Years after gourmet food trucks took hold in big cities, the Hudson Valley has finally attained an abundance of quality establishments on wheels. While some restaurants have opened trucks to expand their reach–'Cue in Saugerties and American Glory Barbecue in Hudson have them, as does Yum Yum Noodle Bar of Woodstock and Kingston—those are the minority. Most food trucks are autonomous outposts for creative people with unorthodox career paths. And the food can be superb, affordable, and as diverse as the personalities behind it.
Brian Branigan has had many jobs over the course of his life: graphic designer, videographer and director, lifeguard, and Outward Bound instructor, among others. After the economy fell apart, he looked for a new source of income. As if on cue, he and his wife happened past a quilted stainless-steel food trailer for sale, and there began the most recent chapter. Now in its fourth year, Tortillaville has garnered effusive reviews from its many fans, and Branigan is expanding the business to include frozen burritos for retail sale. This idea originated with what he calls the Winter Stash: a batch he makes at the end of the season so his loyal patrons can stock up their freezer while Tortillaville is in Florida for the winter. The frozen burritos will be made using as much local produce as possible. In addition, he is writing a book, Food Truck 101, which he hopes to publish this summer. Besides including numerous recipes, it's a comprehensive and detailed guide to starting and running a business that deals honestly with the challenges and pressures of working long hours in a small space and dealing with the public the whole while. Having built a reputation, a prosperous business—the truck can net between $500 and $1,500 a day—a budding frozen line, and the book, Branigan is considering selling the enterprise if the right offer comes along.
Another truckerateur can be found right next to Tortillaville. Sam Starr studied art at Pomona College, where he was influenced by a teacher with a passion for building and baking in brick ovens. Last year, Starr came out to build an oven for some friends in Ancram and fell in love with the region. A friend suggested the idea of a pizza truck, "and two weeks later I was in Maryland buying this," he says, pointing at the now-gleaming silver truck behind him, smokestack billowing. "It was a disaster, though; it belonged to a chimney sweep and I had to redo the entire thing." He built a Pompeii-style dome oven from firebrick and refractory cement right behind the cab and installed a fully code-compliant restaurant kitchen around it to avoid the extra cost of renting commissary space.
Starr uses a live sourdough starter and ferments it for 24 hours, making for a tangy crust with plenty of character that's further enhanced by the blistered char that only a thousand degrees can impart. This temperature—the standard in Neapolitan ovens, which gave birth to pizza after all—means that you're unlikely to wait long for your pie since they take longer to fabricate than they do to cook. (The chimney and reflective truck exterior help keep the interior bearable on hot days). Balancing the life cycle of the dough, which changes dramatically depending on ambient temperature, with customer demand and a very finite amount of space has been the biggest challenge. "I learned the hard way. It's a logistical battle, and sometimes we time it wrong and run out." Besides the classic margherita, Truck Pizza also offers one other special pie each day, made using seasonal produce from nearby farms; a recent offering featured grilled turnips and broccoli rabe.
3FortySeven, the furniture store on whose property Tortillaville and Truck Pizza sit, has plans to turn their side yard into a beer garden with three food trucks in back and Branigan retaining his spot out front. It's a clever idea, codifying the heretofore casual arrangement into an outdoor food court that will likely increase business across the board. Branigan thinks this is a logical next step: "If they're done right, a group of trucks together is good for everyone," he says.
Winston Francis hails from Jamaica, though he has lived in this country since the late 1970s. He got a culinary degree from NYIT on Long Island, and had his own restaurant in Flatbush for years before moving up to Orange County. His conversion to nomadic cook came a few years ago: "I went to a fair, and liked what I saw." Asked why the idea appealed, he smiles. "It's easy!" Winnie's Jerk Chicken and Fish has sold Jamaican food out of an imposing black trailer parked across from Van Kleeck Tire in Hudson for three years now. "The owner likes my food, so he invited me to park here," Francis explains. "And the guys who work there are regulars; they get sad when I go away." And travel he does, to fairs and carnivals all over the Northeast. In the winter, he and his wife Joan (who helps in the truck) drive down to Georgia to ply their trade in milder weather. This itinerant life, while it suits Francis and some others, represents an inconvenience for devotees, who miss the goat curry prepared by someone whose deep, sonorous voice sounds a lot like Linton Kwesi Johnson.