photo by bratha
As I’ve mentioned, one of the best things about Portland is its awesome and extensive range of food carts. “High-end street food” is a trend that’s booming all over the US’s hipster cities — from wasabi pea ice-cream in New York to Korean tacos in LA, and escargot lollipops in San Fran to Spam sushi in Seattle — but Portland’s scene really seems to be at the forefront of the fad.
I’m not entirely sure what makes food more desirable when it’s made on wheels. Price is probably a factor — in the States, you can get a proper taco (home-made corn tortilla, fresh pico de gallo, real avocado and lime juice — none of the Old El Paso slop you’re likely to get here) for a dollar or two. The convenience is also a drawcard: it’s great to get food-to-go that isn’t absolute shit like McDonald’s or bland as all hell like a day-old foccacia from a display case. There’s the variety, too: ten food carts serving everything from pancakes to pizza can comfortably cohabitate in the space of one bricks-and-morter eatery.
But there’s also just something indefinably fun about cart-cooked cuisine. When I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.
Anyway, I think it’s a trend that could translate really well onto Melbourne’s streets, given half a chance. Melbourne is due for another big food fad, since “tapas” has become so ubiquitous it is now just a synonym for “bar snack”, and despite our famous “cafe culture”, most half-decent inner-city cafes are so packed with tourists, hip young things have to get their piccolo lattes and brioches to go, anyway.
We do have a few vans/carts out there already, of course.
There’s the old faithful American Doughnut Kitchen van at the Vic Market, a bona fide Melbourne institution that has seen people lining up and down the street for freshly made hot jam donuts on cold Saturday and Sunday mornings for over 50 years.
photo by Hopkinsii
There are also still a few old Mr Whippy vans crawling the streets, blaring “Greensleeves” and serving up luke-warm soft serve and cheap gelato in stale cones. And you occasionally still see crusty little kebab vans lurking in dark corners of abandoned parking lots, passing out foil-wrapped parcels of questionably cooked meat and pita, dripping with garlic and chilli sauce, to late-night revellers on their way home from the pub.
But largely, the move in Melbourne has been away from these rickety old carts. Case in point: Lord of the Fries, which started its life as a cart at music festivals, set up stumps in a permanent home on Elizabeth and Flinders a few years back, and has since turned itself into a local fast food empire. Ditto Trippy Taco
photo by poppalina. Wow, that takes me back!
But recently, a couple of businesses have popped up that have given me hope Melbourne may yet undergo a mobile food revolution.
First was Beatbox Kitchen, which made its debut at the Meredith Music Festival last year amidst a good bit of buzz on the interwebs. It had all the hallmarks of a hip US-style cart: gourmet burgers and chips, endorsements from the local “it” band, a unique gimmick (it’s painted like a giant ghetto blaster) and the obligatory Twitter feed. Apparently the food wasn’t too bad, either. I was excited!
Unfortunately, it all seems to have fizzled out a bit. For some time, the van was rarely seen or heard from outside the odd music festival appearance. It now seems to have a semi-regular Friday-night gig at a park in Brunswick (with a live DJ spinning tunes, no less), but it’s not exactly roaming the streets.
Still, with a strong social media following and regular appearances, it could yet prove a slow-burning success.
More recently (and perhaps more promising) is a venture called STREAT, which has set up a stationary stand at Fed Square. It’s a social enterprise putting disadvantaged kids through hospitality school, using the cart to give them some hands-on experience.
I first stumbled across STREAT on the Twitter, and was surprised it hadn’t received much attention from the mainstream media or local food blogging mafia (who couldn’t get their Crumpler wallets out fast enough to pay $15 for a taco at flavour-of-the0month Mamasita, but give ‘em some real street food…)
I guess the fresh-faced youths, shiny stainless steel fitout, high-minded ideals and team of corporate investors means it kind of lacks the DIY cred and hipster appeal of the aforementioned operations, but I for one was excited to see a proper food cart in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD — and just down the road from my work, to boot.
Although I’m saving my pennies for the long bout of forced funemployment I have to look forward to in the States, I figured a street cart splurge was justified in the name of investigative journalism (also, I forgot my lunch), so I hopped a tram down there last week.
The menu is brief, but offers a good range of snacks and larger eats: a regularly changing soup special, chicken satay skewers, lamb kebabs, a Jamaican jerk-chicken wrap, somtum (Thai papaya salad), and Kashmiri chick pea curry, all under $10.
The curry is the obvious vegetarian choice, but somtum is one of my favourite dishes on the planet. I don’t get to eat it very often, because most Thai places won’t make it sans fish sauce and dried shrimp (no matter how much I beg), but the STREAT guy happily agreed to do me a vegetarian version, though warned it may lack a bit of “kick”. He mixed together fresh papaya, bean shoots, chilli, tomato, garlic, lime juice and crushed peanuts in a big mortar and pestle and served me up a fairly generous box for about $8.
I did notice the absence of fish sauce, but that was my choice, not theirs, and it was otherwise everything a good somtum should be: sweet, sour, salty and fresh. It was also ideal cart fare: quick to prepare and easy to eat on the run. On the price front, it can’t compete with the Maccas over the road, but eight bucks for lunch is very good by Fed Square standards (its neighbour Chocolate Buddha charges about $20 for a seriously uninspired bowl of ramen).
I really reckon these guys bring something new to Melbourne’s streets, and if they can just pull the punters in, they could easily get more city workers hooked on curbside dining. I’ll be keeping my eye on their online updates to see what they cook up next.
And finally, one more little glimmer of hope: King St’s Dancing Goat Cafe — part of Melbourne’s “third wave” coffee cool crowd and home to last year’s Victorian Barista of the Year — has branched out into a morning-only cart (in Preston, of all places — a suburb probably more familiar with the McCappuccino than the single origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe). It’s stationed in a parking lot, so caffeine addicts don’t even have to get out of their cars for their AM coffee hit.
Drive-through speciality coffee: if that can’t sell Melburnians on the appeal of food carts, nothing can.