Ask anyone who runs a food truck what their ultimate goal is, and most will tell you that it’s their dream to one day turn the truck into a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar restaurant. And for these 15 food truck and cart operators, that dream has become a reality.
Running a food truck is really, really hard. Sure, the overhead is low, but a restaurant on wheels comes with its own unique set of potential problems: a massive amount of red tape, finding a place to park and store food, and dealing with mechanical issues and bad weather, to name just a few. Sure, running a stand-alone restaurant is no walk in the park, but for a food truck operator who has to throw out a whole day’s worth of product because of a lunch-hour thunderstorm or a broken generator, finally opening a restaurant is a dream come true.
Now that the “food truck revolution” that began in earnest in the late aughts, when the economic downturn forced many would-be restaurateurs to choose an option that required less startup capital, is more than a decade along, more and more food truck and cart operators are seeing the fruits of their labor pay off. Some of these restaurateurs shut down their food trucks completely when they finally were able to convert them to brick-and-mortar restaurants, some kept the trucks as-is or converted them to catering-only, and some doubled down and added more trucks to the fleet. But all these restaurants have one thing in common: They started out as humble food trucks or carts.
Curry Up Now/Yelp
Curry Up Now today has six locations in San Francisco, Alameda, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Mateo, and San Jose, but it got its start as a San Francisco food truck serving some astoundingly unique plays on Indian street food. Tikka masala and butter chicken work their way into burritos, samosas are served “inside out,” or are filled with biryani and sous vide egg, and parathas become “quesadillax.” Indian food lovers took note as soon as the food truck hit the streets in 2009, and it’s been so successful that more locations are in the works. There’s a catering arm, and the owners have opened two locations of Mortar & Pestle, an Indian-accented cocktail bar.
One of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles, Eggslut features egg sandwiches that are essentially perfect, served on brioche buns and filled with cage-free eggs, housemade sausage, high-quality bacon, caramelized onions, and even wagyu tri-tip steak. It got its start, however, as a food truck purchased by chef-owner Alvin Cailan; today it has four Los Angeles locations and one in Las Vegas, and they all have lines out the door daily.
When you combine a love of heavy metal and a passion for great burgers, you end up with a menu of some 15 burgers with names like “Napalm Death” and “Dee Snider” and topping combinations as unusual as you can imagine. Peanut butter, strawberry jam, bacon, and sriracha? Fried chicken, cheddar, a half-pound burger patty, bacon, maple, and hot sauce on waffle buns? You bet. The duo of chef Ryan Harkins and Matthew Chernus of Grill ‘Em All rose to national prominence as winners of the first season of Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” and in 2013 they opened a brick-and-mortar in Alhambra serving some of LA’s best burgers.
The Halal Guys/Yelp
In 1990, a few friends started selling hot dogs from a cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City. Two years later, the guys switched over to serving halal fare, like chicken and lamb over rice, shawarmas, and falafel to satisfy hungry cab drivers, and the city took notice. Imitators popped up all over the city, but that had no effect on the long lines that would form in front of their cart daily. In 2014, the team decided to start selling franchises, and today there are dozens of Halal Guys locations throughout the country and in Asia, with hundreds more in the works.
Kogi, and its founder Roy Choi, did more than just about anyone to spark the food truck revolution of the last decade. In 2008, Choi served his first short rib taco, and the food truck scene has never looked back. Today, Kogi maintains four trucks that prowl the streets of Los Angeles, and Choi has also launched a bar called Alibi Room, a sister restaurant called Chego!, and a brick-and-mortar spot called Kogi Taqueria.
Chef Erwin Tjahyadi’s Komodo got its start as a food truck in 2010, serving Asian fusion-inspired tacos, burritos, bowls, and salads to hungry Angelenos before converting the business to two brick-and-mortar locations, one on West Pick Boulevard and another on Main Street in Venice; it also runs a catering operation. Whatever you do, don’t miss the MP3, a burrito filled with seared top sirloin, a sunny-side-up egg, tater tots, garlic aioli, and cilantro.
Korilla also rose to fame on Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” and the truck still roams the streets of New York and has been joined by two brick-and-mortars and a stall in a food hall near Grand Central Terminal. The menu lets guests choose a base of wild rice, broccoli “rice,” kale salad, or burrito, topped with Korean-inspired bulgogi, spicy pork, ginger soy chicken, or tofu.
