Umami Bites And The Food Truck Festival

The Columbus Food Truck Festival, which started at noon today at the Columbus Commons and will continue through 6 p.m. Sunday, exists for one reason and one reason only:  to allow people like me to discover, once again, how many great food trucks are patrolling the world out there.  Today, the happy discovery was of Umami Bites.

IMG_6463The Origamist, the Brussels Sprouts Addict, and I walked down to the Commons on an absolutely perfect day.  We arrived at about 12:15, and the Festival was already packed, with long lines in front of many of the food trucks.  We strolled around, looking for something new that we hadn’t tried before, and found Umami Bites at the end of one of the food truck rows.  (To make this post as educational as possible, I should note that the Umami Bites truck explained that “umami” is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and means “pleasantly savory.”  The Origamist and I were drawn by the pork belly wonton tacos; the BSA, predictable and misguided soul that he is, locked on to the flash-fried Brussels Sprouts.

Umami Bites is well named, because the pork belly wonton tacos were fantastic.  In fact, they were so good that you wonder why someone didn’t invent them, say, during the Middle Ages.  It’s one of those dishes that somehow combines the best of different cultures and cuisines, with the hearty pork belly liberally doused in a sweet chili sauce, some freshly chopped pickled red onion adding some tang, and the taco shell made of the whatever the heck wontons are made of, which gave the tacos a delicious and very satisfying crunch.  Just thinking about them makes me wish I had another serving right now.  I mean, right now!

IMG_6462I have to admit that the BSA’s offering looked pretty good too, with a neat presentation that featured chopsticks and a quasi-Chinese carry-out container.  It was hard to tell, however, because the BSA consumed the dish so quickly that the chopsticks rubbing together risked becoming a fire hazard.  And it was fun sitting out on the Commons grounds with my friends, enjoying the sunshine and the passing crowds and then graciously yielding our seats to other diners in a show of basic Midwestern friendliness.

This is the fifth year of the Columbus Food Truck Festival, and it gets better every year.  Bigger, too, I think — there’s actually another part of it, across Third Street, with an entire parking lot filled with more fantastic food truck fare.  If you’re in Columbus this weekend and have a hankering for some adventurous grub, do yourself a favor and stop by.

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The Columbus Top Six

The Brown Bear, a faithful reader of the Wall Street Journal, alerted some of us to a Journal article that includes Columbus in a list of “6 great small cities for food lovers” and identifies six great food options for the lucky residents of Ohio’s flagship city.  The Journal‘s six Columbus choices are The Refectory, Skillet, Basi Italia, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Katalina, and Ajumama.

I’ve got no quibble with the restaurants on the list, although I haven’t been to Katalina yet.  In fact, I’ve written about my excellent omelet at Skillet, the delicious toad in the hole at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, and the mid-boggling amdong chicken at Ajumama, pictured at right.  The Refectory has long been a Columbus gastronomic landmark — its oyster soup may be the best soup this committed soupophile has ever tasted — and Basi Italia is a favorite of our friends the Bahamians where we’ve always had great meals.  I also commend the Journal for including a food truck, Ajumama, among the six choices.  I’m a huge fan of the Columbus food truck culture, whether found at Dinin’ Hall or the annual food truck festival, and I’m glad to see one of their number get a deserving nod in the pantheon of foodie destinations.

No, the problem with the list is who’s not on it.  No G. Michael’s?  No Rigsby’s?  No Indian Oven?  No shiznite from the Green Meanie?  And what about Alana’s, or the Black Creek Bistro?  They’re all deserving choices, too.

A list of six just isn’t enough to do justice to the great foodie options in Columbus.  And one other thing about the Journal article:  it says Columbus isn’t well known for its dining scene — yet.  Says who, WSJ?

Dos Hermanos

IMG_2931Just because Labor Day weekend is here doesn’t mean that Food Truck Summer is over — at least, not yet.  Today Kish, Russell and I headed down to Dinin’ Hall on a beautiful blue sky day for another taste of the best Columbus’ mobile cuisine corps has to offer.  We found an impossible choice:  the Green Meanie, or Dos Hermanos?  Because I’ve already relished and celebrated the Green Meanie’s wonderful shiznite panko-crusted dog, this time we decided to head south of the border.

Let’s see, what to order?  Tacos, tamales, quesadilla, or a grande burrito?  Hmmm . . . well, we’re just going to have to declare a lunchtime exception to the no-carb/low-carb regimen and dig right in, aren’t we?  And when there is a dish with “grande” as part of the title, how can you possibly choose something else?  So three grande burritos it was, made with barbacoa and the works — although, in a sheepish nod to dietary discipline, I asked for mine without rice.

IMG_2925We promptly received three freshly made burritos that were approximately the size of a bodybuilder’s forearm.  How to eat them?  The thoughtful proprietors provided a fork that Kish — being a highly genteel person — politely used to good effect.  Russell and I, on the other hand, decided to eschew social convention and use the two-handed approach.  In my case, this was a thinly disguised excuse to lick my fingers and feel some of the juice from the combined ingredients run down my chin.  And what a combination!  The first heaping mouthful was grande, indeed, with pico delgallo, cilantro, sour cream and the other sauces mixing to pack a powerful flavor punch.  Whew!  For $8, the Dos Hermanos grande burrito has to be one of the great bargains in the Columbus food universe.

