Before the recent explosion of gourmet food trucks, the thought of mobile grub brought to mind the jingles of classic ice-cream or hot dog vendors. Obviously not the healthiest of choices, I set out to determine which of the new breed of food trucks in Charlotte served up nutritious offerings. If you've been reading my "Eat With Your Dollars" posts on Creative Loafing's Eat My Charlotte blog, you know that I'm always clamoring to spend money on the best possible options for both my health and the environment.
This in mind, I ruled out several food trucks after reviewing their choices and talking to the owners. If the only menu items a truck carried were pizza, wings and fries, it was disqualified. I did find a few "real food" trucks that use quality ingredients and can be friendly on the waistline. Here's my report card (keep in mind, my grades are primarily based on healthfulness, although taste was also a factor):
Roots Farm Food
This should be the favorite choice for foodies and health enthusiasts everywhere. Roots Farm almost always has a vegetarian or vegan option, uses as much local, farm-fresh ingredients as possible and can customize your order to use less oil or butter. During the week I ordered from Roots Farm, the truck featured a Thai curry vegetable pita ($7) made with organic red curry sauce. Seeing that it was labeled organic, I assumed it didn't have MSG, unlike other popular Thai restaurants in town.
Those with tighter budgets can rejoice at this truck. Looking at the list of farms they buy from, I noticed a lot of the same ones that are featured at my favorite local farm-to-fork restaurant, Halcyon (http://halcyonflavors.com). It was remarkable to find that it's possible to get the same quality ingredients at a food truck that you might find in a fancier, more expensive eatery.
At the Chow Down Food Truck Rally, I visited the Maki Taco truck, which features pan-Asian cuisine. Maki had the longest line of all the participants — it's clearly a popular spot — so I decided to return to the truck later, at a South End Cinema event, when the line was shorter. I had no interest in Maki's white-flour tortilla because it was refined and thus lower in nutritional value. The corn taco looked better, but wasn't the healthiest of choices either, because it was freshly fried in oil. I settled for the Yaki soba noodle ($8) made from buckwheat, with cabbage, carrots and Japanese sauce, but I asked the chefs not to fry my noodles in soybean oil, which was likely genetically modified. (The long-term effects of genetically modified oils are still being studied.) The noodles turned out to be very tasty and had plenty of vegetables, but my lips were left coated with a greasy film, which had me wondering if the sauce Maki Taco uses also had soybean oil.
At Tin Kitchen, I ordered the roasted cauliflower tacos with dill cream, tabouli couscous and a side of black beans ($7). Wow! Finally, I was getting the amount of vegetables one deserves in a proper meal. I also tried the tangy pickled vegetables, a fabulous addition to my tacos. The Tin Kitchen tries to be as locally sourced as possible without going over budget. I was impressed to learn that the grilled flank steak tacos ($9) were made with high-quality, local, grass fed beef from Hickory Nut Gap Farms. However, the oil of choice could use an upgrade. I found out Tin Kitchen uses a 90 percent vegetable/10 percent olive oil blend to warm its soft corn taco shells. Again, this oil could be genetically modified, depending on the vegetables used. Unfortunately, the bottle I was shown had no additional information to confirm.
This food truck had three vegetarian options, but I immediately ruled out the two that were deep fried. The Vegetarian Burrito ($9) can be customized to order. I recommend getting it sans cheese to avoid possible cancer-causing growth hormones often found in conventional dairy products. And definitely add avocado for a dose of healthy monounsaturated fat and fiber, if available.
As you can see from my report card, our local food trucks have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to nutritious menu choices and offerings. In the summer months, considering how hot the insides of the trucks can get from the heat of the stoves, I wondered if the chefs might consider incorporating more raw food menu items. Imagine a gourmet food truck selling fresh local fruit like peaches and strawberries, fresh cold summer soups like gazpacho, local vegetable juices and refreshing salads. My mouth continues to water in anticipation of a truck like that rolling down the streets of Charlotte.
No visit to a food truck is complete without dessert.
Roots Farm Food
This truck's dessert of the day — roasted organic banana cake with cream cheese glaze ($7) — was my favorite pick. The flavor combination was heavenly, and I loved how the truck made a point to incorporate organic ingredients even in its desserts.
Southern Cake Queen
The strawberry and chocolate vegan cupcakes (4 for $10), from Pink and Chocolate bakery, were a great find. I reviewed the ingredients and all were whole and natural, including the dye, made from beets, used in the strawberry cupcake icing.
The Cupcake Delirium
The desserts on this truck, to my surprise, use no trans fat, unbleached flour and real butter. When I asked the owner if the infamous "Elvis is in the House" cupcake, which features candied bacon, included nitrates (an additive in processed meat that's been linked to increases in cancer), he said, "I would totally upgrade to organic bacon, but I don't think people want to pay $5 for one cupcake." So, you may want to skip that delight for one of this truck's less-popular varieties.