I know that I write a blog in Arlington, but I have to wander away from my home base to talk about the phenomenon of food trucks. Food trucks are in their infancy in the Boston area, but I’ve traveled to a few other cities recently with robust food cart communities. First stop, Portland, Oregon. Anyone who has any interest in food should skedaddle out to Portland pronto. I am sure natural beauty and cultural diversions are abundant there, but I was distracted by the offerings at 21 different food establishments (in three days). Some of my best meals were at Portland’s food carts.
Portland allows landowners to develop “pods” of several carts clustered together, often in parking lots. The carts have permanent spots, and many pods include a common seating area. The result: stable small businesses and delicious, ingenious food. At Sweet Pea Brulee, I tasted the best crème brulee I’ve ever had from the tiniest cart I’ve ever seen. Next door at Viking Soul Food, I swooned over a lefse (potato bread) wrap stuffed with meatballs, mushroom gravy and purple cabbage slaw that was made in looked like my grandfather’s camper. I also stopped at several businesses that started as carts, but became so successful that they expanded to storefronts—for example, Saint Cupcake, which served a stellar range of goodies including the cardamom-laced bonbon bunbuns.
Street food has long been a way of life in New York City, and dozens of vendors sell tacos, falafel, empanadas, cupcakes, and more out of all sorts of mobile carts. My family has settled on Wafels and Dinges as our favorite food truck when in the Big Apple, although I would happily return to Rickshaw Dumplings (even in touristy Times Square) for the pork and chive morsels.
The Boston area is a latecomer to the mobile street food scene. Compared to Portland’s 700 carts, the Boston Area Food Truck Association lists 40 members, and half of those appear to exist in name only. Food trucks aren’t really about the novelty of eating standing up. They exist because they offer a business option that is less expensive compared to a bricks and mortar restaurant. But that option isn’t exactly easy here. Recently Radio Boston chronicled the bureaucratic roadblocks that food truck owners are experiencing as they try to build their businesses.
This means that eaters are still waiting for a true street food community here. My criteria for street food: fast, cheap, and delicious. Or at least two out of these three. For Arlingtonians, there are a few trucks in nearby Cambridge, but the best bets are downtown. Bon Me and Clover Food Lab have both impressed me (and Clover now has a restaurant in Harvard Square that still feels like you are eating at their cart). Just finding where the trucks are can be a hassle. I recently traveled to Harvard Square in search of a cluster of three trucks that this site said were open, but found only one in sight.
Cities like Portland and New York have figured out how easier pathways for food entrepreneurs, and the result is a stunning array of unique food choices for diners and thriving small businesses for the economy. Massachusetts would do well to take notice.