Jonathan Gold, the first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, called food trucks “the new incubators of culinary innovation.” Indeed, chefs and entrepreneurs who ply their talents in food trucks and express themselves through distinctively creative cuisine aren’t just fostering culinary trends. They’re doing so at a rate at which their brick-and-mortar counterparts couldn’t conceive, much less execute. Food trucks are exposing consumers to unorthodox flavor combinations and ingredient fusions, creating a growing demand for more novelty and culinary diversity. Add fast and inexpensive to the mix and you’ve got a trifecta of reasons food trucks continue to expand.
Every day across the planet, street food is consumed by 2.5 billion people. Across the fruited plain alone, food trucks generated 1.2 billion in revenue in 2015, a 12.4 percent growth over the previous five years. One industry publication projects an annual growth rate of about 9.3 percent for the next ten to fifteen years. Coupled with much lower start-up costs than brick-and-mortar restaurants, food trucks may sound like a lucrative proposition as well as a culinary petri dish for innovation, but owning and operating a successful food truck isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
Some of the challenges stalwart entrepreneurs face daily as they try to gain or retain market share in the increasingly challenging food truck market include: overly bureaucratic and highly restrictive city ordinances, unpredictable weather, parking hindrances, truck maintenance, arduous hours, finicky diners, keen competition and of course, location, location, location. One Duke City food truck owner told me he can easily put in eight to ten hours in sourcing ingredients, prepping and loading them, parking and setting up…all for a two hour lunch rush. Then there’s the clean-up and prepping for the next day. He confided to being nearly as tired as he had been when he owned a fixed location restaurant with a staff to whom he could delegate, had more space in which to work and had deliveries made directly to his restaurant.
Launching a food truck operation is not a decision to be taken lightly. There are a lot of factors to consider before embarking on such a risky (albeit potentially rewarding) endeavor. Fortunately, in Albuquerque The Street Food Institute (SFI) is here “to share, teach and inspire students, future entrepreneurs, existing food truck operators and generous sponsors.” SFI is a “non-profit organization of food service and business professionals dedicated to shaping a healthy, sustainable and creative food future across New Mexico.” The SFI is guided by its “belief that street food has an amazing capacity to connect people and enrich our community by creating jobs, developing local business opportunities and inspiring the culinary leaders of tomorrow.
In addition to helping grow street food-based business opportunities, the Street Food Institute shows how it’s done with three food trucks, a café (within the CNM campus) and a catering service which offer “experience for students and outstanding food for you.” An essential learning tool in the SFI training program is a fleet of three food trucks where students can take classroom skills right to the street. You can find them at busy local venues, special events and catering assignments where they serve healthy, affordable and creatively prepared meals.
In the 2017 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, Chef David Sellers, SFI’s program director and executive chef earned the coveted People’s Choice Award against a formidable field of fifteen competitors. We had so hoped to find out for ourselves what made this burger such a favorite among the 3,000 or so attendees at the Smackdown. Alas, no burger options were available during our inaugural visit. Though initially disappointed, the limited menu was still intriguing enough for us to suffer through 95-degrees in the shade at the Marble Street Brewery downtown location.
What’s a little suffering anyway when the menu includes a fusion of Vietnamese sandwich and American barbecue culinary traditions? Yes, we’re talking about a Hoisin BBQ beef brisket banh mi (Sriracha aioli, pate, hoisin BBQ, pickled veggies, cilantro, jalapeno, Sriracha on housemade hoagie). The brisket had a nice blend of fatty and lean brisket as tender as any slow-roasted brisket you’ll find. It was sliced thickly and piled generously on the housemade hoagie roll. Though somewhat antithetical to most banh mi in which meats are thinly sliced and not piled on in quantities Americans like, we weren’t complaining. As with all banh mi, we enjoyed the pickled vegetables and pate most. Forget lettuce and tomato; give us pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro and jalapenos any time. This was a very nice sandwich, a behemoth compared to your standard banh mi.
Three tacos were also featured on the menu: Korean BBQ pork carnitas (kimchi slaw, avocado crema, Cotija cheese, cilantro), Vegetarian Calabacitas (avocado crema, cilantro slaw, Cotija cheese, green chile) and Chipotle Roasted Chicken (avocado crema, cilantro slaw, Cotija, salsa arbol) all nestled in warm corn tortillas. What we appreciated most about each taco is its uniqueness despite sharing some common ingredients. We also enjoyed the way each taco approached the element of piquancy. On the Korean BBQ pork carnitas taco, it was a pleasantly piquant kimchi slaw that generated heat; on the vegetarian calabasitas, it was green chile and on the chipotle roasted chicken, chile arbol provided its potency. Each taco is five to six bites of delight.
Only one item on the menu didn’t delight us. We found the Chipotle chicken nachos (Marble pilsner beer cheese, Cotija, cilantro, jalapenos, salsa arbol) uninteresting. The Marble pilsner beer cheese seemed a bit watered down; it was thinner even than that gloppy canned chile. While thick enough for Gil-sized scoops, there wasn’t enough chipotle chicken or Cotija cheese to scoop up. This masochist, however, loved the generous amount of jalapenos on the dish. My Kim knows better than to ever take my word that “they’re not very hot.”
The Street Food Institute is indeed an incubator of culinary innovation. Thankfully Duke City diners can avail themselves of that innovation every time we see it parked at some lucky venue or event.
Street Food Institute
900 University Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 4 August 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Hoisin Barbecue Beef Brisket Banh Mi, Chipotle Chicken Nachos, Three Taco Assortment