The $20 Diner: Your local truck stop


Manuel Alfaro offers American-friendly Peruvian food from his El Fuego food truck. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 21, 2013

These are uncertain times for the District’s food trucks. Talk to just about any owner, and you’ll hear a steady downpour of fears and frustrations about Washington’s proposed vending regulations, which the D.C. Council is expected to rule on in the coming weeks.

If the regulations are passed as proposed, the food-truck scene could change dramatically. Farragut Square, Metro Center and Franklin Square could go from vibrant mobile food courts — it’s not unusual to see 10 or so trucks at the locations — to lunch-time cricket zones with as few as three vendors, all selected via lottery. Other trucks would have to park at least 500 feet away from these Mobile Roadway Vending zones or face stiff penalties: $1,000 for a first offense.

The rules could have a chilling effect, and it may have already started to set in. The Washington City Paper reported last week that Basil Thyme, the District’s premier pasta truck, has called it quits, saying the mobile-vending business is unsustainable in the current environment. Will others follow?

Not to put too fine a point on this, but now is the time to visit some food trucks: just as the weather is warming and before the regulatory storm front rolls in. Three suggestions:


The El Fuego Burger is topped with crunchy cabbage and a fried egg. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

El Fuego

Manuel Alfaro has an outsider’s adoration of Peruvian cooking, not unlike Elizabeth David’s post-war fascination with Mediterranean cuisine or, closer to home, Jose Andres’s love affair with American gastronomy. Alfaro, born in Puerto Rico, also has skills: He was trained at a cooking school in Spain. But with a wife who hails from northern Peru, he says the South American country “has become my second Motherland.”

You can sense his affection in conversation, but more important, you can taste — and see and smell — the expertise of a classically trained chef. The menu was created in collaboration with Alfaro’s nephew Omar Rodriguez Valladares — who works at a restaurant in Trujillo, Peru — but the Puerto Rican is the one cooking.

Alfaro’s savvy shows up in details large and small. It could be the added cabbage crunch atop his good-and-gloopy El Fuego burger (you best suggest a temperature or the Black Angus patty comes cooked a food-safe medium-well). Or it could be the perfectly formed, restaurant-grade mound of rice with his Peruvian-Chinese plate, lomo saltado, an honorable take on the beef stir-fry dish, complete with hot and crisp fries. The trick here is to find your desired heat treatment; house-made (truck-made?) sauces come in three degrees, the hottest being a combination of habanero, jalapeno and three native Peruvian peppers. A little of that Level 3 sauce, a forkful of rice and a strip or two of marinated top sirloin? Mwah!

But El Fuego’s curbside showstopper is the pan con chicharron, a roasted pork sandwich paired with fried sweet potato slices, a Peruvian onion relish and the truck’s signature sauce prepared from aji Amarillo peppers. Served on a toasted roll, the combination argues for nothing less than a place among the city’s top sandwiches.

Twitter handle: @ElFuegoDC

Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats

Talk to Brandon Byrd for any length of time, and you get the sense that his Goodies truck is a sort of penance for his time as a marketing man for the hip-hop magazine XXL. “It’s not an industry that is conducive for someone who is a Christian,” says the typically bow-tied Byrd, as blunt as gansta rap.

What tasty penance. Byrd’s homemade frozen custard is so rich and creamy you’ll lap it off your desk should you spill it there. With his temperamental but pristinely restored 1952 Metro van, Byrd made his official debut last July 4. He returns to the streets on April 1 with something he has been perfecting during the off-season: doughnuts. (Of course.)

But in keeping with his squeaky clean, Betty Crocker-meets-Chuck-Berry motif, Byrd has no plans to sell designer doughnuts with Campari-laced icings or Benton’s bacon sprinkles. No, he’s going old-school with mostly cake-based doughnuts bearing names your grandmother would recognize, starting with a red-velvet variety, which Byrd calls his signature round. Later, he’ll introduce other flavors such as buttermilk, apple cider, chocolate and carrot cake. I’ll be the one in line elbowing your grandma out of the way for first dibs.

Twitter handle: @goodiesdc

Kushi-Moto

Before you can even get the words out of your mouth, the folks behind this “modern Japanese” vendor will beat you to the punch: “Sushi (from a truck?!),” it says on the menu affixed to the elegant midnight-blue vehicle.

The sushi is the maki-roll variety, as prepared by the skilled kitchen at Kushi Izakaya & Sushi in Mount Vernon Square. I recently ordered the truck’s salmon-
cucumber roll, uramaki-style, with an expertly thin layer of rice on the exterior, where it wouldn’t gum up the fresh, fatty fish or the cooling, crisp vegetable tucked inside.

Better yet, my small donburi rice bowl was a bucket of bliss, topped with simmered pork belly in which the fat melted on contact with my tongue. Combined with carrots, scallions, caramelized onions and rice, the pork belly is one major reason to shake a fist at the government and ask: Why? Why must you make it so hard for us to eat this spectacular street food?

Twitter handle: @kushimototruck

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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