Dining » Cafe

Food Truck Fever, Part 1: Just because they have wheels doesn't mean they're going to come to you


The food trucks arrived in St. Louis about a year ago — a few at first, then a few more, and now a fleet, parking where they can and sometimes where they can't, selling salsiccia and falafel, tacos stuffed with pulled pork and tacos stuffed with bulgogi.

For a year I waited. Isn't the whole appeal of a food truck that it comes to you? I spend hours each day driving to and from restaurants, so I welcomed the change of pace — or, rather, I would've welcomed the change of pace, but of course food trucks go where the people are many and the dining options are few or far or just plain played-out. Where I live fails the first condition, where I work the second.

Finally, succumbing to curiosity and hunger, I got in my car and headed where Twitter told me a certain food truck had parked. Which makes sense, really. Food trucks are a red-hot trend. If you live or work near one of their favorite spots, they're wonderfully convenient. For everyone else, though, are they worth seeking out on their own merits?

Over the next couple of months, I hope to answer that question.

The taco truck might well be the prototypical food truck, so it was fitting that one of the first of this new wave of food trucks to roll into St. Louis was Cha Cha Chow. This isn't a Cherokee Street taqueria on wheels, nor does it claim to be. But tacos are the centerpiece of the menu from chefs Kandace Davis and Linda Jones, who also own Culination Gourmet Catering, and as regular readers of this column know all too well, even the rumor of tacos is enough to grab my attention.

There isn't a way to say this that doesn't sound hokey, but visiting Cha Cha Chow is a truly pleasant experience. The service is exceptionally friendly (an attribute that generally seems to come with the food-truck territory). The truck is painted a sunny (but not garish) yellow, and upbeat music plays from speakers on either side of the service window.

Cha Cha Chow's tacos aren't the traditional Mexican "street" taco — meat topped with chopped cilantro and onion atop a small corn tortilla — but they are generally closer in spirit to Mexican food than to American, albeit with some idiosyncratic touches.

Most of the time, you can choose among six different varieties of taco: three meat, two vegetarian and a seafood. (You can order platters of two, three or four tacos, with a side of fries or a corn salad, for $6.50, $8.50 or $10.) Of those I tried, the beef short rib is my favorite. The meat, braised for five hours, has the depth of flavor that's characteristic of the cut. A crunchy slaw of red cabbage spiked with lime juice provides a sharp accent, while the "Cha Cha Sauce," cream blended with cilantro, lime, chipotle, salt, pepper and a few "secret" ingredients, adds a lingering heat.

A brightly flavored and mildly spicy salsa verde dominates the "Yucatan Pulled Pork" tacos. As much as I liked the salsa, it obliterated the flavor of the braised pork, which would have had a hard time coming through even without the sauce, topped as it is with grilled onions and poblano peppers. A curried-sweet-potato taco was intriguing. The potatoes, smashed and seasoned with curry, ginger, garlic and onion, are very flavorful, but the combination offers no textural counterpoint. It's just soft flour tortilla and soft filling.

Besides tacos, Cha Cha Chow serves a couple of sandwiches, including a burger. This is grilled to order, and the default temperature, I'm pleased to report, is medium. The hand-formed patty has a small circumference but is very plump. This is a decent burger, beefy and juicy, and would be even better if the chefs eased up on the salt. The seasoned fries need work, though; the seasoning lends only a generic spiciness, and the fries are on the limp side.

Cha Cha could do with a tweak here and there in terms of execution, but in general this is what I hope to find from these food trucks: distinctive dishes worth tracking down.

For most of its first year of existence, Sicily Streat was known as Mangia Mobile. A legal dispute with the restaurant Mangia Italiano led to the new, copy-editor-unfriendly name. The menu, inspired by the Sicilian grandmother of sibling owners Catherine, Thomas and Alex Daake, remains the same.

If you somehow miss the fire-engine-red truck with its distinctive mustache logo, listen for the sound of oil bubbling in the deep fryer, which seems to be Sicily Streat's cooking method of choice. From this cauldron emerge crisp arancini, crisp toasted ravioli (meat- or cheese-filled), crisp chicken fillets.

Everything is very crisp.

The T-ravs ($7) are T-ravs, their stuffing a thin, flavorless meat gruel. Dipping them in the accompanying marinara sauce, which has a good acidic bite and isn't overly sweet, is a must. The arancini (2 for $3.50) are the traditional Sicilian fried rice balls, stuffed here with ground beef, chicken and mozzarella. These have that unique initial sensation, weird and lovely, of crunch yielding to tacky-textured rice. Unfortunately, both of the arancini I was served were cold in the center, the cheese unmelted.

I had better luck with fried chicken. The meat is tender and simply seasoned. The exterior is crisp (did I mention that already?) and not greasy. You can order a plain fried-chicken sandwich or the "Chicken Parmesan," which is topped with provolone and marinara. There's also a grilled-chicken sandwich, with provolone and a roasted red pepper and sun-dried tomato spread. (All three are priced at $7.)

Not in the mood for fried food? If you're lucky, the homemade salsiccia special will be available: a plump, fennel-spiked sausage with sautéed onion and green bell pepper, served on a soft bun. Pair this — or anything, really — with Sicily Streat's French fries. They're the best thing the truck has to offer, the potatoes sliced medium-thick and cooked to that perfect balance of crunch and softness.

T-ravs, chicken Parm sandwiches, sausages with peppers and onions: This isn't exactly trailblazing cuisine in St. Louis. Give Sicily Streat credit, though: The siblings seem to have scoped out a few landing spots where the stuff's not within arm's reach.

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