“No hot dogs here,” says Christophe Ensenat, popping his head out of the window of a sunny yellow truck perched outside the Fairfield Public Library. Not that there’s anything wrong with hot dogs, of course, but here in Fairfield there are beaucoup stationary places to get your fix for such pedestrian fare. From the kitchen of his bistro on wheels, Christophe is delivering a roving version of a French creperie. “People want sophistication,” he says of his decidedly different food truck. “They want the quality of the restaurant and the convenience of the street.”
While hot dogs and tacos were the first course in the modern food truck trend—which exploded in major American cities during the past decade with offerings from squid to cupcakes in the mix—here in Fairfield it’s gourmet pizza, Southern barbecue and Christophe’s French crepes that are currently out for a culinary test drive.
Noted food critic and author Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident and cofounder of RoadFood.com, explains the trend that has brought food trucks to Fairfield’s surrounds mimics a national one. Putting kitchens on wheels has been a new route for enterprising, adventurous chefs to bring high-quality food to new markets without some of the trials and tribulations of a brick-and-mortar establishment. The National Restaurant Association continues to identify the gourmet food truck movement as a hot trend for 2012. Stern explains the call to the streets: “This allows people to explore markets and even gives them a chance to relocate if things aren’t going well.”
While food trucks per se are not novel here, what’s unique about current models is that they’re aiming for a haute destination.
“The appeal is we’re doing something a little different. People want the ease and convenience of fast food, but what’s essential is that it’s of better quality for you to develop that repeat business,” explains Marty McCarthy of Fairfield/Black Rock–based Fire Engine Pizza Co., which bakes delicious, New Haven–style pies from a wood-fired oven on the back of a vintage fire truck.
Of course, there are rules of the road for these high-octane kitchens: Stern, who is also a contributing editor at Saveur magazine, says the business can be full of potential detours and potholes; everything from bureaucratic red tape to consumer perceptions that truck food has a chuck-it wagon quality. She says it’s essential the trucks keep a consistent schedule of stops. “They tend to do best near college campuses and when they get into neighborhoods that are underserved by good, convenient restaurants,” she says.
A menu requisite for the successful food truck? Really good eats. As Stern puts it: “If it stinks, it doesn’t matter if it falls from the sky and lands in your lap. No one will eat it.”
Here are three places to find meals on wheels around town that are worth a U-turn.
French expatriate Chef Christophe, intent on offering something “trés different,” parallel parks his truck at a little before high noon on the Post Road (just outside the main branch of the Fairfield Public Library) and serves up classic sweet and savory thin Euro-pancakes to order. “People here know pancakes and waffles, but the crepe is a little different,” Christophe says. (Think of it as a slightly sweet, delicate pastry-style sandwich wrap and you get the tasty idea.) When Christophe folds in a variety of inventive centers; ham, chopped apples and Brie, chocolate and raspberry and what you have is, well, bon appétit! “Once they realize how delicious and versatile they can be, I have a new customer,” says Christophe.
Christophe left his native Lyon, France, to work for several years in the hospitality industry on St. Maarten. He considers crepes a cross-cultural culinary offering to his adopted home of Fairfield. Crepes are such a staple French culinary foil that he compares them to “Americans and their pizza.”
“[In France] I would eat them with eggs on top for breakfast, ham and cheese for lunch and chocolate for dessert,” he says.
When he decided to try his spatula-wielding hand at road food, he first got town and police permits to park his traveling bistro downtown because, “I live here and like it.” His remote kitchen is outfitted with sweet drawings by his four-year-old daughter and a traveling larder that includes “the freshest, best ingredients I can find.” He marinates and sautés julienned fresh vegetables daily to fill his decadent veggie crepes and ladles gourmet jams and fine chocolates into dessert versions. Chalkboard lunch specials are posted daily. “The key to doing this well is to have everything taste like it came from a restaurant, even if it’s coming from a truck,” he says.
