My friend Special K earns extra cash on weekends by working out at the Midway Food Park, which is where I met Steve Dean for our dance hall tour earlier this year. Her gig is schlepping the PA equipment for the bands that play there each weekend (Steve books them), and as a result she's gotten a bit of insight into the culture of the food trailer scene here. It also meant that she got early warning about Truck By Truck West, which sounded interesting: you bought a wristband, and for five days got unlimited samples at a whole bunch of food trucks that had signed up to participate. At the end, those who had week-long passes would vote on the best places they'd visited. This would be facilitated by an app for your smartphone called Byte, which seems to combine Google Maps with a Yelp-like rating system.
Since I'd been wanting to check out the whole Austin food trailer scene for some time, this seemed like a good excuse to do it, so I plunked down a $40 registration fee (K mysteriously found a free registration at the Midway), and we decided to be food detectives for a week.
Austin, in part because of its weather, has been in the forefront of this trend for some time. Several years ago, before things even got as crazy as they are now, I heard that there were 1800 trailers in Austin. No idea how many there are now, but one interesting trend was that trailers often had high-end dining and the more successful ones got brick-and-mortar locations. The great success story, of course, was Franklin's Barbeque, which went from a trailer to a huge operation for which people now stand in line for seven or eight hours. (It's good. It's very good. But nothing is worth standing in line for seven hours to get. This isn't a slam at Aaron Franklin, but, rather, on trendy people.)
I also have to say that restaurants like Barley Swine, Salty Sow, and East Side King are hard to imagine as trailers, and that they might have been better off there, but I have yet to really investigate them. What put me off from the whole high-end-trailer-to-restaurant thing was the worst meal I've ever paid that much money for at Foreign and Domestic, one of the first to make the jump. I don't want to go back over the experience, although it lingers in my mind, but engineering such a collision of horrid atmosphere, ill-thought-out-food, and arrogant, ignorant service would be hard to do on purpose.
Still, if there's one thing that TXTW didn't seem to have, it was high-end food. Which is a shame, but although there probably are nascent success stories that didn't sign up, the levelled playing field was probably more fair to the overall voting results. At any rate, K and I installed Byte on our phones, and then tried to figure out how to get our wristbands and how to make them work. This was TXTW's second year, and given the level of disorganization around it, I don't even want to contemplate what last year's was like. Just getting next to the wristbands was difficult: the organizer's perfervid style of communicating via e-mail forced the reader to dig in, looking for the information amidst the logorrhea. Eventually, we each went to the Squarerüt Kava Bar nearest us and asked if they'd been delivered any wristbands. They had, in both cases. She accepted the free cup of kava and liked it. I passed, although the folks were friendly.
For our first night of tasting, we decided to head up S. 1st St., where there were a number of places to try. Our first stop was a little trailer park at 504 W. Oltorf, hidden from the road by a building that was part of one of the vendors' operation. We decided to start with something familiar: tacos from Cheke's Takos. They were friendly enough, but refused to understand that we were two individuals with two registrations, so we only got two of the three samples. I don't even remember what they were, although the salsas were superb. One for another day. Next up was Flying Carpet: Moroccan Souk Food. The guy who ran it, Abderrahim, was super friendly, and we wound up talking with him while his wife Maria dealt with the deluge of TXTW orders that had started arriving. Again, I didn't take notes, and the sample was small, but extremely tasty. The building that blocks the view of the court belongs to Flying Carpet, and is simply a dining area out of the weather. I bet I wind up at this place again, too, and if Abderrahim is able to expand to more complex dishes than the street food he's serving now, I'd enthusiastically try it. The evening closed when we left this place and headed a bit up the street to Regal Ravioli, a place I'd seen out of the corner of my eye while eating outdoors at Elizabeth Street (another fine place I've been saving for a restaurant wrapup here). This guy is ambitious, but the sample was a couple of ravioli in red sauce (but that's probably what Austinites expect), and I found the sauce to have an unpleasant citrus-y tang. I dunno; worth watching, but, as with so much Italian food in Austin, I can do better at home.
