A vibrant food truck scene develops in Reno-Tahoe.
WRITTEN BY ANN LINDEMANN
PHOTOS BY AL PORTILLO AND CANDICE NYANDO
Some of Reno-Tahoe's most creative and innovative food is emerging from tiny kitchens on four wheels. Doling out a smorgasbord of tasty fare, the food truck trend is revolutionizing how — and where — we eat.
For foodies there is a new sense of excitement and pursuit. Remember chasing after the ice cream truck as a kid? And for culinary entrepreneurs the financial risk is a lot easier to swallow considering it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant versus tens of thousands to launch a food truck.
Now, about a dozen food trucks operate in Reno-Tahoe, and more are scheduled to come online soon. These fun-loving migratory businesses owe much of their promotional successes to free social media platforms — such as Facebook and Twitter — that alert their faithful following to planned locations and hours of operation.
While four-wheeled operations have less overhead than their storefront counterparts, the owners still must adhere to the same stringent health department regulations and then some.
In January 2012, Reno mobile food owners challenged proposed City of Reno mandates regulating where and how long a truck can operate. Though not all wishes were granted, Reno city council members agreed to amend the proposed rules.
Food trucks must park at least 100 feet from a restaurant door, 300 feet from a school, and cannot stay longer than four hours. The city originally wanted the trucks to park until 10 p.m., but later changed the time to 11 p.m. unless the truck is in a 24-hour zoned area where food trucks can operate later. The City of Sparks adopted rules for mobile trucks in late March of this year. In that city, mobile food vendors must have a city of Sparks business license, cannot operate within 300 feet of an established restaurant, must limit vending to private property and only with the written consent of the property owner, and are required to have a permit for operating at special events.
Joe Horn, owner of the spanking new DishTruck (an extension of Dish Café & Catering in Reno), was a driving force with the city's regulatory tweaks. Still, after spending time in vital mobile food meccas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, Horn believes the Reno food truck revolution has one more roadblock to bust through.
"The biggest challenge is that we can only park in a private lot," Horn says. "We'd really like to change that law, so we could drive downtown, plug the meters, and serve a whole different clientele."
Horn is not alone in his vibrant vision for Reno-Tahoe's food truck culture. Here other culinary visionaries share their stories of taking it to the streets.
Elsa Corrigan of Mamasake in Lake Tahoe-Truckee area (photos by Candice Nyando)
Elsa Corrigan, owner of the popular Mamasake restaurant in the Village at Squaw in Olympic Valley, has a little different impetus behind her desire to travel into the four-wheeled culinary world.
"We are based in Squaw Valley and during the winter we are busy, but during the off-season and midweek we are very slow," Corrigan says. "I was looking for something to sustain my business and keep my staff working."
To that end, Corrigan retrofitted a used food truck and took her inimitable culinary style on the road. Although Mamasake is known for its sushi, Corrigan says she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into a certain type of food. She likes to dabble in a variety of cuisines, adding her own healthy, locally sourced, sustainably raised Cal Asian twist to a broad cross-section of dishes.
Also, Corrigan is vigilant about keeping her truck green. In fact, she plans to fuel the vehicle with cooking oil from her Squaw restaurant. She keeps paper-container use down by using edible wrappers as in the seaweed sheathed hand rolls.
"People have to practically beg me for a paper napkin," Corrigan says, joking.
Because Lake Tahoe is a less populated market than Reno, Corrigan has different operating challenges. She plans to develop partnerships with regional festivals and events, as well as offer up the truck services for private parties.
Mamasake Food Truck Favorites: Pork Banh Mi Vietnamese-style sandos; hand rolls of all ilk; and the beloved Mama's Balls, a mixture of kanikama, cilantro oil, sriracha, chives, tofu, shrimp, and tuna in inari pockets dipped in tempura.
Jessie Watnes and Haley Wood, owners of GourMelt in Reno
Wrapped in eye-popping retro graphics, GourMelt developed a faithful Northern Nevada following in less than a year with a promise to "fill your belly and melt your heart."
Owners Jessie Watnes, 25, and Haley Wood, 33, are both veterans of the food and beverage industry. They yearned to open a restaurant, but opted for the more economically feasible mobile option. The two brainstormed about menus and came up with gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.
"We noticed that no one else was doing them and then figured everyone loves grilled cheese sandwiches, right?" Watnes explains.
Where some would grow weary of working side-by-side with someone in a cramped kitchen six days a week, Watnes and Wood thrive.
