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Street EatsPatrick Harris, Boka Truck chef and creator
Forget the clichéd “roach coach”: Food trucks have gone upscale, with gourmet cuisine. The trend started about a decade ago in New York City and Los Angeles, and Virginians are now catching on, influenced partly by the Food Network TV show, “The Great Food Truck Race.”
We found three mobile chefs serving up a variety of surprisingly sophisticated food. They are Sweet Bites Mobile Café, selling red velvet cupcakes and more, in Crystal City; Solar Crêpes, hawking savory and sweet crêpes (including Brittany crêpes with hazelnut butter and chocolate), in Arlington; and Boka Truck, proffering a full gourmet menu of Asian/American/Mexican fusion cuisine (including duck confit tacos with goat cheese), in Richmond. All opened in 2010. “With the popularity of the Food Network, people want to try new things,” says Camille Dierksheide, chef and owner of Solar Crêpes in Arlington. “And in Arlington, we’ve got very educated eaters. People…like experimenting with food.”
With food trucks typically selling for under $40,000, says Dierksheide, the initial investment is far lower than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. And the price can be even lower: Her crêpe station is actually a tow-behind cart that she bought used on Craigslist for less than half the cost of a new truck.
Unlike yesterday’s taco or sandwich wagons, today’s food trucks are full kitchens on wheels, says Patrick Harris, Boka Truck’s chef and creator. “I have a sauté station, grill, full refrigeration, ovens, full prep tables and prep sinks. I can poach, flambé, grill. I can cook anything that I want in there.”
Food truck chefs are savvy about marketing, using social media to get out the word about their locations and their menus. “We are mobile, not stationary, and we have to communicate where we are and when,” says Sandra Panetta, owner of Sweet Bites. These days, says Harris, his customers tell him where to go. Clients ask him to stop at their office or other locations, and once he’s received his Tweets or emails in the morning, he builds his route for the day. While Dierksheide ultimately wants to have several trucks traveling in northern Virginia, Harris aims to parlay Boka Truck into a real restaurant. “I’m keeping the truck, but if I have the chance to open a restaurant, it will be parked.”