Why These Local Food Trucks Are Succeeding By Staying Parked
All over Pittsburgh, chefs without brick-and-mortar restaurants keep on truckin’ by putting on the brakes.
In 2018, before the pandemic plunged the world into a state of gridlock, Pittsburgh briefly had a food truck park where locals could find all of their favorite on-the-go eateries.
Located along the Allegheny River in Millvale’s Riverfront Park, the outdoor food court also featured a beer garden, performance space and game yard. There are similar sites across the nation, including Alder Street Food Cart Pod in Portland, Oregon, Austin Street Truck Stop in Denton, Texas, and Baltimore Food Truck Park in Maryland.
For whatever reason, our city’s attempt at the trend stalled.
I hope it makes a comeback, but, in the meantime, on East Ohio Street in Millvale, just a short distance from the ill-fated Pittsburgh Food Truck Park, you can now go to Strange Roots Experimental Ales — where the Pittsburgh Sandwich Society food truck serves a full menu of juicy burgers, cheesesteaks, hot dogs, chicken clubs and wings to complement your beer.
Due to high gas prices and skyrocketing rents, more mobile chefs are opting to hit the brakes and either partner with a brick-and-mortar business — typically a brewery — or lease an affordable outdoor space from a property owner.
As food editor for Pittsburgh Magazine, I’m dubbing this trend The Park Way.
Blue Sparrow | Sharpsburg
The Blue Sparrow Bus Stops at Dancing Gnome
Last year, Blue Sparrow Chef Luke Cypher went into nesting mode. He was not only expecting the arrival of a new baby (she’s doing well and growing fast!), he was gearing up to be the semi-permanent food purveyor for Sharpsburg’s Dancing Gnome. Each Wednesday through Saturday, Cypher and his team sell pizzas in a vintage Greyhound bus stationed behind the brewery at 1025 Main St.
The pies are made in a hybrid wood-fired/gas oven onboard the 1956 mass-transit vehicle. Like Blue Sparrow’s constantly on-the-move food truck, which specializes in exotic twists on global street food, the pizzas aren’t your average slices. Fresh, locally sourced toppings range from kimchi, braised pork belly and corn to pickles, bacon and miso-infused butter. Burgers, dumplings and breadsticks are also on the menu.
Customers order directly from the bus or scan a QR code while they’re sitting inside Dancing Gnome’s sprawling taproom, which opened in 2021. Monthly beer dinners and other special events are on tap for 2023, as well as another edition of Makes Frequent Stops, a Blue Sparrow-inspired double IPA.
Dancing Gnome hosts other food trucks as well, giving drinkers a variety of dining options.
“It’s a good fit because we have the same ethos and mission surrounding quality product and community-building,” says Andrew Witchey, head brewer and owner of Dancing Gnome. “We’re going to be able to do a lot together that may have been less impactful separately.”
Blue Sparrow added the bus to its fleet in 2018 with the intention of using the mobile kitchen to cater weddings and other large events throughout Pittsburgh. Around the same time, Cypher began experimenting with the wood-fired pizza oven in the company’s commissary kitchen in Avalon.
Once he perfected his dough recipe, he started hosting “Pizza Alley pop-ups” there on Saturday nights. Patrons placed orders online and strolled down a walkway between two buildings to pick up their pies.
When the pandemic started, half of Blue Sparrow’s business dried up; they had to cancel 32 weddings and 25 festivals in 2020 alone. Cypher begrudgingly parked the gas-guzzling behemoth and streamlined all of his efforts into the food truck, which first hit the road in 2016. The truck takes a break each January and February, when it’s usually too cold to operate. Pizza Alley pop-ups — and Blue Sparrow’s longtime partnership with Dancing Gnome — helped the brand weather the COVID storm.
Last summer, the bus got some time in the spotlight by serving food at Allegheny Overlook Pop-Up Park, a temporary, pedestrian-friendly area that occupied two lanes of Fort Duquesne Boulevard.
Although Cypher isn’t ruling out opening a brick-and-mortar spot someday, right now he’s focused on his mobile units.
“My team spent a lot of time perfecting this pizza,” Cypher says. “This is a really exciting time for us because we get to share something new with Pittsburgh.”
Smokin’ Ghosts BBQ | SouthSide Works
Smokin’ Ghosts BBQ Haunts a Shipping Container
During the early days of the pandemic, when workers disappeared from office buildings, Smokin’ Ghosts BBQ food trailer began haunting neighborhoods throughout the region.
With restaurants closed and hungry families housebound, Don and Lori Garrett’s vehicle became like a Good Humor truck for carnivores. They sold a lot of brisket mac-and-cheese, pulled pork sandwiches, pork belly burnt-end tacos and full racks of St. Louis-style ribs — and lifted spirits in the process.
Now the Pleasant Hills couple, who moonlight as paranormal investigators, have a permanent spot in the SouthSide Works Town Square — in a shipping container that isn’t much bigger than their original trailer.
The prefabricated, modular eatery has a small dining area inside but is mostly designed for grab-and-go customers. Don Garrett, a Georgia native, has an on-site smoker that can hold a 160-pound hog, 64 chickens or 30 pork butts at a time.
