Austin food trucks and DIY food culture

“My friend and I are thinking about starting a food truck back home in Columbus”, said my hometown friend, Joey, between bites of fish and chips from Bits & Druthers food truck on East 6th Street in Austin. I had taken him to this particular food truck cluster, dubbed East Side Drive In, selfishly. Ever since first trying the TLT (vegan BLT) from The Vegan Yacht, a food truck neighbor of Bits & Druthers, I’m always searching for an excuse to take friends to the East 6th Street cluster; just east of I-35. But excuses aren’t difficult to find. This particular food truck nesting spot houses not only The Vegan Yacht and Bits & Druthers, but a few others, too. There’s The Local Yolk, which specializes in eggs, especially egg sandwiches. There’s Pueblo Viejo, which just happens to have some of my favorite tacos in town. Pig Vicious is there too satiating all pig-related cravings. Mati dishes up Greek favorites and Love Balls serves Japanese street food. The roster seems to always be changing over at East Side Drive In, though, which is why it’s one of my favorite spots to frequent, especially with folks from out of town.

%Gallery-136561%The Austin food truck scene is something that immediately grabbed my attention and appealed to me when I moved to Austin just over a year ago. I mean, there is even a Trailer Food Festival each year in Austin called Gypsy Picnic. There’s certainly a DIY food culture here in Austin and it expands beyond food trucks.

Take, for example, Joel Haro, the founder of Love Puppies Brownies in Austin. Haro says his brownie company was “accidental”. He “accidentally” got into New York’s CIA and after returning to Texas and opening and closing a catering company, calls kept coming in for his chocolaty morsels… so he “accidentally” started Love Puppies Brownies. But I’m not sure all of this was accidental. His talent, of course, plays a huge role in his success. With flavors that employ dark chocolate chips and pecans, peanut butter, mocha, and even ground peppers, Haro knows what he’s doing. Another factor, I’d guess, is the notoriously supportive community in Austin for indie food. How else could a one man brownie show gain and sustain popularity so quickly?

When I spoke with Haro about the Austin community, he agreed that support for DIY food is widespread in the city. He cites Go Local, Keep Austin Weird, and Go Texan campaigns as breeding grounds for local business support. Austinites are open and adventurous which is reflected in their culinary tastes”, says Haro. He hopes to eventually see his decadent treats sold nationwide and with Austin as a launching pad, that very well may happen sooner than later.

Haley Callaway is another Austin-bred non-food truck but indie food success. She’s a busy college student who manages to head up HayleyCakes and Cookies–a bakery she runs out of her own kitchen by herself. I’ve never seen hand-decorated desserts compare to hers in their artfulness, especially her sugar cookies. With passion, talent, and, I’m guessing, a lot of caffeine, she has managed to launch her company while working between classes, studying business. The Austin community has warmly embraced her and when I spoke to Hayley about her increasing success, she noted that she had only slept 45 minutes the night before. It takes hard work, indeed, but it also takes a community that’s interested in straight-out-of-the-kitchen-at-home or straight-out-of-the-food-truck food. And Austin is that community.

So then the question now arises… what is it about Austin? Why are indie bakers and restauranteurs here doing so well? Maybe it’s a combination of the nice weather and affordable living. Maybe it’s an interest in new business that has been effectively fostered in this city more so than others. Perhaps we can study Austin and learn a thing or two about supporting the self-motivated and, in turn, broadening our culinary options everywhere.

Why do we take pictures of our food?

In a sweaty, back alley restaurant in Trujillo, Peru, the shy Peruvian waiter approached my table with a vibrant plate of ceviche. Placing it upon the handwoven tablecloth, there lapsed a good three seconds where all I could do was stare. Then, before reaching for my fork, I instead reached for my camera.

I’ll admit it. I’m one of those people who take pictures of their food. I know a lot of you are as well. It’s only an occasional occurrence, as I’m not known to photograph cereal I’m gulping down when late to work. I only immortalize my food in megapixels when the plate in front of me goes beyond my culinary expectations. If you present me with a plate of food and I take a photo of it, consider it a compliment. While I recognize this is a curious trait, the following is an attempt to justify what exactly drives me, and many others, to feel the need to photograph their food.