Fairfield native Marty McCarthy, who owns the rival Fire Engine Pizza Co., raves about Christophe’s chocolate, Nutella and banana crepe. “They are so good, I can’t stop by too often or I’m in trouble,” he says.
Uncle G’s Barbecue
The crowd of men hovered around Glenn Leonard’s silver food truck should prompt any curious driver to hit the brakes. His Uncle G’s Barbecue (a.k.a. Star Catering) is tucked in along the side of Park Avenue. Grown men don’t stand in line for much (besides sporting event tickets) unless it’s good. “Get the pulled pork if there’s any left,” advises a regular at the truck. Unfortunately, it was sold out. But a return visit to meet Glenn when the racks of his adjacent eighteen-foot smoker-on-wheels were piled high with pork shoulders and roasting whole chickens proved worth the wait. Glenn serves a full-on Southern-style barbecue that caters to appetites hankering for something more substantial than burgers and dogs (although you can get delicious versions of those here too).
“I know a good location when I see one,” says Glenn, who got his start in the food business at fifteen years old, with a part-time job wrapping donuts for deli deliveries. An excellent parking spot is exactly what he spied last spring, when the steady hum of traffic up and down the dividing line between Bridgeport and Fairfield enticed him to settle in with his well-outfitted truck and adjacent barbecue smoker. The novelty of the smoker (which he hauls on a trailer) and his proximity to the Sacred Heart University campus immediately drew crowds.
“When the smoker is here, business is always better. [Customers] see it and they know that they are getting fresh, authentic barbecue,” he says.
Campus coed, who can use their SHU meal plan cards at his window, have been a boost for business. So, too, has been enthusiastic word-of-mouth praise that this is more than just a convenient place to refuel. One bite of his moist cornbread, flecked with fresh kernels of smoked corn he’s trimmed from the cob, and it’s obvious his “tender, loving care” went into the batter. “When my customers taste something like that, they realize this isn’t your typical truck food,” he says.
Glenn takes pride in serving sandwiches piled so high with fresh pulled pork and barbecued chicken that “you really need a fork to eat them,” he says. So dig in.
Fire Engine Pizza Co.
A 2011 fire in Marty McCarthy’s landmark Black Rock pizzeria could have hosed his business, but instead, something delicious rose from its ashes. In an ironic (and deliberate) nod to the fire, Marty bought a decommissioned 1985 fire truck and outfitted it with a wood-burning oven to toss five-alarm good New Haven–style pies. “I really did this to keep my business from going under, but it’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” explains Marty.
The pizza-making truck fulfilled more than a kitchen dream-come-true: Marty, a former volunteer firefighter for Stratfield’s fire company was just five days away from taking his professional firefighter’s agility test when he shattered his femur in a career-ending motorcycle accident. “So now, this is how I get to drive a fire truck,” he says.
After outfitting the classic pumper with an oven he imported from Italy, Marty partnered up with his Fairfield Prep classmate and fellow foodie Phil Segneri to launch the Fire Engine Pizza Co. “Our mission is to create a burning desire for pizza,” quips Phil. One bite of their inventive mashed potato pie; a thin layer of buttery potatoes slathered with chopped bacon, caramelized onion and cheese (inspired by pub-style stuffed skins) and you’ll understand the line that forms on weekend nights when the truck is a fixture in front of McCarthy’s former Fairfield Avenue pizzeria. (At press time the restaurant was prepping for a grand opening as a trattoria-style pizzeria.)
The pizza company is also a regular at the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club in Southport, where Marty often brings the truck on school-year Fridays to sate the appetites of hungry basketball and lacrosse players and supply pizza dinners for the moms on car-pool duty. “Great, polite kids who love it when we show up,” Marty says of the crowd.
The truck’s novelty and the decadent, but light slices of pizza that comes from its oven sometimes evoke a street festival atmosphere. “You get a fun mix of people who live in the neighborhood,” explains Marty.
Adds Phil, “People who come by and want hog dogs: Never going to happen.”