Gourmet food trucks have been driving the culinary scene in Los Angeles, New York City and other metropolitan areas for some time. Now Utah is joining the trend.
In January, the bright yellow Chow Truck rolled into the capital city, serving fresh-made tacos and mini-sliders with an Asian twist.
The truck is a collaboration between SuAn Chow, the original owner of Salt Lake City's Charlie Chow's, and executive chef Rosanne Ruiz, of Capital Cafe in downtown Salt Lake City and Sage Grill in Kimball Junction.
After living out of state for several years, Chow returned to Utah and wanted to get back into the restaurant business. Initially she considered opening a small cafe or take-out store. Then a friend mentioned a mobile food truck.
"I was intrigued," she said. "I liked the concept. It was scaled back and really focused on the food."
After doing some research, she learned it also is one of the hottest food trends for 2010.
More than a taco cart » Blame it on the Kogi Korean BBQ taco cart in Los Angeles. Since opening in late 2008, the truck has developed a cult-like following, with long lines and 50 to 60-minute waits.
After seeing Kogi's success, dozens of nouveau food trucks followed suit. Today, everything from upscale Indian food and pork belly sandwiches to cupcakes and crème brulée are being sold from glorified RVs.
Mobile food is nothing new, from taco carts and musical ice cream trucks to the stereotypical "roach coach" found at construction sites. The difference is that today more and more mobile food trucks are being operated by trained chefs. They serve higher-quality food and a range of different choices.
The new mobile food servers are tech-savvy and environmentally friendly business owners. They charge more than a cheap hot dog stand, but the food is still affordable and appeals to budget-conscious consumers.
The new trucks also have bypassed traditional advertising, informing customers of their location and menu offerings on their website, through Twitter accounts and with cell phone updates.
Consumer attitudes also have changed. Once an option for the working class, mobile food trucks are now seen as a legitimate way to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, whether you're a judge or a janitor. "The younger generation has never heard of a roach coach," Ruiz said. "They don't know there once was a stigma associated with mobile food trucks."
American diners also have developed a love affair with street food -- a mainstay in many foreign countries.
"There's something about street food, standing outside to eat, mingling with people, that draws you in," said Bayeshan Cooper, a student at the University of Utah who discovered the Chow Truck last week parked in the Key Bank just west of campus.
"I'm from Taiwan, where street food is really prevalent," she said. "This reminds me of a hot dog stand, but with so many more choices that are better and healthier for you."
Affordable business model » Chow said the cost of operating a culinary truck, which is significantly less than leasing a brick-and-mortar space, is part of what fueled her interest. Also enticing was the flexibility of moving your restaurant to a convention, a film festival, a bar or wherever a large crowd might gather.
In fact, the Chow Truck -- officially called Chow Haute Asian Cuisine -- launched in an alleyway near the Salt Lake Palace Convention Center during the Outdoor Retailers convention. Later that week, it headed to Trolley Square, near one of the key Sundance Film Festival box offices.
Since then, the truck has set up shop in numerous parking lots, including the Key Bank near the University of Utah and Eggs in the City in Sugar House. In addition, the truck has served customers outside the Twilite Lounge. The bar doesn't have a kitchen and Ruiz and Chow are happy to feed the late-night drinking crowd.
No matter where "the Mother Ship" parks, Ruiz's menu includes five staple items and different daily specials. Customers can order tacos and/or sliders with a choice of marinated meat. Options include coconut-lemon grass chicken, pineapple-ginger pork or spicy beef with cilantro-chile pesto. For vegetarians, there's also panko-fried tofu with a cilantro chile pesto. Both the tacos and sliders come topped with crisp Asian slaw and wonton crunchies, and sell for $2.50 each.
After decades in gourmet kitchens, Ruiz finds the mobile food business liberating and much less stressful than a large kitchen with several employees.
"I'm 58, too old to be in a high-powered kitchen," she said. "But it's exciting to drive up and cook what you want."
11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. » Trolley Square , 602 S. 700 East, near the water tower
11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. » 300 South between State and Main, behind the Gallivan Center and Wells Fargo Building
2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. » Eggs in the City, 1675 E. 1300 South
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. » Trolley Square , 602 S. 700 East, near the water tower
6 to 9 p.m. » Salt Lake Art Center, 20 S. West Temple
10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. » Twilite Lounge, 347 E. 200 South
The menu » Tacos, sliders, soup, salads, sides and daily specials with an Asian twist.
Prices » Tacos and sliders sell for $2.50 each; all menu items under $6.
Where to go » A new list of locations for The Chow Truck is posted each week at www.chowtruck.com. You can also follow them on Twitter under @Chowtruck.