Catch them if you can
For tasty food at bargain prices, these mobile vendors are worth tracking down
Friday, June 1, 2007
LITTLE ROCK — The same whimsical, casual qualities that make mobile food vendors alluring are the ones that make them frustrating.
You never know where and when they're going to turn up.
They're mobile. They move. Stuff happens.
Despite many trips through the Heights and Hillcrest, we never did catch the tamale guy we heard about on Kavanaugh Boulevard. We never spotted the turkey leg guy rumored to do business on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in North Little Rock.
Then there was the Loch Ness catfish truck that used to operate on Cumberland Street outside the Little Rock Water Department building until we went to look for it. And a broken sink that put the River Market hot dog guy out of business for a few days kept us from a chance to fourthmeal on frankfurters.
But if you can find a mobile food vendor to visit (and if you have cash - don't expect to be swiping plastic), you might find you're in for some very pleasant surprises. They include treasuring perhaps the best taco you've ever tasted, eating jerk chicken from a mobile Jamaican barbecue joint parked outside a nightclub at midnight, dessert-ing on water ice outside the River Market, and enjoying an ice cream treat thatcomes right to you in your own neighborhood.
It might comfort you to know that the Pulaski County Central Health Unit reports that mobile establishments have to follow the same food safety rules, including proper hand-washing techniques at three-part sinks, as any permanent or semi-permanent restaurant structure.
Our survey of mobile vendors is by no means all-inclusive, but we'd like it to be. So please let us know of other such eateries on wheels by e-mailing jchristman@arkansasonline. If we get enough suggestions, we'll revisit the topic in a future issue.
WHEREABOUTS: Frosty Treats, which operates in 17 cities in the South and Midwest, puts 19 trucks out on routes throughout the Little Rock metropolitan area. Headquarters: 670w8 E. Meadow Lane, North Little Rock, (501) 791-3100.
WHEN ABOUTS: One route covers downtown Little Rock (except the River Market District) at lunchtime; others wend their way through various neighborhoods, including Hillcrest and Stifft Station/Capitol View, in early evening.
WHAT ABOUTS: Independent-contractor driver/vendors offer more than three dozen frozen goodies, ranging from ice cream sandwiches, cones and bars from Blue Bunny and Good Humorto spicy-sweet Mexican fruit-and-chile-pepper bars manufactured under license from Lucas. Prices range from 50 cents to $3. Each driver chooses an electronic tune to lure customers (one plays only the first half of "Turkey in the Straw" over and over again until it could drive you nuts). Branch manager Jerry Watkins says the trucks have safety markings and equipment, including schoolbus-like "stop" swing arms, to help protect youngsters.
- Eric E. Harrison GRAB A BITE JAMAICAN/ AMERICAN FOODS
WHEREABOUTS/ WHEN ABOUTS: The operation (which once camped out downtown)can usually be found between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Sunday at Colonel Glenn and Marlborough roads in Little Rock, and between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Saturday in front of Discovery nightclub, 1021 Jessie Road, Little Rock, (501) 563-4346.
WHAT ABOUTS: We didn't go to Discovery on a recent Saturday night to dance and drink. We went to dine (not that the parking lot folks cared we were there to pick up food and leave; we still had to park far away and walk in the dark like everyone else). Grab A Bite, a vendor of foods that range from Jamaican jerk chicken ($6 small, $8 large) to American cheeseburgers ($5), cooks up hearty fare for hardy clubgoers. Overall we were pleased with a Styrofoam container of plentiful, potent curry chicken ($7 small, $9 large) served with onions and peppers over rice. We were, however, surprised to find bones in what we guessed would be boneless chicken chunks (after all, we were given only a plastic fork, and no knife, to maneuver the dish). It's probably good we were sober.
- Jennifer Christman LUNCHERIA MEXICANA ALICIA
WHEREABOUTS: Mostly parks behind the Best Car Wash off Bowman Road, near the Little Rock Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, (501) 612-1883.
WHEN ABOUTS: Lunchtime Monday-Saturday, except that it hasn't been there on Saturdays for about a month.
WHAT ABOUTS: A taqueria truck offering a variety of tacos on soft or hard corn or flour tortillas, burritos, tortas (Mexican submarine sandwiches) andquesadillas. As with many of its area counterparts, the in-the-window menu doesn't mention prices. But we got three excellent, fairly large flour-tortilla tacos al carne asada for $5 plus tax, topped with "everything" - cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and even avocado slivers. And the order-taking half of the two-person crew spoke serviceable English.
