On The Go
Memphis trucks offer fun new venues for inventive and affordable street food.
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Here’s a hip new twist on mobile dining: food trucks in Memphis on permanent parking pads.
Called Truck Stop, the food trucks will encircle a brick-and-mortar bar in East Memphis. The bar will serve the drinks; the trucks will serve the food, explains Memphis Food Truckers Association president Taylor Berger.
“Truck Stop will give local food trucks a dependable avenue and venue to do business,” says Berger, who is also the co-owner of YoLo and Overton Square’s newest restaurant, Chiwawa. “I hope to have Truck Stop open this summer.”
Other food truck operators in Memphis also are finding creative ways to bring innovative street food to customers. Since the first food truck hit the street about two years ago, owners have moved beyond favorite downtown street corners to special events, concert series, and summer food truck rodeos every Sunday afternoon at Shelby Farm’s Patriot Lake.
Even museum and music venues are embracing food truck culture. At The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Food Truck Fridays feature a different truck for lunch every week. And in Midtown, Minglewood Hall on Madison Avenue hopes to turn its large parking lot into a food truck gathering at lunchtime.
“We have an under-used patio where we can serve drinks to customers who want to stop by and purchase lunch,” explains Minglewood Hall spokesman Sam Farris.
While relatively new to Memphis, food trucks are routine in larger cities, where they first gained popularity during the Great Recession. Since then, chefs have embraced trucks as a less expensive way to open restaurants and to experiment with ethnic fusion menus in more casual settings.
Why customers like food trucks is varied and sometimes intangible. The eclectic menus are enticing (for a range of offerings see the next story), certainly, and some diners are drawn to the sociability of waiting in food truck lines and picnicking with friends. Food truck operators like the people interaction too.
“The perfect recipe for food truck success requires a city to have culture, good climate, and culinary talent,” says Audrey Mehler, executive producer of the Cooking Channel’s Eat. St., a popular TV show featuring street food in America. The right mix also requires creative entrepreneurs who are risk-takers and appreciative city officials who are willing to manage a food truck scene, Mehler explains.
“A lot has to come together,” Mehler says. “Southern cities have an edge over Northern cities. Outdoor culture and weather also have a lot to do with it.”
While Memphis meets some of that criteria for success, food truck operators still face problems.
“We are not a pedestrian-friendly city,” Berger says, explaining how food trucks work best in cities where walking is easy and appealing. Establishing more bike lanes, expanding the Shelby Farms Greenline, and extending Wolf River Boulevard are a few efforts that will help Memphis become more pedestrian friendly, he says.
Happily, Memphis is headed in the right direction. Currently, 20 operators belong to the Memphis Food Truckers Association, an advocacy and promotional group formed last year. Improved regulations governing food trucks also help. In 2011, the Memphis City Council passed a food truck ordinance with restrictions about where food trucks can park. But already, some of those restrictions are bending. For instance, Beale Street operators allowed food trucks in downtown’s Handy Park during Memphis in May weekends and may continue food truck access throughout the summer.
Despite the obstacles, newcomers continue to join the food truck entourage. Chris Gray is ready to hit the streets with his truck called So Fresh Mobile Juice Bar. The juice bar on wheels will serve juices, smoothies, wraps, and cakes made from the pulp of freshly squeezed juices.
“Juicing is something I am very passionate about,” Gray says. “And I am excited to offer something new to the food truck scene.”
Trucks roll out new street food.
Thanks to Twitter, keeping up with the whereabouts of local food trucks is easy. Most trucks also update individual Facebook pages, and the Memphis Food Truckers Association (@Memfoodtruckers) maintains timely postings for member events. To help navigate the new trucks, here are some favorites we’ve discovered this year.
(@grazefoodtruck) Farm-to-table morphs into farm-to-truck thanks to Amelia Timms and Georgia Smith, who combine catering aplomb with a seasonal menu for such dishes as baby spinach salad, strawberries, grilled red onions, and blush wine vinaigrette.
La Lola Loca
(@lolaloca_UofM) At the University of Memphis, La Lola Loca is a welcomed option for lunch, serving mix-and-match tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and burrito bowls with such fillings as chipotle pulled BBQ pork and cilantro ranch slaw.
Parker’s Water Ice
(@Parkerswaterice) Water ice is a scrumptious treat that blends water, fruit syrups, or fruit purees into three dozen flavors like pineapple mango, tie-dye, or strawberry. Parker’s also scoops up shakes and gelati, a layered mix of water ice and ice cream.
(@popssmokehouse) The operators of Pop’s Smokehouse are competitive grillers, so the menu at Pop’s is deep, offering barbecue ribs, ham, turkey, chicken, and sausage plus traditional Southern desserts (lemon ice box pie!) and sides like English pea salad.
(@royalflavors) Geroy Rachel is a grill maestro offering familiar food with a twist. Try turkey spinach lasagna or Philly steak with summer okra. The truck’s flat-screen TV also kicks up the fun for an afternoon picnic or an occasional movie night.
At Stickem, the menu is simple, skewered, and grilled to perfection. Look for beef, chicken, shrimp, or tofu kabobs served over veggies and hand-cut fries or a fresh salad mix of lettuce, feta, onions, tomatoes, and olives.
An oversized burger on a brioche bun topped with caramelized onions, bacon, white cheddar cheese, and a secret Sooie Sauce is a signature dish at Stuffed, along with empanadas (try spicy pork carnitas) and biscuit sandwiches.
— by pamela denney