Even before it opens for the afternoon, the food truck starts to draw a crowd. Even on a Wednesday at 2 p.m. Even in the rain. Even in Montrose, where there's a restaurant on nearly every block.
The crowd is an odd mix of people. There are families with babies in strollers and older kids enjoying a lunch outing now that school is over for the summer. Professionals in starched shirts and khaki pants hunch over picnic tables waiting for a bite to eat. The regulars, the sometimes-gritty, sometimes-preppy clientele of the West Alabama Ice House, are there, too, nursing Lone Stars and getting antsy as the smell of french fries starts to waft over the patio.
Then Kathryn bursts through the door, a ball of energy no matter how many hours she and her sister Karen have been standing over hot fryers or prepping and chopping vegetables. She places potted orchids around the truck — a little something pretty on a run-down block of Westheimer — then hops back inside, closes the door and opens the window.
Way Good Food Truck is ready for business.
It's one of hundreds of new food trucks that have opened in Houston in the past year or so. Though it sometimes seems like the golden era of the Houston food truck is over now that so many popular mobile kitchens have gone brick-and-mortar, the number of trucks roaming the city is continuing to grow, true to Houston's reputation as a car- and truck-centric city.
Karen and Kathryn Fergus opened Way Good Food Truck for the same reason many people choose to go mobile — it's cheaper and easier than starting a full-fledged restaurant. And that fact, more than anything else, means the food-truck craze isn't going to die down anytime soon. There's something alluring about not only being on the road, but also being your own boss, doing things your way. It's a bohemian attitude, built on nonconformity and a desire for independence.
Working on a food truck is hard, as Karen and Kathryn and any other food-truck owner will tell you. Getting a new truck off the ground involves a lot of "fake it till you make it" attitude, a lot of arduous work and very little sleep.
"We joke to each other that we're so tired and so beat down, but I don't want to portray that to anyone who comes to the window," Kathryn says, brushing the hair out of her face and smiling wide for the customers. "I don't want anyone to think that this damn truck is winning."
The Fergus sisters are among the many brave (and, as they'll tell you, crazy) individuals striking out on their own with only a truck and a dream. For some, achieving success on the truck is enough. Others won't stop until they've got a restaurant or two with their name on it.
Here are a few of those crazy folks cooking up magic on the mean streets of Houston.
Bringing in the Dough
Before he opened Doughmaker Doughnuts this past March, Doug Le was already a food-truck veteran. After putting in time working the front-of-house at Post Oak Grill, Ruggles, PF Chang's and Soma Sushi, Le found himself on Oh My Gogi, a Korean/Mexican fusion food truck, which he helped manage as the fledgling company was finding its wheels. After that, he helped open and managed the Waffle Bus for about two years. And then he came to a realization.
"After putting in so much time, I figured it's time to do my own thing," Le says. "I was there all the time, so I might as well be making all the money."
The idea behind Doughmaker Doughnuts was simple. Le traveled to major cities on the east and west coasts to see what kinds of food trucks were making it big in New York and Los Angeles. And when he returned to Houston, he noticed we were missing something: doughnuts.
"The possibilities are endless with doughnuts," Le says. "Anything you can imagine, you can put on a doughnut."
But while coming up with a concept might have been a piece of cake, getting the truck from the idea phase to being operational was trickier. As most food-truck owners will tell you, the City of Houston doesn't always make it simple to acquire all the proper permits. Le admits he naively thought the whole process would take only two or three months.
"Of course, the money ran out," Le says. "And I thought doughnuts would be simple and streamlined, that it would be a simple, easy truck to get up and running. But it was a long, painful process that took about six or seven months. The first couple of months were cool because I was on vacation going to doughnut shops. About five months in, I was so ready to work again."
Now Le is probably wishing he didn't have to work so much. It's up to him, as the owner and chef of the truck, to develop and test new recipes and to operate the truck any time it's out and about. It's the first business the young entrepreneur has ever owned, and though he was expecting long hours going into it, he wasn't expecting the slow liftoff Doughmaker Doughnuts has been experiencing.
