Okay, guys, we did it. This list officially wraps up our efforts to name the best food truck in every state in the nation. At the end of this journey, our team finds itself simultaneously starving and emotionally drained. We probably need to take this weekend to gorge our bellies and soothe our weary souls. Is it eating your feelings if one of your feelings is hunger?
In hindsight, this process hasn’t taught us any overarching life lessons, which undermines that Breakfast Club expectation we had coming into it. Like, seriously, we didn’t get high and dance at all. But, we do have an observation: It simply is not possible to pick a definitive best. Like, you don’t want to be the person who can’t narrow a list of favorites and says they like everything, but you also can’t conscionably be the person who rigidly asserts Papa John’s is the best pizza. You just can’t, okay? There has to be wiggle room to acknowledge multiple things are exceptional.
As you read through the list, take some time to reflect on our week together. Ask yourself why there wasn’t a single cupcake cart that was deemed the best. Question why Venezualan arepas are so hot on the food truck front, but no one is selling Icelandic hot dogs (for reals, Google them). And, leave some comments about how much you want to go to Montana and have ice cream. Some of us will go with you. I am sure it’s a business expense.
Washington: Where Ya At Matt? (Seattle)
Matthew Lewis (no, not the Matthew Lewis who played Neville Longbottom) came to Seattle by way of New Orleans, where he learned to make classic Creole dishes from his mother and grandmother. After a period working in Alabama at places like Hot and Hot Fish Club, he went to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America and followed that up with a move to Seattle. He toiled in top restaurants Canlis and Toulouse Petit before joining the corps of curbside cuisine with Where Ya At Matt?, the truck that made Seattleites lust for New Orleans cuisine. When he hit the scene, he estimates there were seven other trucks serving food other than tacos. It’s a completely different story now.
Though he has a predominantly fine dining background, Lewis wanted his menu to reflect his roots, which are good comfort food. He serves the things you would get if you came to his house.
People who are jonesing for a bit bite of the Big Easy insist the Peacemaker is not to be missed. This oyster po’boy takes the basics of the South and adds a few Pacific Northwest touches. Diners get the classic ingredients: plump, crispy fried oysters, bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo. But, the bacon is house-cured, the mayo is from scratch, the New Orleans-style bread is baked fresh daily for the truck, and the spicy bread and butter pickles come from Mama Lil’s, a Portland purveyor of pickled peppers. This beast of a sandwich is sour, sweet, and salty, with some crunch. There are other po’boy options, including creole pork and smoked portabella. Customers can also enjoy gumbo with chicken and andouille; jambalaya with chicken, shrimp, and andouille; shrimp and grits, red beans and rice, muffelata, and cornbread.
No visit should exclude their beignets. Lewis calls these French-style doughnuts “little pillows of heaven.” They have a light crust with a bit of a crunch and a hot, soft center. A dusting of powdered sugar makes them sweet, but not cloying.
Oregon: Nong’s Khao Man Gai (Portland) UPDATED!
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Nong Poonsukwattana is a bit of a hero in Portland, so much so that she spoke about chasing perfection and what she learned at TEDxPortland. The child of a cook and an unemployed alcoholic, Poonsukwattana moved from Bangkok, Thailand to the United States in 2003 at 23-years-old with 70 dollars and two suitcases. After working seven days a week, days and nights, she earned enough to open her own food cart. She bought a cart for $1,300 on CraigsList, and it came filled with bag upon bag of old kettle corn. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, but it was a start just the same. Now, she has larger carts and brick-and-mortar locations. Plus, she is a James Beard nominee for Best Chef NW.
Poonsukwattana chose to specialize in humble chicken and rice. Literally, the food cart has two menu items: chicken and rice and chicken and rice big size. Khao man gui (Thai chicken and rice) is a natural choice for a cook who wants to make one dish exceedingly well, and she worked for years perfecting the dish. Now, customers can enjoy the kind of food the chef would serve to friends and family. Mary’s chickens are poached and served with jasmine rice and a chicken stock simmered with Thai herbs and garnished with cucumbers and cilantro. A sauce of fermented soybeans, gingers, garlic, Thai chiles, vinegar, housemade syrup, and soy sauce finishes things off. The meat is tender and juicy. The rice is flavorful and fluffy. The cucumbers add a bit of texture and freshness. All of the ingredients are simple on their own, but in con junction, they make magic.
And, the food truck pays all of its employees a living wage and offers health/dental insurance, so you know that you are supporting a local business that care for the people helping it to succeed.
