Not that long ago, Amanda Griffiths was the head chef at a popular Adelaide hotel, but then, on a visit to New York City, she became smitten with pastrami sandwiches. Amanda realised that authentic New York deli food was missing from the Adelaide food scene and, with her husband, Jeff, decided that creating their own food truck was the solution.
Amanda and Jeff (also a chef) now operate Sneaky Pickle, a wildly decorated van serving working week lunches at a variety of locations around Adelaide. Their idea was simple: to create American-style, hot-smoked meat sandwiches served with salads, fried pickles and chilli fries.
“Within 10 weeks of cooking up this idea, we had fitted out an old Transit van to prepare fresh sandwiches. And a few weeks after we took it out on the streets, we chucked in our jobs,” explains Amanda. “The support we’ve had has been fantastic. Our aim is to sell out of the food we prepare every day – and that’s already happening.”
Sneaky Pickle joins a food truck movement that has exploded in Adelaide in the past year. Spurred on by public events hosting food trucks and attracting crowds of thousands, more than 50 vendors accepted Adelaide City Council trial permits in October, 2012. The overwhelming response surprised everyone. But rather than being competitive, the food truck proprietors formed a supportive community, promoting their culinary points of difference built around distinct flavours and good-quality produce.
Food trucks arrived just as Adelaide consumers were hungry for change. At a time when many inner-city cafes were stuck in a rut of complacency, the vibrancy of food trucks’ offerings provided a very attractive alternative.
The phenomenon started when friends Rob Dean and Canadian student Dan Mendelson took a gamble in late 2010 to buy an old catering van after several unsuccessful efforts to secure an affordable cafe lease. The two created Burger Theory, specialising in high-quality Angus beef hamburgers, and began trading by parking their van in a privately owned empty lot in the CBD’s Ebenezer Place.
“When we started, there were no regulations in place,” says Dan. “We were very conscious about staying on the right side of the law and being responsible traders, so we diligently cleaned up any litter, but it was hard to convince authorities we were a serious food business. They presumed we had a dodgy van that would attract late-night drunks and trouble. But we wanted to serve lunch, and for the quality of our food to be the main thing.”
The idea immediately resonated with the community, resulting in about 200 burger sales a day, and Rob and Dan were voted South Australian Young Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2012. But it was the clever harnessing of social media that really made an impact. Burger Theory uses Facebook, Twitter, its own iPhone app and an online calendar to advertise service times and locations.
As the daily queue of Burger Theory customers grew, other operators were inspired to take the plunge. Mexican street food had an obvious appeal and was embraced in 2012 by Tom Skipper and Hamish Pope’s La Cantina Co. taco truck. Tom had a cluster of authentic Mexican street taco recipes – from the smoky pollo al carbon (grilled chicken) with pico de gallo (tomato salsa), to a beef, black bean and chorizo taco, or one with spiced pork and potato with pineapple salsa and coriander, plus vegetarian options including zucchini, mushroom and cheese with lime sauce – all procured from Mexican mothers who run a popular taco van on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.
“The authenticity of the flavour matters a lot,” says Hamish. “People travel, they compare, they Tweet, so you can’t come out with something that doesn’t measure up next to genuine Mexican tacos. The recipes and care we take in preparing our food is therefore crucial. You’re not cool just because you have a food truck; if our food didn’t taste great, we wouldn’t survive.”
Also on the taco bandwagon are Benji and Erin McInerney who run Tacocat as a part-time venture. Their fresh taco recipes using grilled corn and free-range chickens roasted at home were so popular they actually had to stop serving them for a while. “We took a few months off in spring to renovate our preparation kitchen at home, so we could keep up with demand,” explains Benji. The van was back on the road in December, serving enticing summer dishes including prawn ceviche on a crisp tortilla shell.
The sudden popularity of food trucks inspired Joe Noone, a public servant and food lover, to create the first Fork on the Road event in November 2012. He believed bringing together a cluster of food trucks fitted neatly within an Adelaide City Council and State government initiative to revitalise the inner city.
Despite enthusiasm for his first food truck gathering, with more than 20 participants, Joe didn’t harbour great expectations. “I was just hoping people would come out of curiosity, and that the vendors wouldn’t have to throw away a lot of food they had prepared,” he recalls.The opposite happened with most vendors selling out before the event finished. But what excited customers beyond the quality of food was its cultural diversity.
Csaba and Monika Bodri came to Adelaide in 2009 from Hungary, initially working in the IT industry, but a passion for food drove them to create their own business, baking traditional Hungarian desserts. In late 2012, the couple created Bodri’s Chimney Cake Station, a mobile food caravan with a small bakery and espresso machine. Their object was to make and serve traditional Hungarian chimney cakes (kurtosh) – not seen in Adelaide before.“When we got here, we were shocked at the standard of baked goods we saw in the shops,” says Csaba. “So many artificial ingredients. So much fake cream. We decided to make the European cakes people here were missing out on.”
