Eater's Digest: Dreaming of a healthy food cart
Published: Monday, September 24, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 24, 2012 23:09
Apparently, food trucks are a big deal right now. Savvy street vendors from New York City to Portland are offering more options than ever. I have dreams about all the pulled pork, ice cream sandwiches and empanadas I could be eating on a sidewalk, if only I lived in another city.
But the trend has spread even to little old Newark, where food carts on Amstel Avenue and Main Street are thriving. I would know; a solid third of the conversations I have with my boyfriend are devoted to the cart mac and cheese he had for lunch. His head is in the right place. The chicken quesadilla I had today at the Dumpling Cart in the business quad was delicious, worth so much more than the $4 I spent on it.
The latest Newark food cart is “I Don’t Give a Fork” on South Campus. Run by alum Leigh Ann Tona, the sandwich cart opened last Monday.
Instead of being excited at the prospect of a new, convenient meal option, I’m somehow frustrated. I’m sure Tona’s cart will do well financially but for me her menu of hoagies and cheesesteaks just highlights a major gap in the Newark street vendor fare. What we need is a healthy food truck.
Any successful business knows they need to study their demographic to create the best product. At a school where gyms are more crowded than classes and dining hall salad bars are overflowing with bodies, a low-calorie menu would be a sure hit. Factor in the students, staff and locals with dietary restrictions and a vegetarian or gluten-free truck could do even better.
The market is wide open. Reading a menu at almost any Main Street restaurant, you have to dig through a lot of sludge in order to find something guilt-free. Burgers, burritos and flatbreads dominate, while healthy-seeming salads are often far more indulgent than you would expect. Even at Pita Pit, which boasts of “healthy eating” in its slogan, it’s easy to let the fat count get out of hand with added sauces and cheese. The fact that food carts are also likely to charge less than restaurants with foundations would make the model even more competitive.
My health-food cart would specialize in balanced breakfasts and lunches that you can grab quickly between classes. I’d base the menu in simple, colorful plates packed with vitamins and protein. Before 11, egg white breakfast burritos on whole-wheat tortillas, with greens and fresh, local tomatoes. For lunch I’d serve low fat mozzarella and sun dried tomatoes on baked whole wheat bread.
The clichés—organic, gluten-free and vegan, alfalfa sprouts, tofu—these would all be there too, with fun twists. I’m not normally moved by any of that, but even I would eat gluten-free pancakes if they were loaded with bananas and walnut chunks. The popularity of Whole Foods suggests there are more than a few people that do care about those labels. A range of low-sugar juices, smoothies and flavored iced teas would be the cherry on top. If the lineup seemed too girly I’d throw in low-fat Mexican cuisine because if there’s anything a college-age male can’t resist, it’s a cheap taco.
Nationally, the impact of health food on the restaurant industry is impossible to miss and food trucks are no exception. In Madison, WI, the Igo Vego truck offers vegan burgers for the hungry herbivore, cheap harvest salads and “loco cocoa bites” filled with walnuts, dates and fair trade cocoa powder. Momogoose in Boston serves light Southeast Asian sandwiches and rice, noodle and salad bowls. The make-your-own menu lets Bostonites pile their rice bowls with colorful vegetables (meaning more vitamins) and tofu if they choose.
I’m not saying that a new, health-minded food truck would be superior to its competitors. Not everyone is down for chickpeas, and tofu will never, ever taste like pork. I just think it would make money, and it would be nice not to have to walk back to my apartment if I want something light. My healthy truck’s menu wouldn’t be more thoughtful; it would just represent a different kind of thought.
That is what it all comes down to, right? The genius of an organic, locally sourced, low-calorie menu is all in the thinking that went into its creation. If you talk to anyone that serves that kind of food, they have pretty detailed explanations for their choices. But so does any good chef.