We've been buying cheap food off carts since the beginning of civilization, but over the past few years, there's been a quantum leap in the quality of the fare on the streets of many American cities. San Francisco, a city known for sophisticated palates and rigorous ethical standards, is home to Off the Grid, a flotilla of food trucks that roams the city, attracting musicians and crowds wherever it alights. I paid a visit to the event at Fort Mason, on San Francisco Bay, to see what the future of cheap street eats tastes like.
The time is right for "roaming mobile food extravaganzas" such as Off the Grid, an outgrowth of two American trends: the recession and the increased national awareness for quality ingredients and preparation methods. The food is cheap but gourmet-level, and the low-cost setting is giving countless people a springboard to new careers as restauranteurs and chefs.
For a few years, food trucks were mostly found at random curbsides or at large outdoor events such as flea markets, and fans had to rely on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to locate them.
Seemingly out of nowhere, though, caravans of mobile kitchens have become an attraction of their own, and are settling into a circuit of locations that are easier for customers to track. Food truck events have become the modern version of the traveling circus, setting up shop in parks and fields and attracting crowds with a mix of cheap eats and entertainment.
Major events are cropping up everywhere, including the Parked festival on Governors Island in New York City, The Mobile Chowdown in Seattle, Curbside Cookoff in Washington D.C., the Mobile Food Court in Phoenix, and more events in Southern California, Boston and elsewhere.
Some cities, such as Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta, have been slow to respond to the growing demand for cheap, quality eats, and are struggling to bring their zoning and health inspection methods up to speed with on-board kitchens.
The Food Network, a channel that has helped feed the American passion for better food, has even acknowledged the food truck revolution by recently airing The Great Food Truck Race, a cross-country elimination competition between food trucks.
A few months, ago, I paid a visit to Los Angeles, where the gourmet food truck phenomenon is taking a different shape, and helping workers stay out of their cars and off the roads on their lunch hours. Click here to see my video report from the streets of L.A.
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