Good to Go: Food Chain trucks

good to go
Yeshu Woldemichael, a Food Chain client vendor selling from a truck in the District, with a chicken barbecue sandwich. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 1:29 PM

Coite Manuel could have started up his own food truck. He had no food-industry experience, but he had learned the ins and outs of vendor licensing while working as small-business director at the nonprofit Latino Economic Development Corp. And his aunt, Tyra Somers, a chef in North Carolina, was ready to help him develop recipes.

Instead, he had grander plans: Why not improve the offerings sold by hot dog vendors already on the street? That way, residents and office workers in the District would get access to better street food at multiple locations, and Manuel could continue his mission of helping other businesses while starting his own.

That's how Food Chain was born. Manuel, 33, and a full-time cook have been making dishes in a Petworth kitchen since May for three "concepts" (Caribbean, tacos, barbecue), then selling the food to cart operators. He also supplies signs; a marketing push on Twitter, Facebook and his Web site (which helpfully tracks which vendors are working any given day) and through old-fashioned fliers; and a promise to cover initial losses while the concept takes hold. The vendors - nine for now, most of them in Northwest - make a profit on the food while presumably drawing new customers unlikely to buy a hot dog.

Somers, besides helping with the recipes, has provided equipment and countless pointers. "She even taught me how to tie my apron," he says. "I thought that was pretty symbolic."

Food Chain is already helping close the gap between the hip new trucks that keep opening and the stationary stalwarts of the District's street-food scene. Where half-smokes and Little Debbies once ruled, thanks to Manuel you can buy piled-high barbecue beef sandwiches, jerk chicken wraps, black bean tacos and more.

For our money, the star is the beef, which undergoes a long, multi-step process: Manuel and his cook rub the meat with mostly Mexican spices and let it absorb the rub for a full day, or even two. Then they smoke the beef over mesquite for 15 hours, chop it, mix it with caramelized onions and cook it a little longer.

When mounded onto a soft potato bun made by Ottenberg's Bakery, the result ($4.25 to $4.50; prices vary by cart) is an infusion of smoke and spice into beautifully moist meat that would do any pit master proud. It was flavorful enough to not exactly need one of the house-made sauces the vendors sell, but that doesn't mean you should skip them. The Texas sauce, with its not-too-sweet Coke base, adds a dash of even more complexity to the mix. Only one thing would have improved the offering, and that's a side of coleslaw.

Some of the staple ingredients show up in slightly different form in other Food Chain concepts. The carts selling tacos ($2 to $2.50, three for $6 to $7.50), for instance, nestle the same fantastic smoked beef, mixed with a different sauce, into flour tortillas and top it with cilantro, onions and a choice of commercial hot sauces.

Those were just as good as the sandwiches, with one reservation: We pined for corn tortillas. But after Manuel pointed out that they would require a flash of dry heat (such as on a griddle) that is impossible on carts limited to steam-table reheating, we could see the point. A good flour tortilla is better than a soggy corn one.

The carts that sell the Caribbean concept menu specialize in wraps ($4.50 to $5.50), and the most popular are those filled with jerk chicken (plus coconut rice, citrus black beans and cilantro). We found the jerk seasoning overpowering and a little too raw-tasting, but we loved the wraps made with tangy, spicy orange-kissed mojo chicken and those filled with more of the made-from-scratch Caribe black beans, whose depth of flavor belied their vegan status. The same beans were too soupy in tacos, but that's nothing that better drainage probably couldn't solve.

Manuel is on the lookout for more menus to unveil as he talks more hot dog vendors into trying things his way. He already knows just the place: A vendor at 18th and M streets NW has expressed interest, "but she's flanked by other Food Chain carts on all sides, so that could create some tension." He needs to give her another option, and in the process another concept will be born.

- Joe Yonan

Food Chain sells through hot dog vendors in nine District locations that have varying hours.

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