"The other trucks I worked on were slammed right from the get-go," Le says. "They opened right when the food trucks were taking off. This one is taking a little time. It's not quite there yet."
Even though it's a somewhat difficult climate for food trucks in Houston at the moment because so many are opening simultaneously, Le feels confident in his product. He makes five or six varieties of doughnuts every day, including honey orange blossom pistachio, blueberry lemon zest, cinnamon sugar and maple bacon, along with a rotation of a few special ones. Recently he debuted a fried-chicken-topped doughnut. As strange as it sounds, it sold out almost immediately.
In spite of the success of his whimsical doughnuts, Le isn't certain about his future. He thinks any food trucks opening in Houston now — several years after the initial boom — need to be pretty special to set themselves apart. And they need to go into business for the customers, not for the money.
"I'm not doing this to become rich," Le says. "I like the independence of it and being creative and for the first time in my life not working for anyone else. This is my passion. I enjoy making customers happy and seeing their eyes light up when they see the doughnuts. That just makes my day."
I Like Big Buttz (And I Cannot Lie)
The truck is just so damned cute. That's not something you say often about a food truck, particularly in Houston, where the designs are generally either expensive, custom-made wraps or rudimentary paint jobs that resemble a child's drawings. There have been verbal competitions for the ugliest truck, and a few folks will claim to have the most aesthetically pleasing. Buttz Gourmet Food Truck takes the cake for cutest, though. And most entertaining.
Garrett Blinn opened the gourmet pulled-pork food truck at the beginning of April, and though the truck itself is a definite success with built-in games, a smoker and an adorable piggy mascot, Blinn almost called it quits on the whole operation.
The truck was built in San Antonio by Cruising Kitchens, a company that specializes in outfitting food trucks. They also help owners out by providing a food-truck park right next door to the body shop where the vehicles are built. Once the truck is finished, the owner has a week to try it out at the food park.
"After that week, I was ready to jump off the ledge," Blinn says. "I was like, 'I made a terrible mistake. I don't know how to do this. I bit off way more than I could chew.' The other food-truck owners laughed at me and said they'd been there, too. It was eye-opening."
Blinn has the experience to make it work, though. He's a classically trained chef who attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston before getting into the corporate side of the industry. He eventually became a medical-device salesman with the plan of working for ten years, making a lot of money and then returning to his true passion — cooking.
He came up with the concept for Buttz while sitting on a ski lift in Colorado last December. The image of the pig and the concept popped into his head, and by April, he was selling pulled-pork sandwiches out of a swanky truck in Texas. And yes, he's aware that pulled pork is not a Texas thing.
"I'm a Texan through and through even though I lived in Colorado," Blinn says in his own defense. "You're never not a Texan, even when you don't live in Texas. I feel like a dirty damned traitor for doing pulled pork instead of brisket, but I just didn't think the whole fusion thing with brisket would fly. You start messing with Texan barbecue, and people get angry."
Instead of messing with Texas, Blinn messes with just about everything else, smoking and pulling pork to make gourmet fusion barbecue sandwiches on Slow Dough bread. There's the Foufou Butt sandwich, with brie, arugula, Dijon mustard and truffle oil, and the Banh Mi Butt, with fish sauce, pickled daikon slaw and cilantro lime mayo. The sandwiches may be tributes to specific cultures, but pork butt, it seems, is universal.
And as for the truck itself, Blinn wasn't willing to cut any corners there, either. He started with the idea of an open exhibition kitchen, then figured out how to translate that to a mobile kitchen.
"I set out to have the nicest truck," he says. "One thing I noticed is that a lot of them are a little run-down and scary-looking. I want to build a business. I don't just want to have one truck. So I built the largest exhibition window of any truck. I wanted to show people that folks who run food trucks don't run roach coaches. We operate clean trucks. And I'm slightly claustrophobic, so there's that."
It was particularly important to Blinn to build a good brand because he hopes to expand, to open more trucks and maybe even a brick-and-mortar location. It's still early in the truck's life, but it's never too soon to start getting his name — and the Buttz name — out there.
