Have Food, Will Travel
Thanks to social media, mobile vendors are selling everything from fish tacos to cupcakes in Montgomery County. They tweet—you eat
Jon Rossler, aka The Corned Beef King, says owning a food truck is the hardest thing he has ever done—tougher than his nine years in the deli restaurant business.
He gets up at 5 a.m. to slice meat and make potato salad, coleslaw and knishes, loads the truck and prays that he won’t encounter parking problems, bad weather, traffic jams or vehicle trouble en route to Rockville, Bethesda or Olney.
“There’s always something. …It’s hard to make it out there every day,” the gregarious Rossler says. Once he does, though, he enjoys serving up his sandwiches and talking to the customers.
“Everything about it is fun,” he says.
Rossler is among a growing number of mobile food vendors who are bringing conviviality—not to mention some terrific food—to the streets of Montgomery County.
Yet it’s still a fledgling fleet compared to the District, where dozens of the 400 licensed food and ice cream trucks line downtown streets, offering everything from burgers and bulgogi to kimchi and crêpes.
Montgomery County has anywhere from 100 to 110 food trucks, most of them selling ice cream or Hispanic staples, according to Ken Welch, program manager for the county’s Office of Licensure and Regulatory Services.
Vendors cite several reasons why Montgomery County is behind the curve, including inadequate parking, a lower population density, fewer Twitter-savvy followers, and less access to private parking lots. Then there are the regulations, though whether they’re a blessing or a burden depends on whom you ask.
Rachen Malhotra, co-owner of the Indian food truck Rolls on Rolls, got ticketed in Silver Spring for not having the proper licenses and spent a month trying to decipher the rules. He then got licensed in the District, a process he found much easier.
Stacey Riska, owner of Maui Wowi trucks, had the opposite experience: She thought the process was streamlined in Montgomery County, whereas it took her months to get fully licensed in the District because of all the agencies she had to deal with.
In Montgomery County, “mobile food service units” must have a base of operation—a licensed food service facility with clean running water and a place to dispose of dirty water. The health department inspects the truck, and operators must take a basic food safety class to become certified food managers and obtain a vending operator’s permit from the county Department of Permitting Services (with additional licenses for each helper onboard).
Food truck owners acknowledge that their businesses require far less capital than a restaurant. But Missy Carr, co-owner of the Go Fish! truck, says there “seems to be this idea that when you open a truck, you have no expenses and everything is profit.” In fact there are many expenses—licenses, taxes, vehicle and liability insurance, the cost of the truck, plus maintenance and gas, renting space in a licensed food service facility and, of course, food and staff. In addition, food trucks in Montgomery County are not permitted to operate past dusk—so in the winter months that limits them to lunch.
And because of their size, the trucks can only sell limited quantities of food at a time. “We have a lower earning potential” than restaurants, Carr says.
That hasn’t stopped some brick-and-mortar competitors from complaining—particularly about trucks that park near restaurants and sell the same kind of food (though it’s unclear how often this occurs).
Welch and Susan Scala-Demby, zoning manager for the permitting services department, say there’s not much they can do if the trucks have the proper licenses and are legally parked.
But Jeff Heineman, owner of Grapeseed American Bistro + Wine Bar and Freddy’s Lobster + Clams in Bethesda, worries that if the trend becomes as popular here as it is downtown, it could affect restaurants’ already-slim profit margins and put some out of business. Heineman says he pays $100,000 in property taxes alone for his two restaurants, and he doesn’t like the fact that trucks can do business in parking spaces that potential restaurant customers might want to use.
Still, competition is a good thing for consumers. Of all the gripes about food trucks, Scala-Demby says, “never has anyone complained about the food being bad.”
Food Editor Carole Sugarman Follows the Food
In sampling the truck fare in the area, I found lots to like. My only complaint is that they can be hard to track down.
Some trucks have regular stops; others don’t. Popular spots now are the 5600 block of Fishers Lane in Rockville; Rockledge Drive in Bethesda; Security Lane in North Bethesda; and the area near Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.
The best way to follow the trucks is on Twitter or by checking their websites and Facebook pages. Also, www.foodtruckfiesta.com provides a daily map of food trucks’ whereabouts in the metropolitan area.
In the parking lot of the venerable Bethesda Community Store, customers place their orders at a stationary, wood-paneled truck, while an adjacent rotisserie smoker fires up ribs, brisket, chicken and pork. The tender ribs are incredibly meaty, and a half rack could easily feed two. The pulled pork sandwich is also chock-full of meat, and the hot sauce is hot.
Half chicken, $7; whole chicken, $12. Ribs, $2.25 each; half rack, $11; whole, $22. Sandwiches, $6 to $15.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
8804 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, 301-564-1009
Corned Beef King
Diners will be hard-pressed to find a better corned beef sandwich—or a better pastrami sandwich, for that matter—in Montgomery County. Jon Rossler’s fresh turkey breast sandwich, made with incredibly moist white meat, is also a standout. The former manager of the Celebrity Delly in Falls Church, Va., piles the slow-roasted meats atop thick, sturdy rye; these are half-pound, he-man sandwiches.
Sandwiches, $7.99 to $12.99
For information: www.cornedbeefking.com, 571-505-4125
Cravin Cookies and Sweets
From a pink-and-white van, former contractor Valerie Cook sells homemade cupcakes and other sweets. Cook’s baking is homespun; her cupcakes taste like yesteryear’s birthday party fare, and her thin, soft cookies taste like Mom’s.
