If you’re free for lunch in downtown Cleveland on a Wednesday, there are many tasty…if noisy…options, including Jim Kuhn of Brunswick’s food truck: Pig Lickin Good Barbecue . You’ll find it easily because it has the noisiest generator.
Kuhn’s is one of ten food trucks lining Walnut Street, just south of Superior off East 9th Street , for the weekly “Walnut Wednesday”, organized by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. Kuhn says he thinks his prices are right.
“For the rib sampler you get three, four bones of ribs and you get a choice of baked beans or cole slaw for seven dollars. You get a pulled pork sandwich for six.”
There’s no shortage of ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, po-boys, and other down-home comfort foods on the trucks.
Prices are comfortable, too, with entrees ranging from 3 to 10 dollars.
One of the cheapest options is Ted Guzman’s truck: J. and J. Hotdogs
Guzman brings in Sabrett hot dogs from his native New Jersey and offers 9 toppings. He says a big seller is his slaw dog.
“ The cole slaw is a very big thing up here in Ohio we never experienced up in Jersey.”
Hot dogs are nice, but downtown office worker Bethany Rice of Medina has a yen for something completely different: frog legs.
“ It’s my father’s favorite so I can’t not get it. “
Or you could go for something familiar ,mixed with something exotic, like the “PBLT”. Katie Hodgson of the Dim and Dem Sum Food Truck says it’s their biggest seller.
“ It’s a pulled pork sandwich with bacon, lettuce , tomato and seracha aioli and it goes like wildfire, it’s so popular.
It’s comfort food with a gourmet twist. Food writer Michael Ruhlman of Cleveland Heights, welcomes it.
“You think when I go to a food truck it’s going to be pretty simple, basic stuff , but there’s no reason why you couldn’t have a grilled beef heart salad off of one of these trucks... I’ve been really impressed. I’ve been really excited by what’s possible and I love that it requires relatively little capital so that a young entrepreneurial cook can really with not a huge investment really do something, really make a go at it and make a reputation for himself or herself.”
Elvis Omar Serrano calls his truck a name he’s been called, Jibaro. He says it’s a common term in Puerto Rico, where he’s from, and means someone from the country, like himself.
Serrano had hoped to get rolling last fall but it took till this spring for food truck owners to work out their deal with the city government. A six-month trial period ends November 28th. Until then food trucks can park on East 9th, North Coast Harbor, Public Square , and several other locations. As for objections from brick and mortar restaurants, Serrano’s heard none.
“Actually restaurants, I know, I’ve been in the industry for 20 plus years and I dealt with a lot of them hand in hand and actually they’ve been positive with me in the whole frenzy, the whole food truck frenzy.”
Serrano is not classically-trained.
“ I was cooking at believe it or not at five years old in a farm dealing with pigs and cattles and I literally worked my way up from being a dishwasher. I’m a chef by trade I didn’t go to culinary school but I do have a passion for cooking. “
On his menu today: gazpacho.
“And the way I do it, I do it a little bit different. I cook half of it and the other rest is raw the way it should be. We have green bamboo rice from Asia. And I cook it in pineapple juice and garlic. It’s nice and refreshing. We have shrimp seviche, with a little bit of pineapple and watercress…”
You might get interested for a moment in that shrimp dish, and then get distracted by the familiar ethnic aroma emanating from another of the rolling restaurants lining Walnut Street : Jay Stulak’s truck.
“Well today we’ve got the hunky po- boy. It’s a Hungarian-themed kielbasa sandwich. Taking kind of some family recipes and brought it to the street which I’m just so proud to do.”
Familiar fare in Cleveland, but Stulak has something a little spicier, too.
“ Tilapia, marinated in a curry with cilantro, mint, cucumber, typical fresh flavors that you get in southeast Asia with our house lime aioli. It’s a special sauce that we make . We pair it with a corn tortilla to keep it gluten free. “
Eastern European cooking with Asian fusion. And he calls this melting pot on wheels… Umami Moto.
“ Source of deliciousness in Japanese, but the reason we came up with it, we want to focus on the fifth flavor, ‘umami’ it’s that unctuous quality to food. And since we’re mobile…’moto’.”
He learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. Now 33, he’s had a few restaurant jobs but for most of his working life , fifteen years, until the economy tanked, he earned his living in construction.
Some food truck chefs dream of one day opening a traditional restaurant . Not Stulak.
“I worked in a restaurant for a period of time and I never saw people eat my food. The food I cooked would go into a window and a server would whisk it off to the dining room. Here I get to meet the people that enjoy my food and we’ve got regulars, we know them by name. Plus we do it all outside. So I get to enjoy the summers.”
And so does Thomas Durran, at least on Walnut Wednesdays.
“ I work at Reserve Square right across right there and I can see them from the window and I wait for every Wednesday to come and just enjoy there’s such a variety . You can go other places downtown here for lunch and not get half of what you get at these trucks ,so. What do you have a taste for today? Shrimp creole it’s kind of my favorite . It’s really, really good. “
Michael Ruhlman writes in his soon to be released book ”Twenty: the ideas and techniques that will make you a better cook”, that anyone can master the essentials. But the secret ingredient is passion , and that’s what you’ll see in the eyes of the truck owner-chefs on Walnut Street on any given Wednesday.
“ The people cooking you the food are handing it right to you. There’s an immediate connection between the cook and the eater . And I think that’s an important facet of these trucks.”
Another kind of connection is important, too. Jibaro owner Elvis Omar Serrano goes on the internet every morning to tell his customers where he’ll be at lunchtime. Serrano wonders where in the world he’d be without Facebook.
“Y’know what , it would be a lot harder. You would have to go back to y’know email and more leg work, going out there, hitting the streets.”
The Downtown Cleveland Alliance helps get the word out about Walnut Wednesdays and Serrano says there’s usually about 80 to 100 plus customers per truck.
There’s not much summer left , though, for the downtown chow down ,with only four more Walnut Wednesdays this year, but the food truck owners are hoping to really get rolling all over town once the six-month trial period is over.