Meals on Wheels

Food trucks in Memphis turn out gourmet tacos, barbecue bologna, and shaved ice in 45 flavors.

photography by Justin Fox Burks

(page 1 of 2)

On a gorgeous Thursday afternoon in mid-May, a dozen food trucks turned downtown’s Court Square into a carnival of sociability and sustenance, serving balsamic chicken sliders, smoked sausage slaw dogs, and vegetarian tacos with roasted garlic aioli.

By noon, lines circled the trucks, but people didn’t mind the wait, especially if they could watch self-effacing chefs like Barrett Round and Tommy Turan season gumbo, sauté shrimp, and laugh about their new food truck called Scratch.

“We got the truck a week ago, and the generator already blew up twice and our point-of-sale machine stopped working,” Round says. “It’s been crazy, but fun.”

In many ways, the energetic chefs from Scratch exemplify the trends of a burgeoning industry where food truck operators train at culinary schools and menus are healthy, fresh, and gourmet. Although food trucks aren’t new (the first chuck wagon rolled across Texas after the Civil War), the arrival in 2008 of vendors like Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in New York City were game-changers. A struggling economy, the public’s insatiable appetite for cooking shows like Eat St., and the explosion of social media also spurred the gourmet food truck trend.

"With almost 100 trucks trying to operate, that means there's a big appetite in the city for mobile food." — Taylor Berger

Today, more than 7,000 gourmet food trucks operate across the country, including 1,500 in Austin and 2,500 in Los Angeles County, according to Richard Myrick, editor of the online trade publication Mobile Cuisine. Add in coffee and sandwich “roach coaches,” street cart vendors, and taco trucks, and the number jumps to nearly 3 million.

In Memphis, the parade of food trucks is more modest, but still surprising. A year after the city council passed a food truck ordinance, 45 vendors hold operating permits and another 30 to 40 permits are pending, says Taylor Berger, co-founder of YoLo Frozen Yogurt & Gelato. And at a meeting in early May, more than 40 people showed up to form a Memphis Food Truck Association, with 15 volunteering for the board of directors.

“The only way we can speak is as one voice,” Berger told the group. “With almost 100 trucks trying to operate, that means there’s a big appetite in the city for mobile food.”

While some trucks stay under the radar and focus on catering and special events, others are highly visible thanks to regular posts on Facebook and Twitter. Menus and locations change daily, which makes it difficult to compile a dependable list of food truck favorites. Still, we’ve tried, and here are a dozen of our best picks for early summer.

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