Road Test: Cirque Cuisine

This healthy-minded, circus-themed food truck, run by two former clowns, offers restaurant-quality food with a local focus.

The niçoise salad from Cirque. Photograph by Anna Spiegel.

When the “greatest food on wheels” rolled onto Washington streets this past February, we expected another vendor slinging popcorn and funnel cakes. It’s a surprise, then, to pass by the purple, circus-themed Cirque Cuisine truck and see a menu boasting quiche filled with local corn, squash, and ricotta, or crab-topped watermelon gazpacho. What kind of act is this?

It turns out co-owners Sean Swartz and Jessica Shields are both former clowns who toured in South America—he with the second-largest circus in Mexico, she with a small troupe in Peru. The two connected over dinner at the pop-up Sensorium and shared visions of starting what Swartz calls “the social circus,” an organization to involve kids with exercise through tumbling, trapeze (Swartz is currently an instructor), and other cardiovascular tricks. The plan is still in the works, but they’re taking a similar healthful approach to their truck in the meantime: a menu of dishes with mostly organic or local ingredients from farmers markets and the Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op, with vegetarian and gluten-free options—plus the occasional bout of unicycling.

Shields, a Culinary Institute of America grad who still works as a private chef, is behind the menus, which change bimonthly. Prices run on the higher side for street fare, but then again, most trucks don’t cook your wild-caught, sushi-grade tuna to order and preference of doneness (Swartz and Shields suggest rare). The seared rounds are coated with fennel and mustard seeds and crown a flavorful niçoise salad with freshly roasted peppers, tomatoes, olives, haricots verts, red potatoes, and shallot-tarragon vinaigrette—notably better than many grab-and-go salads downtown. A BLT on Lyon Bakery brioche holds a nice slab of thick-cut bacon and heirloom tomato, but runs a touch sweet with the pork belly’s maple-chipotle glaze. The griddled triangles lost their crispness on the ten-minute trek back to the office, a good consumer reminder that restaurant-quality food doesn’t necessarily stay restaurant fresh when you’re toting it about the streets. A warm mixed-berry crisp, on the other hand, traveled perfectly.

The lineup is set to change again on Monday; you may find Latin-influenced dishes such as ceviche, Vietnamese lettuce wraps, or a croque monsieur. Just don’t ask for a candy apple.

Payment: Credit cards, cash.

Price range: Varies with the menus; we found $6 to $14.

Menu: Find new menus posted on the truck’s Facebook page.

Frequent stops: Downtown DC locations such as Farragut, L’Enfant, and Franklin Park.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.