Food trucks were once the bad boys of dining, stalked like rock stars via Twitter feeds by hungry fans. But nowadays, food trucks are just as much a part of the dining establishment as chefs’ tables and gastropubs. Big chains like Applebee’s and Taco Bell have started using the popularity of curbside eating to promote their brands. In the recent movie Chef, Jon Favreau starts a food truck after sticking it to his restaurateur boss. And trucks aren’t just popping up in places like New York, L.A. and Austin. Such hallowed dining capitals as Paris and Montreal are now in on the trend.
Related: Paris, The City Of…Food Trucks? Oui!
“Restaurateurs are using food trucks in the reverse,” says David Shillace, co-founder and CEO of Mexicue, a food truck with major expansion plans. “People with brick-and-mortar stores are launching trucks to spread the word about their business instead of the other way around. If you own a really cool burger shop in the East Village, not many people might know about you. But if they see your truck at a music festival, they get to try your product and maybe decide they want to look up the restaurant.”
No longer quite the counter-culture statement they once were, food trucks have become a launching pad for ambitious restaurateurs. The most successful mobile kitchens end up settling down into brick-and-mortar locations. In New York alone, nearly a quarter of all food trucks upgrade to a restaurant. And the most popular concepts get tapped for widespread expansion, like these five food trucks that hit the big time:
The Halal Guys
This food cart was one of many on the streets of Manhattan until it tapped an underserved market: Muslim cabbies. It started serving authentic halal fare and soon gained a following beyond the men in yellow cars. Recently, it opened its first brick-and-mortar location, with a second one in the pipeline. Fransmart, the company behind Five Guys, is working with the Halal Guys to opens restaurants in major cities around the country and, eventually, in select markets in Asia and the Middle East. 53rdand6th.com
Roy Choi set the standard for food truck cool, and in the meantime managed to make Korean tacos a staple of hipster-Asian mashups around the country. Choi’s notoriety won him several cooking gigs off the streets and even a publishing deal with Anthony Bourdain’s Ecco Press for his cookbook-slash-memoir L.A. Son. The latest for Choi is running food and bev and basically art directing an entire hotel in L.A.’s Koreatown for which he devised the restaurant and room service menus. How many boutique hotels in L.A. serve dressed-up instant ramen? We’re guessing this is the only one. kogibbq.com
Aaron Franklin and his wife, Stacy, started serving barbecue out of a trailer in an Austin parking lot in 2009. Two years later, they moved to a restaurant space. Today, Franklin is known for having sold out of brisket every day since it’s been in business (and recently hosted the leader of the free world). Aaron has said you won’t catch him scoping out locations in New York, but he has hosted pop-up shops there, peddling his famous slow-cooked meat. His expansion plans in Austin include moving smoking operations from outdoors to a new smokehouse, set to open this month. franklinbarbecue.com
Named for the international dialing code for Buenos Aires, this gourmet empanada truck was started in Chicago in 2009 by three friends from Argentina. They opened a sleek store in 2012, selling empanadas by the dozen and offering delivery. They still send the truck out to peddle the little meat pies a few days a week, but the owners are looking ahead. A second storefront location opens this week. What’s more, the company now has franchising opportunities so you can open a 5411 of your very own. 5411empanadas.com
This slow-smoked Texas barbecue and Mexican fare hybrid launched in New York in the summer of 2010, serving up tacos and sliders. It just opened its first full-service restaurant, complete with bourbon and tequila bar, and has plans to open another in October, two more in 2015 and more the following year. Sandy Beall, the original founder of Ruby Tuesday, is now an investor. If all goes well, Mexicue will go nationwide in a few years. mexicue.com
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