The key question for a food truck—even before checking the tires and finding a good spot—is this: Is the menu road-worthy? Each item must be some combination of bold, original, exotic, comforting, fun, delicious and portable, preferably with a memorable name. And the offerings must appeal to the traffic you expect to intercept. To avoid getting left in the dust, each selection must be a virtual powerhouse. Weak menu items will only weigh things down.
“This is a different type of food operation, so we want menu items that reflect that—it has to be unique and it has to be cutting edge,” says Eric Yung, executive manager for retail concepts at Miami University, Oxford, OH, where the strEATS food truck has had fans following it through campus since last fall (about 1,000 transactions a day).
Planning the menu, a yearlong process, centered around “fun food and different presentations,” but the one thing Yung says was paramount, “we knew it had better taste really good.” Before the menu was finalized, a mobile cart placed in a busy crossroads served as the testing ground. Honest feedback helped to winnow down the offerings from many vague flavor profile ideas to a couple dozen strong signature items. Today, consistency is achieved via Miami’s central production facility, where a lot of prep work is done each morning (for Cuban sandwiches, the meat is pre-measured, for example).
When plotting a food truck menu’s course, it helps to think like a foodie. Foodies are following mobile eateries (both on the streets and on their Twitter feeds) not just for fast convenience. They are seeking authentic global eats, often with a fusion twist. Out-of-this-world burgers and fries. Comfort in the form of a grilled cheese, maybe topped with kimchi. And certain foodies, in certain hours of the night, are looking for fried cheese sticks, chicken fingers, cheese sauce, French fries and marinara—all in one sandwich (it’s called “The Phat Jay” on Elizabethtown College’s Bird Feeder truck. More on that later).
Even if you are not planning on a food truck in the near future, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a limited-time finals week or orientation week promotion featuring “food truck-style cuisine.” One B&I operation even created a faux food truck façade on a permanent concept within the building.
Here, find seven hot categories of winning menu items, the star items on food trucks across the country and recipes that you can try on your own truck.
Street Food Fusion Menu Items
The blending of cultures makes for wonderful food truck traffic. After all, Kogi BBQ in LA, Roy Choi’s groundbreaking food truck, started it all with Korean short ribs tucked into a traditionally Mexican taco. Here are some food truck menu items that roam where they want to.
Fusion Menu Items
The University of Washington’s Motosurf truck menu mixes and matches Korean, Hawaiian and Pacific Island street food items with just the right amount of the unexpected:
Kalua Pig: a plated lunch item—shredded pork and cabbage served with two scoops of sticky rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. The ‘pig’ also gets paired with miso mayo and Asian slaw on a slider.
SPAM Sliders: for adventurous diners...made with a slice of SPAM glazed with shoyu (a soy sauce popular in Hawaii and Brazil) and brown sugar; miso mayo and Asian slaw on a toasted roll. The SPAM gets mixed up with Japan in the SPAM Musubi, paired with sticky rice and wrapped in nori (seaweed).
Singapore Noodles: traditionally stir fried without sauce, are modified just a bit with the addition of coconut milk to create a saucier bowl on Rosie, the food truck at Rhode Island School of Design.
The Pork Sandwich: pulled pork that’s been marinated in Mexican spices, topped with a cheese mixture of Cheddar and Feta (the signature cheese mix for all the sandwiches on RISD’s Rosie truck), all served on a Portuguese muffin (just a little denser and sweeter than an English muffin), says Pierre St. Germain, executive chef/associate director of dining and catering services at RISD.
Banh Mi: a Vietnamese pork and pickled veggie sandwich.
Cuban Sandwich: grilled ham, cheese and pickles.
“They’re exotic but recognizable, and most importantly, they taste really, really good,” says Miami U’s Yung of the two most popular sandwiches (Banh Mi and Cuban) on the strEATS truck.
The Fud Truk at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, uses the names of different cars on various sandwiches to evoke international road trips:
The Fiat 500 (Italy) has marinated fresh mozzarella, mixed herb pesto and roasted peppers. The Land Rover Evoque (Great Britain) combines black pepper sirloin steak, caramelized onions, horseradish mustard and Cooper cheese. The Volkswagon Jetta (Germany) has lager-stewed bratwurst with cider-braised cabbage and Swiss cheese. The Honda Civic (Japan) is a crispy panko pork cutlet, pickled veggies, baby lettuce and a ginger-soy vinaigrette. (Back in the USA) the Ford Explorer is a sandwich with beef brisket, Pepper Jack cheese and homemade Buffalo coleslaw.
Bi Bim Bap Bowl: served with sautéed spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, kim chi (pickled vegetables) and more is topped with a sunny side up egg and hot pepper paste. Customers can add Lemon Grass Pork to the bowl, or edamame, Chicken Takalbi (sautéed in sesame oil and hot pepper paste) or Beef Bulgogi (traditional Korean BBQ) on the Flying Bison truck menu at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA.
Sweet and Sour Pulled Pork Taco, topped with Napa cabbage ginger slaw: fusion in full effect (also on the Flying Bison truck).
Kids' Stuff Menu Items
The food truck that rolls up to 200 different public schools in Orange County, FL, started out as an emergency feeding measure after a hurricane in 2004, says Kern Halls, area manager. “After a few years, we saw the popularity of the food truck craze just take off, so we thought we could do something more,” he says. Now, kids can sample food truck fare for the same price as regular cafeteria items (and everything on the truck is free- and reduced-eligible, too).
