Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Viva la Revolucion! - Eating at Foodtrucks

They were the first harbingers.  The primary portents of a real and viable American food revolution.  Omens telling of a fundamental shift in modern American gastronomy.  They were food trucks, and they heralded a radical new age in food purveyance wherein eaters found themselves suddenly unfettered from the tyranny of the restaurant, the despotism of the chef, the snobbery of the sommelier, the pencil-lipped douchebaggery of the maître d’.  Food trucks were the culinary war cry in a populist food movement, the gastronomic rebel yell calling an army of newly enlivened eaters into the streets to celebrate liberation by eating the peoples’ cuisine, the food of our mothers, our fathers, the foods of our beginnings, the temples of our familiar.  The act of eating at a food truck was, however briefly, an act of political subversion, a veritable fuck you to the business-as-usual restaurant model.  It was also an act of celebration, a gesture of embrace, for the often-remarkable culinary achievements of these everyday journeymen food truck cooks and operators.  From New York City to Austin, Texas, to L.A., food trucks challenged the very paradigm of what it meant to purchase and consume prepared food.  The food truck movement, for those first, too-brief and shining moments, marshaled a diaspora of legions of eaters away from the brick-and-mortal prisons of wallet-fleecing pretension, and out into cityscapes buzzing and big with true culinary revolution.  It was street food come alive.  And it was a wonder.

But then something happened. 

Something bad.

As with all revolutions, the food truck revolution was immediately co-opted and corrupted by forces antithetical to the original spirit of insurgency.  The food truck movement was suddenly overrun by hacks and charlatans whose menus offered little more than mediocrity, culinary irony, or gastronomic nostalgia.  Gone (or so it seemed) were the aspirants to greatness.  For every soul food truck that went missing, a cupcake truck appeared in its place.  For every middle-aged journeyman cook selling the saltenas of his native Bolivia to go missing in action, there quickly appeared a sock-headed hipster selling ironic macaroni and fucking cheese.  Worse still, cities got in on the action.  Municipalities (and mayors) beholden to the powerful restaurant lobby on coasts both left and right quickly passed laws that made it virtually impossible for food trucks to park, to sell, to operate in the already difficult business of purveying food.  And just like that, the food truck movement seemed over, defeated by that especially potent American variety of governmental shortsightedness and just plain bad fucking taste.

Or so I thought.

This last weekend, I encountered not one, but two area food trucks that suggest, by the seriousness and complexity of the food they’re selling, the food truck movement is far from over.  It’s a still-vital force of true believers hell bent on a little culinary payback and reckoning.  Truck owner/operators like the ones I just visited have clearly decided they are in it to win it.  These guys are throwing down hard.  And they’re pushing back.  Hipster hawkers and city council members beware:  there are a few, very serious food truck operators out there, who are building an army of savvy eaters inured to hipster fare like ironic deviled eggs and fake falafel.  These food trucks, the serious ones, are indoctrinating new recruits one reinvigorated appetite at a time.  Love food trucks or hate them; a declaration of allegiance is implicit in whether or not you eat their food.  And I, for one, know whose side I’m on.  I’m eating.  I’m eating it all. 

Especially this:

The terrifically delicious Borinquen Lunch Box.  It is, to my knowledge, the only Puerto Rican food truck rolling around these mean streets of culinary Washington.  They offer a holy trio of sandwiches:  the Churrasco (skirt steak), the Cubano (roasted pork), and the Tripletas (pork, skirt steak, ham).  They also offer alcapurrias (beef-filled plaintain fritters), and empenadillas (fried pastry stuffed with beef, chicken, or pizza filling).  The sandwich meat is grilled on site, and the alcapurrias and empenadillas are fried-to-order.  Not to mention there is Puerto Rican music on the truck speakers.  We were ten-deep at the window, and despite having oodles of time to suss out I wanted to eat, I choked when asked for my order.  I blanked.  I balked.  I simply couldn’t make up my mind.  Why?  Because I realized, in that moment, I new absolutely nothing about Puerto Rican food.  Nada.  Sure, I spent my twenties in Chicago.  Sure, I’ve had really good twelve-year run in the food business.  But I’ve somehow never knowingly put Puerto Rican food in my mouth.  Ever.  And not for the lack of trying.  I’ve eaten pig’s ears.  Crickets.  Sheep testicles.  I’ve eaten everything ever put in front of me, but Puerto Rican food has, for whatever reason, eluded me.  So I threw a proverbial dart at the menu.  I threw up a Hail Mary.  I asked the nice lady behind the counter to order for me.  She smiled and gave me a Tripletas and an order of pizza empenadillas.  I took a street curb for a chair and ate.  What I encountered was a cuisine not quite like any other I’ve ever tasted.  It was simultaneously Hispanic and Caribbean.  It juxtaposed flavors from both the island and the barrio.  It put two outwardly contrary culinary approaches together on one bun with stern instructions to get the fuck along.  And get along the flavors did, and beautifully.  A massive (though succulent and highly seasoned) three-meat mélange heaped on bread and topped with shoestring potatoes.  I devoured the thing.  I gnashed.  I tore.  The Tripletas was good.  Really good.  And what I was left with at meals’ end was a greasy foil wrapper and a sense of wonder that comes when one’s horizons (culinary and otherwise) have just broadened and you are filled with a new sense of wonder.  My meal at Borinquen Lunch Box left me lightheaded and happy with the feeling that comes from discovering something entirely new and truly tasty.

