The roving spud masters known as the Fry Bar serve gourmet garlic-Parmesan-rosemary fries at local art markets. The Peace Love & Sno-balls trailer whirls out a rainbow of syrup-soaked shaved ice at Audubon Park on the weekends. A food truck called Geaux Plates parks outside Uptown bars with inventive banh mi-style sandwiches. And at second-line parades, Linda Green serves yakamein, the only-in-New Orleans, Asian-soul-hybrid soup.
They're examples of the deep traditions and budding trends in street food found across the city. This Saturday, however, their trucks and many others will finally all be in the same spot: the Street Fare Derby, an offbeat culinary event at the Fair Grounds Race Course. With more vendors from New Orleans, the Northshore and Baton Rouge signing up, this street food festival should be a grand tour of inventive, hand-held eats, complete with music from Kermit Ruffins and Papa Grows Funk and a day of live horse racing to boot.
The event gives diners a chance to sample from the area's wide and fast-growing range of street food in one place. For organizers, it's a chance to showcase a street food scene they believe has more to offer than just a good quick meal.
The Derby is the work of Lizzy Caston and Erica Normand, who last year launched the website NOLAFoodTrucks.com as a guide to local street food. Caston helped start a similar site and a similar street food festival in Portland, Ore., arguably the nation's epicenter of street food with some 600 licensed vendors. Caston is a firm believer that a robust street food scene can be a low-cost tool for urban development — by reclaiming vacant lots or dark street corners — and small-business growth, incubating future conventional restaurants. But in New Orleans, food truck operators and others often complain that murky regulations and licensing requirements from City Hall have stifled growth.
"There are a lot of people who want to open trucks here but can't figure out how to do it legally," Caston says. "We get literally five requests a week through the website from people asking 'How do we start a food truck in New Orleans?' Right now, our answer is 'Good luck.'"
Caston hopes the Street Fare Derby will lead to greater advocacy for regulatory reform and demonstrate the street-food scene's potential. That's potential the event's host, the Fair Grounds, has already experienced firsthand.
Last year, the track invited local food trucks to participate in a series of evening races called Starlight Racing. Fair Grounds spokesman Jim Mulvihill says it was part of a marketing effort to draw a younger patrons to the historic racetrack.
"Other tracks around the country have done this with food trucks and for the same reason," he says. "Food trucks bring people out, and especially the people we're trying to reach and introduce to racing."
Indeed, the Street Fare Derby coincides with the Fair Grounds' biggest race day of the year for quarter horses, racehorses bred for short sprints. If the Derby is successful, perhaps more New Orleans street food will find itself on the fast track too.