Last weekend, I, with the help of several friends, went on an eating tour of Durham. We sipped a banana, ginger and kale smoothie; split a nettle, rose hip and lime juice tonic; devoured a burger topped with a fried egg and fried green tomato; wiped our fingers on paper napkins after eating Mexican tacos, one filled with chorizo, the other with pork and pineapple; wolfed down beef and spicy pork Korean tacos; and shared two takeout boxes of Indian food.
Everything we ate was served from a truck.
The latest craze, food trucks or food carts, is cropping up from Portland to Manhattan. These mobile eateries serve waffles to dumplings, crème brûlée to schnitzel. They represent cuisines as varied as Bosnian and Jewish, Hawaiian and Venezuelan.
These "cartrepreneurs" can't afford to open a brick-and-mortar business so they opt for a restaurant dream on wheels.
The forerunners of this food cart explosion are taco trucks, a staple of South of the border culture that has migrated here with its people.
"Taco trucks are no longer exceptional. They are everyday," says Southern food expert and writer John T. Edge, who has a book coming out next fall about food truck eating. "It has inspired hipster restaurateurs to try that form."
In the Triangle, the most advanced mobile dining scene is in Durham.
Beyond the regular taco trucks parked along Roxboro Road, there is Only Burger serving patties made from beef that is ground fresh daily along with handcut fries; Indian Food on Wheels, a red behemoth of a bus serving chicken curry and filled pancakes called dosas; and Bulkogi Korean BBQ To Go selling kimchi and bulgogi, grilled marinated beef served as tacos or over white or fried rice.
"It's kind of like putting street food to a new level. For Durham, it's really putting us on the map," says Tanya Catolos, a veteran of the Durham food truck scene. Catolos, a pastry chef at the Washington Duke Inn, started a truck called Daisy Cakes with her husband, Konrad, in 2007.
Their converted Airstream trailer is a silver-pink-and-orange Saturday morning mirage within walking distance of the Durham Farmers Market. They serve Counter Culture coffee and seasonal baked goods, including the much-loved Pop t'Art, a pair of handheld pies for $3 recently filled with strawberries and rhubarb.
These owners follow many paths to food truck ventures.
Michael Gomes, who runs the Indian food truck, owned about 10 restaurants from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Charlotte during a 30-year period. He was one of the owners of Durham's Sitar Indian Cuisine, which his wife's family still runs. After several of his restaurants failed, Gomes says, "I thought, 'Let me try something new.'" A month ago, Gomes started renting a taco truck during the day to serve Indian fare outside Sam's Quik Shop.
Meanwhile, Zulayka Santiago decided to follow her juice bar dream by converting a mini-school bus into Liberacion Juice Station. Last weekend, hip-hop music blared outside the green bus with a red wing-shaped awning as customers swiveled hoops around their hips.
"I get all sorts of strange and wonderful characters coming to that bus. It's a magnet," Santiago says.
But it has been a difficult transition for Santiago. Learning how to be a business owner has been like "getting a second master's degree," she says.
Regardless of their success or struggles on four wheels, these entrepreneurs still harbor storefront dreams.
Only Burger's Brian Bottger says they will open a small space with at most 25 inside seats at the Hope Valley Square shopping center on Shannon Road this summer.
And the others are like Catolos of Daisy Cakes: "We are looking for investors."
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