I trained hard to compete in the Memphis in May Triathlon this year, my third Olympic-length tri in three years. In fact, I ran over 360 miles since January to prepare for this particular race. So what did I do when the big day arrived? I happily decided to ditch the race and spend my whole day eating.
It sounds crazy, but four food trucks rolled into Memphis this week, and on Sunday, they featured all-vegetarian menus. Swimming, biking, and running paled in comparison to this! I just had to go and check out what was going on with The Great Food Truck Race. Luckily for me, Chef Tyler Florence, host of TGFTR, asked me to try them all and award immunity to the team that I felt provided the best overall experience.
At the Korilla truck, I was excited to try the food because if there's one thing I love, it's kimchi. (I once embarrassed myself at dinner by espousing my deep love of all things cabbage to the blank stares of my dinning companions. Suffice it to say, its spicy, fermented charm is way, way up my alley.) I had some idea of what to expect, and here, they delivered on the promise of some mighty fine kimchi. I was told by one of the Korilla truck guys that the kimchi they make is from his grandmother's recipe. I love that: taking a sacred family recipe and using it in the modern context of a restaurant on wheels.
I had one fleeting concern when he, knowing that I consider myself a vegetarian, asked if I eat fish; sometimes bonito flakes, shrimp, or fish sauce are used in the making of kimchi. It's a legitimate question, I decided, and it turns out that their version was completely vegetarian that day.
I ordered the Korilla Tacos and the Kimchi Quesadillas. I also ordered the K-Pop, a mixture of ginger and soda. That was everything on the menu. I was told my total was 21 bucks, and that I was getting a free Korilla T-shirt. I sat down with my food and did some quick math, my "free" T-shirt cost me 2 bucks. No big deal.
I had skipped the triathlon but had still managed to get 6.5 miles in that morning, and without a proper breakfast, I was super-hungry. The Korilla tacos were good. They contained Korilla's excellent kimchi, cheese, and crumbled tofu on warm corn tortillas. The kimchi quesadillas had the same ingredients, minus the tofu, on a grilled flour tortilla. I really would have liked to see more creativity. I wanted a brighter stage for the kimchi, but that wasn't happening. I think that Korilla's vegetarian menu would make a great snack, but I'm not sure it was enough to make a meal.
The name The Lime Truck doesn't really give anything away, and the only thing we knew about them was that they do California fusion cuisine. We approached the truck, and besides a few people milling about in front, it almost looked closed. Strong wind had forced them to shut the sides of the truck and pull the menu board inside. I finally got a look at the menu, and I was ecstatic. These guys were offering 8 items plus strawberry limeade. I needed a little help deciding what to eat -- or I was misguidedly going to order it all.
Once I introduced myself, the trio appeared one by one to shake my hand and talk about what they do. The personable and chatty bunch told me that they change the menu every day depending on what's fresh and available, and that the Red Curry Fajita Quesadilla contained local shiitake mushrooms. I love mushrooms, so I put a magic check by that one. These guys were psyched about the food they were serving, and that made me interested to try it. I was told not to walk away without ordering the Yellow Vegetable Curry Over Rice, so I ordered that, too. I also added the Savory Corn Cake with BBQ Slaw and the Balsamic Macerated Strawberries to my order. We talked about Memphis and Southern food. They told me that cooking vegetarian was no big deal for them since they always offer a few veggie options on their menu. I realized that I was holding up the line and that I'd best wrap things up. It was time for the food to do the talking for them.
At the table, I have to admit that I was surprised by nearly every bite I put in my mouth. The charred flour quesadilla housed meaty mushrooms, rich melted cheese, and an even richer coconut curry. The combo of the cheese and the curry was tremendously flavorful, but almost too rich for my blood. I moved on and was blasted by roasted garlic as soon as I lifted the yellow vegetable curry to my lips. 'Too much garlic' is not a phrase that you often hear me mutter, but this walked a fine line. The corn cake, or grits cake as we call it down South, was a nice little surprise. I'd have to give it the designation of the most unique vegetarian BBQ I've ever tried. I ate it as instructed: "Pick up the corn cake like a taco." The soft cake contrasted nicely with the crunchy cabbage slaw. Honestly, my brain didn't know where to file this one away. The roller coaster ended with a simple, almost savory dessert of strawberries, vanilla cream, and balsamic vinegar, a smart choice since strawberries are very much in season right now.
Overall, I'd say this trio has a lot to offer in the way of culinary creativity and execution. They didn't seem thrown off by the fact that they had to serve an all-vegetarian menu. Maybe I just hit 'em on a good day.
At the Hodge Podge truck, I asked Chris, the chef, "What's your specialty?" "We take a Polish sausage and top it with pork and kimchi," he said. "That's how we do it in Cleveland!" I knew that's not what I was getting from them on this day, but my interest was piqued. Sounds like this guy has a 'more is more' type of philosophy that works to much acclaim in a lot of restaurant situations. Turns out this was right.
