Food trucks roll on to the upper Texas Coast
It’s impossible to talk about the cuisine scene on the Texas Gulf Coast without mention of food trucks.
In March, Clear Lake Shores rolled out its first food truck park at 1002 Marina Bay Drive, where concessionaires rotate in weekend lineups to the pleasure of hungry crowds. Those cleverly named concessions, including Ring of Fire Cookers and Wokker Texas Ranger, to name a few, have been well received.
In July, after much debate, Galveston City Council passed an ordinance significantly changing the city’s concession rules, allowing food trucks to operate in all areas of the island zoned for commercial, resort, recreational and industrial uses. But that came after months of unsavory politics.
Food trucks are expected to broaden the culinary horizons for locals as more chefs hang their hats on 98 square feet of space on wheels. And there’s much catching up to do in these parts. The so-called street food revolution began spreading across the nation years ago. Street food has grown into a thriving $1.5 billion industry in the United States in less than a decade; it’s expected to swell to a staggering $2.7 billion by 2017, according to the Food Network.
Each weekend in Clear Lake Shores, a cavalry of culinary prodigies from across the region commutes to the town’s new food truck park.
Patrons might decide they’re in the mood for the spicy tamarind ribs or brisket egg rolls at Wokker Texas Ranger. Or maybe they’re curious about what happens when you cross Asian with Cajun and give Casian King Food Truck a try.
Clear Lake Shores wanted to make it easy for food trucks by not over-regulating them, City Administrator George Jones said. Although Clear Lake Shores requires food trucks to have insurance, a current Galveston County Health inspection certificate, and to collect the municipal sales tax, it doesn’t charge a fee for vendors.
“It’s been drawing a big crowd,” said Ronnie Richards, president of the city’s Economic Development Corp.
Back in Galveston, the fledgling food truck industry earlier this year met resistance from owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants, who argued they must endure heavy expense and regulation that mobile vendors don’t. And there were other issues. Before the new rules, food trucks were restricted to 61st Street and Seawall Boulevard. The new rules, expected to pave a smoother way for food trucks in Galveston, largely mirrored recommendations by an ad hoc committee made of restaurant owners, foodies and business owners.
Jenny Perez in March opened her Jenny From The Block food truck in Galveston, serving Puerto Rican and Latin fare. Perez launched her food truck, 2122 61st St., before the new ordinance took effect. She was forced to shut down briefly after city officials slapped a red tag on the truck because Perez had not secured permits, prompting outcry from islanders who welcome food trucks. Her complicated permit issues were sorted out, but it was a long, bumpy road.
While bureaucracy was a side dish on the island, the industry is all about the food. Sometimes, on weekends, you can catch Perez’s grandmother’s fried chicken. Her mother’s alcapurrias, if they aren’t sold out, have a permanent slot on the chalkboard. So does Perez’s spin on an American classic, the Bori Burger, which features plantains and a house-made dressing.
“The Bori in Bori Burger is a shortened version of boriqua, which is a slang term for a person from Puerto Rico,” she said.
A penchant for creative naming is one thing young food truckers have in common. Another is narrative. Like Perez, a former pastry chef, they leave steady jobs and hurl their life savings into workspaces the size of a common travel trailer.
Operating a food truck isn’t always a joy ride. There are early mornings and late nights, cuts and burns, prep work and swollen feet.
“It’s definitely not as glamorous as everybody thinks,” Jeff Antonelli, owner of Shrimp ‘N Stuff, said.
Antonelli operates two brick-and-mortar Shrimp ‘N Stuff restaurants on the island and several years ago launched a food truck in Jamaica Beach on the island’s West End. Jamaica Beach is not in Galveston city limits and wasn’t affected by Galveston’s old or new rules about food trucks.
Skeptics told Antonelli the concept wouldn’t work on the island.
He chose to listen to his children and Shrimp ‘N Stuff’s food truck cruised into Jamaica Beach.
“My children, who are in their 20s, think food trucks are the coolest thing, so we decided to go for it,” he said.
When, earlier this year, the Galveston City Council appointed an ad hoc committee and tasked it with making the rules concerning mobile concessions more clear, Antonelli joined up.
“What we were told to do was to take these really cumbersome regulations and make them user-friendly,” he said. “But of course, it got politicized into lots of things.”
Some traditional restaurant owners worried food truck competition would cut into their profits, a feeling Antonelli can sympathize with, but doesn’t completely understand, he said.
“They were worried it would cut into their business, which I tried to explain to them was not the case,” he said.
These days, the road ahead looks promising for food trucks in Galveston.
Mitchell Historic Properties, controlled by the family of the late oilman, developer and philanthropist George Mitchell, would like to use two properties it owns — 101 21st Street downtown and 2102 Seawall Blvd. — as food truck parks.