"I'm the yin to her yang," says Watnes, explaining how the two trade positions every day — one cooking, while the other serves.
Biggest operating challenge? It's not the cramped kitchen, but rather the frequent high winds than can cause the biggest culinary chaos.
GourMelt uses locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, e.g., eggs from Renoegg.com and bread from House of Bread in Reno. The iconic comfort food mainstay is interpreted in a variety of ways from the Grade Schooler with American cheese on white bread (crusts on or off) to the Bumble Brie, which features sliced green apples, ham, honey, and brie on cinnamon apple bread.
GourMelt Grilled Cheese Truck Favorites: The Bumble Brie and the Wise Guy are recommended, as are the yummy sweet potato fries. Wanna go big? Pay an extra buck and get your sandwich encrusted with Parmesan. Sinfully satisfying.
Joe Horn, owner of DishTruck in Reno (photos by Al Portillo)
Nestled in the busy crook of Mill and Kirman streets near Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Dish Café & Catering has been serving up fresh and flavorful organic eats for more than a decade. Owners Nancy and Joe Horn pride themselves on using locally sourced ingredients to delight and educate the palates of diners who crowd the whimsical, retro-styled café daily.
Dish has won many Best of polls over the years and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives even made a visit in 2010. So how does one expand on a successful business model that seems impossible to duplicate? The couple toyed with the idea of a second location, but nothing felt quite right.
"There was no way we could recreate the same feeling in another location, so I started researching food trucks," explains Joe, a born entrepreneur.
It seemed like a logical choice, especially considering Dish Café staff members are savvy in the small kitchen two-step. A 2007 food truck was completely retrofitted with gleaming new stainless steel appliances, including a 40-inch griddle that helps the team crank out tasty grilled sandwiches quickly that are "utterly delicious, ridiculously craveable food for the people." Joe got the truck up and running in March of this year.
"My motto is that we make the best sandwiches in town period ... as good as or ideally better than any restaurant," Horn says. "We are asking people to literally drive across town to eat a meal outside a food truck. It needs to be an amazing experience and if it's not an amazing experience, then we shouldn't be in business."
DishTruck Favorites: Don't miss the ultimate (some say best west of the Mississippi) Reuben sandwich on rye swirl bread or the lamb meatball (family recipe!) pita sandwich served with a refreshing cucumber salad.
Figuring a little divine intervention never hurt any enterprise, Tom and Heather Cushman named their business after the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and fire.
Launched in 2010, St. Lawrence Pizza may get a little leg up from its homage to the foodie saint, but fans say it's due to the can't-duplicate-at-home, wood-fired creations.
"Tom comes from a family of entrepreneurs and we both really wanted to get into the food industry," Heather Cushman says. "We wanted a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but the kids just kept coming! We decided on a mobile operation and it turned out better than either one of us anticipated. There's been so much community support."
Like other mobile chefs, Tom Cushman has his share of prep work, not the least of which includes stoking the wood-fired brick oven. But once his oven gets cranked, the pizzas take just 90 seconds to bake with about three to four minutes of preparation time.
"We believe in everything pizza," Heather says, chuckling. "I think Tom can convert anything into a pizza, even salads."
St. Lawrence Pizza Favorites: The Cushmans claim the pepperoni pizza still is king, but the Pizza al Pastor and the BLT pizza are favorites, too.
A fine dining chef for many years, Larry Abney was looking for a change in venue.
"I wanted to do something for myself," the Red Truck owner says. "I was looking for a way to feed the masses and a food truck seemed like a way to do that."
And if the line snaking around Red Truck on delicious summer evenings in Truckee is any indication, Abney is indeed feeding the masses "one hungry local at a time."
Abney says Red Truck has become a favorite at casual outdoor weddings and private parties as well.
The easily spotted, vibrantly clad Red Truck offers an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern/Indian food from pumpkin samosas with prickly pear and cilantro chutney to the Naanwich made with naan bread, hummus, labneh, fattoush, hilbeh, and tahini yogurt. Abney promises there will be some exciting new additions to the menu this summer.
Red Truck Favorites: No Red Truck meal is complete without a pumpkin samosa, but don't overlook the Naanwich with chicken tikka masala, and, of course, a red velvet cupcake to top it all off.
Finding Red Truck: Look for the Red Truck at Truckee Thursdays June 14 – Aug. 23. For other locations, visit www.Redtrucktahoe.com, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Red-Truck-Tahoe/122539927768020, or Twitter.
