“Where do we tur…,” my husband began.
Suddenly, the wind shifted, answering his question for me. The assault was visceral, sublime. I’ve never been so glad to be smacked in the face with something.
Roasting meats, sauteed veggies and a thousand and one spices. Not that greasy, fairground smell, but a kalidescope of harmonious scents, each doing its own thing. They swirled together, then broke apart, the aromatic equivalent of jazz.
We followed our noses into the heart of the couple of dozen food trucks circled in the Benjamin Plumbing Supply parking lot on the corner of 6th Street and 7th Ave. I immediately spotted a truck I’d been dying to try, Planet of the Crepes. My husband took off like a bloodhound toward The Mobile Bistro … hollering something about lamb … and my daughter dragged me toward Trucking Good Cupcakes.
Oh yeah, I thought, this is our kinda night out.
I knew I should look for the event organizer, David Aguirre, right away… but… what what that glorious smell? Wood-fire pizza? Off a fire truck? Yup. Love, thy name is Vero Amore.
Eventually, I did stop drooling long enough to drop in on David. He told me that the roundups had begun as a way to raise rent for Dinnerware Artspace. Dwindling art grant money and a recessed economy hit the local indie art community — already struggling keep its footing in the wake of years worth of downtown redevelopment drama — right in the beggar’s pouch.
But rather than cut bait, Aguirre determined to bring more art lovers downtown. He partnered with some local chefs who were looking for a way to promote America’s growing culinary truck culture, and through a little creative collaboration, Tucson Food Truck Roundups were born.
The first two roundups, in November 2011, were small events held at Dinnerware’s Toole Avenue location, but the phenomenon has taken off, and now the events are held not only downtown, but all over the Tucson metro area.
From Gen Xers with kids to Boomers with tablecloths, patrons agree that there’s a surprising yet undeniable charm in dining on fine cuisine while milling around a parking lot.
But quality of the food is no surprise. The chefs running these trucks are artists.
Many were displaced a few years ago, when the local upscale restaurant industry suddenly tanked. Following the growing trend in cities like Seattle and Austin, they eschewed the restraints of traditional kitchens in favor of their mobile counterparts.
It was risky business. Food trucks haven’t enjoyed the kindest reputation in recent decades, and convincing a public unfamiliar with the potential of modern mobile kitchens, which rely upon smaller, more creative menus, has been no small feat.
By partnering, both David and the roundup chefs double their chances at success.
The roundups feature not only food, but art installations, live music and performances.
Aguirre and the chefs also couple roundups with fun local events like artisan markets, roller derbys and film festivals.
The gamble is paying off, says Aguirre – most roundups draw about a thousand diners; the health department is in regular attendance and is duly impressed; and a surprising mutually beneficial relationship is evolving between some local bricks and mortar businesses and the mobile chefs who might otherwise be their competition.
Far from an attempt to lure potential customers from Tucson’s great local eateries, David says he actually takes pains to work with local business owners to ensure that the roundups don’t interfere with business. Those who have chosen to give the roundups a chance — which is a wide majority, he emphasizes — have been pleasantly surprised with the revenue and attention the roundups create.
The roundup atmosphere encourages people to mingle, Aguirre says, to try new things. Customers may come for the roundup, and later end up spending time at a nearby local business. And vise versa.
By bucking the us/them dogma that has stymied local business downtown for decades, David and Tucson’s mobile chefs may have the Goliath of downtown depression on the ropes.
Tucson Food Truck Roundup organizers, Mochi Gregurich (hottie; left) and David Aguirre (with the fab hat)
Because the roundups have been met with such success, Aguirre has begun similar, smaller events dubbed “rodeos” which feature a half-dozen or so trucks in the parking lot of a local bar.
It’s symbiotic, he says. The trucks supply the edibles, the bar supplies the libations.
Occasionally, Aguirre and a truck or two will even organize a Neighborhood Chef event, setting up shop on a residential street around dinnertime. The events have been very well-received among Tucsonans lucky enough to come home to a 5-star kitchen and free live entertainment parked outside their homes.
One such event at the historic Pio Decimo Community Gardens downtown spotlighted a farm-to-table menu, with the chefs using ingredients straight from the garden plots.
Neighborhood Chef events are like a spontaneous block party, says Aguirre. Even neighbors who haven’t done much more than offer friendly nods in years can’t resist the siren song of gourmet food and mellow entertainment the events offer, and soon a good time is being had by all.
The modern Tucson “Roach Coach” — fostering indie art, local commerce and community harmony one bite at a time.
To find upcoming roundups, rodeos and Neighborhood Chef events, visit the Tucson Food Truck Roundup Facebook page.
For general information on Tucson food trucks, visit the Tucson Food Trucks website.
*Author’s Note: I’d like to give a big ups to Mochi Gregurich for providing the majority of the photos for this piece. Several photos are by David Aguirre. The poster images and Gregurich/Aguirre portrait are by Jen Strass.
To see even more of their awesome snaps, check out the Tucson Food Truck Roundup photo albums on Facebook.
**Photo cropping and other minor photo adjustments by Amy Glor.