First off, this exact plate of food is never going to be here again. If I don’t capture it now, the moment will be lost to the acids of digestion and gone forever. This plate of food before me–particularly if it’s traditional, regional cuisine– is as much of a cultural attraction as any monument listed in a guidebook or brochure. While in Trujillo, I must have taken 35 pictures of the Huaca de la Luna, an ancient Moche temple that’s stood for 1700 years. With that sort of history, there’s a good chance I could come back ten years from now and snap the exact same photo. This plate of ceviche, on the other hand, is never going to be here again. It’s a fleeting moment that needs documenting before it disappears forever.

%Gallery-135590%Second, I photograph dishes I can tell are going to be either unbelievably incredible, or gut wretchingly awful. When looking back on my photos, I want to have the ability to say “that meal was unspeakably good” (steak in Argentina) or “why does my meat still have hair on it?” (mystery meat in Ecuador). Every plate of food I consume has a story behind it, and just as I would with any other attraction, I want to be able to reminisce on how that food contributed to the greater moment as a whole.

From a cultural standpoint, regional cuisine is as important as any other item you may choose to photograph. Just as the 800 year old Roman fort towering about the coastal Spanish town of Tossa de Mar exudes a Mediterranean charm, so does the steaming plate of paella served with a pitcher of sangria in the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. The dense fog that ‘s consuming the western coast of Connemara, Ireland is as intrinsic to the Irish experience as a heaping bowl of seafood chowder washed down with brown bread and Guinness. Though taking a photo doesn’t make the food taste any better, it nonetheless is a stamp of cultural approval as if to say, “I was there, and it’s as good as it was meant to be”. The same way you would take a picture of the white sand beaches of Koh Chang, Thailand, so should you document your peanut covered bowl of chicken pad thai.

Finally, what’s wrong with photographing your food simply for the way it looks? Irrelevant to taste or culture, when food is infused with the richest of colors or the presentation is painfully exquisite, the plate before you becomes nothing less than art. If my enchiladas in Baja, Mexico are served to me with the red, white, and green sauces in the form of a Mexican flag, that deserves two seconds of my time.

So yes, I am one of those people who take photos of their food, my lust for classic and curious cuisine a patch I will wear proudly via my zoom and macro lens until I am happy and hopelessly stuffed.

Five tips to reduce your health risk while eating street food

It was the 18th century food writer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” For certain cultures, street food is more than just a cheap, tasty, easy way to fuel the body. It’s part of a daily ritual, a way to catch up on neighborhood or community gossip, a means of eking out a living to provide for one’s family. By eating foreign street food, you get a sense of the social fabric and gender roles of a community or culture, but what about the health risks?

Some travelers equate a love of street food with a latent wish to sightsee whilst wearing an adult diaper. They steer clear of anything sold from a vendor, or resembling fruit, vegetable, or beverage not from a bottle (although when it comes to drinking water, you should always err on the side of caution, and there is something to be said about peeling or washing produce to avoid pesticide residue, since many developing nations use chemicals banned in the U.S.). What these folks may not realize is that foodborne illnesses such as E.coli, salmonella, and listeria don’t discriminate. FDA statistics show you’re more likely to get sick from preparing food at home than from dining in a domestic restaurant.

Is street food inherently more risky than eating in a restaurant when you travel? Sometimes, and it depends. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are certainly more at risk of getting ill, and may be best off avoiding street eats. But there are certain precautionary measures healthy travelers can take before scarfing their tacos or mystery-meat kebabs that will minimize the chances of bringing home more than just a suitcase full of sweatshop-made tchotchkes as souvenirs. Read on.

1. Is there a crowd? Just like at home, go where the locals go, as they obviously know where to find the good stuff. But high volume also means that food is being prepared fresh, rather than sitting around attracting flies and turning into something useful for waging biological warfare.

2. Are basic hygiene practices being implemented by the vendor(s)? In Mexico, I’ve frequently observed street vendors slipping clean plastic bags over plates. With every order, a new bag is used, then discarded at the end of the meal. It’s an eco-nightmare, but it’s a lot more sanitary than dunking a plate in a bucket of dingy water doubling as a petri dish. Also bear in mind that in many parts of the world, the left hand performs double-duty as toilet paper. I can’t say it enough: Look at the sanitation practices before ordering.