The attraction of seeing Monika prepare the towering corkscrews around special wooden cylinders, coupled with enticing aromas wafting from the oven, means that business at the van is brisk. It helps that the soft yeast dough cakes, dusted with cinnamon, coconut, walnuts or cocoa, are deliciously light and don’t require cream or custard.
Their authenticity has won glowing feedback from the local Hungarian community. “A Hungarian comes to our truck every day,” says Csaba with a note of surprise. “Hungary is a very small country. It seems everyone must have left Hungary and moved here!”
Placing an Argentinian accent on beef preparation has made the Chimichurri Grill truck successful. Owner Greg Tillman started his cooking career at Adelaide’s famed Argentinean steakhouse, Gauchos, and although his heritage is Tongan, he has travelled through Argentina, where he was encouraged by both the cuisine and locals.
“There is no single recipe for chimichurri sauce,” says Greg of the Argentinean oily garlic and oregano-infused condiment. “It’s a bit like an Italian pasta sauce – everyone’s mother’s sauce is always the best – so I’ve come up with my own recipe,” says Greg. “It goes perfectly with the beef, and our customers are always comfortable with beef.”
Food truck fans even embraced a tiny retro caravan from which Angus Henderson started selling toasted cheese sandwiches from early last year with his buddy Angus Kiley. Their simple sandwiches soon grew into the Low & Slow American BBQ, focusing on pulled pork rolls, ribs and slow-cooked beef, with sides of onion rings, smoky beans and coleslaw for the evening trade. The boys often park their caravan outside pubs that don’t serve food in order to woo hungry people during their night out.
With the numbers and variety of food vans rising, Fork on the Road events are now being held monthly – mostly in places where food options are scant. In April last year, it was even included as part of the first Adelaide Food and Wine Festival, attracting more than 5000 people. “Guests from Melbourne said that a food truck event of that scale just wouldn’t happen in another Australian city,” says Amanda from Sneaky Pickle. “They said it made Adelaide seem cosmopolitan, ahead of the pack. That’s a rare compliment.”
Success at this scale has also brought criticism from some city cafe and restaurant owners, who feel that truck owners have an unfair advantage over rate-paying food businesses. In May last year debate reached a climax, with the Adelaide City Council deciding to award only 40 food truck licenses, with restrictions on how frequently they can park in popular hubs such as Hindmarsh Square.
The changes, however, haven’t discouraged food truck vendors, with 39 of the trial vendors still operating. Hamish Pope says the council’s decision has brought clarity. “The cost of permits will ensure all trucks are out there working, being more visible and proactive to recoup their costs.”Many operators initially saw food trucks as a cost-effective way to enter the food industry, perhaps a stepping stone towards opening a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
But even three months after Burger Theory’s owners opened Pearl’s Diner in suburban Felixstow, their truck is still on the road. “Food trucks have already become more than a fad,” says Burger Theory’s Dan Mendelson. “They’re now part of our food culture.”
La Cantina CO. & Tacocat
The La Cantina menu is small, but the authentic recipes provided by Mexican cooks means that the grilled chicken in the pollo al carbon taco with pico de gallo (tomato salsa), sour cream and coriander is a winner. There are vegetarian options, too. The Tacocat truck operates part-time, often in the evenings and at Fork on the Road events, selling their free-range chicken tacos and more. For truck locations, visit La Cantina Co. and Tacocat on Facebook.
Amanda and Jeff Griffiths draw on their chef know-how to make American-style sandwiches. They smoke and roast the meat and make fresh sauces. They even brew the beer used to batter their pickles. Try the Reuben: toasted rye with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. For truck locations, visit Sneaky Pickle on Facebook.
Low & Slow American BBQ
Angus Henderson and Angus Kiley serve up homespun American barbecue plates from their quaint caravan. Wrap your jaws around pulled pork and beef brisket fresh out of the fire pit. For those so-inclined, the boys also offer a vegie platter. For truck locations, visit Low & Slow American BBQ on Facebook.
The proprietors now have two bricks-and-mortar eateries – Pearl’s Diner at suburban Felixstow, and Burger Bar in Ebenezer Place, Adelaide – but the Burger Theory truck is still on the road. It serves only two types of burgers, both with 100 per cent Coorong Angus Beef, but for a home-town treat, choose No 2, with Adelaide blue cheese sauce, onion confit and crisp pancetta. For truck locations, visit burgertheory.com.
Bodri’s Chimney Cake Station
Monika Bodri makes traditional Hungarian Chimney cakes from scratch in the van. The towering hot pastry, she says, can’t be replicated at home without special tools and specific experience. Their espresso coffee is also outstanding, featuring Bodri’s own blend of beans imported from Italy. For locations, check Bodri’s Bakery & Cafe on Facebook or bodrisbakery.com.au.
Photography Tom Donald
As seen in Feast magazine, February 2014, Issue 28. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.