‘Truckin’, got my chips cashed in’6/10/2015
Unregulated food trucks are Des Moines’ new bicycle lanes. If you are not “all in” for them, you are not hip nor progressive, and you’re certainly out of touch with those who are. Like all causes that become passwords to acceptance by political groups, the food truck issue is more complicated than its supporters portray it to be. If food trucks park near real restaurants, will they be inspected and regulated like those competitors? Would they have to install the same, onerously expensive, grease trap controls? Would they require the same number of tanks for washing, even if the trucks serve on paper and plastic? Would they need different colored cutting boards for 12 different foods they prep?
Last week’s Food Truck Throwdown, at the Des Moines Social Club and on Cherry Street adjacent to it, was both the epoch of belief and the epoch of incredulity for anyone with an opinion about freeing food trucks from the shackles of any higher authority. Supporters pointed to attendance of 9,000 to 10,000 people. That’s a real number, too, not the “estimated crowds” of many downtown events. More than 9,000 wristbands were issued. Des Moines Social Club founder Zach Mannheimer resigned the day after the event, part of the club’s first anniversary celebration in its first permanent headquarters. Though Mannheimer said nothing about his timing, it seemed that he had steered his dream ship into a safe harbor of respectability that few saw coming not that long ago.
Detractors of laissez faire food trucks also pointed to the crowd. Marketing of the event was far superior to management. Lines at each truck were so long that people waited more than an hour to be served. Dozens of people told me they just gave up and went to real restaurants to eat. Supporters said that proved that food trucks do not hurt the business of real restaurants. A lot of restaurant owners with years — rather than one night — of experience competing directly with trucks would disagree. Still, 9,000 on a cold and damp night was a testimony to a hunger for this phenomenon.
After a vote of the only three judges who persevered through the chaos, the best of the trucks was deemed to be The Lunch Box. I enjoyed a perfect burger ($5) there. It had an awesome hard sear, a ridiculously ripe slice of tomato and greens for this early in the year and a nicely toasted bun. I also tried some fried shrimp tacos ($7). This Iowa City-based truck also served grilled cheese ($5), dogs ($3.50), shakes ($3.25) and good-looking onion rings and fries ($2.50). Restaurateur George Formaro remarked that he had seldom seen such cheerful people working in any food service business that was being slammed by such a rush of impatient and angry diners.
The Outside Scoop was the judges’ second choice. The Indianola-based company makes ice creams ($3.50-$5) of considerable distinction. On a cold night, I devoured scoops of deeply flavored raspberry lambic sorbet, goat cheese with roasted cherries and salty caramel. I also realized I would be making more trips to Indianola this summer than in previous years. Other treats I would repeat included Moroccan Mediterranean Grill, where the gyros-style wraps were way above average; Say Cheese DSM, where capicola and cheese sandwiches were served on South Union bread; and Let’s Toast, a truck that bakes all its own breads and serves them with whiskey peanut butter, hummus, cheese and, most notably, beet puree.
Taco trucks were not up to the level of most around town. Some French fry trucks served crispy product; some failed to. Chicken dishes seemed consistently overcooked and dry.
Side Dishes: Chef Mike Booth of Jethro n’ Jake’s Smokehouse Steaks in Altoona won a month-long competition of all Jethro’s chefs to create a new wing sauce. His Bacon & Blue sauce will be served at all Jethro’s through June. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.