- Eric E. Harrison SCAPETTO'S ITALIAN DELI & CATERING ITALIAN WATER ICE
WHEREABOUTS: Between the Boulevard Bread Co. patio and the souvenir kiosk on the east side of the River Market's Ottenheimer Market Hall, 400 President Clinton Ave., (501) 375-4000.
WHEN ABOUTS: Lunchtime, most weekdays and Saturdays when the weather is nice.
WHAT ABOUTS: Jimmy Scapetto brings in four flavors - cherry, lemon, chocolate and watermelon - of authentic Italian-style water ice from New Jersey. A good-size cup, which you're supposed to dip into the old-fashioned way, without a spoon, is $2. You can also go inside the River Market and buy it by the pint, $5, at the deli.
- Eric E. Harrison TACOS GUANAJUATO
WHEREABOUTS: 6920 Geyer Springs, Little Rock (in front of the Gallo Giro store), (501) 562-6999.
WHEN ABOUTS: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily.
WHAT ABOUTS: This taqueria is not only very Gringofriendly (Menu? Check! Price list? Check!), it's very wallet-friendly, with prices starting at $1.25 for tacos. Minutes after ordering at the window and sitting in nearby plastic chairs while our food was being cooked, we were wowed by the rewards. A burrito, a beastly bundle of seasoned steak, rice and beans, was a bargain at $4.50. And the super-size, savory, steak-stuffed quesadilla with plenty of cheese and cilantro and really red tomatoes was better than most we've had in restaurants, while costing far less ($3.75).
- Jennifer ChristmanTACOS MEXICANOS
WHEREABOUTS: 4818 Baseline Road, Little Rock, (501) 541-7650.
WHEN ABOUTS: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
WHAT ABOUTS: They don't have prices listed, they don't have business cards and they don't speak much English at the white trailer that says "Tacos Mexicanos" parked in a gravel lot east of the intersection of Baseline and Stanton roads. But they do cook up some mean, authentic Mexican cuisine that includes tacos, burritos, quesadillas and tostadas made with everything from pollo (chicken) to lengua (tongue). We ordered a beeftorta (Mexican sub) and enjoyed sitting at the one nearby picnic table - a luxury, as many mobile food vendors don't offer any kind of seating. The woman who took our order announced: "Beef no! Chicken. Pork." So we opted for the pollo instead and soon received a giant, messy sandwich of shredded spiced chicken, lots of sour cream, jalapeno slices, lettuce, tomato and a smear of refried beanson grilled bread that barely fit in its foam container with cups of red and green salsa on the side. The total for this fine, almost-too-big-for-two-people feast: $5.
- Jennifer Christman TAQUERIA SAMANTHA
WHEREABOUTS/WHEN ABOUTS: Taqueria Samantha operates between 9:30 a.m. and10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday at 7521 Geyer Springs Road, Little Rock and can be found from about 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. in front of Jose's Club Latino, 308 S. Broadway, Little Rock, (501) 744-0680 on the weekends.
WHAT ABOUTS: We'll admit we had a "not in (Ar)Kansas anymore" moment when we pulled up to this eatery (the first of our taco excursions) in the lot of a carpet store whereMexican music was blaring from a fellow patron's car. There was no menu. There was no price list. And there was no one who understood us when we asked for a menu and a price list. So to keep it simple, we just said, "Tacos. Dos." "Asada?" we were asked. "Si," we said, hoping we just ordered steak tacos and that we'd have enough cash when they were produced. Three dollars and a few minutes later, we were presented a foam container with two delicious soft steak tacos with tomato and shredded cheese in tortillas that tasted homemade, as well as a whole jalapeno pepper and lime wedges. We enjoyed every bit (except for the jalapeno) with the accompanying thin red and green salsas that were uniquely spicy and yet sweet.
- Jennifer Christman WILLY DOG U.S.A.
WHERE ABOUTS: President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock's River Market District, (501) 838-1373.
WHEN ABOUTS: About 9 p.m. until the bars close Tuesday-Saturday.
WHAT ABOUTS: When all of his equipment is cooperating, Ean Bordeaux sets up his stand selling hot dogs, brats and hot links ($4-$5) that can be ordered with chili and cheese and a whole bunch of condiments to River Market revelers. But it wasn't during our story research window. Doggone it!
- Jennifer Christman
Dining Out, Pages 82, 84 on 06/01/2007