"I was really impressed by the quality," Burmeister says. "Everything I tried was about on par with what I'd expect from a restaurant."
Between bites, Burmeister, Caston and Normand were taking plenty of notes. In November, they launched the website NOLAFoodTrucks.com (Twitter handle: @nolafoodtrucks), which they hope to build as a guide to street food around the city.
"We want to do advocacy here, not politically, but just showing what's out there now, so hopefully people will demand more," Caston says. "It's a soft sell. We're showing what other cities are doing too and how it's working."
The new site is modeled after FoodCartsPortland.com, a site Caston started and has since developed with Burmeister as an online hub for the vast and varied landscape of street food in Portland. The Portland-based magazine Oregon Business calls the site "an integral part of the scene" and credits it with helping fuel the growth of food carts, as food vendors' trailers are known in that city. The number of licensed carts in Oregon's Multnomah County, which includes Portland, is more than 600, and Burmeister estimates about half of those have emerged since 2007.
By comparison, the Crescent City scene they're now exploring through NOLAFoodTrucks.com is embryonic. But the three partners believe that with some nurturing, it has the potential for much more.
"I think with the way (New Orleanians) get into food here, you'll see more trucks coming along and you'll see this all grow," Normand says.
It's a bona fide boom time for food trucks nationwide. They are constantly featured on reality TV shows and cooking contests, and a recent National Restaurant Association survey predicts food trucks will be a top trend in 2011. Food truck enthusiasts in New York City have hosted the Vendy Awards to honor top street food for six years running, and in Los Angeles some 60 trucks participated in the L.A. Street Food Fest this summer.
A precise count of food trucks in New Orleans is elusive, at least in part because that number depends on just how they're defined. For instance, grassroots entrepreneurs prepare and sell food from trailers or pickups in the wake of any second line parade and many Mardi Gras Indian gatherings. Others cater to workers in the Central Business District, parking outside office buildings to sell gumbo, wings and pies from their tailgates. Still others bring boxed meals to construction sites and to day laborers who wait for work near home improvement centers. Few such vendors display business licenses and most appear to operate under the radar of local regulations.
But there's something different about the wave of food trucks that has emerged more recently. Their operators typically brand their trucks with business names and promote them through social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Most keep consistent hours at specified locations and have attained business and health code permits from the city and state. Moreover, the food they serve is generally of a higher caliber than average street food or Carnival fare, thanks to fresher ingredients, creative recipes and more hands-on preparation.
This year alone, at least five new, licensed trucks of this sort have begun regular operations in New Orleans — Taceaux Loceaux, A Fork in the Road, Boo Koo BBQ, Brazilian BBQ and Second Line Smokehouse & BBQ — while another, called Lola Deux, has started in Covington (see "Keep on Truckin'").
More are on the way. Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago's Seafood Restaurant, plans to deploy what he describes as a "taco truck for Louisiana seafood" within the next few months. He already has one food truck, of sorts: a vintage fire engine tricked out to the tune of $60,000 with beer taps, display screens and grills to prepare his restaurants' signature charbroiled oysters. Initially he intended to use this fire engine at fundraisers and promotional events, though more recently he started selling grilled oysters from it at the Harrison Avenue Marketplace, a food and arts market in Lakeview.
"As this food truck trend continues, the possibilities are enormous," Cvitanovich says. "Once we get the other truck going, I think we'll be driving around the city, setting up and just selling our food on the streets. Maybe another night we'll be doing dinner for 10 at someone's house."
Curtis Moore, owner of the Praline Connection, is getting in on the action, too. He plans to lease a food trailer he originally bought for his Creole soul restaurant to an independent operator. He declined to elaborate.
Some who have had a taste of success in the food truck game are already looking to expand. Hand-formed burgers and fresh-cut fries have made a name for the Curbside food truck in Baton Rouge, and owner Nick Hufft plans to bring the truck to New Orleans for a test run around Christmas. The 26-year-old New Orleans native says he intends to add a second truck to serve New Orleans permanently once he moves back home from Baton Rouge this spring. (Food trucks are also flourishing in Baton Rouge; in October, the inaugural Baton Rouge Food Truck Showcase drew seven food trucks to serve their specialties in one spot as a demonstration of the local options available in the capital city.)
Meanwhile, the owners of Taceaux Loceaux, a truck selling multi-ethnic tacos, plan to add at least one more truck, and they also hope to open a conventional restaurant somewhere in the city to serve the same type of food from a fixed location.
"The truck has been an interesting way to test the viability of what we have and the market for it," says Maribeth del Castillo, who runs Taceaux Loceaux with her husband Alex. "It's snowballed, and now we're running to catch up with it."
Earlier this year, it seemed that the busy nightlife hub that is Frenchmen Street was shaping up as a street food destination. Developments since, however, point to some obstacles facing food truck operators across the city. Several competing taco trucks had been serving food along Frenchmen Street on most nights by the start of 2010, and in March the Praline Connection joined the fray. Moore leased space in a lot cater-corner to the Praline Connection and set up a trailer from which restaurant employees served shrimp and grits, jambalaya and red beans. But the same night his trailer debuted, New Orleans police arrived to write Moore and the taco truck operators tickets for various parking and city code violations.
