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Food Cart-ography: Boise's Street Food Business

What's all the foodie rage across the nation is a near no-show in Boise but that might be changing

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Two months ago, a few paces north of the intersection where Franklin and Curtis roads meet, an abandoned white truck was parked on a sliver of asphalt between the back of a gas station and railroad tracks overgrown with weeds. The vehicle looked like a cross between an old moving van and an old pickup hauling an oversized camper, but it was obvious from the signage that the truck had one very specific purpose: It was a food truck. Large, black lettering arching over a small red and green flag read "Portuguese BBQ Sandwiches" and around back were a couple of old, green vinyl bus seats and a glass-covered patio table.

At first glance, it wasn't clear whether the truck had been there an afternoon or the better part of a year. Nor was it clear, whether the truck was open for business. Though a bright red sign under the windows identified the truck as for sale by owner, a dim porch light glowed in mid-afternoon. The Portuguese Lunch Wagon was once the joint venture of Craig Row and John Lopes. After a six-month run selling sandwiches, Row and Lopes said the economy and the cold Boise winter weather got the best of them. It took them almost as long to sell the truck as they were in business.

Food trucks and carts, especially those with a narrow culinary focus like that of Portuguese Lunch Wagon, are the foodie world's hottest potatoes these days. From the cart-based Belgian waffle makers on the streets of Brussels to the propane tank and card table set ups on the streets of Bangkok to the artisan ice cream and taco trucks jostling for space in Brooklyn, street food--any food that's not prepared or served from a brick and mortar establishment--is globally ubiquitous. And food trucks and carts in the United States, with their fancy-food meets throwback approach to delivery, are suddenly pop culture's biggest food thing.

Blogs, television shows and books now dish on food truck and food cart culture all over the country. In August, Food Network launched its first season of the Great Food Truck Race, an elimination-style reality show in which seven food truck teams competed in six cities across the country. In an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen last season, chefs competed against one another in a food truck challenge. After a revolution of sorts in street food culture in Portland, Ore., residents Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy recently published Cartopia: Portland's Foodcart Revolution, detailing the city's robust street-food culture. And if you find yourself in Los Angeles on a Sunday with a hankering for Filipino breakfast with a twist or red velvet and chocolate chip pancake bites, you can log onto a half-dozen websites like foodtrucksmap.com, where you'll find an interactive map plotted with daily updates on food truck hours and whereabouts for not only Los Angeles but also Portland, Ore., New York City, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Having definitively usurped both bacon and cupcakes in the limelight, suddenly it seems like food trucks are everywhere where food matters.

Think food cart in Boise and one raucous scene comes immediately to mind: the young and inebriated who gather on weekend nights a week at Sixth and Main streets for hot dogs and Philly sandwiches after a night of partying. In years past, the food cart choices were more varied, the crowds far thicker and the tendency for booze-fueled fights too tough for many to resist. In an effort to thin crowds, prevent fights and free up sidewalks choked with 2 a.m. revelers, the City of Boise reworked the street vendor code, cutting down the number of carts in the area by requiring vendors to be located at "identified vending locations" demarcated by small sidewalk medallions. A limited number of medallions meant a limited number of vendors, all of whom were spaced out to prevent crowding.

Judging solely by the popularity of late-night street food downtown, it seems as though demand exists in Boise for food carts, trucks and trailers. Online discussions about Boise's food scene often lament the lack of street food options, and in some circles, pining for Portland's food truck revolution to spread to Boise is as common as it is to pine for Boise's local music scene to take a cue from Portland. Despite all that, Boise seems to be sitting this food fad out. City ordinances and state codes are easy scapegoats, but as some suggest, the trend is a perfect-storm result of economic, cultural and lifestyle factors--factors that haven't congealed in the same way in Boise as they have in cities where street food is more popular.

For Row and Lopes, the economy wasn't the only killer for business. The pair also cite Boise's winter climate and concede that perhaps, too, it was their choice of location. Maybe somebody else can do it there and have a good business, they said.

True enough, their small lot alongside congested Curtis Road likely didn't draw many pedestrian visitors. However, 500 yards away, just south of Franklin Road on the same side of Curtis as the lunch wagon is another food truck, Tacos Mobile Primo. In the vast, mostly vacant lot of a run-down shopping center, Tacos Mobile Primo might be that corner's biggest draw.

Tacos Mobile Primo is Jonathan Sadler's favorite taco truck. Sadler blogs about taco trucks at Taco Trucks Idaho. A photographer and photography teacher at Boise State, Sadler's blog gained popularity almost as much for its "in-the-know" content as it did for the simple photos Sadler posted--like the hunger-inducing shot of bright red hot sauce splattered over the creamy green avocado slices of a tostada or the forlorn and distant picture of a long, white passenger bus parked among dead brush and painted with the word "Tacos."

Sadler, who's originally from northern California and moved to Boise from Chicago four years ago, began blogging about Idaho's taco trucks in 2008.

"To me, it's some of the best food you can get in the Boise area," said Sadler about taco trucks.

At first, Sadler kept things local on his blog. As his options grew slimmer, he ventured beyond the Treasure Valley, most recently to Portland and New York City. It's a change brought about by the fact that Sadler has documented nearly all of the area's taco trucks but also because that he no longer eats meat and has never been able to eat beans. A recent post was a note to entrepreneurs, urging someone to explore vegetarian fare at taco trucks. In another recent post, spurred by our conversation, Sadler deviated from taco trucks to revive the idea of a truck serving wood-fired pizzas or handmade donuts.

Though he's but one voice, Sadler's blog sums up mobile food options in Boise: Taco trucks--good taco trucks--abound; anything more creative might be wishful thinking.

One name Sadler does drop, whom he says he has not tried but whom he has heard good things about, is "the Saladman."

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