You’ll often find co-workers whose sole responsibility is to handle money, to avoid cross-contaminating food (this isn’t always the case, however, so sometimes you’ll just have to–literally–suck it up). Once, when I accidentally handed my money to the wrong guy, he turned his hand upside-down to avoid contact with my filthy coins.

3. Is the stand or cart clean and well-maintained? Is hot food kept hot or cooked to order, and is cold food cold? Is purified water or ice used for beverages and frozen treats?

4. Are the ingredients fresh? If you’ve got eyes, a nose, and some tastebuds, you can figure this out for yourself. I look at the condiments and garnishes to determine if I want to eat at a given stand or cart. If I see crusty bowls of salsa, dessicated limes, slimy herbs, or flies congregated on any raw foods I might potentially eat, I’m out of there.

Stick to local specialties. One of the greatest joys of travel is eating regional ingredients or dishes. It also stands to reason that ordering seafood in an inland desert is a calculated risk. Raw protein products (egg, meat, poultry, fish, fresh cheeses) in general are to be avoided in the Third World. What about dishes like ceviche, where the acid in the citrus juice denatures (breaks down proteins, killing some potential pathogens in the process) the fish? It’s still risky, because technically it’s an uncooked food, and only application of heat over 145 degrees can totally annihilate anything potentially deadly lurking in fish. Again, use good judgment based on freshness of ingredients and basic sanitation, but remember that you can’t eliminate all risk.

If you’re in a coastal region, it pays to do a bit of homework on the cleanliness of the local fresh and ocean water supplies; algae blooms or cholera outbreaks will be widely reported. Try to avoid eating raw river fish or seafood, or river fish/seafood from just offshore; remember that many developing island nations and coastal regions use high tide as their toilet. If you’re eating pork in the Third World, always make sure it’s well-cooked. While trichinosis has effectively been eradicated from our domestic industrial pork supply, the disease is prevalent in other parts of the world. And not to get too graphic, but you’ll often find pigs in rural parts of the developing world lurking around latrines, searching for a snack.

Fresh ingredients don’t necessarily mean great food, but it helps. Delicious street food is ulimately a reflection of the loving care that goes into its preparation. Are the carnitas slightly crispy on the outside, with an interior succulent with greasy goodness? Is the masa in the tamales moist, with a sweet, earthy corn flavor? Are the noodles slightly toothsome, the herbs fresh and bright-tasting, the broth fragrant and piping hot? These things matter.

5. Use hand sanitizer before eating, take probiotics with live active cultures prophylactically, and pack a broad-spectrum gastrointestinal antibiotic and Imodium, just in case. I’m just sayin’.

For more information on food safety, go to this page on the USDA website.

Top ten foreign street foods

With food trucks springing up across the U.S. like so many mushrooms, it seems the culture of street food is finally finding its place in the national psyche. Some, like Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck (a Korean-Mexican hybrid that I promise tastes approximately a million times better than you might think) in LA, have garnered critical acclaim, with Choi recently being named one of 2010’s “Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine. Others, like Portland’s Garden State, have earned widespread press for the utter deliciousness with which local ingredients are transformed into versions of Italian street food like arrancini, or chickpea fritters. In fact, Portland is unofficially the food cart capital of the nation.

But U.S. street food is like the United States itself: a melting pot. Our street food culture- aside from hot dog vendors and Manhattan food carts dispensing coffee and breakfast sandwiches to office workers and the hungover-is primarily based upon inspired reproductions or adaptations of foreign street foods.

In honor of our country’s fledgling, on-the-fly food culture, here’s a list, in no particular order, of some of the best overseas street snacks. Totally subjective and dependent upon the individual vendor, mind you, but the following are regional specialties you don’t want to miss, should you find yourself in the vicinity.

