Chubby’s Note: I’m posting this at around 11pm on Saturday night. Its my understanding that the Food Network will be filming again tomorrow, and that the trucks may have already switched locations. If you’re thinking of heading downtown in hopes of catching Nonna’s or Seoul Sausage, it would be wise to keep your eye on Twitter or Facebook for times, locations, etc…
If you read this blog with any regularity, then it should come as no surprise to you that I haven’t written much of, well, anything these past five months or so. I started 2012 off with a bang: three blog posts in as many weeks (which qualifies as a virtual blitzkrieg for this slow-paced writer) but I’ve been pretty much dead in the water since late January. (I started a new job on the first of the year and, as it turns out, building a company from the ground up is time-consuming, back-breaking work. Who knew? It also doesn’t help that I spent most of February and March sidelined by illness.)
So what prompted this dormant dogboy to once again don his blogging sweatpants (yes, they exist) and climb back in the saddle? Nothing less than an event which one hopes could be be a pivotal turning point in the pitifully slow process of bringing food trucks to Portland: a visit from the esteemed Food Network via its food-truck reality contest: The Great Food Truck Race.
Now filming Season 3, the concept behind the Great Food Truck Race is fairly simple. A number of food trucks—converging on the same U.S. cities at the same time—compete with one another to see who can earn the most money over a certain period of time, with the day’s lowest-earning truck being sent home. When everything is said and done, the one food truck left standing goes home with bragging rights and a check for $50,000.
I’m not a big fan of reality television, but I did watch the first season. I enjoyed it for the most part, but I was annoyed when the show’s producers appeared to pull a switcheroo during the finale, changing the contest from one in which the emphasis was on running the overall best operation to something akin to a time trial. (The battle ended in a heavily-edited madcap scramble to the top of New York’s Flatiron Building, which is exactly the type of thing I hate about reality programming.) As a result of the rule-change, NomNom Truck (a Bahn Mi truck out of California)—which out-cooked and out-marketed its competition all season long—wound up coming in second place to L.A.-based burger truck, “Grill ‘Em All.” As a burger aficionado, I’d normally be rooting for the burger guys, but they turned me off early in the season with their phony tough-guy talk and consistently douchey behavior.
Anyway, as I mentioned, the show is currently filming Season 3. The end of season, to be precise. Yep, as it turns out, Portland was not just chosen as one of the routine destinations for the food trucks to visit during the course of the competition, but rather, it is serving as THE battleground where the two finalists will battle things out. Suck it, Boston! (To be fair, the semi-finals were held in Boston a day ago.)
I’m not sure if the selection of our city as the location for the finale was a serendipitous one, or something carefully choreographed to lend attention to our lack of a food truck scene. In either case, those endeavouring to bring their food trucks within city limits probably owe the Food Network a debt of gratitude for the national exposure.
As for the finalists I mentioned, they are Nonna’s Kitchenette out of Parsippany, NJ and Seoul Sausage, a Los Angeles food truck specializing in Korean BBQ. I had hoped to pay a visit to both trucks, but it was revealed early on that the Seoul Sausage truck was delayed in Boston and wouldn’t be setting up shop until 8 or 9pm.
I’ll write a “review” of the foods I tried from Nonna’s in the space below, but first, here are some random observations about Nonna’s and the Food Network production:
- The early word was that Nonna’s would be setting up shop on Commercial Street. While that would be a solid location for a lunch-time crowd, I’m not sure that it would have been a great decision for dinnertime, as I think most of the people on that street at that hour probably already have a dinner destination in mind. But as it happens, they wound up on Fore Street, in front of Joseph’s in the space normally reserved for taxi cab pick-ups. I’m not sure if they got special permission to park there, or if they just decided to chance it, but in either case, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue. I spied a Portland Police Department cruiser not far away, and the officer inside didn’t seem bothered by anything going on.