"If I'm still cooking on that truck in five years, I think I'm doing something wrong," Blinn says. "I'm working harder than I ever worked when I was working for somebody else, but I'm working hard because I want to work hard. If I make a mistake, I deal with it. I'm my own boss. That is truly freedom."
The Comeback Kid
The original tagline was "Bringing the restaurant to a parking lot near you." That was three years ago. Then the gourmet food trailer closed to make way for an actual restaurant. It still sat in a parking lot, but it was quickly overshadowed by the brick-and-mortar space on Main Street to which its owners devoted all their time. And though it was missed, there was no shortage of trucks in Houston. People moved on.
Then, late last year, Joshua Martinez, owner of Goro & Gun, got antsy. He wanted to get out of the restaurant and back on the streets of Houston. He wanted to bring the once-popular Modular food truck back from the dead.
It started with a whole new truck because the original trailer was too far gone. It's one of the smallest food trucks in town, but, as Martinez says, "We can produce quite a hell of a lot of food." And it's also one of the best-looking trucks in town, thanks to some local talent.
"We were looking at how we would make the truck stand out again," Martinez says. "We had made a name for ourselves, but now there were a plethora of food trucks out there with these really fancy wraps. I've never been one to budget $3,000 to $5,000 for a wrap, so I wanted to think of a way to tie in the things that I like."
One of the things Martinez likes is Houston, and perhaps Houston's most recognizable graffiti artist is Daniel Anguilu, who has painted murals at the Houston Bahá'í Center and the Lawndale Art Center. Though he didn't know the artist, Martinez sent him a message on Facebook and convinced Anguilu to pay the naked truck a visit.
"So he came and looked at the truck and was like, 'There's no end or beginning. I've never done a mural where there's no end or beginning. It's a constant.' So that made him very excited, and in turn made me excited."
In December, the new Modular hit the streets again with Martinez at the helm and a rotating crew of local chefs pitching in to cook up restaurant-quality food like lobster risotto, shrimp and kimchi grits, or the famous "hustle sprouts" at affordable prices. The menu is largely the product of Martinez's whims — if he tastes something he likes somewhere and thinks he can do it better, he sets out to do so. If he wakes up in the middle of the night with inspiration, he experiments the next day. In this way, he hopes to keep from being pigeonholed as a specific type of truck.
"Long ago, when we first came out, we got dubbed Asian fusion," Martinez says. "So that week, Lyle Bento and I were like, 'Fuck that, let's change our menu.' So we went all Italian for a month."
It's this attitude that has also put Martinez at the forefront of battles with the city over food-truck and food-park permitting. You'll frequently find him at City Council meetings serving as a voice for other restaurateurs and food-truck owners. He's passionate about feeding people, and he doesn't want any stupid regulations — and some of them are truly stupid — to stand in his way.
"Cooking on a food truck is very guerrilla-style," he says. "You get to sail the seas of Houston and plop yourselves down and feed people. If we don't like a spot, we move on."
After a year working off the truck and behind the scenes at Goro & Gun, Martinez is thrilled to be back on the streets selling the type of food that first helped him make a name for himself in Houston. As for what's next?
"We'll just keep on truckin' through the summer and see what happens," Martinez says.
There's been talk of more restaurants or more trucks, but for now, Houston is happy just to have the trusty Modular and its hustle sprouts back.
"We're nuts about tacos!" Charles Avants yells over the phone before chuckling heartily and hanging up. His business partner, LJ Wiley, shakes his head and laughs.
"It was not my idea," Wiley says. "I thought it was crazy. But Charles thought it was a good idea. I just followed him."
Wiley and Avants are co-owners of Taco Nuts, a gourmet taco truck that opened about a year ago — a risky move in a town saturated with tacos. Wiley is a chef with more than 15 years in the industry, working everywhere from the Gristmill in Gruene to Brennan's of Houston to a few restaurants he helped open in China. Avants is a former military man who retired and found success as a restaurateur in the Galleria area. They met when Wiley was serving as chef of Avants's now-closed Big Cafe back in 1996.
"It's something we talked about for a long time," Avants says. "LJ was traveling the world getting his global education with some of the best chefs in the world. Then, after his second tour in New York, I said, 'Are you ready to start a food-truck company?' And he said, 'I'm ready now.'
