July 18, 2011
Monday postscript: Food trucks, rules, diversity and the future

Drewski (11).JPGIn my review this Sunday, I took a look at the three new food trucks that have made a mark on the Sacramento area food scene in recent months. Drewski's, Mini Burger and Mama Kim on the Go. Throw in Chando's (whose taqueria I reviewed a few months back) and a new contender, Wicked Wich, and we have the makings of a movement.

That's not a lot. But these are the pioneers, and they're leading the way in a trend that is sweeping the country. Why are food trucks the new hot thing? For one, they are thriving in some cities we look to as trendsetters: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland. We look to those cities for guidance and we envision a scene in Sacramento in which you can stroll along the city's streets, stop for a quick bite of good food and be on your way.

Those kinds of impromptu moments can be fun and easy and memorable. The very fine food blog "Cowtown Eats," for instance, recently wrote: "When I hear about a new food truck, it's like the Christmas season. I get all excited and count days until I get to try it." This guy is really dialed in to the local food scene, so he may be a tad more enthusiastic than the average hungry Joe.

There are problems in Sacramento, however, that are going to make it harder for street food to take root. For one thing, the rules don't allow it. Yes, the city's current regulations require food trucks to stay parked in one spot for only 30 minutes. That's a big problem and, if enforced, could lead to ridiculous scenarios: someone could presumably order at the truck window and have to drive somewhere else to get the food when it's ready. Others, who may have waited in line for 10 or 15 minutes, could get near the front of the line only to be told that, "Oops, we gotta run. Can't afford another citation."

It just so happens that I grew up in a city, Ottawa, Canada, that has had a bit of a street food scene for decades. For some odd reason, Canada's capital city has always had trucks that sold french fries - we called them "chip wagons." Everyone had a favorite chip wagon. Some used better grease, better potatoes, had bigger portions, cooked them crispy or, most importantly, knew to add salt and vinegar halfway in the brown paper bag before topping it off with more fries (and adding more salt and vinegar). My favorite truck was "Glenn's Chip Wagon" and I knew it would always be parked outside Canadian Tire on Richmond Road. It was that way in high school, it was that way when I visited from college and it was that way when I visited 10 years after I graduated from college. I would try other chip wagons once in awhile, but the benchmark was always Glenn's, and I always knew where to find it.

The other problem in Sacramento? Impromptu dining moments are logistically unlikely here, largely because the city's new urban growth and excitement is based disproportionately on the bar and restaurant scene. In other words, people are flocking to midtown and downtown to go to the bars and restaurants. These places are the destinations. People don't drive in from Fair Oaks or Elk Grove to go for a stroll and shop for new shoes or sweaters and, in the middle of it all, decide to buy some street food when they are suddenly famished. So, we need to give people more reasons to come to the city's core. Restaurants and bars have been doing the brunt of the heavy lifting for a decade now during the city's new wave of growth. The vintage clothing shops seem to be doing well. The hair salons are also abundant. Ditto, yoga studios. After that? Not much beyond bail bonds, and that's not the kind of destination I have in mind.

The city is thriving much more than it was when I moved here in June of 1999. I have always enjoyed taking long walks, and in Sacramento I noticed that there were pockets of energy and interest on the streets here and there. But it was not contiguous. Thus, I would stroll, hit upon a cool block or two, then walk into several dead blocks, then encounter more good stuff. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought back then, if the city were better connected? If going for a stroll didn't mean walking some blocks that seemed abandoned? Long walks are much more stimulating and people-friendly these days.

What's nice about living here since 1999 is that I have been an eyewitness as the city began filling in the blanks. I remember eating at Paesano's back then and looking across at the lovely but empty building on the other side of the street. I remember thinking it would be a cool place to have a restaurant or store. That place is now the elegant and always-busy Zocalo, the upscale Mexican restaurant. Next to it is the thriving Press Bistro, and just around the corner is 58 Degrees, the popular wine bar and wine shop. None of that existed.

The city is on its way. Sacramento has never had as much variety when it comes to restaurants and nightlife options. We simply need more retail diversity. Then food trucks - and impromptu food moments - will make more sense. Right now, you have to really want to chase after these trucks. You have to make the trucks an important part of your day's itinerary. You must follow them on Twitter, find out where they are going to be, then race to that location before their 30 minutes are up.

This can be a bit of a sport, and it can be pretty fun. But it's not a long-term, sustainable business plan - the food is not good enough and the options are not abundant enough for that to happen. Don't blame the trucks, and I'm not trying to insult them. They are on the right track. Their food isn't supposed to be destination-style dining. It's impromptu eating - good eating, maybe even memorable eating, when I'm on my way to buying that new pair of shoes or sweater at the stores that don't exist yet.

Finally, a quick note about something that seems to plague segments of the Sacramento populous - an inferiority complex. Some folks think we're always behind the times, that we're copycats, that the food always tastes better somewhere else. This has come up again with the food truck/street food trend, and people who think that are simply misguided. San Francisco is having problems with food trucks, especially new ones. People are complaining that the application and permit process is way too cumbersome and that it scares away potential entrepreneurs. New York these days is sounding a lot like Sacramento - the police are ticketing food trucks in Manhattan that are parked in a spot with a parking meter. This is a new and aggressive police tactic. I love New York and its street food can be pretty cool. But do you know what the most common food truck is in NYC? Soft serve ice cream.

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