With food coming off the grill and going into Styrofoam containers, the food truck business is smokin' hot, sparking a nationwide culinary revolution. Over the last decade, the action has rolled south from Baltimore and north from Washington to Laurel, teasing and tantalizing discerning palettes from dawn to dusk.
The mobile vehicles, which emanate a cloud of wood and charcoal smoke and exhaust fumes, create a cocktail in the shape of a huge carbon footprint. Still, loyal followers endure blistering heat and arctic cold in order to get their foodie fix. The fad that began in Los Angeles and spread east has hatched web sites that find and dissect the best of the best.
One Laurel truck focuses on the surf while leaving the turf to the competition. Cruise south along Washington Boulevard in North Laurel and you will get a glimpse of how selling blue crabs has changed. Years ago, Maryland's state crustacean would be dispensed from coolers stacked up under an umbrella with a hand-scribbled sign. Not anymore. Take a look at the roomy, red and white trailer that Jimmy and Lori Emmert, of West Laurel, have set down in the parking lot of Wild Buffalo Grill.
"We've got large, medium and extra-large today," Lori Emmert said during business hours earlier this month. "We have females today. We're not sold out. I have customers who come from Clinton, from Baltimore, Annapolis and Mount Airy. I would say 99.9 percent of our sales are through word of mouth. Our trailer is the closest thing we have to a restaurant."
The highest number of bushels the couple has sold on one weekend, Emmert said, was between 50 and 60.
"Males are not always bigger than females," she said. "They're not always fuller. That's a wives' tale. ... Every crab cake they eat in a restaurant, every pound they buy in a grocery store are females."
This summer, as in many summers past, the couple, both licensed watermen, have to look southward from Maryland to states like North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas to fill the void left by the scarcity of iconic Maryland blues.
"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Emmert. Jimmy Emmert is a fourth-generation waterman from Shady Side, a sleepy, bayside fishing village south of Annapolis. That's where they keep their work boat, a 42-foot wooden vessel. Jimmy Emmert catches all the crabs himself, Lori Emmert said. One of his occasional helpers on the boat is their daughter, Lauren, 17, a recent graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.
In order to meet customer demands, they're up long before the sun.
"On days we're open, our days generally start at 3 a.m.," Lori Emmert said. "There are supplies to stock and inventory to record. Last night, we didn't get home until after 9 o'clock."
Early morning barbecue
Meanwhile, at 11:30 on a sultry Friday morning this month, David Welch was making it hard to resist the aroma of chicken he had simmering inside his $1,200 smoker, one of two he owns. Parked on the narrow shoulder of Corridor Road, parallel to Route 32 in Savage, his ancient Chevy van was bursting with packages of hot dog rolls and condiments like hot sauce. When he lifted the lid of his smoker, he revealed plump pieces of chicken cooked to perfection.
Welch, 62, of North Laurel, who once operated a smaller, more conventional food stand on Main Street, reported that more than half of his patrons are federal workers and contractors from the nearby National Security Agency. As he took another swig of iced tea, a car climbed the hill and pulled over. The driver, senses on high alert, walked quickly over to see what was for lunch.
"What do you got goin' today?" he inquired.
"Kielbasa!" exclaimed Welch, the natural robust promoter in him coming out. He seems to have a gift for making fans think he's only cooked up three links that morning, and two are already long gone.
"I think I've been coming out here for at least five years," declared the customer, who said his name was Steve but wouldn't give his last name. "Dave makes good food at a good price. And you get a little bit of conversation in the middle of the day."
Kielbasas, he continued, "are an old favorite. What I really like about Dave is that on days that you wouldn't think he'd be out here, he's out here."
Local businesses Poist Gas, on Main Street, helps trucks keep up with demand. General manager Dana Underwood, whose great-grandfath
er started the firm in 1938, helps the truck operators with jobs such as connecting lines to appliances like deep fryers.
"You have to have special piping for the [propane] gas to get from the tank to the appliances," she said. "We also help with gas leaks on appliances."
Often, she added, owners are so appreciative of the support they receive from Poist,, "they cook us up some funnel cakes or barbecue for free."
On the west side parking lot of Island Liquors, Pupuseria Vanessa has been catering to a loyal clientele for some six years. Alma Vasquez, the manager, said the vehicle, whose name is Vanessa, sells pupusas and other items like tacos, beef tongue stew and fried fish.
Draped in an apron, alongside a five-gallon container of peeled garlic and a basket of plantains, Vasquez, 29, said she especially looks forward to the late afternoon.
