For the past year, I’ve been researching a truck food book. Early in my research, I fell hard for Philadelphia.
If Los Angeles is the citadel of the postmodern American truck food phenomenon, where every vendor gets 15 minutes of Twittered fame, and New York City is where street food adopts the public relations budgets and marketing tropes of restaurant service, then Philadelphia is the black sheep among the gazelles, the bruiser of a city where honest vendors work quilted metal carts and battered trucks, dishing the fuel of workaday life.
Sure, there are sophisticated eats to be had here, but even the hippest of the new-guard Philadelphia vendors are more focused on food than folderol. You’ll find groupings of trucks at various spots around town. My roster of eight draws from the trucks parked at Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the old Post Office. Most are open weekdays only. If you’d like to dig deeper into the Penn scene, try this encyclomedia.
1. A&M HalalTagged with graffiti, this is the anchor in a strip of eight Drexel vendors, including Pyramid Pizza and Mai’s Oriental Food. Ask for the falafel omelet hoagie, and Mona Hagali will lay on provolone, then disks of falafel, then a rolled omelet with red peppers and onions. A heavy squirt of Sriracha finishes. Alley behind Lebow Engineering Center, Drexel University
2. Yue KeeCraig LaBan, the restaurant critic for the Inquirer, once gave this battered, zinc-colored truck two bells, the local equivalent of two stars. The menu is extensive. And the service is surly, in the best hash house tradition. Here, college kids study quantum physics while waiting for spare rib tips with black bean sauce and pork belly with medicinal herbs and bok choy. 38th Street near Walnut
3. John’s Lunch CartNick Haslidis works an old-guard cart. He followed in his father’s footsteps. Owing to the location, across from the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, you’ll hear ambulances screeching and helicopters fwopping. The white-jacketed doctors order breakfasts of scrapple and egg on hoagie rolls. So should you. 33rd Street and Spruce
4. Mikey D’s GrillMike Datt, the owner, is a veteran of Tony Luke’s, the fabled Philly roast pork stand. For breakfast, he toasts slices of pound cake on the flattop, but the best thing to come off his griddle is a sandwich of eggs with broccoli raab, draped with sharp provolone and goosed with red pepper flakes and garlic. 33rd Street and Market
5. ton-tonKeiko Naka, the pigtailed proprietor, was born in Tokyo. She wears a blue apron and wields a pink-handled knife. Her well-designed and accessorized cart is Hello Kitty cute. For grab-and-go, try the onigiri, cellophane-wrapped triangles of seaweed stuffed with hashed tuna, mayo, and salted rice. For a more substantial feed, order the curried rice omelet or the mug of fried chicken. Market at 33rd Street
6. La Dominique CrepesZbigniew Chojnacki, a sculptor of Polish birth, works two crêpe irons in a one-man cart. He does not like to make breakfast crêpes, overstuffed with sausage and such. Seek him out in the afternoon, instead, when the crowds have died down and he can take his time, zesting lemons to order for a perfectly simple (and perfectly delicious) sugared lemon crêpe. Market at 33rd Street
7. Bui’s Lunch TruckA gut punch of a lunch spot, peddling Philly cheese steaks and other eats from a busted Grumman truck. Students line the street for the Bui family’s Hangover Special, a late-morning feed of eggs and pork products, sluiced with hot sauce, tucked into a toasted roll. 38th Street and Spruce
8. Denise’s Soul FoodFrom a pink truck with baby blue trim, Denise and company stake a claim to serving both soul food and Caribbean food. Over the clatter and clank of an overtaxed generator, she makes small talk and dishes clamshell boxes, overstuffed with oxtails and curried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and peach cobbler. 30th Street and Market