Moore says he had purchased a vendor permit from the city earlier and believed he complied with the rules, but he didn't think fighting the tickets or continuing the trailer business would be worth his time. He put the trailer in storage, where it has stayed pending the new lease deal now in the works.
But Rubens Leite, a taco truck operator who owns six colorfully decorated vehicles — including one he regularly stationed on Frenchmen Street — sought relief from City Hall. He says he made a tour of city offices and wrote to New Orleans City Council members seeking clarification of the law, but found no help. Eventually he too threw in the towel. He opened the brick-and-mortar Benny's Taqueria in Gretna, and he also runs a taqueria inside the Frenchmen Street music club Cafe Negril. But he's mothballed five of his trucks in a Gretna parking lot, while only one from his fleet continues to cruise various construction sites.
"I couldn't afford all the tickets and the hassle from the city," Leite says. "The city basically made me fire 18 people. I don't pay no more sales tax to the city from those trucks now. Why do they make it so complicated? I don't know."
Food truck owners interviewed for this story agree that while the basics of securing health, fire safety and business permits seem straightforward, the rules for how mobile food vendors actually can operate around New Orleans are vaguely written and inconsistently enforced.
For instance, according to a City Hall-issued pamphlet of "general rules" for mobile vendors of all sorts, vendors are prohibited from selling food within two blocks of schools, they can't sell seafood at all, and they must change locations every 30 minutes. The rules change during Carnival season, however, when the city holds an annual lottery for a limited number of special Mardi Gras vendor permits. Winners of this lottery are assigned specific parking spots near parade routes.
Of particular concern for some food truck operators is a local ordinance that bars any mobile food vendors from an area that encompasses the French Quarter and the Central Business District. The iconic Lucky Dogs hot dog carts were grandfathered in when the city adopted that measure in 1972, and today that company is the only vendor permitted to operate in these coveted, high-density areas. Some new food truck operators are calling for a change.
"I'll fight to the death to get into downtown New Orleans," says Hufft, of Curbside. "That law is really old and closes everyone out. But it's 2010. Food trucks aren't roach coaches anymore. I'm selling better food than a lot of restaurants."
Some food truck boosters believe efforts to develop a larger scene in New Orleans could result in much more than just better street food.
"It can help transform parts of the city with very little money from the city," Caston says. "In Portland we've seen how you can take a vacant lot and put a food cart there, and suddenly it's like a little farmers market. You have people seeking this out and convening there. It's eyes on the street, too."
She says food trucks also give prospective restaurateurs a more accessible way to develop their businesses. There's already evidence of that potential in New Orleans. Que Crawl, the barbecue truck started by chef Nathanial Zimet in 2006, led to the Riverbend restaurant Boucherie in 2008, and the del Castillos are charting a similar course with their plans for a fixed Taceaux Loceaux location.
"It was an amazing springboard for the restaurant," Zimet says. "Thinking back on it now, I didn't imagine even then just how much of a help the truck would be in getting our name out there and having customers coming in right from the start."
The Que Crawl truck has been mostly idle for the past year as Zimet devotes his time to Boucherie, but the chef says he hopes to resume regular service with the truck soon.
In some cities, including food truck hotbeds like New York and Los Angeles, vendors have faced increased regulatory pressure and criticism from restaurateurs who view their lower overhead as unfair competition. Wendy Waren, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, hasn't heard any such complaints from the group's New Orleans-area members, and she suggests that's because the local food truck scene is still so small.
But street food has been controversial in Jefferson Parish. In 2007, the Jefferson Parish Council effectively prohibited food trucks, enacting an ordinance barring mobile vendors from major streets and requiring them to provide restroom facilities. As a result, the Latino-run taco trucks that had appeared around the parish after Hurricane Katrina quickly moved on.
Still, those hoping for a larger food truck scene in New Orleans can look to examples of other cities accommodating them as part of the business community. In June, Cincinnati began a pilot program to create designated parking places for up to 20 food trucks to operate in that city's downtown. Meanwhile, officials in Cleveland are now crafting legislation to streamline permitting for food trucks while also codifying rules for the minimum distances food trucks must keep from restaurants.
Change is afoot much closer to home, too. In September, Nealy and Keith Frentz, the chef/owners of Covington's Lola Restaurant, introduced their Lola Deux food truck. They planned to serve outside the bars in downtown Covington on weekends after their restaurant closed for the evening, but they quickly learned that a local ordinance barred them from vending on public streets. After meeting with city officials on the issue, however, Frentz says she's confident the Covington City Council will soon approve a proposed ordinance change to allow food vending.
For now, she and her husband bring their truck to events on private property and to festivals on the Northshore, where they've found a warm reception. Frentz says they served some 270 customers from their truck during a recent outdoor concert at the Covington Trailhead Park.
"City officials see the need for something like this in our town. They go to the events and see the response, and we're paying taxes like everyone else," Frentz says. "We knew there was a niche here that we could fill. People see a food truck and they love it. They just think it's so cool."