Then Avants made a claim that would probably shock other food-truck owners. The process of getting the truck from conception to materialization, Avants says, was "a whole lotta fun." It took the duo only about three months to get the truck up and running, and they encountered little pushback from the city.
"We just finished our one-year anniversary, and looking at the numbers, we've really exceeded our expectations," Avants says. "We've bought a second truck to copy that model, and we're working on a commissary kitchen."
Avants attributes the success to a good business model in part, but also to Wiley's prowess in the kitchen. Wiley already had a handle on Mexican food from working at Yelapa, a Houston Mexican restaurant that closed in 2011.
"I guess it's just simple, straightforward food," Wiley says, selling himself short to anyone who's tried the Dr Pepper-braised brisket taco or the fried-egg- and Frito-stuffed burrito. "We have six or seven items on the menu. It's fun. It's colorful. We just try to do the best we can to raise the bar on tacos. Make them a little different, higher-end. You could call it gourmet."
In spite of the 'gourmet' designation, Wiley insists he's not trying to elevate any of his customers' palates, even though he has worked in some of the best restaurants in the country. In China, he learned that you have to cook for your audience, not yourself — a lesson that no doubt helped Taco Nuts achieve success so quickly.
"People want what they want," Wiley says, "and we give it to them."
Next the duo will give people barbecue on their new truck, Barbecue Nuts, which they hope will open sometime in July. When asked which of the two trucks he'll be on, Wiley says simply, "Yes." He and Avants are working on hiring help, though, and Wiley imagines there's no shortage of chefs eager to jump on board a food truck.
"You can get a food truck and learn and make mistakes," Wiley says. "I think it's a fantastic place for people to grow their culinary skills and for beginners to come up and find a style or a place."
Karen is the chef and Kathryn is the marketing person, but they're both so much more than that, taking on the roles of the dishwashers, the maintenance, the prep cooks and the auto mechanics. Sometimes they spend up to 18 hours a day together in that small truck working toward a mutual dream. It's a good thing the sisters get along — for the most part.
"She's fucking badass," Karen, 16 years older than Kathryn, says of her sister. "She's smarter than I am. I have all the faith in the world in Kathryn. I know how smart she is and how motivated and just what an amazing person she is."
"You're witnessing us regrouping with a love apology so we don't kill each other," Kathryn says, laughing.
The two opened Way Good Food Truck together back in January after the owner of Papou Jerry's, the Greek food truck that had been parked in front of the West Alabama Ice House for years, decided he was done with the business. At the same time, Karen, a chef trained in California, was growing tired of working at Brasil, her brother's restaurant. She wanted to start a catering business but wasn't sure how to get her foot in the door. Things fell into place, and the sisters ended up as partners on a truck with a built-in clientele at the icehouse. Now all they needed was the food.
Going from idea to finished product — a Tiffany blue truck with a simple menu of gourmet bar food — wasn't an arduous process, Kathryn says, but figuring out how to keep the operation running smoothly has taken some adjusting. Even so, the business has exceeded Kathryn's predictions of where it should be in the four months since it opened.
"Being here, it's a nice symbiotic relationship with the icehouse," Kathryn says. "They give us customers, and we allow people not to have to leave to get food. So it's kind of a balance between being the concession stand for the icehouse and doing 'gastropub food' because we're at a bar and still doing stuff we're proud of and that's representative of what we can do."
What they can do is pretty damn good. Pulled-pork nachos with house-smoked pork feature each ingredient prominently and well. Nothing from the excellent juicy meat to the fried-to-order chips is an afterthought. Risotto balls are the size of your fist and oozing with melted fontina cheese and truffle oil. Hamburgers are a steal at $7.
"My philosophy as a chef has always been to not go with trends," Karen says, admitting that she does sometimes make exceptions for customer requests. "It's knowing what your market is, what you can do quickly and what you can do well."
The sisters intend to start taking the truck to other spots around the city once the summer heat slows down business at the icehouse. Eventually, Kathryn is going to go back to school to pursue a master's degree in social work, and Karen will have to hire extra people to help out on the truck. Even if they aren't working together as many hours, though, they'll still be partners, and they'll still have the freedom to make their own rules.