The idea of finding a food court and working our way around it was a good one, so Thursday (I teach a class on Wednesday night) we headed up to Hipster Central, E. 6th St. across the freeway. In the 20 years since I've been here, the Mexican-Americans have been rather aggressively removed from this long-time enclave, and people with ink, shaved heads and Smith Brothers beards have taken over. It's entirely too close to downtown to allow ethnics to live there, after all, and if the young people who've taken over are ignorant of the families they've displaced, they're not entirely to blame, because it was the real estate interests who led the charge. It's too late to do anything about it, in any event, but I'm still haunted by the ghosts of the residents of 35 years ago when I go there.
Our evening started at Baton Creole, presided over by a jolly young woman with whom I talked Cajun food, who also told me there was another branch near me on Stassney Lane inside a bar a friend of hers had taken over. I may check it out some time, but the sample, a mini sausage jambalaya on a stick, wasn't too great: basically a sausage was threaded onto the stick, then a rice mixture covered it, then it was breaded and fried. It was too hot when I bit into it, but it didn't seem to have a lot of flavor as it cooled, either. The Wholly Kebab place didn't impress me -- kebabs rarely do after 20 years in Europe, where I mostly avoided them, although they're the most universal street food on the continent -- and the portion was too small to figure out what it was supposed to taste like. Next up was Way South Philly, allegedly a cheese steak joint, but what we got was a small pile of shredded meat in a bun. K thought she detected some cheese, but I couldn't, and anyway, the meat in a cheese steak isn't shredded. There was supposed to be an Indian place in this court, but there wasn't, so we had pizza from Spartan Pizza for dessert. Two half-slices, nothing special. Better than most Austin pizza, which is damning with faint praise.
There was one more place on the street, but it was getting late. Hell, we had a parking space, it was only a block, so we trudged to Kyoten. And were amazed. The sample was excellent, but simple: a sheet of fried tofu split open to accommodate some rice. Both the tofu and the rice were subtly flavored, and I trusted these guys enough to order a small bite of sushi to try, the "Negihama," which consisted of a fish called kenpachi that I'd never heard of, and is, according to an expert I asked, the mature form of amberjack. Whatever it was, it was buttery and flavorful. I talked some to one of the guys running the stand and found him full of knowledge and enthusiasm. The grounds were beautiful at night, the raked gravel, the Zen garden, and the quiet (of all things) making the whole experience the opposite of what we'd just been to. I intend to stop by several more times before somebody hands them a wad of cash and the lease to a building to grow in. I suspect I'll have a superb meal next time I check in: I've only scratched the surface of the menu, and there are regular daily specials. Now, if I only knew something about sake...
Friday, K had to work at the Midway, and I stayed home and cooked some ravioli, some red sauce, and mixed them together, strewed mozzarella over the whole thing and threw it in the oven. Sorry, Austin, this is what it tastes like.
Saturday, K also had to work but it was a chance to use the wristband at the Midway, as well as to see Don Leady, an old pal, sit in with the band that was booked that night, which also featured Don's protege, a 13-year-old guitar whiz. The thing is, when I got up there I wasn't at all hungry: none of the trucks, either through their samples or their regular items, tempted me. K, between doing what she had to do (she also passes the hat for the bands twice during the evening), ordered first a "lobster roll" from Dock and Roll that sure didn't look like any lobster roll I've ever seen (like the "cheese steak": these people are defining regional food for Austin!), and then "sausage and peppers" from Gregorio's, which came with a few mostaccioli blanketed by a generic red sauce. There was also a slider joint (Hand Held's), a taco joint (One Taco), Widespread Dave's (he being the former caterer for the jam-band Widespread Panic), a cheesecake place (K's favorite), and a juice place. Frankly, after the Gregorio's sample K handed me, I lost all interest, and after she'd put the equipment away, we called it a day.
Turned out we were supposed to integrate the Byte app with Facebook each time we checked into a place (I don't do Facebook mobile for security reasons), and there's also the voting to go through by midnight today. Frankly, I'd rather write about it, but I'll dig out the e-mail with the voting link just to see that Kyoten gets its props, and Flying Carpet, too. I'm glad to have had this intro to the food trailer experience, and can't help feeling that there are a few interesting ones I've missed (and will be happy to hear about them before cold weather comes on). As for TXTW, it was chaotic, disorganized, and not quite worth the money for me. But since it gave me the excuse to get out and see these places, I'm glad to have done it.
Oh, and as you've no doubt noticed, I was one of the few people not photographing my food.
10 months ago