Old-school Mexican-style food truck fare doesn't get much better than Truckee's Los Tacos Bailando, aka Gus Bus, which is nicknamed for its affable owner Gustavo Islas. The popular lunch wagon is a favorite with contractors and building industry people who pass by on their way to the Truckee Tahoe Lumber Co.
However, word of the flavorful and affordable lunch grub has filtered through other segments of Truckee's business community, so it's not unusual to see local attorneys, shop owners, and city officials rubbing elbows in line. Mexican standards such as tacos, burritos, and tortas are freshened up with homemade salsas and tasty garnishes.
Gus Bus Favorites: The pork tacos are excellent, but don't forget to add the special red sauce that Islas insists is "part of the flavor." Locals also rave about the hearty tortas.
Finding Gus Bus: Monday through Saturday, you'll find the Gus Bus in front of the Flyers gas station in downtown Truckee, adjacent to Truckee River Glass, at the entrance to Church Street. Look for the truck around lunchtime (11 a.m. – 2 p.m.-ish).
Long before they became business partners, Justin McDaniel and B.J. Mueller had a friendship based on the different talents that they brought to the table.
"I was a golf professional and B.J. was a chef," McDaniel says. "I'd trade golf lessons for cooking lessons. When the economy took a turn for the worst we joined forces and opened the Sauce Wagon."
Housed in a 30-foot trailer, the Reno-based Sauce Wagon features a 500-pound smoker that turns out tasty barbecued ribs, brisket, and pulled pork. As the name implies, sauces are a big deal here. Get down and messy with the house, honey habanero and bourbon sauces.
Sauce Wagon Favorites: Devotees say order just about anything with the honey habanero sauce, which soon will be available in bottles for home cooks.
Finding Sauce Wagon: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sauce-Wagon/220083818013092 or 775-622-6615.
More Mobile Food Magic
• A Taste of New York: Authentic New York-style Italian food from a mobile truck. For locations and times in the Reno/Sparks area, visit www.Atasteofnewyorkreno.com, https://www.facebook.com/pages/A-Taste-Of-New-York/133180873429409, or Twitter.
• Kenji's: Featuring a sassy fusion of Asian/Mexican/Hawaiian food. Find the Reno/Sparks truck's location at https://www.facebook.com/KenjisFoodTruck.
• Stephon's Mobile Bistro: From homemade sweet potato fries to tasty steak sandwiches. Find Stephon's locale in the Reno-Sparks area at www.Stephonsmobilebistro.com.
• BoDawgs: A University of Nevada, Reno campus favorite, BoDawgs features great dogs and sausage with lots of fixings. For locations and times in the Reno area, visit www.Bodawgsco.com.
• Island Ice: Hawaiian shave ice (snow cones), smoothies, ice cream, root beer floats, and more from this Reno truck. For details, visit www.Islandicereno.com.
From childhood Good Humor trucks to taco carts in the Yucatan, Lake Tahoe freelance writer Ann Lindemann loves the thrill of chasing after tasty street food.
Reno Street Food
Can't decide which food truck to sample? Try 'em all at Reno Street Food on most Fridays of the month through the summer at the old RTC CitiCenter station on Fourth and Center streets in downtown Reno. The family friendly event is slated for 5 – 9 p.m. June 8, 15, 22, 29; July 13, 20, and 27; Aug. 10, 17, 24, and 31; and Sept. 14, 21, and 28. It features not only a bevy of food trucks, but also live music, vendors, and a beer and wine garden. For details, visit www.renostreetfood.com or find them at https://www.facebook.com/RenoStreetFood, and Twitter at Renostreetfood.
Reno Food Truck Fridays
This food truck event takes place from 5 – 9 p.m. the first Friday of each month through October at the old RTC CitiCenter station on Fourth and Center streets in downtown Reno. You'll find food trucks, live music, a Tumblebus for kids, and a beer garden by Great Basin Brewing Co. 'Like' the event on Facebook for more details (https://www.facebook.com/RenoFoodTruckFridays ).
In addition to a certified organic farmers' market, live music, arts and crafts vendors, a beer garden, sidewalk sales, and family/children's activities, you can dine from several food trucks. The event is 5 – 9 p.m. each week, June 14 – Aug. 23, on Donner Pass Road in historic downtown Truckee. For details, visit www.Historictruckee.com/truckee-thursdays.php.