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The truck stops ... where?

The little birdie that tells you tweets

By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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MIAMI -- It was 9 p.m. as I exited the Florida Turnpike, wondering where my next meal would be. After 12 hours on the road, all I wanted was to sink into my hotel’s retro lounge sofa with some nachos and a cocktail. But no. I had come to be fed by the city’s new gods of mobile gastronomy. It was roll or starve.

I had heard the buzz about Miami’s street food scene on Facebook. Stalking these gypsy gourmets is a game with changing variables that, most of the time, make it fun. To play, you need a smartphone, a car preferably with GPS, and a willingness to leave South Beach, where the trucks aren’t allowed to go.

“BURGER TIME!!! WE’LL BE PARKED FROM 10 PM- 3 AM @BOUGIESBAR . . .’’ “The best hot dogs on the planet,’’ said a young Colombian man holding a Yellow Dog and a Yellow Burger in either hand. If his fellow diners were of the same two-fisted mind, it’s because Yellow Submarine makes a mouth-watering case for smothering both in ketchup, mustard, mayo, pineapple sauce, and melted provolone, and topping them with crushed potato chips, Colombian style.

Flavio Alarcon’s yellow truck is a Miami night crawler, often still serving when others are closed. This night it was parked at Bougainvillea’s Old Florida Tavern, a no-cover, live- music venue that lets you bring your street food inside. Not this puppy, though — I was, forgive the pun, too dog tired.

“KENDALL CAR WASH FOR LUNCH . . .’’ A bedroom community lined with strip malls, Kendall is no human magnet. But the next day, as lunchtime neared, hospital staff and construction workers materialized seemingly out of thin air. “He comes here most Wednesdays. I look forward to it all week,’’ said the car wash attendant.

A black and pink behemoth, Latin Burger and Taco splashed onto the city’s street food scene last year with a menu created by Ingrid Hoffman, Food Network’s “Simply Delicioso’’ host. The truck wins points for employing the city’s down and out. But today the owner, Jim Heins, a former minor league baseball player, was behind the counter.

“How would you like it cooked?’’ Heins asked as I ordered the sirloin, chorizo, and chuck Latin Macho burger. His smile was so sunny, patrons would never have guessed that his chef, a formerly homeless truck boss, had just quit. Unfazed, Heins returned with my burger, cooked a tender medium pink. It was oozing with caramelized onions, melted Oaxaca cheese, and Hoffman’s Avocadolicious sauce ($6).

“It’s a labor of love, babe,’’ said Heins as he mopped his brow and flashed a smile at the next in a growing line of customers.

“AT DON VICENTE’S MATTRESS . . .’’ Bird Road next to a mattress outlet is like the Twilight Zone unless you’re stalking dinner at the black, flame-licking Latin House Grill. For its owner, Michell Sanchez, a former gold broker, the food truck is a family affair.

“I would go out to eat, spend $600 for four of us, and think, I can do better,’’ said Sanchez, who with his girlfriend spent weekends in the kitchen tweaking his menu. My Flatton (grilled flatbread topped with cheese, onions, mushrooms, and more) was loaded with ribeye that tasted tender and fresh ($6); its sauces puckered the mouth: tart, sweet, and spicy all at once. The Chuchi Rice with saffron and avocado ($6) came from Sanchez’s mother, who works alongside him.

“I did well in my previous business, but it felt empty,’’ said Sanchez. “For the first time, life is fun.’’

“BRICKELL BABY!!!! . . .’’ If you think parking in Miami is impossible, consider a food trucker’s pain. Because of an archaic local law prohibiting the vendors from stopping — technically, they can brake only long enough to make a sale — Felicia Hatcher and her fellow mobile purveyors must continually seek new locations, often parking by invitation in private lots.

“Chief Popsicle’’ was how Hatcher introduced herself as she scooped mango ice cream in 90-degree heat. Laid off from her marketing manager’s job at Nintendo, Hatcher scraped together $3,000 and co-founded Feverish, a gourmet ice cream and ice pop “truck’’ that operates out of a leased cart and a green Scion xB. My samples of Feverish’s pine nut and rum raisin ($4 a scoop) were beyond good. Both are Hatcher’s mother’s recipes from Trelawny, Jamaica. Before I could ask the secret of their deliciousness, Hatcher offered: “Ten percent butterfat.’’

Feverish haunts the Design District clubs on Thursday through Saturday evenings.

“GETTING READY FOR THE FALL FOR THE ARTS . . .’’ Nothing brings out the food trucks like a special event. Over a dozen vendors lined the curb outside downtown’s Adrienne Arsht Center, where thousands had gathered for a fall arts festival. Many, like Alan and Noah Posner, who live 50 miles away, came not for the arts, but for the eats.

