Young and Hungry

Is the Newfound Interest in Food Trucks a Classic Case of Classism?

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Shut Up, Foodies! is a delightfully cheeky site — sort of the thinking man's Food Network Humor. It's a destination that loves to skewer the pretensions of the food world, as declared in SUF's in-your face manifesto, which reads in part:

Your chickens won't save the world and we don't want the life story of everything on the menu. We don't care what you eat — we just want you to lower the volume. Also, please stop talking about ramps.

I read with interest SUF's latest post shredding the growing, gourmet culture of food trucks, and the pampered palates who embrace these rolling gustatory wagons. A sample quote:

One thing that really irks me about the food truck thing is that it’s only become a “trend” now that food trucks are “gourmet” and run by middle class people. I grew up in Los Angeles going to taco trucks all the damn time, and since living in New York have eaten multiple falafels, pretzels, and ice cream sandwiches from food trucks.

And it’s even more irksome when you read about people like Oleg Voss, “a 28-year-old culinary school graduate and one-time investment banker.” He had to give up his lucrative job in Vienna to open his veal cutlet cart, because of “the brutal economic recession.” That is brutal!

It seems like “I opened a niche gourmet food business” is the new “I found myself.” Who needs an ashram when you can sell artisanal delicacies to people who enjoy the added flavor of self-righteous foodiness? Oh and isn’t it funny, hahaha, when people who have been working on the street for their entire lives don’t take kindly to being pushed out of business by a trend?

For years now, I've shared a similar opinion about the metro area's food truck scene, which, I'm sorry, did not suddenly mushroom into existence with the addition of Rebel Heroes, the Fojol Brothers, and the Red Hook Lobster Pound rig.

No, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have enjoyed a vibrant food-truck culture for years. But it's been virtually ignored by the non-Latino communities because the humble pupusa and taco don't have the same sex appeal as buttery Maine lobster rolls or cream-deficient butter chicken served in a Styrofoam container by a group of guys with a theatrical sense of irony.  I find such street-food myopia frustrating myself.

But here's where we disagree, SUF. One street food culture has nothing to do with the other, just as the ethnic mom-and-pop eateries in Rockville and Falls Church have nothing to do with the expense-account dining found in downtown D.C. The only thing these food trucks have in common is their ability to roll to different locations.

It seems rather naive to think that middle-class foodies would curb their enthusiasm for new and better street food options just because the suburbs and exurbs in many cities have been a source for amazing Latin snacks for years. Eating is almost always about proximity. After years of suffering through a food-cart scene dominated by dirty water dogs and sodas, downtown D.C. office wonks finally have some decent street options near them. Of course they're going to be excited.

The question is this: Will that excitement translate into a curiosity for food trucks outside these eaters' immediate neighborhoods? Probably not. I don't necessarily subscribe to the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats theory, not in this economy, not when a trip to Montgomery County may require a 30-minute Metro ride and extra coinage.

But perhaps the opposite will occur? Perhaps one or two of the more enterprising pupusa trucks in Maryland will make the move into the District and take advantage of this growing culture? It'd make sense on a number of levels. But mostly it might open some eyes: Once a downtown office worker, after all, tasted Sabor Latino's tacos, they may realize just how mediocre some of the new trucks really are.

  • cbr

    I'm with you. I WISH more of the Montgomery/PG food trucks would come into town. I mean, the Korean cart and the burrito guy near Farragut have been around for some time and are famous in their own right. They just don't have Twitter accounts.

  • http://shannonsezso.com Shannon Renee

    It's lunchtime, I want tasty food, fast and cheap. Be it from a truck or store-front sandwich shop. The key will be longevity. Will the food trucks have staying power during the winter?

