Food truck cuisine: sammies, pizza, ethnic specialties

street-zaMaybe we should count the return of food trucks and food carts right up there with robins as sure signs of spring.

“Mobile food is not a new concept in the United States,” notes PasteMagazine.com. “From the chuck wagons of the Old West to the hot dog stands of New York City, quick, inexpensive food on the road has been a part of our nation’s history.”

What has changed is the diversity of offerings in cities where the food truck culture thrives. Minneapolis (87 food trucks) and Chicago (80) are among the 15 cities with the most licensed food trucks nationally, the online publication concludes. Although hot sandwiches are the most popular offerings, followed by Mexican cuisine and cold sandwiches, menus certainly don’t stop there.

Streetza, which sells pizza by the slice from its mobile and 650-degree oven, began business in 2009 and was among Milwaukee’s first food trucks. Bloomberg Businessweek ranked Streetza the No. 1 food truck in the nation, and other positive attention has come from TIME to Smithsonian magazines. Order A Slice of Milwaukee, and you’ll get sausage, mushrooms, roasted garlic and onions on tomato sauce, with a topping of mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan.

More unconventional: Nutella, marshmallows and hot fudge on a graham cracker crust.

Today Milwaukee has dozens of licensed food trucks, and they come out of hiding as weather warms. Since 2012 the Milwaukee Food Truck Association represents these little businesses as one entity because of what they have in common, regardless of whether they sell sushi or Italian beef.

Friction with brick-and-mortar restaurant operators is not uncommon. “I feel like we’re bringing more people into an area for lunch, not competing” with sit-down options for dining, says Steve Mai of Streetza Pizza. “We’re not a threat, we’re an extension” of traditional restaurants and address the needs of different types of customers.

Alexa Alfaro of the Meat on the Street, a Milwaukee food truck that sells Filipino fare, says her city’s awareness of new foodie possibilities is growing, thanks to food truck bookings for wedding receptions and television shows about food truck cuisine.

Shepherd Express Street Eats showcases the grub of at least 20 food trucks from 4-8 p.m. May 15 at Catalano Square in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Also available: beer from Lakefront Brewery and a blues-soul music mix by the J. Ryan Trio. expressmilwaukee.com/streeteats

Food trucks, in this city and elsewhere, routinely show up at special events, especially farmers’ markets and neighborhood festivals.

In Madison, food carts – not trucks – are especially big on ethnic fare during lunchtime on Library Mall (at the University of Wisconsin end of State Street) and near the State Capitol. That means an assortment of empanadas, egg rolls, kebabs, curries, barbecue and much more. Exposure to exotic cuisines is less of an investment for the consumer when ordering from a food truck instead of a sit-down restaurant.

Library Mall’s first food cart, Loose Juice, began business in 1976 and for 30 years was operated by Karleton Armstrong (after prison time because of the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing).

Now two dozen Madison food carts are listed at letseatoutwi.org, a consortium for these businesses, but that’s one-third of the food vendors that the city of Madison has licensed. Some of the more successful mobile chefs now operate traditional restaurants: Among them are Himal Chuli (Nepalese food at 318 State St.), El Burrito Loco (Mexican, 745 High Point Rd.), Surco Peruvian (515 Cottage Grove Rd.) and Lao Laan-Xang (Laotian, 1146 Williamson St. and 2098 Atwood Ave.).

The annual Isthmus Food Truck Festival is 2-6 p.m. May 31 at Olin Park, 1156 Olin-Turville Court, Madison. It’s a $25 ticket for all-you-can-sample food, plus folk-bluegrass from Dead Horses and craft beer sales. Tickets disappear fast, as in days after sales begin. isthmusfoodcartfest.com, 608-256-2273

Letseatoutwi.org organizes other food cart events, such as 16 weekly dinners with about 20 carts at each and a summer concert series at Burr Jones Field, 1820 E. Washington Ave., on June 21, 28 and July 5.

When cooks compete at the annual Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship this month, several entrants in the professional division will be food truck operators. Mobile meal makers signing on, so far, are The Gouda Girls, Milwaukee, goudagirls.com; Melted, Madison, meltedmadison.com; The Lunch Bus, Platteville, thelunchbus.wix.com; Gray Dog Deli, Mineral Point, graydogdeli.com; and Melthouse Bistro, Milwaukee, melthousebistro.com.

The event is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 18 at Harris Park Pavilion, 600 Bennett Rd., Dodgeville. grilledcheesewisconsin.com, 608-935-9200