1. Tacos de anything

Who doesn’t love a great taco? And by taco, I mean soft corn tortilla, no bigger than a softball in diameter, piled with juicy bits of carne asada, carnitas, adovada, cabeza, lengua, or pescado. Bonus points for bowls of freshly made salsas and other condiments like escabeche, guacamole, limes, radishes, chopped onion, and cilantro.

2. Elotes/choclo con queso

Depending upon where you are in Latin America, you’ll find corn on the cob sold in a variety of permutations. Elotes are a beloved Mexican street food: boiled or grilled corn slathered with mayo, chile powder, and lime juice (you may instead find fresh kernels cut into plastic cups and mixed with same). Choclo con queso is found in parts of South America, like Peru and Ecuador. The deceptively simple pairing of chewy, boiled native corn (a world apart from our overly-sweet hybrids), served with a generous slice of handmade queso fresco is proof that two ingredients can still equal nirvana.

3. Dumplings from almost anywhere

Korean yakimandu, Russian pelmeni, Polish pierogis, Nepalese momos, Chinese bao; all delicious. Doughy dumpling relatives include Vietnamese bahn cuon (rice noodle sheets filled with ground pork, mushrooms, and shrimp), or Cantonese cheung fun (same, only filled with whole, peeled shrimp, and chopped scallion).

4. Roti

These flat, crispy/chewy Malaysian pancakes are found in various countries with a significant Muslim population. There are many different types, ranging from roti canai, a tissue-thin version served with a side of curry, to thicker, more doughy variations. In Southern Thailand, you’ll often find sweet roti filled with sliced banana and drizzled with condensed milk. Singaporean hawker centers are a great place to find a wide selection.

5. Chaat

These bite-size, salty, crispy, tangy snacks are traditionally indigenous to Northern India; the southern states have their own version, known as tiffin. Chaat is generally vegetarian, because vendors lack refrigeration; look for bites such as pani puri and bhel puri. These puffed, hollow rice crisps come with spiced potatoes, chickpeas, and condiments such as yogurt, chutney or spiced waters.

7. Empanadas

Most of Latin America has empanadas in some form: fried or baked dough stuffed with meat and other savory or, occasionally, sweet fillings. Argentina, however, is the undisputed king, wherein entire towns or provinces are famed for their empanadas. Salta, considered to be the empanada epicenter, produces varieties that reflect the arid region’s climate. Baked empanadas de choclo, a savory, hominy-like corn filling, or charqui, an air-dried beef softened by the steam from the baking process, make for exceptionally flavorful pastries. In Tucuman, empanadas are such a point of pride that they get their own Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada.

8. Kebabs, satay, yakitori, or other versions of meat-on-a-stick

‘Nuff said. [Ed’s note: Just ask @MikeSowden]

9. Pizza/calzone


10. Pho

Done right, few things are more nourishing, or nurturing, than a giant bowl of fragrant beef broth loaded with rice noodles, tender bits of meat, slices of chile, and herbs. Traditionally, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is from Hanoi, but you’ll find variations, including a version made with chicken, throughout Vietnam.

Treme and the “Magic” Food of New Orleans

The new HBO show Treme is getting a lot of attention. Not just because it is produced by David Simon, who brought us The Wire, which some TV critics (both professional and aspirants) have deemed the best TV show, ever; not just because America has a fascination with New Orleans, the closest city in the country that feels like the amusement parks we have come to confuse with reality; and not just because Americans like funny fat guys (John Goodman is one of the stars). But to a lesser extent because of the food references and food controversies that have snuck into the show.

In the first episode, which takes place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a chef runs out of dessert to serve and pulls out from her purse a pre-packaged Hubig’s pie. She hands it to her colleague and says to “dress it up.”

Of course, locals were quick to point out that Hubig’s pies weren’t available at that point in the city’s deluged post-apocalyptic environment. David Simon wrote an open letter to the city’s “fact-grounded literalists” that the pie was, in fact, a “Magic Pie,” a metaphor, likening it to the hocus pocus of materializing bread and fish in the New Testament.