Cookies, three for $1; cupcakes, $2.50 each.
For information: www.cravincookiesandsweets.com, 240-778-4941
The world hardly needs another cupcake purveyor, but Angelette Aviles, a former public relations consultant, makes them into little works of art. And they taste great—with moist, flavorful bases and icings that aren’t too sweet. I especially loved the peanut butter, with its intensely nutty frosting atop devil’s food, and the key lime, its buttery cake spiked with fresh lime juice and zest, and topped with a pretty swirl of cream cheese frosting.
Cupcakes, $3 each; $16, a half dozen; $30, a dozen.
For information: www.cupcakeblvd.com, 443-875-1645 or 301-328-2875
L’Academie de Cuisine graduate Missy Carr offers ready-to-eat lunches, ready-to-cook dinners, regular fresh fish, plus home delivery. I’d opt for the crabcake or fish tacos, both great catches.
Soups and stews, $5 to $7; sandwiches, $8 to $13.
For information: www.gofishdelivers.com, 855-529-3474
Hardy’s Divine Ribs & Chicken
Cooked over hickory and white oak woods, the beef back ribs are consistently meaty, smoky and finger lickin’. They’re the real deal—and caterer Corries Hardy has cooking awards to show for it.
Half rack, $14; full rack, $24. Half chicken, $8; whole chicken, $14. Turkey legs, $6. Sandwiches, $6 to $7.
For information: www.hardysq.com, 240-893-3182
Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. (The truck is always parked in the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market lot.)
Bethesda resident Stacey Riska is a local franchise owner for the Colorado-based Maui Wowi company, running two shops at Dulles International Airport as well as three colorful “tiki-hut” trucks that sell Kona Coffee, fresh fruit smoothies and shaved ice. My piña colada smoothie, made with nonfat yogurt, bananas, pineapple juice and coconut milk, was thick and refreshing, and the little paper parasol and pink lei made my day.
Smoothies, $2 to $7; coffee, $2 or $3; shaved ice, $3.
For information: www.kapotrading.com, 301-523-3600
Fans mourned the departure of Ali Baba’s Falafel, but the stationary truck that replaced it at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market in Bethesda is even better. Chevy Chase resident Steve Markham’s forte is flavorful Asian fare, and he and sous chef RT Smith make a mean banh mi (Vietnamese sub), Orient Express salad and wonderful soup specials, including Thai pumpkin with mango nectar and lime.
Salads and sandwiches, $6.99 to $14.99
For information: www.one3fivecuisine.com, 301-801-2823
Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda
Pino’s Auto Grill
Naples-born Pino Campagna was a local marble layer for 30 years, but the economic downturn made him switch to the second thing he knows best: Italian cooking. The truck offers cheesesteaks, meatball and Italian subs, plus pasta. My penne with Bolognese was homey and comforting.
Subs, cheesesteaks and pasta, $9.
For information: www.pinosautogrill.com, 301-337-7466
Red Hook Lobster Pound
With nearly 24,000 Twitter followers, Red Hook is one of the oldest and most popular upscale food truck businesses around. Owned by Doug Povich, a Washington attorney whose cousin owns a brick-and-mortar shop with the same name in Brooklyn, and Leland Morris, a Culinary Institute of America grad, Red Hook has two trucks—one that concentrates solely on the District, and another that stops throughout the Metro area, including Bethesda, Silver Spring and Friendship Heights. Given the accolades and local awards, I was expecting the Maine lobster roll of my dreams. But it was just OK—the claw and knuckle meat was skimpy, and the lemon mayonnaise barely discernible (plus, a piece of cartilage got stuck in my tooth). The clam chowder had a nice flavor, but One3Five Cuisine makes a better cup.
Lobster roll, $15; shrimp roll, $8.
For information: www.redhooklobsterdc.com, 202-341-6263
Former restaurateurs Shane Patterson and Rick Baldwin were among the first upscale food truckers in Montgomery County, and they know how to make a sandwich. Out of the three I tried, my favorite is Mama Toni’s Meatball sub, an A-1 version of this Italian specialty.
Sandwiches, $7 to $10.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
For information: www.suburbanbros.com, 240-715-7112 or 301-523-4947
Southern California chef Giovanni Caporicci grew up on vanilla-date shakes, and now he and Melanie Abdow, the former banquet director at The National Press Club, have brought the wonderful West Coast specialty to Maryland, along with high-quality salads and sandwiches. The French Turkey Torpedo, made with fresh roasted turkey breast, brie and cranberry relish on Caporicci’s homemade French bread, beats any sub shop version.
Salads, $9; sandwiches, $5 to $9.50.
For information: www.thatsalata.com, 949-283-9553
At press time, Sweetz Cheesecake (Twitter: @cheesecaketruc), Mighty Dog (Twitter: @MightyDogAcai) and CurleysQ (Twitter: @CurleysQ) were just getting ready to roll in Montgomery County. Other trucks that make periodic stops in the area include Carmen’s Italian Ice (Twitter: @CarmensCarts) and Curbside Cupcakes (Twitter: @CurbsideCupcake).
Check the Table Talk blog for reviews.
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.