Casual, Hip and Delicious: Food Truck Sensation Reaches Florida

By: Tom Scherberger

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In Miami and Orlando, hundreds connecting through social media meet in otherwise deserted parking lots to feast on sliced pork belly with buffalo sauce or perhaps Korean bulgogi tacos.

The food truck craze has swept into Florida.

On a summer Sunday evening in Orlando, hundreds of people have converged on an otherwise deserted shopping mall parking lot to feast on food served out of a dozen trucks.

Not just any food, mind you, but sliced pork belly with buffalo sauce, home-made French fries cooked in duck fat, juicy beef on weck sandwiches, fried chicken wrapped in waffles, Korean bulgogi tacos and skewered beef hearts.

A similar scene is playing out a few times a week in Miami – at parks, bars, shopping centers, even car washes and hardware stores.

It’s like a tailgate party, minus the football game, where the focus is on the food. People bring folding chairs and blankets. At the TheDailyCity.com Food Truck Bazaarin Orlando, some ate off ironing boards covered with butcher paper for standup dining.

For the food-conscious traveler, food trucks offer a casual, affordable – not to mention slightly hip – way for people to try local flavors. But you have to know where to look.

Locations change weekly, even daily. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, local blogs – provide foodies with the latest news. The Twitter account @miamifoodtrucks has more than 15,000 followers. A related website, miamifoodtrucks.com, tracks more than 70 trucks.

The trend has received national attention through such cable TV shows as the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, Cooking Channel’s Eat St. and street-food fans like Anthony Bourdain. Food trucks dishing out restaurant-quality meals are common in pedestrian-heavy cities like New York, Austin and Portland, Ore., the latter often called the food truck capital of the country. The trend was slow to arrive in car-centric Florida, but has exploded in popularity in the past year in Miami and Orlando.

Orlando started modestly a couple years ago with occasional foodie meet-ups at taco trucks on South Orange Blossom Trail.

"Seeing Orlando people for the first time get out of their car and eat on the side of the road was like pulling teeth, but once they tried it they were like, oh, this is good," recalls Mark Baratelli, founder of The Daily City, a popular local culture blog that has been a driving force in promoting the scene. Baratelli’s Sunday bazaars now draw up to 2,500 people.

So, what’s the draw?

"It’s gourmet food in a truck," said Philip P. Chimento, general manager of the Winter Park Fish Co., the only Orlando food truck that is an extension of a traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurant. You don’t have to dress up and you don’t have to spend a lot of money, he says.

Prices range range from $5 to $12. A Beef on Weck sandwich from Winter Park Fish Co. was $7. An angus beef burger with chipotle aioli from Crooked Spoon in Orlando was $8. A duck sandwich at Dim Ssam a Go Go in Miami was $8.

Another draw for families: It’s kid-friendly. The weekly Biscayne Triangle Truck Round-Up in Miami was named best restaurant in the city for kids.

For food truck owners, it’s a relatively quick and inexpensive way to get into the restaurant business, or to market an already existing restaurant. But there are challenges.

Orlando prohibits food trucks on public streets, so the owners must find spots on private property, like shopping centers and bars. Farmers markets are also popular.

Red Eye Bar and Grill in Orlando does both. It sets up most Saturdays at the Dr. Phillips Farmers Market and a few nights a week at the World of Beer on Dr. Phillips Boulevard.

While there have been occasional code enforcement crackdowns in Miami, both cities are embracing the craze with friendlier ordinances.

Baratelli says he’s getting three or four e-mails a week about new food trucks owned and operated by culinary graduates, many with restaurant experience. "This is not about fair food," Baratelli says. Though the occasional fried Oreo does get thrown in the mix for fun.

Baratelli likes the way the monthly Orlando bazaars take advantage of under-used space, like the parking lot at Orlando Fashion Square that otherwise would be empty on a Sunday night. "We’re using them in ways that bring them to life," he said. "We're creating this huge party, and I think that's really cool."

To find food trucks in Miami:

To find food trucks in Orlando:

Tom Scherberger has been a reporter and editor at four Florida newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, where he is an editor and food writer. He lives in Treasure Island and hopes the food truck craze hits Tampa Bay.

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