- Whichever one of the Nonan’s ladies parked the food truck is a freakin’ driving genius. I’m not kidding. That thing is the size of a small bus, but she somehow managed to do a three-point turn in the entrance to the Fore Street Parking Garage and then maneuver it into back into the aforementioned parking spot. Well done!
- I was shocked to discover that Nonna’s has almost zero presence on Twitter. Or Facebook, that I could find. They have an account (@nonnaskitchenet), but just one tweet to date. I had thought of Twitter as being absolutely vital to the success of food trucks, and frankly, I’m surprised that they’ve fared so well in the Food Network competition without it. That said, both Bite Into Maine and Mainely Burgers were tweeting on behalf Nonna’s behalf, generating a lot of interest. UPDATED: Lisa’s sister Laura tells me that Nonna’s non-presence on Twitter is due to two circumstances: the fact that the Nonna’s food truck started up immediately prior to the start of filming, and that the Food Network rules prohibit the contestants from direct access to social media.
- Then again, when you’ve got “sassy, sweet, food-loving Italian girls from New Jersey” wearing tight, red halter tops, who needs Twitter?
- I do think that both Nonna’s and Seoul Sausage missed the bus by not setting up closer to lunch hour, when foot traffic in the Old Port is heaviest. But perhaps the Food Network rules dictated that they could not set up before 5:30pm.
- I was surprised at how un-produced the whole affair was. While the Nonna’s girls were setting up, I spied a couple of Food Network camera people wandering around and a woman affixing microphones to the truck, but that was about it. It wasn’t until about twenty minutes before the truck opened up shop that I saw someone who I took to be a producer. The Nonna’s staff was entirely responsible for parking the truck, directing traffic, organizing the line, etc. with virtually no involvement from the Food Network people.
- I’m told that Nonna’s was able to operate their truck downtown due to a special events permit (thanks to PortlandFoodMap for the info). Presumably, the Food Network took care of this on their behalf and did the same for the Seoul Sausage truck. A health inspector arrived to check out the truck before they opened, which I’m assuming was a condition of the permit. If the lady doing the inspection felt pressured by the growing crowd to move things along at a brisk pace, she sure didn’t show it.
- Other than the delay (which really wasn’t that bad) caused by the health inspector, things seemed to move along at a pretty good clip. Setup was more or less complete in about 20 minutes and once the doors—er, windows—were open, food was coming out at a pretty good pace.
- There was a little bit of chaos once the truck opened, as the line formed at the center of the food truck and stretched out in both NE and SW directions. But people seemed to be in pretty good spirits and there were no problems while I was there.
- Some of the guys from Mainely Burgers arrived early and pitched in to help out, which was a pretty cool thing to witness (food trucks helping food trucks). I think the rules of the contest prevented them from doing anything inside the truck, but they were allowed to help out with errands and such.
- Lisa, one of the Nonna’s ladies—unaware that she was parked within 50 yards of two of Portland’s premier gelato joints—asked the crowd, “Is there anywhere around here where we can get some ice cream?” Three or four people in the growing crowd responded, almost simultaneously, “Gelato!”
- The Gelato place of choice ended up being The Gelato Fiasco. I’m not sure that Gorgeous Gelato was ever mentioned or considered. But only by virtue of the fact that things moved very, very quickly and they pretty much went with the first place mentioned. Still, I would have loved to have seen Gorgeous Gelato get some attention out of this.
- There was initially a bit of confusion about the gelato. The Nonna’s ladies assumed that $20 would get them a couple of gallons, which elicited an involuntary chuckle from me. (The going rate for a quart of gelato is around $17-$18, I believe.) Initially, only two PINTS of gelato were delivered. This was followed by a visit from a representative of Gelato Fiasco, and a bit of haggling, before a deal was struck. (To be fair, the guy from Gelato Fiasco—realizing the opportunity for free publicity—offered to donate the gelato, but was told that this was not allowed by the Food Network rules, which dictated that a fair price had to be paid for the foods purchased by Nonna’s. But at any price, this will be great exposure for Gelato Fiasco, and well worth any discount they did provide.)
