Go on the hunt for Northern Virginia’s best food trucks.
How mobile dining charms councils and evades tickets.
—Whitney Pipkin (with Molly Jacob)
When Kyle Johnson first started the site Food Truck Fiesta to track mobile vendors across the Washington area, there were fewer than ten. Three years later, more than 200 meals-on-wheels are rolling around the region—and about a third of them regularly park in Northern Virginia.
Though much of the scene built up in the District before spreading out to the suburbs, several trucks are now choosing to launch closer to home in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties. NoVA’s food truck frontier comes with less competition—for both parking and customers—and an audience that’s hungry for the variety these trucks bring.
But the newer scene means counties are still working out kinks in food vendor regulations, which vary widely from place to place and can be difficult for truck owners to navigate.
The ‘best food truck regs’
Before Arlington County made its first round of changes in 2008, regulations allowed food vendors to park for a period of five minutes.
Those rules suited ice cream trucks just fine, but times changed and the county extended that period to an hour—and then to two hours this spring—to accommodate the latest generation of food trucks parking at meters, says Jill Griffin, a commercial development specialist at Arlington Economic Development.
“Arlington is pretty vibrant,” says Doug Povich, chairman of the DMV Food Truck Association and co-owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound-DC. “In fact, it has the best food truck regs now of any local jurisdiction.”
BANGKOK PD LICIOUS
@bangkokpd | est. 2013
Husband and wife Daneel and Pradthana Merrill carry the same menu at Bangkok PD licious as Pradthana’s sister’s restaurant Bangkok Noodle in Springfield. Dishes include dumplings, fish patties, panang curry and drunken noodles, all made to order on the truck; No steam tables here.
Stops: 4 N. Berlin Turnpike, Lovettsville every Saturday and Sunday
But regulations aren’t the only obstacle. As the burgeoning industry enters new places, it often faces opposition from brick-and-mortar restaurants competing for market share.
Angela Fox, president of the Crystal City Business Improvement District says tensions were rising between the two groups as food trucks reached a critical mass in Crystal City last summer. Retail restaurants complained about the lines, noise and “competing smells.” The BID’s win-win solution: Food Truck Thursdays, a project intended to give food trucks their day and nearby restaurants reprieve for the rest of the week.
The Thursday event went well at first but moved to a less visible location after a nearby building needed to be demolished. Soon, the traffic and trucks tapered off. Fox says the BID is open to reviving the project this fall, as she conducts ongoing talks with property owners and the food truck community.
@KaftaMania | est. 2012
Kuwaiti-born Pascal Halabi turned to his Lebanese heritage, not his homeland, for inspiration of his Fairfax-based food truck, KaftaMania. His mother’s recipes comprise the menu, including a kafta sandwich, a Middle Eastern dish made with finely ground meat and spices.
Stops: Ballston, Clarendon, Crystal City, Fairfax (special events), Foreign Service Institute and Rosslyn.
It’s a sweltering July afternoon with a heat index over 100, yet a trio of men in suits stands sweating under a tree in Tyson’s Corner, lamb kabobs in hand.
Long lines form in front of the five food trucks, their green and orange paint standing out against the concrete backdrop of Solutions Drive, where—technically—these trucks aren’t allowed to park.
Povich says this is “Ground Zero” for the food truck scene in Fairfax County, where 95 percent of the roads are owned by the state and do not permit vending. The trucks contend that parts of the Drive are privately owned, but they’ve been ticketed before.
“A lot of the food trucks are taking a risk every day,” says, Leslie Johnson, the county’s zoning administrator. “It’s kind of like, ‘How is the local government going to feel about me today?’”
@DCSLIDERSTRUCK | est. 2013
This past August, husband and wife Chris and Carmen Morse brought their handcrafted mini-burgers to Loudoun County. The organic ground beef is from West Virginia and Pennsylvania and the truck also sells sweet potato fries, salad and cupcakes. Expect turkey sliders come Thanksgiving season.
Stops: Reston Town Center and Dulles South.
Johnson says the current ordinance considers food trucks like fast food restaurants and requires a special fee and hearing to begin operations. But, recognizing the prevalence of food trucks, the county looked for a way to allow them while it works to tweak its ordinance.
Trucks must work with a private owner to be legally permitted as an “accessory use.” A company wanting trucks on its property, for example, needs to apply to the county before trucks receive licenses to sell food there.
“I see a lot of opportunity in Fairfax County,” said Uyen Nguyen, whose Lemongrass Food Truck often sells on Solutions Drive. “However, the regulations aren’t there yet to actually offer a great food truck scene.”
As Tysons Corner is renovated, its public-private makeup could change, fostering more room for food trucks, Johnson says. For now, food trucks’ vending license remains contingent on finding a place to do so legally. Or await ticketing.
MAMA’S DONUT BITES
@MamasDonutBites | est. 2013
Mother-brother-daughter owned food truck Mama’s Donut Bites offers seasonal doughnuts including apple cider, pumpkin spice and red velvet. Using local ingredients, Janette, Raed and Elaine Hosein house-blend the batter inside the truck where customers can watch sugary pastries fry before their eyes.
Stops: Ballston, Court House, Rosslyn and the following farmers markets: Dale City, Falls Church, Vienna and Westover
‘A service that the public would like’
But, as one arm of the county makes it difficult for trucks to vend, another is more welcoming.
The Fairfax County Park Authority launched a pilot project this summer to host food trucks at nine of its busiest parks, in locations from Annandale to Oakton to Reston, charging a fee for use of the space and helping to promote their presence.
“We believe that this is a service that the public would like and an opportunity to increase revenue,” says Park Authority Spokeswoman Judy Pedersen.
About half of the trucks participating in the program—one at each of the nine parks involved—started selling on site in mid-July. In the past, food trucks thrived when many gathered at a particular site for a set amount of hours, to create the energy, density and variety to get people to the same location. But in its inaugural year, the Parks department eased into the truck scene. At the end of the year, when the trucks’ permits expire, the Park Authority will assess the project and consider continuing it next year and whether the parks can support more than one truck.
@SUSHIPAO | est. 2013
Damian Dajcz, who also owns food trucks Mojo and Tapas, opened Sushipao with a Latin and Mexican twist to create an Asian-fusion concept. The Leesburg-based truck offers crispy chicken, pork or fish and fried rolls served with chipotle and jalapeno soy sauces.
Stops: Tyson’s Corner office parks —MJ
URBAN BUMPKIN BBQ
@urbanbumpkinbbq | est. 2013
Alaska native John Nguyen merged his time living in the 49th state with his Vietnamese roots, bringing both Russian borsch and Asian beef short ribs under the same food truck roof. His grandmother’s Alaskan-style taco—with chicken, pulled pork or tofu instead of traditional whale—uses deep fried bread in lieu of a tortilla.
Stops: Ballston, Clarendon, Crystal City and Rosslyn
There are other bright spots on the horizon for NoVA food trucks.
Alexandria, which doesn’t currently allow food trucks outside of special events, will assemble a committee of politicians, food truck owners and citizens to consider regulations this fall that would allow them in designated clusters along King Street.
Povich says he’s keeping an eye on the changes and can—if necessary—bring his experience from the DC food truck battle to the ‘burbs.