"There's nothing like hearing everyone's story after work, telling us how their day was, telling us how good our food is," she said.
Customers who live in Columbia and Elkridge but work in Laurel pull in for takeout dinners.
"I'm getting a lot of caucasians, which is good," Vasquez said.
The secret to a successful food truck, she noted, boils down to preparation. At Vanessa, customers have made the pupusa her top-seller.
"You don't just taste the flour. It's the ingredients, whether the pupusas are pork and cheese or just cheese," she said.
Success, she emphasized, also comes in the form of being flexible.
"We have to be willing to add new toppings and ask ourselves 'what can we do next year to make progress?' "
Movable feasts trace their roots to 1691, when New Amsterdam, now called New York City, featured push cart vendors, according to Coastal Connections, a Mississippi-based firm that outfits mobile food trucks with tools of the trade. After the Civil War, the chuck wagon was born, catering to the hordes of immigrants trekking west and to ranch hands. In the early 1870s, the industry rolled out its first horse-drawn food diner. Two decades later, sausage vendors became part of the landscape on campuses like Yale and Harvard. The ice cream vendor came along in the 20th century. The latest craze in food trucks, according to Coastal Connections, began in 2008, when a food truck hawking Korean barbecue and Asian fusion began prowling the streets of Los Angeles.
Before entering politics, former Prince George's County Executive Winfield Kelly, while still in his teens, started a business called Winnie's Chuck Wagon. Starting with one truck, he eventually owned a 150-vehicle fleet and employed 500. Kelly sold the business in 1968.
While Howard and Anne Arundel counties allow mobile food trucks, they're not welcome across the river in Prince George's, Lori Emmert said. In 2009, she recalled, Prince George's prohibited mobile vending trucks from doing business, including those that sell Mexican and Central American food like pupusas from El Salvador. "You can't steam, fry or cook anymore," in Prince George's, Emmert said. "But we can sell our product live anywhere in the state of Maryland because we're considered water farmers."
In Howard County, food truck owners are required to be licensed and must undergo the same battery of inspections that restaurants go through, explained Maura Rossman, a county health officer and a physician. Inspectors make sure food preparation areas are up to standards, "and that there's an emergency plan in case thing go wrong," Rossman said. In addition, inspectors check refrigerators in the vehicles to see if they're set at the correct temperatures.
At the intersection of Route 1 and Whiskey Bottom Road, another food truck does a brisk late-afternoon business. It's located in the far corner of Roll Rite, a busy used-tire garage. Daisy Martinez, 38, the manager, is a native of El Salvador, where pupusas reign as the signature dish.
Martinez laughed when she recalled the number of times "Americans" quiz her about what goes into a pupusa. "I tell them it's corn flour, ground beef and pork, mozzarella-like cheese, cabbage and tomato sauce," she said.
Food trucks, she said, have attracted a large following for one single reason: "because they're quick." Martinez said her customers, who include many of the tire mechanics at Roll Rite, appreciate that "I cook the moment it's ordered. I make the tortillas for them right then. They eat in their cars or eat on the benches. The people tell me the food's so good. 'Oh, thank you, Daisy!' they say. They come back."
Less than 10 minutes away is National Business Parkway. The office complex, nestled on the southern edge of Route 32, is a collection of new office buildings that include tenants like Boeing and Northrop Grumman. On Thursdays, in the interconnecting parking lots, it's time for the Farmers Market; Fridays means it's Food Truck Day. But even on Thursday there are food trucks present to complement vendors displaying everything from sunflowers to kettle popcorn. During one lunch hour, employees, most of them federal contractors with identification badges dangling around their necks, converged on the parking lot to sample what was cooking.
One hungry worker, John Jubinski, paused in front of a Mexican food truck to say he was in the mood for a "change of pace." Along with not having to drive somewhere for lunch, an advantage of having sustenance so close, he noted, is that you get "fresh air and exercise." And while the food options may not be as diverse as what is available in big cities, Jubinski's pleased. Less than a minute later, his order came up: a fresh, oversize burrito, a good deal for $9.
Welch, the 2006 Maryland State BBQ Champ, has named his dishes "barnyard chicken", "big mouth boneless chops" and "Dave's famous Bar-B-Q beans."
A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and former executive chef at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Welch said there are no plans to hang up his tongs.
"You don't make a lot of money. You make a living, a fair living," he said while selling lunch items.
Then Welch handed a visitor a napkin. On it was a line made famous by comedian Jeff Foxworthy: "You might be a redneck if your favorite restaurant is towed behind a pickup truck."