News & Politics

Beyond Coffee and Half-Smokes The Street Carts Are Coming!

Now that vendor laws are loosening up, a new wave of on-the-run lunch and snack options has arrived—maybe on a street corner near you.

Pupatella, a food cart near the Ballston Metro, proffers ultra-thin pizzas, wonderfully messy sausage-and-pepper subs, and gooey caramel doughnuts. Photograph by Jennifer Smoose.

Bulgogi Cart (14th and L sts., NW). If you have trouble deciding what to have for lunch, this yellow cart’s streamlined choices make it easy: spicy or mild thinly sliced beef bul goki, spicy or mild chunks of chicken, or a combination of any two—all served with kimchee (the pickled-cabbage sidekick to any Korean meal), rice, and an iceberg salad with sweet ginger dressing.

Bibim bap, the only other dish on the menu, is mild or spicy bul goki over rice topped by a fried egg with a soft yolk—no small feat for a food cart. The trio of steamed spinach, julienned carrots, and bean sprouts that accompany the dish is pretty but doesn’t have much flavor. The meat’s the thing at this cart, where an average eater can get at least two meals out of one $7 order. Open Monday through Friday 9 to 2.

Capital Carts (Eighth and H sts., NW). While the house gumbo ($4 regular, $5 large) is tasty, it barely resembles traditional gumbo. Yes, there are bits of smoked ham and roasted chicken, but the main flavor comes from the five greens. The rich stew does grow on you, and you’ll feel warmer and healthier for eating a bowl.

Other offerings at this cart, operated by DC Central Kitchen, include a handful of sandwiches ($6.50) such as an Italian sub layered with cold cuts sliced a bit too thickly; it benefits from a slathering of vinegary, roasted-sweet-pepper relish. Open Monday through Friday 11 to 2.

Comida Latina Express (parking lot of Food Star Supermarket, 950 S. George Mason Dr., Arlington; 703-855-1961). A shiny silver cart in a grocery-store parking lot may not be what comes to mind when you think of street food, but the soft, slightly salty tacos ($2 each) recall the sidewalk vendors of Mexico City, as does a sweet, nutty cup of the rice drink horchata ($1.50).

The surest sign of authenticity is the res y lengua (tongue) filling, a more flavorful option than the familiar carne asada and chicken. Stick to the Mexican fare—a Salvadoran cheese-and-pork pupusa ($1.50) and its cabbage slaw were blah. For dessert, visit Mama Rosa at her truck a few feet away for snow cones ($3 for three flavors). Open daily 11 to 8.

El-Charro Mexicano (Columbia Rd. and Mozart Pl., NW). Basic Spanish comes in handy at this weekend-only taqueria on wheels, but only three words really matter: pollo (chicken), puerco (pork), and carne (beef), the options for the sole menu item—tacos ($2). Ignore the six photos on the truck that suggest there are other choices and step up to the white vehicle for piquant shredded meat—spiced with jalapeño and chipotle peppers—wrapped in a double layer of soft tortillas. Use the lime-wedge-and-radish-slice garnish for extra flavor or pour on one or both of the complimentary salsas—they’ll make you feel as if your mouth is en fuego. Open Saturday and Sunday 10 to 5.

El Trucko (15 Metropolitan Grove Rd., Gaithersburg; 240-543-5363). The Gaithersburg branch of Maryland’s Motor Vehicles Administration, which boasts four taco trucks outside its building, has become a mecca for Mexican-food lovers. Our favorite is still Mexico Puebla, known to locals as El Trucko. Though the menu includes burritos, pupusas, and tortas, tacos are what the truck does best.

We like the al pastor version with chunks of pork, the tender, fatty (in a good way) beef cheeks, and barbacoa made with grilled beef (three tacos for $6). Meats are piled on a double layer of corn tortillas, then scattered with chopped onion and cilantro; it’s customary to spritz on lime, too. Avocado and sour cream are available on request—they’re more American than Mexican—but everyone gets salsa. Ask for the spicy version, which is thick and pulpy and packs just the right heat. Open Monday through Friday 9 to 6.

Jimmy’s Truck (Sixth St. and Howard Pl., NW). For 40 years, Howard University students have flocked to this corner for breakfast and lunch from the overall-wearing owner, Jimmy. And it’s no wonder: His peppery fried chicken breasts ($2.50), wings ($.90), and pork chops ($2) sport reliably crunchy skin.

We suggest chowing down right there on the curb; toted home in its foil wrapper, the golden-battered chicken loses its crispiness. The house-made soups are hit or miss—recent helpings of white bean and vegetable were disappointing. For dessert, wander up the block for the faintly sweet, fluffy rectangles of Jamaican coco bread ($1.50), sold by three half-smoke vendors. Open Monday through Friday 6 to 3.

On the Fly (several carts in DC and Virginia; These bright-green, electric-powered carts are an amalgam of pretty much every buzzword of the moment—ecofriendly, local, organic. But they have more than trendiness going for them.

The cart that’s regularly parked at Eighth and H streets, Northwest, in DC offers pastas, salads, and bread sticks. The lasagna ($6), offered daily, is the standard mix of ricotta, mozzarella, and tomato sauce, but the flavors show that someone accomplished—Jordan Lichman, formerly of the Inn at Little Washington—is manning this kitchen. Another cart, at Seventh and F streets, Northwest, offers a delicious pork-carnitas taco ($2.50) dressed with Mexican cabbage and a rich chipotle aïoli. Hours vary by location.

Pedro & Vinny’s (15th and K sts., NW; Expect long lines for the formidable veggie-only burritos ($4 to $7.25) from this corner cart—it has a cult following of downtown lunchers. Orders sometimes are taken ten at a time: When you arrive, be prepared to shout out a tortilla flavor—flour, wheat, sundried tomato, spinach, or garlic-and-onion—and whether you want cheese (50 cents extra).

When you reach the front of the line, we suggest ordering your burrito “black and tan”—a mixture of black and refried beans—with rice and fresh salsa. Then give owner John Rider a number between one (mild) and ten (punishing) for your hot-sauce preference. He’ll pick from his collection of around 50 bottles to match your taste. Many regulars ask for a splash of “goose sauce,” Rider’s house-made mango concoction—a five on the fire scale—poured from a Grey Goose vodka bottle. There are complimentary Peppermint Patties for those who overestimate their tolerance for heat. Open Monday through Friday 11 to 2.

Pupatella (Ninth and Stuart sts., Arlington). This lipstick-red food cart, parked every day near the Ballston Metro, is the granddaddy of the street-food scene, cranking out a slate of gourmet treats. Its thin, cracker-crisp Neapolitan pizzas ($6) would be the envy of many sit-down restaurants, but these are cooked in an implement not much bigger than an Easy-Bake Oven. (It’s heated by a propane tank.) The sausage-and-peppers sub ($6) is good, too—it hews to the Jersey/Philly ideal: lots of meat, lots of peppers, and no mind to sloppiness. Don’t leave without one of the doughnuts ($2), made to order and filled with sweet caramel. Open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 4.


Dirt Cheap Eats 2008 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.