California: White Rabbit Truck (Los Angeles)
Yes, this food truck is in LA and they serve fusion tacos, but we promise this isn’t one of many Korean-American Kogi knock-offs. High school friends Michael, James Du and Melvin Chua observed the SoCal food scene and realized they didn’t see any Filipino food trucks. Du, a chef who graduated from Cordon Bleu and has worked under Gordon Ramsey, was managing a BBQ truck in 2009, and it pushed him to launch his own. He spent nine months testing recipes before deciding on a menu that blends Filipino cuisine with dishes the owners felt would be more familiar to LA folk: tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and bowls. They wanted to combat the stereotypes that Filipino food is greasy and unhealthy and to make their culture mainstream.
The most popular item on the menu is the Sigsig burrito. Traditionally, pork sigsig is made from pigs faces and ears that are simmered before being chopped finely and fried in a buttery pan with ginger, soy sauce, garlic, and chili. The White Rabbit crew opts to avoid the potential patron discomfort caused by face and ear eating and instead cooks their sigsig with pork belly. For added flavor, they also use jalapeno. The pork is piled into a soft flour tortilla with their super garlicky fried rice, a fried egg, and swiss cheese. The rich egg yolk blends with the juicy, crispy pork to make something fantastic. They also offer slow-braised chicken adobo, soy and citrus beefsteak, and BBQ pork as meat options. The menu used to be larger, but they have pared it down over the years.
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Idaho: Rawdeadfish (Coeur d’Alene)
Idaho, food truck, and sushi aren’t concepts that one associates together, which is why Rawdeadfish was the first mobile sushi and seafood truck in the Northwest. Owner and sushi chef Travis Whiteside entered the sushi scene in Coeur d’Alene at 16 and spent two decades perfecting his craft, including an 11-year internship at the now closed Takara. Before launching his own business, he opened the sushi bar at Bonsai Bistro and the one at the Fisherman’s Market and Grill. He’s totally Mr. Coeur d’Alene Sushi. In 2014, he was finally ready to take charge, so he bought a truck and started retrofitting it with his dad, to start his own mobile kitchen.
He remains inspired by the texture and the multiplicity of flavors. “You’ve got an endless amount of flavors you can put into a roll.” This is reflected in the Rawdeadfish menu, which offers up the classics and some more creative takes on the Japanese street food. As a nod to his neighbors, he sells the North Idaho roll: fresh salmon, cucumber, avocado, and green onion in a nori (seaweed) wrap. There is also the Godzilla Roll, which is filled with escolar, cream cheese, and jalapeno before being deep fried and topped with sriracha, eel sauce, and spicy mayo. If you haven’t had deep fried sushi or sushi with tempura in it, you are missing out. The wackiest item is their humongous Sushi Rito: two kinds of fish, crab, cucumbers, avocado, rice, flying fish roe, sriracha, and tempura vegetables wrapped in soy paper.
The one menu item Whiteside had hoped would be a fave is octopus. But, sadly, it’s not something people in Coeur d’Alene appreciate, so tako nigiri sushi is the only octopus item left on the menu.
Montana: Big Dipper Ice Cream’s Coneboy (Missoula)
Big Dipper’s founder, Charlie Beaton, started making ice cream in the back of a brewery before opening his walk-up ice cream parlor a few blocks south of the Clark Fork River. He drafted a business plan a few years out of college and set to work making fresh ice cream each morning and delivering it to vendors. He never intended to expand beyond wholesale production, but the success of the company indicated it was time to go retail. Now, the ice cream is a regional staple and makes national lists of the best ice creams in the nation. Big Dipper serves 25,000 gallons annually. In 2009, inspired by a story about Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream (a New York gourmet ice cream business) purchasing an ice cream truck, Beaton teamed up with long-time retail manager Bryan Hickey to start a mobile venture, and they call it Coneboy.
Big Dipper ice cream is made by-hand in Missoula, using local ingredients. The Meadow Gold Dairy, the region’s largest and oldest full-service dairy company, supplies them with their base dairy mixture with 15 percent butterfat, so it is creamy and rich. To put that in perspective, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s clock in at 12-14 percent. On the truck, cones and pints are sold in dozens of flavors. Vanilla, chocolate, huckleberry, coconut, white mint Oreo, mocha chip, strawberry, cardamom, El Salvador coffee, bubblegum, green tea, maple walnut, black licorice, Mexican chocolate, vanilla-Reese’s, salted caramel, and espresso Heath are always available. And, seriously, the cardamom ice cream may be the best ice cream ever crafted. You need to be eating it.
There are also specials. The Big Dipper has handed out cones of animal cookie, mighty berry, horchata, banana cinnamon chocolate, maple toffee, chocolate cherry brownie, pineapple upside down cake, chocolate cookie, tin roof, chocolate whiskey brownie, cayenne caramel, and coconut lemon curry. This list could continue, but typing it is really making us twitch with unresolved ice cream desire.
