New Jersey’s excellence in all things edible extends to its mobile kitchens, which is explored in depth in the newly published The New Jersey Food Truck Cookbook (Arcadia Publishing, 2023).
The intensive research—including plenty of eating—for the book was conducted by Florham Park-based Vinny Parisi, editor-in-chief of BestofNJ.com, and his frequent contributor, food-truck connoisseur Patrick Lombardi of Lawrence.
We recently chatted with them about our state’s “unique and soulful” food-truck scene.
Why such a passion for food trucks?
Parisi: Our state has the most amazing and varied food. But what’s great about food trucks, and food-truck festivals, is the global diversity of menus meeting in one place. Food-truck festivals are like a mobile food court with chef-cooked foods. You can have pulled pork tacos, BBQ chicken, pizza in a cone, then cheesecake on a stick—one after the other. But maybe wait a while in between!
Lombardi: We’ve become enamored of food trucks because of how personal they are. The diner interacts with the owners. A lot of times they’re families [who are] working the service windows, the grills, the fryers. The quality and variety of cuisine you can get from trucks is unique and soulful. The chefs want to serve us exceptional food that’s totally their own.
Why publish a cookbook of food-truck recipes?
Parisi: Simple. Since many food trucks travel around the state, some folks wind up seeing them in person only once or twice a year. We figured food-truck fans, and curious newcomers, too, might enjoy making some tempting food-truck dishes at home.
What’s the deal with food-truck festivals?
Parisi: New Jersey supports lots of food-truck festivals, with dozens—yes, dozens—of organizers. From April through August, there’s at least one every weekend, with music, a lively vibe and things for kids to do. If you’re seeking a wide range of dishes or cuisines, food-truck festivals are for you. Garden State Plaza in Paramus is a draw for its big festivals. Stadiums [hold] festival days, [including] the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, Monmouth Park in Oceanport and Skylands Stadium in Augusta. All over the state, you’ll find clusters of food trucks at parks, fairs and outdoor markets.
Lombardi: Tables are like unicorns at a food-truck festival, so consider bringing your own lawn chairs or blanket.
How did you get into food trucks?
Lombardi: I’ve been covering the food-truck beat since 2015. But I’ve been a fan my whole life. As a kid and teen, my dad and I used to go into NYC together and eat at the stands selling falafels, hot dogs and other good stuff. Later I got into the so-called “grease trucks” at Rutgers, when my wife Christine went there. We’d split an enormous RU Hungry? “fat sandwich.” Food trucks are definitely not a fad. They continually evolve, and many of today’s trucks serve high-end gourmet dishes.
Parisi: Those Rutgers grease trucks in the 1980s were the first real food trucks in New Jersey. But they didn’t travel, nor was there much international cuisine. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that food trucks as we now know them hit the scene and instantly became popular.
How many food trucks have you experienced?
Parisi: Patrick’s number will be way higher than mine. Running BestofNJ.com and becoming a first-time parent to twin boys keeps me infinitely occupied.
Lombardi: Over the years, I’ve experienced at least 200 different trucks. Maybe significantly more.
What, exactly, constitutes a food truck?
Parisi: A food truck is really any mobile food dispensary. Some ramble; others stay put with a venue partner so they can park outside. The trucks with a regular spot, which might be dictated by local regulations, value the friendships and loyalty that come with serving regular customers. Truckers who park here-and-there love being on the road and meeting new people.
Lombardi: Some trucks run seasonally, especially outdoor-event months. The owners may pivot to catering during the winter, or take time off to relax or travel.
Is the food made on the truck?
Lombardi: A burger truck may prep its patties, toppings and sauces in their commissary kitchen. Then the burger is grilled and assembled on the truck when customers place their orders. Bread and dessert trucks, on the other hand, generally bake their goods in the morning.
How did the pandemic affect business?
Parisi: The more adaptable trucks got into catering. Other owners took time off to experiment with their menu and upgrade their trucks. A handful left the fold and did something else.
