As of early 2011, if you asked a Valley resident the best four-wheeled vehicle from which to score Filipino street food, freshly made crème brûlée, Cajun-Creole cooking, or a gourmet pizza, you would have been laughed right off the proverbial street food sidewalk.
Following the popularity of mobile kitchens in cities like New York and Los Angeles in 2008, the first season of Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race in 2010, and Zagat's addition of a food truck review category in January, this year marked the rise of the food truck scene in Phoenix. And Brad Moore, founder and president of the Phoenix Street Food Coalition and owner of the gourmet mobile hotdog eatery Short Leash Hotdogs (which he owns with wife Kat), couldn't be more excited.
"When we first started the Phoenix Street Food Coalition in October of 2010, there were only about five or six members," says Moore, who founded the organization to serve as a unified voice for food trucks and a way to work with cities and event planners. "Now, we have over 30 members, and I speak with six to 10 potential entrepreneurs every month."
Thanks to Moore and the Coalition, downtown residents can take their pick of mobile lunchtime fare every Friday at the Phoenix Public Market — from lechon manok courtesy of Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food to grilled catfish sandwiches from Jamburritos Cajun Grille to sea salt caramel crème brûlée from Torched Goodness — or follow their favorites around town via Facebook and Twitter. The Coalition also celebrated the Valley's first Phoenix Food Truck Festival in October, when the sold-out event on Roosevelt Row featured more than 30 food trucks and 4,000 hungry fans happy to pay the $35 ticket price.
And the popularity of food trucks in Phoenix, says Moore, has made for good discussions with cities like Scottsdale and Glendale, which traditionally have not allowed the mobile kitchens but are now willing to take a second look.
Recently, a first for Valley food trucks occurred in November when the Phoenix Cheesesteak Company announced it had secured a brick-and-mortar location, something Moore tells me is a common goal of many food truck owners who, like himself, want to start a restaurant but don't have the capital or who want to get their feet wet before investing a lot of money.
And for the naysayers who think food trucks are nothing more than the latest trend to roll into town, Moore has this to say:
"Look at cities like Portland and Austin, where food trucks have been around for a long time. In some areas, they've been catalysts in transforming neighborhoods — turning unused vacant lots to hubs within the community."
And, Moore adds, "I think the food truck phenomenon is here to stay, and I think it's going to be around for a long time."
2001 in Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Chefs on the move: Chris Curtiss left Noca and eventually ended up at Sam Fox's sixth NoRTH location, just a few blocks away; James Beard Award-winner Robert McGrath left Renegade Canteen to join Spotted Donkey Cantina in Scottsdale; Peter DeRuvo left Paradise Valley's Prado after less than a year and started his own restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale called Cuoco Pazzo (Italian for "crazy cook"), and Crudo chef Cullen Campbell, who was kicked out of his Scottsdale location in July, found a new home for his restaurant at the former Backstreet Wine Salon in Arcadia. (Whew!)
Downtown goes pop (up)!: This summer, Valley diners were treated to a revolving door of unique eats from some of the best chefs in town — from Andrea White's South African cooking to Josh Hebert's ramen to Jeff Kraus' "experience" of frog leg lollies — courtesy of Cycle, the pop-up venue inside the in-flux Lexington Hotel in downtown Phoenix.
Up, up, and away eating: Next year, travelers in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor International Airport will be able to get a taste of the Valley's food scene, thanks to restaurants such as Barrio Cafe, Cowboy Ciao, and several Sam Fox and LGO Hospitality concepts making the contractual cut this summer under food service provider HMS Host. Beats airline food any day.
FnB goes BYOB: Summer probably felt longer than most to FnB, the Scottsdale restaurant known for its flavorful fare and high-quality Arizona wines, when it was forced to go BYOB for nearly four months due to issues with its liquor license.
Attack of the dine-in theaters: While upscale dine-in theaters AMC Esplanade and Studio Movie Grill opened this year, Farrelli's Cinema Supper Club (the first dinner-and-a-movie concept in the Valley) closed after a decade-long run. Now that's a sad ending.
Gluten-free gets (even more) popular: Up until late last year, no one could even spell celiac disease, let alone explain what gluten was. This year, along with celebrity testimonials, daytime talk-show discussions, and grocery stores stocked with gluten-free products, scads of Valley restaurants touted their gluten-free menus, dishes, and even no-brainer ingredients like fruits and vegetables. Those with the eating sensitivity have never had it (taste) so good.
Pies pick up steam: Though they still may not be as popular as cupcakes, this year, the classic baked dish saw more pie push than usual — thanks to restaurants like Beckett's Table, Romeo's Euro Café, and new food truck Mamma Toledo's Pies and Homemade Desserts, along with beloved bakeries and cafés throughout the Valley (not to mention the second Pie Social from New Times' food blog, Chow Bella). That's in-sPIE-er-ing.
Focus on farmers markets: Eating local? So are a lot of folks. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 17 percent more farmers markets across America this year than in 2010. And for Valley shoppers looking for fresh, locally grown goodness during prime season, it may have seemed most of the increase happened in Arizona. Next up: community gardens.
Esparza and Bianco branch out: This year, Valley legends Silvana Salcido Esparza and Chris Bianco expanded their empires. Barrio Café chef and owner Esparza announced two concepts coming to Old Town Scottsdale: a European-meets-Mexican restaurant called Silvana (set to open New Year's Eve) and the casual Barrio Queen Tequileria (which was to open December 26). Pizza master Bianco was especially busy in 2011. In addition to releasing his own line of canned organic tomatoes with California cannery expert Rob DiNapoli; creating the menu with Doug Robson of Gallo Blanco for Cocina 10, the restaurant inside downtown's new music venue, Crescent Ballroom; expanding his sandwich and salad shop, Pane Bianco, by taking over the space next-door that had been Lux and adding dinner; and opening Pizzeria Bianco for lunch; Bianco partnered with British celeb chef Jamie Oliver to open a restaurant in London called Union Jacks, featuring wood-fired flatbreads with British ingredients. Bianco also announced plans to open a trattoria in Central Phoenix with former Prado chef Claudio Urciuoli (whom Bianco hired last year) at the helm.
Late-night eats: The trend of wining and dining into the wee hours of the evening heated up in 2011, with top-notch Valley restaurants like Petite Maison, FnB, Posh, Noca, Sens Asian Tapas, and Citizen Public House offering a select menu of late-night gourmet eats, sometimes called "staff menus," to hungry diners not yet ready to call it a night. Extras like celeb chef sightings and eavesdropping in on the latest restaurant gossip made the late-night meals all the merrier.