“Pace yourself,’’ said a customer at Jefe’s Original Fish Taco and Burger, although she didn’t appear to be doing so. In one hand she had an Ensenada Style Fish Taco crisped in beer batter with shaved cabbage, salsa fresca, and crema ($2.35); in the other, an iPhone and the Real Deal fries ($3). Word of the taco must have gone viral, because 698 others and I had what she was having — so tweeted Jack Garabedian, the boss of Jefe’s, the next day.

Next door, David Garcia was debuting The Fish Box, a white titan of a truck painted with colorful fish.

“My father made it the same way in Cuba,’’ Garcia said of a fish sandwich I ordered called the Minuto: a wedge of garlic-seasoned yellowtail snapper fried in a cracker-and-flour breading. The filet was huge, and fresh ($5). The Garcias — 10 brothers and one sister — brought the family fishing business from Cuba to Miami’s Biscayne Bay in 1964. Since then, the fleet and 5,000 lobster pots have supplied their storied Little Havana seafood restaurant and market, La Camaronera, and now, its mobile offspring.

Johnson and Wales interns were all over the pop-up MGFD Cart of chef Michael Schwartz, whose Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink brought locavore love to the city’s Design District (twitter.com/mgfd_mia). Also on hand were out-of-towners The Rolling Stove from Delray Beach (twitter.com/therollingstove) and Nacho Mama’s Grill from Key Largo (twitter.com/NachoMamasGrill).

A food truck outfitter, Tania Ramirez beamed like a proud parent at her masterpieces. They included a new, gray-and-graffiti painted Dim Ssäm à Gogo for chef-owner Richard Hales, who brought organic, made-from-scratch Asian street food to midtown Miami with Sakaya Kitchen. For Dim Ssäm, think boneless short rib marinated for 24 hours, with kimchi grits cooked in a vegetable and milk sauce, with plenty of butter. Look for the unit to become a regular on the streets in months ahead (twitter.com/sakayakitchen).

I rolled back to my hotel with a can’t-imagine-ever-eating-again feeling that continued until noon the following day. Then, ready for the next foray, I checked Twitter.

Twitter.com/gastropodmiami “TOMORROW BAYFRONT PARK, TODAY REST!’’ Tomorrow? What about now? I clicked through the other trucks’ feeds: ditto. All were on a 24-hour vacation. Virtuously, I dieted on bottled water.

And then, the following day, something I hadn’t anticipated:

“LUNCH IS PUSHED BACK A BIT DUE TO THE RAINS!’’ Bayfront Park is a lush expanse amid the office towers. It was after noon and gastroPod — hailed as Miami’s best street food by Sef Gonzalez, a local food blogger (www.burgerbeast.com) — was nowhere to be seen. The clouds thickened. My stomach growled.

In the distance, a speck appeared opposite the metro station. A golf cart? No, an old Airstream, as if a tourist had decided to pitch camp. Approaching, I saw the big orange gastroPod logo, and a bushy-bearded Jeremiah Bullfrog firing up the generator. “Hope we can beat this rain,’’ he said.

With the passion of an artist, owner-chef Bullfrog first hit the streets with such creations as shredded brisket tossed with espresso for earthiness; and a triple-decker built up with beef, pork belly, and meat glue (natural enzymes). “People didn’t get it,’’ he said. The current menu is edgy but more accessible. I was thinking of ordering the slider of Benton’s ham, pork belly terrine, and mustard hoisin sauce ($3); and the white corn cake topped with poached egg, crunchy slaw, and spiced crema ($7).

Seriously hungry, I watched the first raindrops fall, followed by sheets of rain. What if Bullfrog decided to pack it in for the day?

“Sorry, folks, we’re not open right now,’’ Bullfrog said, turning away several office workers.

Then, as if nothing had happened, the sun poked through the clouds. Bullfrog looked up. “OK, let’s go for it,’’ he said, firing up the grill.

I waited joyously beneath a dripping Poinciana tree. I was going to eat.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Where to eat
Feverish Ice Cream
twitter.com/feverishmiami
gastropod
twitter.com/gastropodmiami
Jefe’s Original Fish Taco and Burger
twitter.com/jefesoriginal
Latin Burger and Taco
twitter.com/latinburger
Latin House Grill
twitter.com/latinhousegrill
The Fish Box
twitter.com/lacamaronera
Yellow Submarine
twitter.com/yellowtwiter
Where to stay
Hotel Urbano
2500 Brickell Ave.
305-854-2070
www.hotelurbano.com
This hip, affordable boutique hotel has everything you could want, including a pool with an outdoor fireplace and a fun bar, from $149.