Outside of Portland, Maine, food trucks have exploded into a national trend. Like fixed-gear bicycles and the inexplicable spike in sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon, we probably have the hipsters to thank, who transitioned the lowly mobile catering truck from “roach coach” status, suitable only for selling food outside of factories or at carnivals, into a valid venue for aspiring chefs to hone their craft, and for established restaurants to expand their business. There are two sources, however, that can be credited with the sudden proliferation of food trucks into the public consciousness. First came the explosion of so-called “gourmet” food trucks, who were no longer content to sell hot dogs or old sandwiches out of their trucks. With Kogi, the Korean BBQ/Mexican fusion truck in L.A., who famously mixed kimchi into burritos, New York’s “Big Gay Ice Cream Truck,” who turned Mister Softee on his bowtied ear by topping their soft serve with exotic toppings including crushed wasabi peas, and San Francisco’s “Spencer on the Go,” which brought French food down to street level, customers soon became accustomed to expecting a little bit more from their mobile food dining.
The explosion of social media also exposed small, independent trucks to a much larger audience. Truck owners could change their promotion methods; instead of showing up at the same location each day, trying to earn a local (though limited) reputation, trucks could suddenly use some of the mobility built right into their kitchens much more effectively. By sending messages out to followers on Twitter, trucks could suddenly build buzz in several small towns and communities at the same time, making the arrival of a favorite truck much more of an event among a particular truck’s local customers. The mobile nature of food trucks and the use of social media for promotion has even spawned a Food Network reality show, “The Great Food Truck Race,” which manages to be fairly compelling television, provided you can get used to the constant exposure to Tyler Florence’s red face being endlessly strangled by tight-fitting plaid buttoned shirts.
And yet, in spite of their current popularity, and regardless of Portland’s growing reputation as a hotspot for young chefs, named “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetit, food trucks simply don’t exist in Portland.
The reasons aren’t exactly clear. A recent article in the Portland Daily Sun suggests only that “a smattering of overlapping city ordinances” prevent mobile food trucks from operating in the city. The article also points to vague concerns about parking, garbage, and a perhaps under-emphasized level of concern from competing traditional restaurants. It’s not clear why; in other cities (including, most notably, the “other Portland,”) whole city blocks have been given over to food carts, creating a spike in foot traffic, and huge pedestrian zones of quick, inexpensive, gourmet food. These food markets provide an incubator for young chefs to break into the food business, with very low overhead, and the opportunity to experiment with dishes that may not be successful in a more traditional environment. Existing restaurants in Portland could also expand their offerings into the mobile food business, as well (“Think how cool it would be if Fore Street did a food truck,” the Portland Daily Sun article asks, “or if Miyake did a food truck.”).
The topic is continuing to come up for debate, but you don’t have to wait: There is already a burgeoning food trailer scene happening on the mall on Maine Street in Brunswick all Summer long (“until the snow comes,” one owner explained). In the Spring and early fall, these trucks tap into the student population at Bowdoin, though that’s not their bread-and-butter; one operator I spoke to told me that tourists are still her number-one money maker, as with many other industries in Maine. Even in a town as small as Brunswick, the lines at these trucks can stretch several people deep at lunchtime, as hard-working entrepreneurs sling their versions of Maine street food to an appreciative audience.
Their existence doesn’t seem to have caused any ill-effect; on a sunny Summer day, families gather in the park on blankets, happily munching cheap hamburgers and hot dogs. There doesn’t seem to be any extra garbage around. There’s still plenty of parking. And the local restaurants are still full.
A huge chalkboard sign, reading simply “YUCATECAN PORK BURRITOS” lured me into the long line at Lola’s Taqueria, a taco truck on Maine Street. This isn’t the kind of taco truck you find under a freeway overpass next to a Home Depot. Lola’s is the kind of taco truck that has achieved self-awareness; while their preparations are influenced by traditional Mexican recipes, there is also a very conscious “cuteness” to the trailer, named after a dog, with handpainted signage, and tons of brightly-colored chalk. Staffed by just two people, the menu offers tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, all featuring inventive fillings and your choice of hot sauce. Unsure of how many tacos to order (“One is a snack, two is a meal,” the counterperson explained), I tried three tacos: The “Salsa Verde,” ($3.75) featuring roasted chicken breast, tomatillo salsa, Napa cabbage, and queso fresco; the “Barbacoa,” ($4.00) with shredded chipotle beef, roasted tomatoes, peppers, onions, and queso fresco, as well as the “Carnitas,” ($3.50) slow-cooked pork topped with pickled onions, sliced radish, and more queso fresco. All the tacos were served on twin corn tortillas, and I opted for some of the “XXX” habanero salsa on the side.
All three tacos were winners, but the “Carnitas” was the real standout. The pork fell apart into shreds, and was balanced perfectly by beautifully pickled red onions, and spicy snaps from the radish. There was a brightness of flavor that many Mexican restaurants seem to forget about, opting instead to make your throat close up with smokiness or heat.In fact, the carnitas taco from Lola’s was one of the most flavorful, well-balanced tacos I have had in a very long time.
The barbacoa and “salsa verde” tacos were similarly successful. I loved the zip of the salsa verde, and the Napa cabbage added a satisfying crunch. The barbacoa taco was its evil twin, bringing smoky chipotle heat to the shredded beef that was only further enhanced by the chopped roasted tomatoes.