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Wyoming: On the Hook (Laramie)
Hunter Anderson and Ocean Andrew are relatively new to the food truck game, having opened their mobile kitchen Off the Hook in summer of 2016. They are also comparatively young; both were seniors in college when they launched the business. It’s, therefore, pretty awesome that they are producing such high-quality grub. Andrew’s father is a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and the idea of a fish and chips business was something that people in his family had talked about for years. When he became interested in television shows like Food Truck Revolution, he began giving serious thought to a chippy van. He and Anderson, a friend from church, started discussing the idea instead of paying attention in their Reservoir Mechanics class, and it wasn’t long before they were in Denver purchasing an old Fed Ex van turned food truck.
When they were in the planning stages, they wanted to make tons of menu items, but the reality of the business set in, and they narrowed their focus to beer-battered fish and chips and chowder. The fish is succulent, firm and flaky with crispy, evenly golden batter that is never greasy. The chips are crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside with perfect seasoning. Specials include items like fried calamari, fried shrimp, bacon cod chowder. The pair know their flavors; they won the 2016 Laramie Iron Chef with their coconut-rum shrimp.
They have an advantage other fish and chips sellers in land-locked Wyoming don’t. Andrew’s dad catches wild Alaskan cod by hook and line, brings the live fish aboard, immediately guts them, and flash freezes them. The fish travels straight to Seattle to be filleted, and then, it goes straight to On the Hook.
Hawaii: Giovanni’s (O’ahu)
We debated over this for a good, long time because Giovanni’s is an institution, and it feels a little trite to add it to another list about amazing food trucks. But, ultimately, it seemed better to err on the side of “damn, that’s good.” The coastal land north of Kahuka is famous for its aquaculture farms, ergo it was a natural next step to start scooping up those incredibly fresh shrimp and using them to make magic. In 1993, Giovanni’s started selling their now famous shrimp out of a 1953 bread truck. At that time, they were the only ones doing it, but their increasing popularity drew imitators, and now, families are torn asunder debating which North Shore shack or truck best prepares a big old plate of sautéed garlic-and-butter shrimp. In 2001, they retired the original truck for a new one, and in 2006, they purchased the land they are parked on and built a seating area for diners. They aren’t going anywhere.
At Giovanni’s, you have your choice of four items. Of course, there is the shrimp scampi, 12 shrimp marinated in fresh chopped garlic, olive oil, and lemon butter and covered in garlic lemon butter and caramelized pieces of garlic. The “No Refunds” Hot and Spicy Shrimp will net you twelve shrimp cooked in their shell and blanketed with the house hot sauce. It is legitimately hot. Be warned. Timid diners recommend ordering the scampi, but getting a side of hot sauce with it so you can add the heat at your discretion. For those who want the buttery, buttery shrimp but not the garlic, Lemon Butter Shrimp has you covered. It’s a dozen plump shrimp cooked in their shells and covered in creamy lemon butter sauce. And for those who for some reason go to famous shrimp trucks and don’t order shrimp, there is the Jumbo Garlic Dog, a juicy sausage covered in the garlic butter sauce. All of their sauces are sublime and you will end up sucking the shrimp shells just to get any last lingering drops of it. Everything comes with two substantial scoops of steamed, white rice because it’s Hawaii. Plate lunch forever!
Alaska: Pikiniki Food Truck (Anchorage) UPDATED!
Finding food trucks in Alaska can be very difficult as only serious badasses are able to keep their food trucks operating during the state’s brutal winters. Picture the fortitude it takes to spend the day in a steel box with exhaust fans constantly sucking all of the warmth out of the space along with the cooking smoke. Who is pushing their way to the front of the line to open the service window on that baby? And that doesn’t even take into account trying to drive the truck through freezing rain and ice floes over the highway. That is why a lot of food trucks operate seasonally, like the phenomenal Pikiniki, our pick for best in the state.
We love their fresh, tasty approach to decadent sandwiches and fries. And, that doesn’t even get into how down we are for waffle dogs. “Waffle dog?” you say. Yes, all the fun of a dog (or block of cheese) on a stick, but with a fluffy waffle coating. Hot Dog on a Stick has nothing on these guys, especially because Pikiniki offers reindeer dogs.
But, it’s really the loaded dinner size fries that have us swooning. As devout lovers of fries covered in stuff, we were enchanted by the carne asada fries: crispy, golden fries smothered by grilled asada beef strips, salsa, cheese, and avocado aioli. But, it’s the Porkiniki fries that really took our love to a new level. These bad boys are topped with crispy pork belly strips, garlic mayo, sweet balsamic, and pork cracklings. For people not looking to live on a steady diet of fries, there are bomb ass sandwiches, like the Cubano panini, loaded French dip. Classic Reuben panini, and monte cristo.