And I wanted more.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to wait long: almost exactly forty-eight hours later found me standing before the dangerously delicious Curley’s Q.  Less of a food truck experience than a culinary tent revival, owner/operator Curley (so reads his shirt, though his real name is David Cornblatt) quietly, if powerfully, preaches and proselytizes the virtues of hardwood smoked meats through a holy trinity of barbequed proteins of pork, chicken, and beef.  And for the second time in two days I stood, slackjawed and dumbfounded, in front of a food truck.  Not because I didn’t know what to order.  No, no.  Not this time.  This vexation stemmed from a desire to eat everything in Curley’s truck.  So I tried.  I ordered Curley’s Plate.  To wit:  pulled pork, sliced brisket, pulled chicken, and pork ribs; all of it paired with baked beans, slaw, and a perfectly perky jalapeno pepper, jam-packed inside a styrofoam clamshell that, when full, must surely weigh more than two pounds.  Curley offers house-made sauces (one Eastern Carolina, the other a tangy South Carolina/Memphis hybrid), but as any barbeque devotee will tell you:  ignore the sauces, ignore the sides, and concentrate on the smoke inside the meat.  So I sat on the parking lot curb and ate.  I ate with my bare hands.  And what I discovered, was easily some of the best barbeque I’ve yet tasted in these, the most-Northern hinterlands of the great American South.  Curley knows what he’s doing here.  He’s got some serious barbeque mojo working for him; the man’s got serious gastronomic chops, and the gods of wood smoke are clearly his friends.  The chicken revealed such depth and complexity of flavor that it was, on first tasting, nearly indistinguishable from Curley’s truly awesome pulled pork.  The pork ribs possessed that mythical pink ring that lives just under the layer of top char and tells you, the eater, that yes, this rib meat has been smoked to perfection.  But the brisket.  Wow.  The brisket left me stupefied.  Speechless.  The brisket was (and I tread lightly here, as my own mother makes a Southern smoked brisket every time I visit) some of best I’ve ever tasted.  Sorry, Mom, but Curley’s got it all figured out.

Revolutions are messy; their architects, imperfect.  The food truck movement is no exception.  It is rife with lowbrow culinary approaches and gastronomic mediocrity.  But it is also peopled with aspirants to greatness like the good folks at Borinquen Lunch Box and the maestro of food truck barbeque, David Cornblatt of Curley’s Q.  Folks who aspire to change the face of American fast food.  Journeyman cooks who endeavor to wean an urban American workforce off food purveyed by laughing clowns and sandwich shops named after underground mass transit systems. Owner/operators who seek to enliven palates and broaden culinary minds.  I, for one, am ready.  I’ve got a pocket full of cash, and I’m more than happy to stand in line.  But this time, I'll know what to order.

Your link for Borinquen Lunch Box:  Home Page

Your link for Curley's Q:  Curley's Q - Food Truck & Catering | Authentic BBQ in Montgomery County, MD | Curley's Q - Food Truck & Catering

Other links to Curley's Q:  <a href=""><img alt="Curley's Q on Urbanspoon" src="" style="border:none;padding:0px;width:130px;height:36px" /></a>

And:  <a href=""><img alt="Curley's Q on Urbanspoon" src="" style="border:none;padding:0px;width:200px;height:146px" /></a>