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Truck stops

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a blustery Wednesday afternoon, two women peer into the window at Oz Patisserie and choose a few red velvet moon pies filled with homemade marshmallow fluff.

“Let me get you some napkins,” says pastry chef Gary Ele. “The marshmallow gets messy.”

Ele serves innovative desserts like green chile scones, sweet corn panna cotta with carmelized cocoa nibs and mojito mint cheesecake lollipops. He also offers another novelty – he takes his food on the road in a mobile dessert cart.

This year he joined a growing number of food carts, also called food trucks or mobile restaurants, at the Curbside Cuisine “food cart pod” near Talin Market World Food Fare on Louisiana SE from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays. Albuquerque has 105 permitted mobile restaurants, or fully self-contained kitchens, and the numbers are on the rise, says Lorie Stoller, the city’s environmental health manager.

Barbecue … and espresso

About seven food trucks currently sell at the pod. Vendors are a diverse bunch, including a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America and self-taught cooks who offer everything from barbecue sandwiches to burritos, salads and espresso.

With the pod, which started in March, Albuquerque is taking a small step toward street food meccas like Portland and Los Angeles, where carts selling Korean barbecue, waffles or meatballs share the streets with hot dog stands.

In the Portland metropolitan area, there are 633 licensed food carts, according to Ben Duncan, public information officer for the Multnomah County environmental health department. The number has doubled since 2006, he says.

In Albuquerque, a business incubator project, the Southeast Team for Entrepreneurial Success, or STEPS, is spearheading the pod concept here and has helped vendors start food carts since last year. The group also chairs the City Food Cart Task Force created by City Councilor Rey Garduño.

STEPS helps people navigate the entire process, from licensing to planning menus, executive director Cynthia Beiser says. Carts also need to offer something unique at a good price – most food is under $10, she says.

STEPS also worked with the city on zoning changes. Food carts can now sell from some semi-permanent spots in the Trumbull district. Eventually STEPS wants to see pods in other areas.

Licensed carts also can park on public streets if they park legally and do not obstruct traffic or sidewalks, says Juanita Garcia, assistant planning manager in the city’s code enforcement division.

Since the pod opened, many people have asked how to open food carts, Beiser says.

“It’s an excellent way to get into business right now,” she says.

The startup

Many vendors, like former teacher Roxana Payton, of Roxy’s Bistro on Wheels, are pursuing a lifelong passion for cooking. Some like the idea of low overhead and don’t want to borrow money. Others borrow $40,000 and hope to make a mint.

To get started, some vendors convert RVs into full kitchens with convection ovens, microwaves and grills. Others have small campers and rely on slow cookers.

Callie Tolman of Make My Lunch by Callie bought her truck and trailer in October, after taking business development classes and securing a small loan.

Tolman spent years as a food server before starting her catering business. Before buying the truck, she made food in the South Valley Economic Development Center’s commercial kitchen, which she typically used late at night to get the best rates. Using her own truck means she can make food on her own time.

“The idea that pushed me forward toward a food truck was that it was a kitchen I could use,” she says.

With her ’50s-inspired signs, linen tablecloths and fresh flowers, Tolman says she wants to create a hip yet classic look.

“I want people to feel like they’re at home when they come eat with me,” she says.

Running a food cart doesn’t make the food business easier, but it definitely makes it more flexible. For instance, Ele had been setting up Monday and Tuesday mornings in front of the courthouse. But recently, he’s trucked over to Talin on those days. On Wednesdays, he joins the pod. On Thursdays, he parks near Montgomery and Monroe. On Fridays, he moves around, keeping customers appraised via Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. He reserves Saturdays for special events.

Several vendors park near Downtown bars on weekends.

Life on a mobile dessert truck is very different from his jobs as a pastry chef on Norwegian Cruise Lines America and at Sandia Resort and Casino, says Ele. In the truck, he is his own boss. He is also chief electrician, handyman and plumber.

“I’m working 12-, 14-, 16-hour days,” he says. “My sailboat misses me.”

“It’s a crazy lifestyle,” he adds. “But I love it.”

Not everyone stays at the pod. In May, chef Shay Patchell got permission to set up his mobile kitchen, The Chopping Block, at Kirtland Air Force Base. He hopes to appeal to those on base who want quick, healthy lunches without having to drive off the base.

Other carts are moving into the pod. Alison and Saul Samario set up Alison’s Home Style Cooking at Talin Market for the first time May 18. They have sold New Mexican cuisine for 12 years near the airport but say they wanted to try a new spot.

Hope for the future

Even with the pod and other carts around town, Albuquerque is far from the street food scenes of other cities. But some see potential.

Lawrence Sanchez and Carly Tonini are big food cart fans. On a recent trip to the pod, the couple sampled a chicharrón burrito from Alison’s Home Style Cooking, pulled pork from Marcell’s Carolina BBQ and green chile macaroni and cheese from Roxy’s Bistro on Wheels.

Sanchez holds out hope for a thriving food truck scene.

“Albuquerque needs it so bad,” he says. “It needs something awesome like this.”

In Portland there are food carts everywhere, says Tonini, who went to culinary school there and recently moved to New Mexico.

Portland offers plenty of niches: Some food cart pods cater only to lunch, dinner or late-night crowds; others bill themselves as “bike-centric.”

“You’ll be walking in an alley and there’s a sushi truck,” Tonini says.

Ask Beiser, the executive director of STEPS, what she wants to see here and she grabs a laptop and shows her photos of favorite carts from a trip to Portland. She likes the way groups of carts become gathering spots and recalls the immense culinary variety – a kimchi quesadilla was one favorite.

Food carts also can help revitalize neglected neighborhoods, Tonini says.

Victor Limary, Talin Market’s director of operations, has worked with Beiser for more than a year on the project. More food variety brings people to the area, he says.

“We’re trying to change the public perception of the International District,” he says.

In time, Beiser envisions a thriving food scene where people gather to play checkers and listen to music. Already, vendors see themselves as a community, Tolman says.

“We’re pod people,” she jokes.

Albuquerque does have an advantage over established food cart cities, Beiser says. In Los Angeles, street food started as an underground scene but is becoming a “mainstream, bottom-line obsessed maze of infighting and politics,” according to a Los Angeles Times article. In Albuquerque, vendors are working with the city from the start, Beiser says.

Mayor Richard Berry celebrated the official opening of the Talin pod April 27. In May he returned with his wife, Maria, and they tried vegetable and chicken bowls at Make My Lunch and treats at Oz Patisserie.

“You just see so many good things to eat,” Berry says. “I would love to see more of this, especially Downtown.”

Part of the appeal is many options in one place, says Beiser. When co-workers eat out, they often face tough calls on where to go. Food carts solve the problem, she says.

New way to eat

Since they discovered the pod, Albuquerque friends Anna Lord and Anne Tso say it is their new Wednesday tradition to meet there.

“I’m addicted to the cheese plate,” Tso says, about the Make My Lunch item.

For a recent lunch, Lord sampled Marcell’s Carolina BBQ, pronouncing its North Carolina barbecue “dead-on.” (She was cheered when she saw cole slaw on top of her barbecue, she says.)

“I love the variety here,” says Tso. “What’s nice is that it’s not fast food,” Lord adds.

Vendors are still working out kinks, like how to appeal to people unfamiliar with the idea of quality food coming from a truck, says Beiser. Some customers think cart food should be faster, not realizing most dishes are made on-the-spot. Beiser doesn’t expect carts to replace fast food or fine dining.

“This is neither the fast food or the sit-down,” she says. “It’s a third way to eat.”