  • Bryant

    It's easy to be snarky and dismissive, but before the Fojol Brothers kicked things off in the city, I never saw anything other than the carbon-copy crap sellers on the mall and the guys selling overpriced sodas and candy bars near Farragut Square. Maybe they were out there and I missed them, but where I live (southeast D.C.) and worked (Golden Triangle, before being laid off) I never saw any local food carts or trucks that were worth a damn. Maybe I didn't grow up in L.A., but if there was an honest-to-god taco or pupusa truck run by real Latinos who knew how to crank out authentic, inexpensive treats and lunches, or a Korean truck, or a Vietnamese cart, or whatever, I would have jumped all over it, and still would have. Maybe I'm in the minority here (no pun intended), but I think people will generally embrace good food when it is presented to them. As Tim points out, it really is all about location and convenience. A really amazing restaurant may be worth a little longer trip, but generally when I want to eat, I want something tasty, not too expensive, and above all near wherever I am when I get hungry. Isn't that the point of a food truck, after all - to go where the hungry people are?

  • Raul

    As a Mexican who has eaten at some of the taco trucks, I must say that they're just not that good. I mean, I suppose they're about as good as you're going to get from a truck around here, but nothing to write home about. I miss Mexico's actual street food. The stuff we have here is merely a pale imitation of it. From what I gather, the Mexican/Salvadorian food trucks are popular with immigrants because the food is quite inexpensive, not because it's great food.

    So, it seems like the gourmet food carts (in DC) are an actual new trend of providing really good quality food out of a truck. And, it sounds like the blogger you featured is guilty of the equally obnoxious, time-honored tradition of Americans overrating mediocre "ethnic food."

  • Raul

    For the record, I'm talking about the Mexican/Salvadorian food trucks in Gaithersburg. Maybe the trucks in PG County are better, but I'm not driving to another county for street food.

  • tomaj

    I 82% agree with SUF's opinions. While a $15 lobster roll sounds good, I'm a bit tired of hearing all about "When will the truck roll?! WHEN??!!" People will follow a truck because they twitter? I'd rather buy a few $2 pupusas instead. But I think I'm in the minority. Let me gently suggest that Bryant's comments are a bit off--I don't think that a lot of non-Latinos feel comfortable buying pupusas from a truck (at least not right away), but somehow they feel comfortable lining up 100 strong to buy a lobster roll.

  • http://www.burkas.net jburka

    It's the new, foodie-er trucks that are allowing vegetarians a place in the line...maybe not at the lobster truck, but Sauca, Fojol Bros, Rebel Heroes, El Floridano -- they all offer vegetarian options. Beats the hell out of being stuck with a bag of chips and a soda when you're clearly not interested in ordering a half-smoke.

  • Dave

    Yay for Food Network Humor! It's my favorite site.

  • just sayin’

    Sadly, Prince George's County has been persecuting its street food people for more than a decade. They're gone from Rte 1, from University Boulevard, from the road to Upper Marlboro and many other places. Done in the name of public safety and health.....ha! Remember all those crab vendors, cooked and fresh? the ribs and chicken guys? The pupusa vendors in Langley Park? All gone.

  • http://www.thestreats.com Randy

    For those of you into the DC Food Trucks, check out the new site in town which makes finding your favorite truck easier than ever. http://www.thestreats.com allows you to track the trucks and find which one is closest to you! Twitter @thestrEATSdc!

  • Kat

    We a few of my coworkers have just tried the lobster roll from the Reb Hook Lobster Pound for the first time at 19 & L NW Street today. We all agreed it was so good and loaded with lobster meat on a buttery roll. The price was a kinda high for a sandwich, but worth it as we all are lobster lovers. Also the line was extremely long, but we waited. Great job Red Hook Lobster Pound. We will be looking for you once a week on L street.

  • http://www.sassymarmalade.blogspot.com Tiffany

    While I do love all the "trendy" food trucks, I would LOVE if we could get a pupusa or taco truck somewhere downtown. I haven't been out to MoCo, but I love heading down to Columbia Pike in Arlington on the weekends, where the parking lots and sidewalks are full of street vendors. I can get a pupusa AND a sno cone, on the same block!

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