The Endless Road Trip: Philadelphia’s Top 10 Eats 7. Love on the Run
As a life-long Philly guy, I think I speak from experience when I say that this city isn’t usually on the cutting edge of the latest trends and fashions. For all of its charms, this place can be bit more traditional…parochial, even, when it comes to new ways of doing things. So it’s no surprise that the food truck phenomenon arrived a little bit later in Philly than other cities like New York. That said, Philadelphia has been working hard to narrow the gap a bit with some inspired new mobile options, a few of which go beyond the everyday taco truck.
Oh, sure, we have those, too. And not just any taco truck. An Iron Chef taco truck: Guapos Tacos is run by Jose Garces’ local restaurant empire and serves some tasty fish tacos. But what if I told you that there is also a Mexican-Thai fusion truck that makes creative use of a favorite kids’ breakfast cereal? How about a truck dedicated to Trinidadian food? That’s not something you see every day.
The cuisine of Trinidad may not be as well-known as its Caribbean neighbors, but some of its better known dishes — roti and doubles — lend themselves very well to street eating, and the new truck called “Mini Trini” showcase both on its menu. I made my first trip to Philly’s Love Park recently to sample the doubles, essentially a sandwich that features chickpea curry between two slices of fried dough. The filling is reminiscent of a channa masala you might find in an Indian restaurant, and the fluffy “bun” provides a chewy means of getting that curry into your mouth while also adding some bulk to what is really a snack-sized serving. The real kick is provided by the optional pepper sauce, but I’m telling you — go lightly. The flavors of the bread and filling are quite mild and subtle, so it’s best not to completely blow them out of the water with the heat.
The “doubles” is tasty and filling (for its size) and a couple of them make for a great on-the-go lunch. But my favorite mid-day truck takes the tastes of Southeast Asia and puts them in familiar Mexican formats to create something unexpected and delicious.
Cucina Zapata, on the campus of Drexel University, has a considerable line come lunchtime, and it’s no wonder. The food is inventive, substantial, inexpensive and — above all else — fantastic. The tacos are outstanding. Do yourself a favor and get two: one chicken satay (featuring a zesty peanut sauce) and one short rib (which had wonderful notes of five spice) and it will likely be the best meal you can get in Philly for $6.
They also do an inventive take on the fish burrito (above) serving a Cap’n Crunch-crusted tilapia burrito that manages to bring a slightly sweet but not overwhelming flavor from the cereal you loved when you were 11 years old. The burrito comes loaded with sauce, cabbage, sliced avocado and other toppings, making Cucina Zapata the destination of choice whether you’re a poor student or nearby office worker like me.
Even though Philadelphia wasn’t at the vanguard of the food truck revolution, the good news is that they’re getting more and better options when it comes to mobile gourmet treats. Now, if only I can convince DiNic’s to take its show on the road…