The menu was created with some inspiration from the Chefs Move to Schools program, Halls says. The most popular items:
The Hawaiian Burger: a beef patty with pineapple and ketchup mixed with Sriracha—(see the recipe at food-management.com) and the Buffalo Chicken Wrap. Pre-packaged fresh fruit (cantaloupe and pineapple spears) is also a cool choice for days spent playing in the hot Florida sun.
A lot of prep work—for cold salads, especially—can be conveniently done in the morning in the schools' kitchens, Halls says. “We prepare some items in the school, and some in the truck. We have a lot of storage and refrigeration aboard the truck and that makes it really easy.”
Globe-Trotting/Regional Menu Items
The cultural road tripping that goes on with many food trucks can draw its inspiration anywhere from the streets of Italy to a Midwestern county fair. From Thailand to Route 66 and back again. Here are some great scenic detours:
Cilantro Chili Shrimp Rice Bowl: steamed rice, shrimp, snow peas, celery, carrots and baby corn in a cilantro-chili sauce from the Hungry Hungry Husky Truck (Northeastern University). Other bowls include Thai Basil Chicken and Orange Beef.
The Adobe Chicken Taco: shredded chicken on a flour tortilla topped with queso fresco cheese and a chipotle avocado barbecue sauce; and the Thai Beef Taco, grilled marinated beef on a flour tortilla topped with sautéed glass noodles and wasabi cream (also on the Husky truck).
Fried Cheese Curds: a true Midwest county fair staple found on the strEATS truck (Miami University).
Fried Sweet Bologna Sandwich with chips and mustard: on the Bird Feeder truck is inspired by “old ladies in Pennsylvania Dutch country,” says Joe Riddles, Jr., production supervisor, Elizabethtown College. “Sweet bologna is more like salami, but very sweet.”
Bodacious Burger and Fries Menu Items
Something of the 50s drive-thru ethos lives on in food truck selections that include a good old burger and fries. Of course, once on a food truck, they’re completely different than the Happy Days version.
Mac and Cheeseburger Sub: a funky mash up of American favorites is one of the top sellers on Elizabethtown College’s Bird Feeder truck, Riddles says.
The TNT Explosion Burger: fiery hot, with jalapenos and hot sauce.
The Happy Hippie: a veggie burger with sliced cucumber. (TNT and Hippie burgers are both on Elizabethtown’s Bird Feeder truck).
What's a burger without fries?
“Our most popular item on the Hungry Hungry Husky is the Gourmet Fries,” says Deb Fantasia of Northeastern University. The fries take on quite a variety of identities, including:
Poutine: French-Canadian haute hillbilly fave consisting of fries smothered with cheese curds, green onions and beef gravy. Fries can also be ordered topped with smoked gouda and bacon or as Hash-n-Eggs, with Cheddar cheese, bacon, green onions and a fried egg or Greek style, with Kalamata olives, red onions, tomatoes, feta cheese and fresh oregano.
Fries are acting as a canvas for flavor at RISD, as well. “Rosie’s ‘Nachos’ are actually shoe-string fries topped with our zesty chipotle cheese sauce and a black bean salsa with corn and sundried tomatoes,” says St. Germain.
Real Deal (and also Vegan!) BBQ Menu Items
The Red Square BBQ truck at the University of Washington (part of UW Street Food, a collection of five food trucks that move around campus during the semester), offers a good selection of all things barbecue: pulled pork sandwiches, ribs, beef brisket, hot link sausage and sliders, all with a choice of House BBQ Sauce, Spicy BBQ Sauce or Carolina Mustard Sauce. Customers can choose to “spike it!” by adding a hot link or kielbasa to any BBQ sandwich.
But wait, what’s this?
Vegan Field Roast Sausage? And there’s even a Gluten Free BBQ Plate, with a choice of meat and sauce layered with beans and slaw.
Comfort Food Classic Menu Items
As adventurous as mobile menus can be, comfort foods like mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes and grilled cheese sandwiches all appear to be worthy road warriors.
The Stuffed Mac and Cheese Griller: on Northeastern’s Hungry Hungry Husky truck combines elbow macaroni with cheddar cheese and ham on brioche.
The Rolling Stone: a “Classic Comfort Sandwich” on the breakfast menu of Lehigh University’s Fud Truk, with brown sugar ham, two farm fresh eggs and American cheese on grilled country style bread.
Chorizo Mash Griller: from the Husky truck’s “Grillers” menu. Comfort food in a very new way with mashed potatoes (hello, grandma’s kitchen), Chorizo sausage and Havarti cheese (goodbye, grandma’s kitchen), all on French bread.
Late Nite Party Food Menu Items
“It’s something every college student loves, especially late in the night,” Riddles says with a knowing chuckle, describing the Bird Feeder’s signature sandwich:
The Phat Jay. It’s a sub roll that’s packed tight and then overflowing with chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, French fries, cheese sauce and…marinara. “It’s crazy,” Riddles says proudly.
Breakfast-for-dinner (or at midnight), is a great trend for food trucks.
The Smothered Egg Wrap: on the Hungry Hungry Husky’s “Late Night Menu.” Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, bacon, peppers and onions, wrapped up in a flour tortilla, the perfect night-cap.
Take a look at more recipes from food trucks:
• Hawaiian Burger
• Hash Brown Nachos
• Eggplant Fries with Zesty Lemon Yogurt Dip
• Spicy Orange Noodles
• Spicy Buffalo Chicken & Blue Cheese Torta
• Cocoa Rice Treat Balls made with Oreo
• Sam’s Soy Chorizo
• Buttermilk Truck Famous Biscuits