In September 2019, after working in IT for 18 years, Don bought a customized trailer and set up a food stand in Pittsburgh’s Chateau neighborhood near the Ohio River. Soon after, he added a food trailer to the fleet to keep up with demand.
Then COVID snuck up like one of the specters he’s encountered on his paranormal adventures throughout the region (including visits to the former Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, West Virginia Penitentiary and New Castle’s Hill View Manor).
Smokin Ghosts BBQ will soon make contact with customers at a spot inside The Distillery at South Shore. The business is one of nine eateries selected to anchor the third-floor food hall.
Located in the former Joseph S. Finch & Co. building on McKean Street near Station Square, the complex will feature a 5,000-square-foot craft distillery and tasting room, artisanal marketplace, rooftop bar and indoor and outdoor seating. There are probably some spirits hanging around, too.
Don says he’ll leave his barbecue empire to his children when he’s gone. But, like the scent of hickory smoke, he plans to linger for a long time.
Island Bowls: Strip District
Island Life in the Strip District
If you need to get away while staying put in Pittsburgh, Island Bowls can help. It’s on a permanent vacation near 16th Street and Penn Avenue in the Strip District.
Owners Julian and Rachel De Jong’s stationary food truck serves plant-based smoothies and smoothie bowls.
Julian, a native of Aruba, met proud Pittsburgher Rachel while she was vacationing on the island. They bonded over a love of healthy eats that improved the mind, body and soul.
An Electric Mango Bowl helped cool me down after hoofing it over the David McCullough Bridge on a humid, 90-degree day. The fresh mango blend is topped with granola, green apple, chunks of mango, kiwi, strawberries, passion fruit syrup, coconut shavings, pumpkin seeds, a tropical flower and one of those little drink umbrellas.
If you’re on an extended-stay health kick, Island Bowls has a lot of add-on options that can make the order even better for your body, including acai, collagen powder, Goji berries, sea moss gel, chocolate whey and ch-ch-ch-chia seeds.
The tropical truck can’t operate during pipe-freezing Pittsburgh winters, so the De Jongs are setting their sights on an indoor Island Bowls cafe.
In the meantime, options from this stationary food truck will help keep your body moving.
Taquitos | SouthSide Works
I Brake For Taquitos
To Fernando Quintanar, food and family are everything.
Together with his parents Ray and Elizabeth and his sister Alondra — and a bunch of heirloom recipes — he runs Taquitos, an authentic Mexican eatery and catering company with three locations in Pittsburgh, including a new metallic trailer that’s now a permanent fixture in the SouthSide Works. The green space between the South Side’s Tunnel Boulevard and South Water Street also offers restaurants, picnic tables and a dog park.
Taquitos launched in 2015 as a single food truck that made the rounds to events throughout the city. Since 2016, that vehicle has been permanently parked at 5101 Penn Ave. in Garfield.
With help from the property owner, the Quintanars transformed the vacant lot next to Spak Bros. Pizza into an outdoor oasis with a deck, seating and, in the summer, a jungle-like assortment of plants. The biggest seller of the brand is the Taco Loco, a crunchy shell loaded with your choice of meat and toppings wrapped in a soft tortilla with melted cheese in between the shells. Slow-cooked cactus tacos with onion, tomato and cilantro are another crowd favorite.
Taquitos also handles food service (and offers exclusive menu items) at The Evergreen Cafe at 7328 Penn Ave. in Point Breeze, and they’re planning a fourth location in 2023. No word on whether it’ll be on wheels.
Bridge City Takeoutery | Etna
Brining, Smashing and … Takeouting
Mark Mammone and Joe Bardakos enjoy living life in the fast lane.
Like a lot of people under quarantine, the chefs used their pandemic downtime to experiment with pickle fermenting in the kitchen of Lawrenceville’s Piccolo Forno, where in pre-COVID days they made pasta dishes.
Their Smithfield Sour Dill Pickle — Kirby cucumbers that spend eight days soaking in an old-fashioned brine of fresh dill, onion and garlic — were a hit, so Mammone and Bardakos started incorporating them into all kinds of crazy sandwiches.
Inside that brick-and-mortar restaurant, a mobile brand was born.
Bridge City Brinery’s outlandish eats hit a nerve with foodies. The Graceland — an Elvis-inspired, pickle-brined, fried chicken thigh with Napa cabbage, chili peanut sauce, banana ketchup and quick-pickled cucumbers on homemade fermented bread — is The King of Yinzer Sammiches in my book.
Instead of settling into a pricey restaurant space to celebrate their success, Mammone and Bardakos put the pedal to the metal. In March, they launched the brand’s second vehicle concept, Bridge City Smashery, a truck dedicated to slinging smash burgers.
Mammone jokes they’re just going to keep opening trucks until they win “Best New Food Truck” accolades from every local publication.
Customers can track the vehicles’ whereabouts online, but Mammone and Bardakos also open The Takeoutery, a commissary kitchen on Butler Street in Etna on occasion so folks can indulge in to-go eats from both menus.
Bridge City fans were a little concerned that having two trucks meant the dynamic duo — who could be a stand-up comedy team — had to split up to serve food.
“We work really well off of each other,” Bardakos says, “but we also have somebody we can trust wholeheartedly with the other truck. Besides, we are funny and charming on our own.”