D.C.’s food trucks are my favorite aspect of the city’s dining scene. Finding an unexpected new truck in the lineup has become far more exciting to me than the opening of another farm-to-table restaurant, quasi-celebrity chef joint, or chicken-and-doughnuts shop (kidding–I am still REALLY thrilled by that trend). I spent years digging out from one lunch rut (Breadline) only to fall into another (Pret-a-Manger) and another (Potbelly). I’d find something I liked and make it a habit until I hated it. Slowly, cautiously, I started dabbling in food trucks, making them an occasional treat. I wasn’t immediately on the bandwagon. For every interesting panini, there seemed to be a handful of ho-hum kabobs. Trucks can be pricey, there are often frustrating lines, and there is a disappointing amount of inconsistency among the vendors. As the number, variety, and creativity of the trucks increased, I found myself hitting them up more and more. Now I check Food Truck Fiesta by 10 am most days and I grab lunch from a truck multiple times a week (note: Food Truck Fiesta is the very best way to get updates on where the trucks are parked). This city has an unexpected number of skilled, clever cooks running thoughtful, inventive, and delicious mobile businesses. To keep my waistline and bank account in check, I still fold in the old standby brick and mortar stores for balance, but my heart belongs to the trucks. I’ve been to more than 50 trucks (with so many more to try), and I figured it was time to share my favorites.
(fried handpies stuffed with creative fillings)
Why I Love It: D.C. Empanadas has long been one of my favorite trucks. I first made it a habit in the spring of last year, drawn back week after week for the satisfying flavors (e.g., queso blanco + mozzarella + asadero cheese (“Speedy Gonzalez”), ropa vieja beef + rice + tomato sauce (“Ropanada”)) and efficient service and consistent quality. I spent a happy spring and summer trying many flavors, with and without that magic green sauce. The truck seemed to hit a couple of bumps last September. I went one week and was surprised to find the pie fillings were a little dry and the pastry was overcooked. I figured it was a one-day glitch and returned the next week with two co-workers. The same problems were there. I sent a short note to the e-mail address listed on the truck’s website explaining that I love the truck, but had noticed a slight decline in quality. Anna Bran-Leis, the owner, wrote back to apologize and say that they had some new staff, but had addressed the issues. I gave it another shot and sure enough, they were back in the excellence business. I wasn’t sure whether to mention this experience here, but I view it as a positive reflection on D.C. Empanadas–their customer service and dedication to improvement impressed me and made me like the truck even more. I’ve had D.C. Empanadas in regular rotation ever since.
Favorite Menu Items: I am partial to anything with beens, beef, and/or cheese (e.g., Speedy Gonzalez, Weapon of Mass Destruction), but my absolute favorite is the Bad Ass: juicy chicken tucked into a funky, spicy buffalo and blue cheese sauce.
How Much to Order: If I’m really hungry I go for 3 empanadas for $10. If I’m not super hungry, I still get 3 for $10 because even if I’m full after 2, I want a third.
Far East Taco Grille
(Asian BBQ flavored soft tacos)
Why I Love It: Far East Taco Grille inspired my very first tweet. They put toasted sesame seeds on a quesadilla and I was blown away. (It’s those kinds of thoughtful touches that separate great food trucks from typical brick-and-mortar chains. Au Bon Pain does not make me want to tweet.) Far East Taco Grille no longer serves quesadillas, but I find its soft tacos just as inspirational. The tacos are made to order based on your selection of a protein, a salsa, a slaw, and a finisher. Each element has a Japanese or Korean edge. Given the MTO nature of the operation, the line can get long, but the folks working in the truck are always friendly and willing to take the time to explain the menu and make recommendations. This is definitely close-your-office-door food: the tacos are overstuffed and messy in the best possible way. I never eat the tacos without a fork—I can’t imagine wasting any of those goodies.
Favorite Menu Items: Many trucks serve bulgogi-ish beef, but Far East Taco Grille’s Powerful Steak is my favorite. It’s so tender and perfectly seasoned that I’ve been tempted to eat it plain (but that’s no fun, so I top it with the #15 Sauce (sweet/medium) and the Grilled Fajita Peppers). I also like the Bang Tang Chicken with Salsa Roja (hot), Zesty Chipotle Mix (corn), and sometimes the Cheese-Lime Crema (sometimes not).
How Much to Order: 3 soft tacos for $8 is a satisfying, filling lunch.
Why I Love It: A stranger stopped me in Franklin Park at lunch a couple of weeks ago and asked me which truck he should choose. I asked him if he was hungry. He said yes. I said to go to Basil Thyme. It’s a hearty meal that he would not believe came from a truck. I remember the first time I had a square of Basil Thyme’s “Linda,” a traditional lasagna with seasoned beef. It was Summer 2011 and I was starting to get into food trucks, but so far hadn’t been very impressed. I was in my office, door closed, alternating between taking perfect bites of sweet-savory lasagna and staring at the container with furrowed brow. I did not understand how it could be so fresh and so good. I still feel the same way. This lasagna is not some Stouffer’s meat-cheese bomb (though that kind of lasagna has its place) – it’s extremely fresh tasting, probably due to the basil and other herbs, and manages to taste light while still being a very satisfying, filling meal. I really don’t know how they do it, but they do it very, very well.
Favorite Menu Items: It’s hard for me not to get the traditional Linda, but another favorite lasagna is the Catena (chicken with wine, shallots, and spinach).
How Much To Order: I almost always get the combo for about $12: a square of lasagna, a freshly composed garden salad with house vinaigrette, and the cannoli of the day. I eat it all and feel full for the rest of the day.
Tops American Food Company
Why I Love It: A smoky, spicy sausage sandwich is usually a treat reserved for the summer. Tops has brought the joy of sausage hoagies to my workaday world. Eating at Tops is not only fun, it’s delicious. They are not selling the generic links of the carnie-circuit, but rather spicy, bold sausages sourced from Alexandria’s Logan’s Sausage Company. The bread is big and chewy and always fresh. It’s also a nearly perfect lunch food–tasty and filling, but not so heavy that you need a nap afterwards. The truck’s design is very simple, unlike many other trucks: it’s red with a big wooden sign that says “Handmade Sausages.” It doesn’t say “Tops American Food Company” in any prominent location. Be on the lookout for this humble truck.
Favorite Menu Item: Regular italian sausage sandwich. It comes topped with diced onions, tomatoes, and green peppers.
How Much To Order: 1 sausage hoagie for $7. Try to find a friend who wants one, too, so you can get the 2 for $10 deal.
How to Find It: Twitter: @TopsTrucks
Why just four trucks? I had a fifth (Pinup Panini), but it recently closed its window for good out of concern that it couldn’t survive the new proposed D.C. food truck regulations. D.C. is in the process of determining how to regulate the trucks and District agencies have proposed regulations that many truck owners fear could cost them their business. (If you frequent the trucks, you’ve probably had your lunch container stuck with a “Save D.C. Food Trucks” sticker.) Currently, trucks have a lot of freedom to roam and park, but the new regs would put limits on the number of trucks in the downtown hotspots and create other restrictions on where and when trucks can do business. The proposed regulations come up for a vote on June 22. My hope is that the District and the entrepreneurs can reach a compromise. My plan is to hit the trucks as much as possible before June 22 just in case they can’t.
A final note: many thanks to my friend Rachel for helping me make this list and joining me on countless truck runs, though if it were up to her, this post would just be about the joys of Phillie’s Phamous (a must-try if you’re a cheese steak fan).