Last year's first-ever Street Eats festival did not exactly endear itself to many of our readers -- and we weren't so happy either, for that matter. Among the problems: long lines, terrible traffic, confusion about payment methods and trucks running out of food. To be fair, this is a challenge that's faced more than one food truck festival -- but still, we wondered how (if at all) things could change this year, for the second annual event sponsored by Chow Bella's parent, Phoenix New Times.
Well, color us impressed. We left the first day of the festival (you can still catch day two tomorrow) full and happy. (Editor's Note: For purposes of comparison, we sent the same two writers who covered the event last year.)
See also: -Street Eats Food Truck Festival at Salt River Fields 2013: Day One (Slideshow) -Street Eats Food Truck Festival Offers Tasty Food, Long Lines, and a Few Lessons for Next Time -L.A.'s Grilled Cheese Truck Makes Phoenix Debut This Weekend -Chow Bella's One-Stop Guide to Metro Phoenix Food Trucks: When and Where to Find Them
Parking: The parking wasn't a soul-crushing pre-event this go around. There are more signs, and about twice as many parking attendants waving you into place. Parking isn't exactly free but since it's factored into your $10 general admission ticket it's a relatively painless process.
Paying: It looked like everyone stuck to the plan this year and did tickets instead of the mix of tickets, cash, credit and favors that seemed to dominate last year's experience. There were two ticket stations at either end of the festival and it was a pretty straightforward process to exchange cash for tickets in increments of $2. Once inside you could actually take your tickets and exchange those for food that was priced with $2 tickets in mind. One note though, it was a strictly cash for tickets situation so swing by the bank or be ready to fork over a $3.50 service fee at the many banks of ATMs.
Food Trucks Served More Managable Portions: Last year we complained that the point of a food truck festival, like pretty much any food festival, is to economically sample as many types of food as your heart desires. Last year it seemed like most trucks were simply serving what they always serve just with 2 hour lines out in front. This year virtually every truck we saw offered just a handful of items to represent their truck. As a result placing orders was a breeze so lines moved quickly and it seemed like the food was coming out faster as well. Simple is a good thing sometimes.
The Lines: We suspect that the cold weather and playoff games might have kept some people at home but there were still large crowds of people at Street Eats. The difference this year was that people were standing around eating instead of suffering (and starving) in massive lines. There were a few exceptions, of course, but overall neither of us waited in a line for more than 5 minutes to place our orders. Yes, dear veterans from last year's Street Eats, we were shocked, too.
Cost: Expect to spend about $30 ($10 for admission, $20 for tickets) to consume a satisfying array and amount of food. Most places offered $4 dishes so plan your ticket purchasing accordingly.
Of course the real question is: What was the food like?
First, we have Ando Muneno's take on the day and the dining experience:
I arrived just after they started letting people in at 11 am; crowds were light but all of the trucks were open and ready to serve, which is always a good sign.
My first stop was Island Noodles, a truck that hails from Montana but makes the trek down here to Arizona for Spring Training season. Island Noodles didn't pull any surprises in their wok fried soba but they pumped out a plate of noodles that's everything it should be: Hot, fast, full of crunchy vegetables and not drowning in overly salty sauce. If you're looking for something filling and delicious to round out your festival eats, this is a good bet.
Next up, Phoenix newcomer Hao Bao . I've previously tried Hao Bao's dumplings and beef noodle soup so I gave those a pass in favor of Street Eats Beef Strips, pieces of shaved tenderloin marinated and then grilled. Think beef satay but without the bamboo skewer. It was tasty but I'd definitely spring for their signature dumplings, given a choice. Alas, there was no choice. I asked Hao Bao's owner, Jake Lau, why there was no bao on the Bao Bus and he explained that their bao isn't ready for prime time yet because they're still "Trying to get their menu established." I say that's a little like a truck called "Hank's Burgers" not having burgers but I'll let it slide for now. Another truck worth piling onto your plate.