I was not allowed to order, which is a truly a great thing in my eyes. It makes me feel like I'm being treated well. The truth is, I really want to eat the food that a chef is passionate about cooking. Within certain parameters, I'll try anything. I'm very adventurous when it come to food and I'm not super particular. Jaqueline, the nice girl in the cowboy hat taking orders out front, told me in her best put-on Southern accent that I was getting the Hodge Podge Special, which I soon learned meant that they were making me a little of everything on the menu.
After about 15 minutes, the longest wait time of any truck, I hear Chris joke as he barrels toward me, "I take full credit for the overweight problem in Cleveland!" He personally delivers my first course, a Fried Avocado Taco covered in jicama and celery root slaw then drizzled with Carolina BBQ sauce. A mustard-based sauce like that could get him run out of Memphis, but I let it slide this time. Each component of the taco was right on, but I'm not sure if it all came together in the end.
I also had the grilled cheese, which I think would be more accurately described as an egg sandwich. This is the type of comfort food that once got me in trouble, I thought. Back when I weighed 265 pounds, I'd wake up and make a sandwich very much like this one first thing in the morning! The egg was perfectly drippy, and the cheddar played the important role of holding everything together. Ah, memories...this one really took me back. I only wished that they had opted for a more interesting bread. The white bread they choose was, well, a bit boring. I wanted a hearty, crusty French loaf or even the brioche they used for my next item, the French Toast PB&J.
Chis explained that this dish was strongly connected with memories of his own childhood. I appreciate the fact that he took this idea and elevated it, but didn't take it too high. I thought I was through when I found a little treasure hiding under the other half of my egg sandwich: a truffled hush puppy. I believe he used a mixture of fresh corn and cornmeal to produce this moist, craggy, fried treat. The onion almost overpowered the subtlety of the truffles, but I really liked the idea. It's one I may try in my own kitchen one day.
So, my experience at the Hodge Podge truck was a good one. They were the friendliest staff in town, which seems to go a long way in the food truck business, and there was plenty of food to go around. There was a lot of fried and lot of butter on my plate. I couldn't eat like that every day, but every once and a while, it might be a nice treat.
I arrived at the Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese truck late enough in the day to call it dinner. As I stood in line, I was eyeballing their simple but well-thought-out menu of two grilled cheeses, one sweet and one savory. They had been expecting me all day, so I introduced myself as The Chubby Vegetarian straight away. I was introduced to the other guys and then told that they were just changing up the menu as they had run out of a few things. I hope it's not the sweet candied apple and cheddar grilled cheese, I thought to myself. They were actually out of both sandwiches listed on the menu. They were so low-key about the whole thing that I didn't find myself upset or overly disappointed.
After a little back and forth, I decided to turn the reins over to them, and I asked for "something good." I mean how, can you go wrong -- it's a grilled cheese, for crying out loud. Even the worst one is pretty good!
I was presented with a Leek and Spinach Grilled Cheese and a Caramelized Onion and Truffle Grilled Cheese along with an order of truffle fries served with spicy ketchup. The fries were good, crispy, and spicy, but I was a little burnt out on fried foods by this point. I was really looking forward to the cheese, though. The combination of leek and spinach still had a great 'green' flavor that was only complemented by the richness of the cheese, but the real winner was the caramelized onion and truffle combination. I'd say it was the best sandwich I had all day. There was something magical happening between those two pieces of bread; the sweetness of the onions and the savory truffle balanced each other nicely. I found it interesting that one of the best dishes of the day was thought up on the fly. My only complaint about that particular sandwich was there there was enough cheese on it for two -- possibly three -- sandwiches. So next time, I may need a few more slices of bread and some more people.
Overall, I'd say their laid-back approach to customer service was a plus, and it helped when I couldn't order off the original menu board. These guys have a solid concept, and they add just enough sparkle to take their sandwiches from grilled cheese to gourmet grilled cheese.
I have to say that it's not lost on me how much hard work and dedication it takes to run a food truck business. Each team has trained hard for this and is ready to win. I appreciate every ounce of creativity that all of the teams clearly have poured into this challenge and the entire competition. Every component of the experience is important: the concept, the customer service, the value inherent in the meal and in the time spent enjoying it. However, what's paramount is the food. Korilla had fantastic kimchee but a lack of exciting vegetarian options to showcase that product. It wasn't the thrilla' from Korilla that I was hoping for. The Lime Truck had creative food that somehow managed to still seem healthy, yet some of their flavors really challenged me. Hodge Podge had personality and passion to spare, but most of what I was served was a little heavy for my taste. Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese, with the best sandwich of the day, didn't have enough ingredients to provide the sweet sandwich that I really wanted to try. In the end, there was one truck run by three folks who hail from the coast miles from Memphis, and they're the ones whose tires I considered slashing just so they'd have to stay in Memphis. Their passion for food, their excitement about what they're serving, and their talent is just that outstanding. Even under the pressures of this challenge, this team cooked not only one of the best meals I've ever had off of a truck, but one of the best meals I've ever had -- period. That team is...The Lime Truck. Congratulations! You've earned immunity for the next challenge. And I also hope you double back and make a point to come through Tennessee again.