This Week, My Lunch Has Wheels

Posted April 1, 2011 at 3:17pm

I was suffering from a bad case of lunchtime ennui, a condition that afflicts even Capitol Hill denizens with plenty of options for their midday meal.

The thought of another BLT from the Senate takeout made me snooze, and even the new offerings at Union Station that had been so exciting only a few weeks ago (Burritos from Chipotle! A Chop’t salad!) now seemed … blah.

It was time for a food-truck intervention. Since vrooming onto Washington’s food scene in 2009, the meals-on-wheels have become a phenomenon, inspiring a cult-like following, obsessive trackers and even — this being Washington — a policy debate over whether they unfairly compete with their less-mobile storefront competitors.

My self-imposed mission: I would eat lunch from a food truck every day for a week. To do so, I would travel no farther than a half-mile from the Capitol, and I would spend no more than $10 per meal.

To figure out where to get the goods, I enlisted help from, a local site that aggregates the Twitter feeds for all of the area’s food trucks and also provides a constantly updating map of the trucks’ whereabouts.

Armed with a smartphone, a crisp Hamilton and a healthy appetite, I was off.

Day One: Nice to Meet You

On my inaugural outing, I hit up L’Enfant Plaza, a food-truck hot spot where no less than five were parked, catering to the crowds in the federal buildings there. I picked DC Empanadas, and quickly determined that the crispy pockets are pretty much the ideal food-truck chow: hot, portable and easy to eat on a park bench.

I tried the Badass, which was essentially a dish of buffalo chicken wings in empanada form: a pastry stuffed with chicken, blue cheese and a fiery hot sauce. The El Matador featured a combo of Spanish classics — chorizo, potato, roasted peppers and onions. Both were excellent.

The price was right, too. Empanadas are $3.50 each, or three for $9. After buying two (plenty for me, but brawnier bellies might want a third), I had enough cash for a cookie sandwich of flaky shortbread and lemon and coconut filling ($2) for dessert.  

Was I falling for food trucks?

Day Two: Cheesed Off

I had been Twitter-stalking the Big Cheese truck for a while, and I finally got the chance to check out the grilled-cheese specialist when the truck rolled up to Union Station. I love a good grilled cheese, and the simplicity of the concept boded well. Plus, I had a soft spot for the truck’s goofy mascot, a retro-looking anthropomorphized slice of bread.

I opted for the classic version — cheddar on sourdough for $6.50 — over fancier options such as a sandwich of brie and sliced apples, and I also got a side of tomato soup ($2 for a small serving). The sandwich itself was a decent rendition, with a crisp exterior and a good cheese-to-bread ratio. The nutty cheddar and tangy sourdough were clearly high-quality, but I still wasn’t sold on the idea that it was worth the $6.50 I shelled out. The soup was wretched, tasting like watery store-bought pizza sauce that had been over-seasoned with bitter, dry herbs.  

My empanada high was gone, and I was left wondering whether sheer novelty — or the clever names and cute mascots that so many of the trucks use — was behind the food-truck craze.

Day Three: Pork-Tastic

Yesterday’s down-on-food-trucks attitude got a readjustment when I tried out the PORC truck’s barbecue offerings. (In this acronym-loving town, I should note that PORC stands for Purveyors of Rolling Cuisine.)

I tried a pulled-pork sandwich dressed with a zippy-but-not-scorching house sauce ($7) and a side of baked beans enlivened with hatch chilis ($2). The meat struck the right combination of tender threads and crisp ends, and the beans were smoky-sweet.

It was another win for food-truck nation.

Day Four: Food-Truck FAIL

My food truck debacle today, in which I took a late lunch and missed the District of Pi pizza truck parked near Union Station, should come with a disclaimer.

Dear Food Trucks, It’s not you, it’s me. I should have gotten there sooner. OK, so maybe it’s a little bit your fault. 

Food trucks, after all, are a little bit like a ramblin’ man in a country song: He can’t be counted on, and he’s always moving on.

Trucks often have to move to avoid parking tickets or traffic violations; sometimes, they simply run out of food or encounter technical glitches. Which is why it’s best to have a backup plan when dining chez trucks. I didn’t, but, determined to stay true to my mission, I lunched at one of Washington’s original food trucks, a hot-dog cart.

My lunch might not have been as trendy or as exotic as the food-truck offerings I’d been chasing, but it was surprisingly satisfying. And it sure was cheap — a half-smoke, some chips and a can of Coke set me back $3.

Day Five: A Greasy Adieu

For my final food-truck lunch, I chose my destination based solely on location. The foodtruckfiesta site told me that Sang on Wheels, which describes itself as “fine Laos cuisine,” was near me, parked by the Botanic Garden on Maryland Avenue Southwest.

After sampling some of the gummiest, greasiest noodles I’ve ever eaten, along with dense lamb meatballs ($8 for the combo platter), I wished I’d ventured farther afield. Or just gone hungry. Laos cuisine? This was more like lousy.

It was a disappointing way to end the week, but I chalked it up to lessons learned. Food-truck dining should be an adventure, one that can yield treasures (here’s looking at you, DC Empanadas) and duds (those noodles!).

At least it’s not boring.