually.

"We're all about keeping it simple and small and low-key," Bain says. "A lot of people are liking it and coming back. We'll definitely keep doing it for a while."

Feed trucks

Curbside Cafe

@Curbside_Cafe on Twitter

At this truck that's been rolling since May, it's all burritos, all the time. They're all $6, and come with a choice of free toppings and sauces like habanero mango and jalapeno pineapple sauces. Sides include edamame salad and fried plantains.

The customer favorite: The pulled pork burrito, marinated and slow-cooked in Curbside's secret sauce.

What the owner would order: The chana masala burrito, chick peas and potato in spicy Indian sauce.

Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon

@BRGRwagon on Twitter

There's nothing but burgers here, but customers have a lot of discretion about what goes within the bun. First they choose among beef, turkey, veggie and bison burgers. Then there's a selection of cheeses, all sorts of possible toppings and a variety of sauces to personalize it even further.

The sole side is fries. Sweet potato, regular or the 50/50, which gives you a taste of both. For a dollar, customers can also add on a pickle spear.

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