Lombardi: Loyal customers put on their masks and kept patronizing the brave trucks out there. My wife, Christine, and I exchanged vows at our food-truck wedding in July 2020.
Hazard an estimate of the number of food trucks in Jersey?
Parisi: Some say we have over 500. I’d say the actual number is probably between 800 and 1,000, counting a few that drive in from Philadelphia and New York.
What kind of people own and operate food trucks?
Parisi: Food truckers come from all walks of life, and almost every one has a unique story, if you’re willing to listen.
Lombardi: Any type of person you can think of is represented, and the diversity of food owners I’ve met is incredible. Some came from restaurant jobs they got sick of, and are much happier doing their own thing with a truck. But the range of past careers is wild.
Do food trucks ever become restaurants, or do restaurants open food trucks?
Lombardi: Success often means growing a small fleet of trucks. But some owners of really popular food trucks do open a restaurant. Sometimes a restaurant will start a food truck, like Ohana Grill in Lavallette.
What are the most popular cuisines?
Lombardi: It changes throughout the state and the season. A lot of trucks like to put a creative fusion spin on their menus, like Carlito’s barbecue tacos or the egg rolls with cheesesteak filling from Shore Good Eats N Treats.
Parisi: North Jersey loves indulgent cuisine and over-the-top desserts. The farther south you go, the more barbecue you notice. On the Shore you might find more seafood, or pizza or burritos in college towns. In various places you can get Jersey’s classic sandwich of pork roll, sometimes made with the Taylor Ham brand. The Jersey Roll truck travels up and down New Jersey serving its in-demand version.
What’s the savviest way to order?
Lombardi: Look for something you don’t think you’ll see again. Unusual means the chef has really thought about it. If Callahan’s is selling a deep-fried dog topped with peanut butter and candied bacon, that’s what you order. If Chick Wings & Things has wings with spicy orange sauce, get them. If Maddalena’s is selling their chocolate-dipped, custom-topped Chookie, don’t pass it up.
Parisi: The No. 1 rule is: Study the menu before getting on line. This will keep the line moving and add to everyone’s satisfaction. Also, don’t engage in small talk with the chef or staff. “Thank you” says it all. And at a food-truck festival, pace yourself. Order only one dish from [each of] the various trucks you’ve scoped out.
Lombardi: At the window, please do not complain about prices. They won’t change for you. Running and maintaining the truck involves lots of expenses.
Parisi: The smartest thing to order is something you can eat with one hand while standing and holding your plate. Overall, loaded fries, lobster rolls, sandwiches—all of that fork or finger food—is pretty easy to eat while walking around. Likewise, a compact dessert or one that comes on a stick or in a cone.
How did you decide which trucks to include in the book?
Parisi: Some were so tasty, and pleasant to do business with, we were thinking about them weeks after trying them.
Lombardi: Food-truck excellence starts with respect for the craft, the ingredients and the customer. We wanted to feature a range of cuisines and cultures, too. Which makes not only good eating, but good reading.
How to spot a standout truck?
Lombardi: People-watch! Do the customers look happy? Does the truck itself have a cool wrap [paint job], a backup generator? Are menus easy to see, creative-sounding and zeroing in on a handful of items?
Parisi: You can’t always judge a truck from a long line, which acts like a gravitational pull on undecided customers. There are plenty of diamonds in the rough waiting to be discovered.
Lombardi: Avoid a truck that’s shabby or looks improvised or that serves numerous cuisines or styles. If someone’s serving, say, burgers and tacos plus seafood, chicken and barbecue, they’re likely taking shortcuts to handle inventory like that.
Parisi: Don’t choose a food truck that seems disorganized, has no menu displayed, appears to have no kitchen, or where you can see pre-packaged ingredients. Or if they’re rude.
Does social media have a lot to do with a truck’s popularity?
Lombardi: I’d say no, because I’ve seen plenty of trucks keep busy without touching social media. They all have different paths to success. Many fans discover new favorites at food-truck festivals.
Parisi: Real word of mouth, not social media, is probably the surest route to success.
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