Food trucks are not a new concept to Syracuse. Summer 2014 was the food truck explosion in the area, with many trucks succeeding in spite of a confounded city hamstrung by its own dysfunction. Some of the trucks go year-round, but Wednesday’s Food Truck Rodeo marked the kickoff of the summer street food season.
The rodeo — sponsored by the Syracuse Food Truck Association — occupied a corner of the parking lot at the Cosmopolitan Building near the corner of West Fayette and Geddes Streets, staying off the streets and away from the permit-awarded spaces in Downtown Syracuse. The event, which ran from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., was a mix of veterans like the PB&J Lunchbox, and newcomers like Mami’s Kitchen and Toss ‘N’ Fire.
Wednesday’s weather was cooperative in spurts. The rain held for most of the day, but gray skies and winds did as much a disservice to the trucks as precipitation could have. At 11:30, the lot held a crowd of about 20 people scoping out menus and seeking sustenance.
Stop No. 1 was Sarita’s MMMpenadas, a Rome-based truck operated by a college student. The one-woman operation was serving a few different empanadas, deep fried in the truck, along with deep-fried Oreo cookies. My $4 beef-and-cheese empanada was overflowing with beef, peppers, onions and cheese, packed into a golden-fried pastry. She advertised a half-dozen flavors but only had two prepared to go for Wednesday, saying that she had classes that limited her prep time.
A second Latin-American influenced stand, Mami’s Kitchen, had its own issues. The converted camper flying a Puerto Rican flag still was not open at Noon, as I left and more people entered the lot. It’s a shame because the pernil sliders looked like a winner.
I skipped the PB&J Lunchbox having enjoyed its excellent grilled PB&J sandwich in the past. I opted instead to fill up at The Chicken Bandit, a well-appointed truck operated by a couple with ties to the former McShane’s Restaurant in East Syracuse. Tacos, burgers and other street food dotted the menu. The Korean BBQ chicken taco was loaded with flavors of soy and sesame, with a touch of heat from a chili paste. Served in a flour taco with a crema drizzle for $3.25, it was easily among the day’s values. I also picked up a chicken banh mi for my return to the office. Grilled chicken and pickled vegetables were loaded into a piece of Pastabilities stretch Italian bread. It was a solid $7 option, but in retrospect, I should have grabbed a second taco.
Shattuck’s Patty Wagon was also on site with a banana shrimp quesadilla that sounded interesting. Toss ‘N’ Fire certainly had the best setup and longest lines at the event, with their mobile wood-fired pizza oven.
The rodeo reflected the diversity of Syracuse’s population. I still think that a good falafel or taco truck, or one dedicated solely to pho or Korean barbecue would thrive. Anyone can sling burgers and dogs, but an opportunity to get one’s hands on homemade empanadas and pernil is tough to pass up. Syracuse’s diverse populations deserve an outlet to showcase the variety of ethnic foods that makeup our local culinary fabric.
That said, it was evident which trucks take things seriously and have a polished operation and which trucks need further organization in order to succeed. My hope is that this rodeo gave some trucks the chance to work out the bugs for the summer months. Restaurants are risky and expensive operations to open as free-standing businesses, but a good food truck can do as much for a local food scene as any sit-down eatery. It’s up to the owners to decide if they are running a business or just rolling up their truck to where everyone else is. Time will tell, but until then, I need another empanada.