Food Truck Culture in the District

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Queues can be long, but move fairly fast.

One of my very favourite little pleasures is being able to dine outdoors, and in the District, options for al fresco meals are even bigger thanks to the popularity of food trucks. In recent years, the number of food trucks have grown from a handful to a small army that traverse the busy parts of the city, peddling tasty grub from out of a window to hungry workers. Korean tacos, gyros, lobster rolls, cheesesteaks, pho, Indian curry, cupcakes, crepes, Italian ice — whatever you’re in the mood for, there’s a food truck to suit it.

The food trucks trend really started gaining traction back around 2010, but I didn’t think they’d last long. Restaurant owners were opposed to their presence, and tried to throw obstacles in the path of their growth, partially by lobbying law enforcement to keep a strict eye on permit issues, parking and other regulations. I thought the restaurants would win. There just isn’t a prevalent street food culture in the District. People’s interest would wane, and the trucks would disappear. But I was wrong. They’re still here, trucking around the city, busy as ever.

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Food trucks vie for prime spots next to the Metro Center train station entrance. Once spaces are taken, trucks head for other areas of the city with heavy foot traffic.

In fact, they’re at the peak of popularity. Local media are constantly buzzing about the latest truck, or asking readers/viewers to vote for top trucks. Countless websites dedicated to tracking the locations of food trucks have popped up, serving as an auxiliary service to customers who want an easy way to frequent their favourite trucks again. City government can’t ignore such a show of love and support from the people of D.C., that they’ve begun to ease up on the regulations. Even brick-and-mortar restaurants have come around, with some like Surfside and Kababji sending out their own trucks to join the rest.

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So many choices…which one?

One element of the food trucks’ success is their savvy use of Twitter. Very early on, truck operators discovered what a convenient marketing tool Twitter could be in letting fans know about their location on any given day: Hmm, when will the lobster truck be in my neighbourhood next? Let’s see, what does their Twitter feed say…omg, they’re here today! And once you’ve decided on which truck you want your food from, you could head out and be first in line for an order of lobster rolls with fries. The one downside, to me, is that prices are pretty high for some dishes with larger amounts of food, considering they are being served out of a truck in the most economical takeout containers, and with few seating options (except what the city provides.) in the area.

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Tasty food served outdoors, yum!

But I may be passing verdict based on personal experiences with street food prices. In Malaysia, where street food culture is in our blood, there are designated areas — usually designed to be an open air food court — in the city for the hawkers (vendors with food carts,) to set up shop, cook and serve steaming bowls of curry laksa, freshly grilled stingray, sate and a variety of entrees served with fragrant jasmine rice. Most items cost under five American bucks. And they’ll serve your food to wherever you’re seated, no tipping necessary.

So far, the food’s been pretty good though! There’s an event called Truckeroo that’s held every month from April through to October in the Navy Yard neighborhood, where 20 or so trucks congregate to feed visitors who want the opportunity to sample trucks they’ve missed during the work week. The festival also features picnic tables, live music and games; obviously this is intended to be a social event.

Food, eaten in the presence of sunshine, music, fresh air and loved ones, sure sounds like a good time to me.

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