Every summer, the downtown core is flooded with food trucks, street food vendors, and a large population of people prepared to support them. Mack Male is a co-founder of What the Truck?!, a downtown Edmonton event that seeks to celebrate food trucks and food truck culture. He pegs the beginning of the food truck influx to around 2011, when he and co-founder Sharon Yeo held their first What the Truck?! event. More than 20 food trucks now come to each gathering.
“There’s over 100 trucks now on our roster,” Male says. “But there’s potentially more (in the city) that we haven’t met yet. Every year there seems to be some new ones.”
“I think Edmonton’s always had a great street food culture, like most cities. We like to get out in the summer, enjoy the weather, and eat outdoors.”
Food trucks haven’t always been a summer staple in Edmonton, however. Before 2010, food trucks were few and far between. The downtown area wasn’t as vibrant as it is now, and food trucks simply weren’t as popular. Male explains that before starting What the Truck?!, he and Yeo had been fascinated by food truck festivals in San Francisco and wanted to create a similar experience for Edmontonians.
“We started What the Truck?! simply because we thought food trucks were an exciting development in the food scene, and we’d seen how popular they were starting to become in other cities,” Male says.
One of the food trucks rated most highly on the Street Food Edmonton app is Explore India, which serves delicious Indian-inspired cuisine.
“There’s lots of Indian restaurants in town. The thing is, if you want burgers and fries, you can just go get (drive-through) … so I thought, let’s open an Indian food truck and serve Indian street food to people here,” says Manmeet Singh, owner of Explore India.
Bringing Indian food to the street offers a fresh alternative to customers who previously wouldn’t have had time to sit down at an Indian restaurant. With gluten-, dairy-, and meat-free options, Singh’s menu offers something for everyone while maintaining fan favourites.
“My signature items are samosas and butter chicken. I try not to change that, but I change my other items weekly, so everybody can try something a little different every week,” Singh says.
Eating at a food truck provides a quick and on-the-go form of eating, with some healthier and far tastier options than fast food. Street food is both unpretentious and unintimidating, which is great for people who wish to try something new without the fuss of fine dining.
“Food trucks are accessible, and that’s what I like about them. Everybody can go and get to a food truck and eat something really delicious. There’s food trucks that serve hotdogs and that kind of stuff, and I like hotdogs as much as anyone, but there’s also some food trucks that serve some really creative and quality food,” says Male.
Also highly rated on the Street Food Edmonton app, Meat Street Pies is a food truck that sells baked meat pies hot from its in-truck oven. The pies are made fresh daily. Meat pies offer a different take on street food, where people can order a meal that not only fills them up, but gives them a chance to try something new.
“I think between the food trucks and side-walker phase, they’ve brought food into the limelight … people are looking for uniqueness, variety, and experience. Price is not the first consideration, like McDonalds or Tim Hortons. It’s about the experience,” says Jonathan Avis, who owns Meat Street Pies with his wife, Thea.
Meat Street Pies also sells take-home meals, so patrons can bring home dinner for the entire family. This form of street food is unique, says Jonathan, as most street vendors focus on food that is eaten as soon as it is provided, rather than giving customers the chance to bring their meals home.
“The other thing that makes us unique is we’re fast … You choose the pie that you want, we describe it (to you), and it’s ready. So often we’re giving you the pie before you even have a chance to pay. Most food trucks, you’re ordering it and you’re waiting 15 minutes or something,” Thea says.
One of the main goals of Meat Street Pies is to cater to childhood taste buds through nostalgic flavours. Items like Cornish pasties, Jamaican patties, and tourtière all have traditional flavours that are very memorable. However, this doesn’t mean you have to have grown up in Quebec to enjoy a tourtière, says Jonathan. All are welcome to try, and enjoy, the classic flavours.
“We sell memories, and that’s powerful. We had a woman come back after she had served her husband the Cornish pasties, and he’d cried! That’s touching the soul,” Thea says.
The Avis’ have noticed how food trucks have changed the way many people choose to eat out, and say they seek out the crowds of people looking to eat outside of a restaurant setting.
“Food trucks have met a need of putting food in front of people who want to eat in locations other than restaurants. It’s portable eating opposed to ‘where’s your favourite dining location,’ and then you have to take a trip,” Jonathan says.
Eating out on the street connects people to the city they’re in. Instead of secluding yourself in a restaurant, it’s nice to sit or stand outside and experience the sounds the city has to offer. Whether it’s enjoying the sunshine before going back to the office or chatting with people you otherwise wouldn’t have met, food trucks offer an interesting landscape for eating.
“I think they just tapped into something that we’ve always liked as eaters, and food trucks are just a way to extend that a bit more in the summer, and to be able to go into some different locations,” says Male.
Another truck rated highly on the Street Food Edmonton app is Calle Mexico, which serves authentic Mexican cuisine and often appears downtown and at festivals like the Fringe or the Gluten-Free Festival. Calle Mexico also opened a restaurant downtown a year and a half ago.
“We believed that if the food was great, we had to find a way to show the people, so we started with the food truck. We started with a small business, and now we have the restaurant,” says Juan Talango, owner of Calle Mexico.
“I think that food trucks can feed off that growing energy and interest in downtown. It’s been good timing for food trucks to be growing at the same time as our downtown is
Talango adds that whether you’re from Mexico, have visited Mexico, or just love Mexican food, everything tastes exactly like the food you would get at a restaurant there. This is because Talango and his wife cook the same way they would in Mexico — with high-quality ingredients and a passion for flavour.
This high-quality food brings people in by the truckload. It’s rare to see Calle Mexico without a line, and the restaurant has been packed since opening, Talango says. Calle Mexico offers great food and great service, and that’s what the food truck business is all about.
“I think (street food) culture is that people try something, they like it, they’ll follow. They like the consistency, they like the good food, and if you sell good food, they’ll follow (you) all over,” Talango says.
Food truck season peaks in the summer and fall, with most trucks closing up around the end of October. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t experience a truck’s meals during the colder months.
Calle Mexico focuses on their restaurant in the winter, developing new items for visitors to try. Explore India does catering and events, and Meat Street Pies will begin selling their pies in butcher shops this winter.
The food truck industry is expanding, and the variety of street food offered downtown continues to grow each year.
“I think that food trucks can feed off that growing energy and interest in downtown. It’s been good timing for food trucks to be growing at the same time as our downtown is also growing,” Male says.
Photography by Lydia Fleming.