In all cases, the twin corn tortillas stood up to the onslaught of juices from the filling, though I was surprised to see Lola’s using store-bought tortillas; it seems easy to have a bowl of masa ready to go, to make tortillas from scratch in small batches, staying a few ahead of incoming orders. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem like it would require that much additional effort, but would improve any taco greatly. I poured on the homemade “XXX” hot sauce, which was a beautiful color, but didn’t deliver on the heat quite in the way I had hoped. These are minor complaints, though, brought up only to balance the otherwise overwhelming enthusiasm I have for Lola’s Taqueria.
Wrappers Sandwiches and Hot Dogs
When you love sandwiches — I mean, really love them, that is, photograph them, start websites about them, and assemble them in your sleep — it’s hard to get very enthusiastic about the notion of a wrap. A wrap, it can be argued, flies in the face of what a sandwich essentially is, falling somewhere in the empty space between a salad and a burrito, but nowhere near a slice of bread. It’s this cynicism about wraps that led me to somewhat passive aggressively order a “Chicken Caesar Wrap,” ($5.75) which is something I haven’t enjoyed since I was a 12 -year-old girl who doodled horses on the outside of her Trapper Keeper. It was as good as a chicken Caesar wrap can possibly be, with big chunks of white meat chicken, chopped Romaine lettuce, and a mild, Parmesan-spiked dressing, wrapped in a giant flour tortilla. It was while I waited for my wrap, though, chatting and joking with the owner, that I decided to stop being such a jerk about wraps, and to order something that didn’t seem to have “meh” built into its very design. The staff (who I took to be the owner and his daughter, though this is a completely made-up fact) were so friendly and pleasant that I returned the next day and ordered a “Beef Taco Wrap,” ($5.75) which is exactly what it sounds like: A taco salad rolled up in a tortilla. (Incidentally, if a wrap is filled with Mexican ingredients, isn’t it a burrito?)
I ended up being won over by Wrappers, thanks in part to the personalities there, but mostly due to the pleasing, fresh crunch in both of the wraps I tried. While I will always be a slave to baked bread and the lunchmeat it contains, I will return to Wrappers on the hottest days for a lighter, snappier lunch option. I should also note that, of all the food trailers on Maine Street in Brunswick, Wrappers seems to be the only one that is open no matter what, rain or shine. You won’t be able to get a taco or a bowl of noodles in a thunderstorm, but Wrappers will still be there to sell you a lobster roll or a scoop of ice cream, just as they have been for 17 years. And I like that.
The newest entry to Brunswick’s food trailer scene, Northeast Noodle serves exclusively vegetarian stir-frys, cooked to order while you wait. You begin with your choice of noodle, udon or rice noodle, and then add either tofu, Cannellini beans, or peanut sauce, then choose from a variety of sauces. Everything gets tossed together with seasonal vegetables, and served in paper bowls. The truck also offers a gussied-up macaroni and cheese, as well as several varieties of naturally-flavored, unsweetened iced teas.
Owner Patricia is the kind of person you like on sight: she’s quick to smile and laugh, wears crazy flower-print blouses, and has a natural, easygoing way about her that immediately sets you at ease, even when you are wrestling with an unfamiliar Vegetarian menu. I ordered the “#3,” udon noodles with peanut sauce and hot sauce ($7), requesting additionally that it “be awesome.” Five minutes, and a cup of iced tea infused with fresh mint later, and my noodles were ready to go.
The noodles weren’t my favorite, with the cooked zucchini and greens fusing together with the broad wheat noodles into a kind of gummy mass, and coated in a peanut sauce that I can only think to describe as “tangy.” Pure vegetarian dishes are, admittedly, not something I have a ton of experience with, but this bowl of noodles suffered from a sameness of texture that found me wishing for something (anything!) to break up the monotony in my mouth; some crunchy bean shoots, or crushed peanuts, would have gone a long way. This was a funny bowl of noodles; Vegetarian first, with wholesome, local vegetables and noodles, but with any kind of distinctly Asian flavor coming in a distant second.
Danny’s was the first food trailer to set up shop on the Brunswick green, and has become a Maine institution. If it’s possible for a hot dog stand to have “regulars,” you’ll find them at Danny’s, queued up several bodies deep for steamed (or grilled!) hot dogs, in traditional, warm steamed New England split-top buns. You can also choose a hamburger or a cheeseburger, and go buck-wild loading your lunch up with toppings, including bacon, cheese, chili, coleslaw, or sauerkraut. If hot dogs or cheeseburgers aren’t your thing (which is hard to imagine), you can also opt for a “Steak & Cheese” ($6.00) or a B.L.T. ($4.00).
I tried a steamed hot dog with mustard and onions ($1.50) and a cheeseburger with ketchup and relish ($3.00). The cheeseburger was sensational; sitting outside in the park, eating out of my cardboard box, the burger was reminiscent of the kind of food you’d have at a family barbecue. The ingredients were basic, but the substantial burger patty was char-grilled, with a crunchy crust, and plenty of melty American cheese draping over the sides. I’m not positive, and will certainly need another visit to be certain, but I think the hamburger patties were hand-formed, which was a welcome surprise. I would expect a Summer burger stand slinging $3 burgers to be using frozen patties, but these were unevenly shaped, and didn’t bear any of the telltale artificial smoke flavoring.
I was less excited about the hot dog; the fluffy steamed bun was delicious, and fused with the hot dog into three delicious bites, making it easy to eat several at a sitting. The hot dog had a pleasant snap to the casing, but was a little mushy and too-finely-ground on the inside, and topped with French’s bright yellow mustard and raw onions. Perhaps the dog would have fared better had I ordered it grilled, but my sense is that these hot dogs aren’t meant to be eaten plain. Instead, they serve as a vehicle for other toppings, and I am certain that when heaped with chili and cheese, these hot dogs provide a tasty base for anything else you’d like to pile on.