New Orleans's well-earned reputation as the culinary capital of the South (or the United States, or the world, depending on who you ask) has never been based entirely on brick-and-mortar restaurants. Certainly, we have our fair share of upscale sit-down eateries, but the city's food culture spans beyond the insular confines of fine dining and is often at its most vibrant beyond the walls of formal eating spaces. Weather permitting, New Orleanians cook, drink, and dine in the streets. We boil crawfish, with heaps of steaming mud bugs strewn across newspaper-topped picnic tables. We join forces to sell plate lunches to raise money for schools and churches—seafood-stuffed peppers jostling for space with heaping portions of mac-n-cheese in Styrofoam clamshells. And we grab to-go cups and containers for meals at Mardi Gras and music festivals, eating while walking, eating while dancing, eating while standing in line to get more food to eat.
So, it's no surprise that New Orleans is now catching up to a nationwide explosion of food trucks. Typically mobile homes or moving vans, gutted and outfitted with equipment for cooking and serving hot meals, food trucks are the descendants of 19th-century lunch wagons—part of a long lineage of rolling restaurants like the street meat carts of New York, once a fixture anywhere that busy people needed cheap, greasy satisfaction on the go. But the brightly painted and exuberantly named carts trundling through our bumpy streets are part of a new wave of gourmet food trucks, a hip re-imagining that adds fresh ingredients and bold recipes to the mobile munchy business model. This food truck renaissance kicked off in Los Angeles a few years ago and spread to food-forward cities across the map, with savvy eaters forming lines down the block to try unique ethnic fusions like Korean BBQ tacos and Philly cheesesteak egg rolls. With New Orleans already the ultimate melting pot of cuisines and flavors, and with our penchant for eating on the go, it was practically pre-destined that the Big Easy would become a haven for food trucks.
“The main advantage of having a food truck is that you can bring your business to where the people are,” Rachel Angulo of La Cocinita, one of the city's most acclaimed trucks, says. While once upon a time, adventurous eaters would call in reservations to the latest hyped-up bistro or brasserie, now they hop on Twitter or Instagram to find out where the hottest new truck has set up shop for the day, plug the coordinates into their GPS, and race to the location in hopes of beating the inevitable line.
“With a brick-and-mortar restaurant, customers know where to find you, whereas with a food truck, you need to proactively advertise your presence on social media,” Angula adds. Trucks tweet out locations and promotions, and often post pics of the day's specials to get diners' mouths watering (and motors running). The food truck craze is as much a product of technology as it is of nostalgia: the old-school taco trucks, affectionately known as “roach coaches,” hold a place in many people's hearts, but it's the addition of social media that's turned food truck dining into an exhilarating hunt for a new, rare lunch each day.
Angulo founded La Cocinita—which has grown to include another wildly popular truck in Chicago and a full restaurant location in Evanston, Illinois—alongside her husband Benoit, a Venezuelan chef, in 2011. Ironically, the couple met at Commander's Palace, a New Orleans fine-dining institution that exemplifies the old-world, sit-down style of gourmet dining that food trucks playfully rebel against, and quickly came up with the idea for what would become La Cocinita. “We wanted to feature Venezuelan specialties such as arepas, but also tacos and other Mexican/Latin American comfort foods that people are more familiar with,” Angulo says. Like many food trucks, La Cocinita had a unique product to offer, one that might have been too risky to build an entire set-in-stone location around: arepas, which are cornmeal patties stuffed with spiced meat, vegetables, cheese, and sauces; a customer once dubbed them, “Venezuelan pockets of happiness.”
"The main advantage of having a food truck is that you can bring your business to where the people are." -Rachel Angulo, La Cocinita
“Our arepas are what set us apart from other Latin American restaurants in NOLA,” Angulo says. Unlike those restaurants, they're able to bring these savory delights everywhere, from festivals during the day, to heavily trafficked bar neighborhoods at night. This is a dual advantage that gourmet food trucks have: smaller menus, combined with flexible locations, allow them to hone in on a few specialty items and bring them directly to people who, lured in by the smell, end up hooked on something they can't get elsewhere.
Other trucks have taken the same tactic, delivering high-concept eats to hungry people wherever they may be. Crêpes a la Cart, a brightly decorated moving joint with the vibe of a carnival funnel cake outpost, delivers sweet and savory versions of the thin French pancake. Where else could you start off with a Monte Cristo crêpe, loaded with chicken, ham, cheddar, and mustard, then sidle back up to the window to grab dessert—another crêpe with berries and Baileys Irish Cream?
Another deceptively simple truck is Frencheeze, which serves up seemingly endless variations on the easiest sandwich ever, the grilled cheese. On the one hand, there's the Good Morning, which flips the script by pairing sweet mascarpone cheese with Nutella and strawberries, and on the other, there's the 4th Grader, a perfectly executed version of the basic cheddar grilled cheese you loved as a kid.
Burgers Ya Heard! is another truck dedicated to perfecting a particular dish, and their unique toppings (jambalaya? andouille?? fried green tomatoes???) put many sit-down burger joints to shame.
Unsurprisingly, creative ethnic and fusion food is a major draw for many truck enthusiasts. With taco trucks still the reigning kings of street-centric dining, it's a given that New Orleans has a gourmet taco option up its sleeve. Taceaux Loceaux has attracted almost 12,000 Twitter followers, and at times, it can seem like they've all shown up at once to wait in line for the Del Castillo siblings’ creatively named and constructed tacos. Herbivores ought to try their Notorious V.E.G. (tofu has never tasted so caliente), while meat eaters might want to steer for the Carnital Knowledge, with slow-cooked pork so deliciously spiced, it'll make you wish they sold it by the pound.
Saigon Slims is another favorite that often rotates between different breweries, serving banh mi on Dong Phuong Bakery bread, the gold standard for the sandwich locals call a “Vietnamese po-boy.” Their sandwiches range from the traditional, with grilled pork or lemongrass chicken; to more adventurous options like the Saigon Caesar, with lettuce, chicken, and shredded parmesan or the pho boy, which wraps up all the ingredients of pho in a portable banh mi package.
And really, isn't portability kind of the point? Food trucks are thriving in New Orleans because this has never been a sit-down-and-chow city. We get our food in gas stations, from smokers on the side of the road, and from slow-driving wagons full of okra. We like our food to go—it's only natural that we've embraced restaurants that move along with us.