As the name might imply, Mexicue brings together the best of Mexican cuisine and barbecue. Menu items include pulled pork tacos with corn salsa and jack cheese, brisket tacos with slaw and salsa verde, burnt-ends brisket chili sliders with pickled peppers and lime crema, and churro nachos for dessert. What started as a food truck today has three New York city locations, along with one in Stamford, Connecticut.
Ms. Cheezious’ food truck first hit the streets of Miami in late 2010, and its wide variety of grilled cheese sandwiches, in varieties like Short Rib Melt (braised short rib, jack cheese, pickled onions, and arugula), Frito Pie Melt (chili, American cheese, jalapenos, onions, and Fritos), and the Mackin Melt (Gouda mac and cheese and house-cured bacon) quickly attracted legions of fans who would follow the truck’s every movement. Today, the truck is still on the streets and catering events, and brick-and-mortar locations have opened in Coral Gables and in Miami’s MiMo district.
The tagline for Portland’s Nong’s Khao Man Gai, which started in 2009 as a cart and has since expanded to two sit-down restaurants, is “Chicken and rice. That’s all we do.” And they’re not lying: The menu is based squarely around this simple dish, which is made with poached organic chicken and rice cooked in stock and Thai herbs. It’s served with a sauce made with fermented soybeans, fresh ginger, garlic, Thai chiles, vinegar, and soy sauce and garnished with cucumbers and cilantro, along with a small cup of house-made broth on the side. That’s all you’ll find at the original cart, but the restaurant menus include new items like pork and rice and soup.
In 2009, brothers Bryce and Dylan Gilmore added a wood-burning grill to an old trailer and set up shop in Austin with the name Odd Duck, and they rose to prominence seemingly overnight due to their commitment to using only locally sourced foods (including whole hogs bought from a local farmer) and turning them into spectacular (and spectacularly gut-busting) daily-changing dishes, including smoked pork-belly sliders, grilled goat-cheese sandwiches, and grits with a poached duck egg. In 2011, the truck closed down and the team opened Barley Swine (today one of Austin’s most beloved restaurants), and in late 2013 they resurrected Odd Duck, keeping the same fresh, local farm-to-table ethos.
Portland -based Salt & Straw is already renowned on the West Coast for its inspired handmade ice cream flavors, which rotate regularly but might include carrot cake batter and praline hazelnuts, green fennel and maple, pear and blue cheese, and honey lavender. There really is no other ice cream shop quite like Salt & Straw, and people are catching on: Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group recently bought a significant minority stake in the company, which allowed it to open new locations in Seattle and San Francisco, build a commercial kitchen in Portland and a production facility in San Francisco, and launch a soft-serve concept called Wiz Bang Bar. But this behemoth got its start as a humble Portland food cart, launched in 2011 by cousins Tyler and Kim Malek.
An Airstream trailer bought by chef John Henderson in 2007 quickly became one of Seattle’s must-visit lunch spots due to its relative novelty (this was still the early days of food trucks and social media, after all), as well a ridiculously good burger topped with bacon jam, blue cheese, and arugula. Today, that trailer has morphed into a comfort food destination called Skillet Diner with three locations throughout the city; the burger is still on the menu.
Tacos Tequila Whiskey’s earliest days were rough – the founders planned to open a food cart along Denver’s 16th Street Mall with the name Pinche Tacos, but the city didn’t take kindly to the name (“pinche” is a Spanish vulgarity) so instead they opened up at the Civic Center for a little while before abandoning the food truck concept altogether. Today, however, after a name change (it survived as Pinche for a few years but is now Tacos Tequila Whiskey), it has three Denver locations and one in Phoenix, and each are true hotspots.
World Street Kitchen first hit the streets of Minneapolis in 2012, when brothers Sameh and Saed Wadi had the idea to bring truly global flavors – from Moroccan-spiced fried chicken to Mexican steak and egg sandwiches, hummus, Thai-style burritos, and Korean short ribs with housemade kimchi – to the masses. Today, the truck can still be found downtown from May to October, but the brick-and-mortar location is open year-round, serving the food that ranks it up there with the best food trucks in America.
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