Trying Out the New South End Truck Stop
“We’re running out of food.” That was the word at 7 p.m. last Friday from Felix Wai, one half of the ArtsRiot team and an organizer of the South End Truck Stop.
Wai’s looming problem was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, what is a food-truck event without any, well, food? But on the bright side, the night’s crush of hungry diners was a ringing endorsement of the fledgling event, then in its second week (the first one was forced inside by rain). Clearly, Burlington-area foodies were willing to turn out in droves to knock back tipples, chow down on tacos and meet up over smoked meat.
In fact, the parking lot behind Speeder & Earl’s Coffee Roastery on Pine Street was packed to the gills. Here, every Friday evening from 4:30 to 9 p.m. throughout the summer, Burlingtonians will find their very own food-truck bazaar — with barbecue, burgers and beer galore.
The event’s organizers had hoped the idea would catch on, but they weren’t expecting the crowd of hundreds that met them on May 31.
“We thought there’d be a little bit of a slow burn,” said the tall and lanky Wai, clutching a walkie-talkie at his side. “I didn’t think we’d reach 500 people until the sixth week.”
As the evening wore down, security staffers working the entrances were putting the night’s cumulative estimate even higher — somewhere around 1000 or 1100 people, one doorman guessed.
But the volume of diners, coupled with the presence of only three vendors that evening, meant waits were long and food was going fast. Already, waits at Muchacho Taco, Southern Smoke and the Burger Barn were exceeding 40 minutes. “Which is unacceptable,” Wai conceded.
He was distracted; even as he fielded questions from other vendors and well wishes from friends and admirers, Wai was orchestrating a spur-of-the-moment Hannaford run. Southern Smoke and Muchacho Taco were perilously close to running out of food, and long lines of diners still stood waiting. Wai’s plan? Bring in hot dogs and sausages and sell them for $1 or $2 a pop. It wasn’t gourmet, but at least no one would go hungry.
More than eight months pregnant, I’d come prepared to eat for two — and dragged my husband, Colin, along to help. We jumped in line at Muchacho Taco at around 6:15. Little did I know it, but we were about to make the biggest mistake of our night: We opted out of ordering a full dinner and decided to split a small taco instead. I hadn’t yet been clued in to the diminishing supplies at the other food trucks and was still daydreaming about sampling wares from each vendor. (Providing such opportunities to graze, Wai said, is the Truck Stop’s ultimate goal.)
With temperatures surpassing 90 degrees that afternoon, it was sweltering inside the food trucks camped out in the courtyard.
“My poor husband’s about to pass out,” joked Laura Miller, hanging out of the order window at Muchacho Taco. Sure enough, a sheen of sweat covered Jamie Miller as he slaved away inside the mobile kitchen. The Millers came prepared to do a lot of business that evening: “We planned for our busiest day [ever] and doubled it,” Laura Miller said.
Her personal favorite on that night’s menu was the pork taco, and the recommendation proved spot on. The taco — dished up about 20 minutes later — was pleasantly spicy, topped with crisp cabbage, a drizzle of sour cream, salsa and pleasantly sharp pickled red onions. My only regret? That we didn’t order more than one.
We washed down our $4.50 taco with iced tea from ¡Duino! (Duende). Owner Lee Anderson and his assistant, Sarah Grant, were selling tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade beside Anderson’s 1985 Jaguar XJ6. Anderson has a street-food cart he plans to tow behind the Jag for future truck-stop events. He’ll be dishing up pincho, a popular Puerto Rican street snack. Typically made with pork or chicken, his pincho is slathered in a spicy marinade and slow-cooked on a barbecue. “It’s basically meat on a stick,” Anderson said. “It’s everywhere in Puerto Rico.”
Sadly, there was no pincho to be had on this particular evening. The cold drinks were a hot commodity, though. Anderson and Grant had daydreamed about taking orders from the front seat of the Jag and serving from the back. They opted instead to set up a small table alongside the sleek, black car when, Grant said, they realized their first plan was the “stickier” of the two.
For $2, we chose a peppermint tea; Grant filled a cup with ice from a cooler and topped it off with the cold, minty beverage. The taste was just right: strong but not overbearingly herbal, and refreshingly crisp. Fortified, we pressed onward.
By this point in the evening, the lines had grown depressingly long. All but one item was crossed out on the menu at Southern Smoke, so Colin gamely camped out in the line for the Jeffersonville-based Burger Barn.
I took a stroll around the premises. Hunger pangs aside, I couldn’t help appreciating the festive scene, packed with twentysomethings and young families. The place was thick with kids and women trotting out their summer sundresses. The old-timey Burlington Bread Boys were strumming away on a mandolin, guitar and kazoo in one corner of the courtyard.
“We live in Burlington. We’re boys,” explained mandolin player Chris Cartier when pressed about the group’s name.
“And we love to make dough,” chimed in Max Krieger, the group’s singer and kazoo man.
Of course, hunger takes the sparkle off festivity. Courtney Butler said she had waited in line at one food truck for half an hour, only to leave empty-handed when the vendor ran out of food. Her friend Meghan Mason, up from Middlebury for the Truck Stop and the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, had arrived earlier in the evening and snagged a smoked-pork sandwich from Southern Smoke.
Butler, not so lucky, had resorted to a cup of SoYo frozen yogurt peddled by ice cream entrepreneur Brian Somers. He started his company, Tin-Pot Ice Cream, last summer, and on this evening was doing a booming business in novelty cones, Popsicles and SoYo treats from his bicycle-powered ice cream “truck.”
“The only problem we’re having is the crowd,” Wai said — meaning numbers. “Which is a good problem to have.”
Anderson ambled over, and Wai chided him: “Shoulda cooked, man. We’re running out of food!”
By 7:40, Southern Smoke was plum sold out. No more pork sandwiches, no more lamb burritos, no more fried chicken. No more French fries.
“I thought I was sitting heavy,” owner Brian Stefan said. But his cuisine, which relies on smoking meats over the course of many, many hours, isn’t well suited to on-the-fly accommodation of bigger-than-expected crowds. Looking ahead to next week and the rest of the summer, Stefan made this prediction: “I’m going to smoke everything I can get my hands on.”
By this point, Colin had been standing in line at the Burger Barn for an hour. (I didn’t have the heart to time the wait, but two customers just ahead of us were keeping track.) We were second from the front when heartbreaking news came from the server: “All out of fries,” she said, looking deeply apologetic. “Pass it back.”
We settled for a cheeseburger (which ended up being disappointingly dry — not that that kept us from devouring every bite). We talked to two friends, Maura McGovern and Katherine Monterosso, who were chomping at the bit to try the burgers; they’d read Alice Levitt’s review of the Jeffersonville burger biz in this paper and had high expectations.
Will McGovern and Monterosso be back? Probably, they said. Somehow, their spirits weren’t at all diminished by the hourlong wait at the Burger Barn.
“It’s such a good atmosphere,” said a chipper McGovern. “How could you let it get you down?”
Wai, and the food-truck vendors, are hoping that kind of excitement will keep diners coming back weekly to the Truck Stop. Wai promised more vendors — double the trucks next week, in fact — and shorter wait times in the future.
“We’re only going to get better and quicker,” Stefan vowed.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Keep On Truckin'"