- In this land where the word “sauce” is pronounced something like “saas,” the Jersey girls’ pronuncation of “sawwce” caused many in line to giggle.
- Now that my food truck high has worn off, I’m mortified by the idea of me and my nine chins being seen on national television. I was one of the first in line and the camera guys were right on us the entire time. So there’s that. But even more terrifying is the fact that, when I requested to take a photo of one of the girls posing with my food, my veil of Bruce Wayne-cool was lifted away, making me look and sound the fat kid from Shrek 4 who wants his dad to make Shrek “do the roar.” Needless to say, what was intended to come out as “May I take your photo?” came out as “I WANNA TAKE YOUR PICTURE!” and “DO THE ROAR!” Christ, I hope that’s not on film somewhere.
Now, a few words on the food.
Nonna’s offerings consisted of fried cheese ravioli ($7), a meatball sandwich dubbed “Meatball Madness” ($9), a Pizelle Gelato Sandwich (utilizing vanilla bean gelato from Gelato Fiasco, $6), Italian “Sweet Balls” (fried dough balls with powdered sugar, $5) and an East Cost Ice Cream Float ($5).
I decided to try the fried ravioli and the Meatball Madness. Both were ready within about five minutes, which I passed by chatting up A. of PortlandFoodMap, who was in line a few spots behind me. By the time my number was called, the crowd was really starting to swell, triggering tinges of claustrophobia within me, so I bid adieu and wandered off to enjoy my meal in a less congested area.
I dug into the fried ravioli first. Ordering fried ravioli in a restaurant is a hit or miss proposition these days. So much of the stuff that is served is the result of mass production of bland cheese filling and coatings that have been “diablo’d” to death to cover up the otherwise noticeable lack of flavor. But I found the Nonna’s version to be light and airy, with the cheese filling (ricotta, I believe… and maybe a hint of garlic?) taking center stage over the crispy, outer shell (which was thankfully devoid of crushed red pepper flakes and other nonsense). They came out hot, but the filling was the perfect temperature, and I’m delighted to not be nursing any grease burns on my tongue this evening. Served alongside the raviolis was a cup of homemade marinara sauce, which I guess is obligatory with these things. I thought the sauce was fine, but found that I ate most of the raviolis on their own, which is a testament to the quality.
Moving on to the Meatball Madness sandwich, my first impression was that it looked a bit dry. Most of the meatball subs I’ve had have used either whole or halved meatballs that have been cooked in sauce. Nonna’s version calls for the meatballs to be cooked on their own, then crushed, before being deposited on a roll and topped with homemade marinara and parmesan cheese.
Fortunately, the meat within the sandwich—a fair value at $9—didn’t taste dry at all. The meatballs (I want to say they were a combination of beef and pork) were fairly moist and appeared to have been nicely seasoned with the usual Italian spices. Whereas the sweet-but-mild marinara seemed like an almost unnecessary addition to the fried ravioli dish, here it proved to be really essential to making the sandwich a success.
The only real misstep with the sandwich was the roll, which held up well to the task of containing meat, sauce and cheese, but seemed kind of dry. I found myself pouring my leftover marinara from the fried ravioli over the last third of the sandwich, in an effort to liven things up a bit. That said, I can’t hold the bread against Nonna’s, as I believe the Food Network rules require them to source ingredients from stores and supermarkets in the venues where they are competing (versus, say, baking their own bread and transporting it to Maine).
Overall, my Nonna’s experience afforded me some good food (prepared in less than ideal circumstances, no less) and terrific entertainment. I am, of course, eager to see how everything pans out for Nonna’s and Seoul Sausage (which I’m told is at a decided disadvantage as a result of their late arrival), when the program airs in a few months from now, and television producers, editors and network execs have had their say. One of these two food trucks will come away with $50,000. But one hopes that it will be the Portland Food Truck scene that proves to be the real winner.