"The best thing about owning a business is having your own schedule," Karen says. "Even though we work like dogs, it's for yourself, and nobody's telling you what to do."
Kathryn smiles. "At the end of the night, we turn on our music and we open a beer, and we're like, 'This is ours.'"
Buttz Gourmet Food Truck
Way Good Food Truck
LOST AND FOUND
How to locate your favorite food trucks.
True food-truck devotees have been there. You go online, find out where your favorite truck will be, drive to said location and then...it's not there. You get out and circle the block. You know you have the right address. You check online again. The truck is still there, and you should be standing right on top of it. Yet it's nowhere to be found.
Locating food trucks can be tricky, but there are a few different ways to avoid getting all hangry (that's hungry + angry) while trying to track one down.
First check the food truck's Twitter account. Twitter is the most used and most reliable way to find out where a food truck will be for the day, because many of them are in a new spot every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Many food trucks also make use of Facebook to announce weekly schedules or post photos of the day's menu.
Some food trucks that have been around awhile or have good marketing teams have their own websites, but the sites usually aren't updated as frequently as social media pages. Still, if you're looking for information about how to book a truck for a private event, start by checking for a website.
Since food trucks have become so popular, techies have developed a number of apps to track them. The most comprehensive and reliable is Roaming Hunger, and it can be used on a computer, tablet or phone. It uses software to scrub the Twitter accounts of food trucks that have signed up for the service, then uses location information in the tweets to pinpoint where trucks are at that moment and where they'll be later in the day.
The Food Network TV show Eat St. has an accompanying app that tracks some of the trucks featured on the show, but it's not as inclusive as Roaming Hunger. It's also not always reliable, so use it only if you have an issue with Roaming Hunger.
Finally, some food trucks are creating their own apps to allow for easy tracking. So far, the only Houston truck to do that is Detox Truck, a mobile eatery featuring juice, salads and healthy snacks. You can download the app free on iTunes.
Some food trucks fall victim not to problems, but to their own success.
When a food truck becomes popular enough to build up a loyal fan base that can prove to investors it's a worthwhile project, the next logical step is to park the truck and build some permanent digs. Among the first food trucks in town to go bricks-and-mortar were the Modular, which became Goro & Gun, and Eatsie Boys, which opened as Eatsie Boys Cafe in a quaint building in Montrose.
This year, a whole new crop of food trucks have become restaurants, partly due to a notion that the food-truck fad is just that — a fad — and partly because for many operators, opening a restaurant was the goal all along. Unfortunately for food-truck devotees, opening the doors of a restaurant usually means closing the window on the truck. Most of the time, though, the food just gets better and better.
In July 2013, Fusion Taco opened a storefront facing Market Square Park downtown, which has allowed owners Julia Sharaby and David Grossman to expand the menu. With a full kitchen rather than a few burners on a truck, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
The Juice Girl van also opened a shop late last year in the bioscience building at Rice University to provide healthy food to students often too busy to get in a good meal. On the other end of the spectrum is Good Dog Houston, the delicious but not super-healthy hot-dog truck that now resides behind the restaurant of the same name in the Heights and comes out only for special events. Heights staple Mam's House of Ice also went bricks-and-mortar late last year, turning the popular snoball company into a snoball empire and expanding the menu to include even more unique flavors.
There are several more food trucks going the way of the dinosaurs (you know, if the dinosaurs became awesome restaurants) in the next few months, including Bernie's Burger Bus, H-Town StrEATs and Pi Pizza Truck. While the trio of Bernie's buses continues to spread across the city, owner Justin Turner is preparing to open a shop in Bellaire, and burger-lovers can't wait for its anticipated June debut. H-Town StrEATs will diverge from its usual menu with Hugs & Donuts, a doughnut shop set to open next to Fat Cat Creamery in the Heights in July. And though there's no date yet, word on the street is that Pi Pizza Truck's Anthony Calleo is well on his way to opening a permanent pizza shop of his very own.