Both Lauren and I found ourselves unable to avoid Old Dixie's magnetic pull. Their biscuits and gravy are phenomenal, which is a strange thing to say about something as humble as biscuits and gravy. The key seems to be that the gravy isn't overly thick or floury. It's a smooth, inviting sauce that does an excellent job conveying the comforting flavors of sausage and the satisfying heft of the biscuits. I was supposed to take a photo of the biscuits and gravy but apparently licking a little bit of the gravy off the wrapper was sufficient to make me forget what I was doing.
Q-up Barbeque has been serving up awesome smoked meats from the back of a truck for a while now. Their BBQ nachos combine real deep-fried tortilla chips (no bargain bin chips here) with spicy nacho sauce and a healthy dollop of signature pulled pork. It's not shocking that these pulled pork nachos are good, but it's shocking that more places don't sell them. Another safe bet that will scratch your BBQ itch for just two tickets.
My final stop, and the one letdown of the day, was a food truck called Angie's America's Foodie. This truck promised to serve up sausages stuffed with the finest in Americana, typically lesser used game meats like elk, snake and rabbit. The Alaskan Reindeer caught my eye and I stepped up to the truck to order. All told it took 10 minutes of standing around with the order slip in my hand before someone came out to claim it and take my tickets. It then took another 20 minutes for my food to actually arrive: half of a reindeer sausage on a limp poppy seed bun covered in chili and sauerkraut. That 30 minute wait constituted over 1/3 of my time spent at this festival and the food? Well sometimes pictures speak more loudly than words. It didn't get any prettier once I unwrapped it. While it wasn't bad, I still can't tell you what reindeer tastes like. And given that it's really just a hot dog on a sad bun, I can't say that I felt my $4 worth of tickets was well spent here.
And now, Lauren Saria's impressions:
My companion and I arrived around 2 p.m. We were hesitant...ok, really hesitant, about arriving mid-afternoon after last year but everything -- from the well-organized parking situation to the lack of lines at most of the trucks -- made us glad we came.
With $30 worth of tickets in hand we charged into the action fully expecting to battle hungry, impatient crowds of eaters. But to our pleasant surprise we were able to use all our tickets and eat plenty of food in under two hours -- the length of time we waited in line at just one truck last year. We wish we could have eaten more, but ultimately we maxed out our stomachs and our budget. If it hadn't been for the chilly weather, it would have been an A+ afternoon.
Like Ando, we couldn't resist a stop at Old Dixie's -- but we tasted the red beans and rice with Andouille sausage. No wait and friendly service, not to mention the great food, made it a perfect start to the day.
Next we headed to Rockin' Ray's Highway Diner, a retro silver truck based in Queen Creek. For three-tickets ($6) we snagged a good-sized portion of San Francisco crab rolls with sweet chili sauce. The eggroll style rolls didn't much jive with the diner-themed truck, but the taste left us with no complaints.
My dining companion's eyes lit up at the sight of Totally Baked, a baked potato food truck, and not because of the clever pot reference. The mesquite smoked baked potato came topped with butter and sour cream and delivered on its promise of smoky flavor -- but not much else. Not a total disaster, but not memorable.
From baked potatoes we made our way to Satay Hut, a Phoenix-based truck serving Indo-Dutch cuisine. Two tickets bought a small taste of satay babi, or marinated grilled pork, with a side of spicy peanut sauce. Moist and flavorful, it was the best thing we ate all day, making us happy to know you can find them regularly around the Valley.
Mac Attack's beer and brat macaroni and cheese sounded too funky to pass up...but to be honest, we wish we had.
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Finally, we tried the rib tip sampler from the Tom's BBQ big pink Pig Rig. The pile of mean chunks, bones still intact, looked better than they tasted. Last year we were equally dissatisfied with Montana BBQ (back again this year) though, leaving us wondering if slow cooked meats should ever come off a truck.
The longest lines -- in fact, the only lines we saw -- were for Mama Toledo Pies (you go, Mama!), The Grilled Cheese Truck and California-based Devilicious, which appeared on the second season of The Great Food Truck Race. We didn't elbow our way to the front of the crowd, but those walking away from Devilicious reported hour-long wait times for the $10 lobster grilled cheese sandwiches.
There's always tomorrow....