It all got me thinking about the last time I was in New Orleans. It was Spring 2005, just a few months before the hurricane would hit, and my first (and only) time in the Big Easy. I didn’t want to stumble through the French Quarter holding a toxic, barely-drinkable concoction inside a plastic toy-like cup; I didn’t want any colorful beads; I didn’t even want anyone to show me their breasts. That is, unless they were chicken breasts. I came to eat. And in Biblical proportions. New Orleans, of course, is as famous for its debauchery, both in drink, merriment and in food. In fact, the cuisine here is so rich and artery hardening, restaurants should start replacing the after-dinner mint with a Lipitor.

Since it was our first time, my wife and I hit all the famous places: we split a catcher’s-mitt-sized meat-crammed muffuletta (olive salad, capicola, salami, mortadella, emmenntaler, and provolone all stuffed between two pieces of bread) at Central Grocery; we dined on staggeringly heart-stalling fare like Huitres a la Foch (fried oysters on toast buttered with foie gras and smothered in a rich Colbert sauce) at Antoine’s; we even trekked way out to Uptown to a place called Cooter Brown’s Tavern where we consumed dozens of raw oysters and tried to use the word “shuck” as frequently as possible.

And while I generally liked what I was eating, I hadn’t had a mouth-watering religious experience I’d hoped for. Maybe we hadn’t been going to the right places, I wondered. So on the morning of our final day, I read an article in the newspaper that the legendary restaurant Uglesich’s was finally going to turn off its burners for good. And despite balking a couple times at shuttering in the past, this time was for real.

Opened in 1924 by Croatian émigré Sam Uglesich, the Garden District restaurant soon built up a reputation for holier-than-though local fare like fried soft shell crab, fresh shrimp, plump oysters, and po’ boy sandwiches. Locals favored it for the fresh ingredients, not frozen seafood like some of the more famous guidebook-friendly restaurants had started using. Lines snaking around the corner were customary.

So, I wasn’t surprised when we walked up and saw the line going out the door. But when I walked around the corner, I was disheartened to see it went around another corner, deep into the parking lot. Jessie and I had four hours to get a bus to the airport so we figured we’d just spend our last remaining time waiting to eat. We got in line and after a few minutes, drinks began arriving. Strong, boozy cocktails. I met Steve, in line behind us, a computer programmer from San Jose. And Jerry, a local who had been coming here for years. Soon enough we were toasting. It didn’t even matter that the minute hand on my watch was moving much faster than the line.

A few hours later, we’d moved up in line, but barely enough to even see the door. It was a decisive moment. It was the time we would have to leave to catch the bus to the airport. But as I watched pot-bellied diners stumble out of the restaurant, deeply satisfying post-prandial looks on their faces, I decided we should take the chance. When we finally got inside, it was pure havoc: kitchen workers scrambling around, orders being screamed out, and diners furiously consuming saucy dishes at the formica-topped tables. And then suddenly ancient Anthony Uglesich, the patriarch of the family restaurant, who’s grey and balding and built like a beer can, was staring at me, pen and paper in hand, awaiting our order.

By the time our food came, we had minutes to jump in a cab and plead with the driver to break speeding laws. Sitting with our new friends, Bob and Jerry, the tabletop was crammed with something that looked like a shrimp version of Monty Python’s famous Spam skit: There was the Asian-inspired Volcano Shrimp, Shrimp Uggie, the Asian-Creole voodoo shrimp, spicy Angry Shrimp, crab meat-stuffed shrimp, something called Paul’s Fantasy (trout topped with, you guessed it, shrimp) and, finally, crawfish-laced etouffee. Jessie and I, with an eye on the clock, piled the food in our mouth.

We did make our flight. Barely. The last passengers to board. On the plane I had a few hours of idle time to think about what I’d just eaten-each dish had a bold, rich flavor and was clearly the best meal of the long weekend-I wondered why the food was so satisfying. Was it really that good? Or was it the “magic” of travel-to borrow the food phrase form David Simon-that made the food taste better? Was it enhanced by the experience of travel, which tends to allows us to exoticise and fetishize even the most mundane things, activities, and experiences in the place we’re visiting?

I’ll never know. Uglesich’s really did close for good after that weekend. And, four months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, which would have certainly inspired the Uglesich family it was time to hang up the apron and move on to more idle, less magical things.

David Farley is author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.