We shared Dinin’ Hall today with a large group from the United Way that was touring the Franklinton area.  One of that party asked another what Dos Hermanos met, and nodded approvingly when the response was “two brothers.”  I don’t speak Spanish, but I do know this:  those two brothers can cook.  Their truck is cool looking, too.

Columbus Food Truck Festival, 2014

IMG_2878What’s Food Truck Summer without a trip to the Columbus Food Truck Festival?  That cornucopia of local food entrepreneurs and tasty grub is this today and tomorrow at the Columbus Commons.  The Origamist, the Rising Star, and the Investor and I decided to leg it over there for lunch today and check out the offerings.

It was a beautiful day, weatherwise — bright sunshine, blue sky, and temperatures topping out in the mid-70s — but it was an even more beautiful day for foodies.  I’m not sure how many dozens of food trucks were there, but it was enough to make choosing what to get almost impossible.  Ultimately we made our selection, which I’ll talk about tomorrow, but in the meantime we couldn’t help but be impressed at the number, and cuisine diversity, of Columbus food trucks peddling their wares.  BBQ, Asian, tacos, Greek, colossal sausages, noodle bowls, high-end grilled cheese, and just about every other kind of food you can think of is there, waiting to be wolfed down on the grassy plain just south of the center of downtown.  It’s a nice setting, and at today’s lunch hour it drew a big crowd.

IMG_2883It was, perhaps, unexpectedly big, because there weren’t enough tables and chairs to go around.  We ended up using an empty water stand as an ersatz table, and as we walked around we saw people perched on little chairs intended for toddlers.  We managed, but for some of the dishes being sold you really need to be able to sit down and dig in.  Next year, maybe the Festival organizers could put a row of picnic tables or two on the Commons?  It would make eating a noodle bowl with chopsticks a more feasible.

Two other items of constructive criticism.  First, all beverages have to be purchased from the city of Columbus beverage stands, and the price for a bottle of water is set at gouging levels — $3 a bottle.  $3 for bottled water?!?  That’s bogus, and self-defeating.  If you want people to enjoy the great food truck culture in Columbus, or to frequent the Commons for other events, price the water (and beer, which I think was $6 a bottle) at more reasonable levels. 

Second, crank down the volume on the music acts to a lower decibel level.  It’s nice to have music and it contributes to a fun and festive atmosphere, but I think most people are there with friends or colleagues and would like to have a conversation over lunch without having to raise their voices.

All in all, though, a very nice and well-attended event that confirmed, again, that Columbus is really starting to get there as a big city.  I’d encourage anybody interested in getting a taste (pun intended) of the Capital City food truck world to drop by tomorrow and check it out.  Just be sure to bring your own bottle of water!

The Carne Frita From Teodora’s Kitchen

IMG_2406Yesterday Kish and I continued our Food Truck Summer with a visit to Dinin’ Hall, where we faced a very difficult choice between Herb n Food Truck and Teodora’s Kitchen.

Ultimately, the mouth-watering description of the Carne Frita from Teodora’s Kitchen tipped the balance:  Flank steak over lentils and basmati rice, served with fried plantains.  When we picked up our order the flank steak was still sizzling and piping hot, as well as tender and succulent.  With a heaping serving of rice and lentils, grilled onions and green peppers, some greens on top, five fried plantains that were only slightly smaller than the size of a manhole cover, and some chunky salsa, our containers runneth over with food.

Kish, who isn’t much of a meat eater, couldn’t finish all of her steak.  Fortunately, her dutiful husband was there, ready to ensure that she remained a member of the Clean Plate Club.  Sometimes husbands just have to take one for the team.  It was a beautiful, mild summer day, and the Dinin’ Hall venue, which opens out to the great outdoors, is a great place to sit and chat.  Thanks to the friendly proprietor, too, for wrangling two ice-cold bottles of water for us.

So far, Food Truck Summer has been a riot.

First Dinin’ Hall Of The Season

IMG_6193Today Kish and I went to Dinin’ Hall for the first time this summer.  The schedule has been limited to Thursdays and Fridays for the most part, but it’s still a great place to sample what Columbus’ finest food trucks have to offer.

Today we both went with Ayam Bakar from Aromaku.  What a great way to start the Food Truck Summer!  Grilled chicken with Indonesian spices over thin egg noodles, with hot sauce, some lime juice we squeezed on ourselves, and other goodies.  Just stunningly good, and served in the friendly confines of the Dinin’ Hall eating space in Franklinton.

Dinin’ Hall, we’ve missed you!  Aromaku, thanks for making the start of Food Truck Summer so succulent and special!

Letting Columbus Food Trucks Roam

Earlier this week Columbus City Council passed legislation that, for the first time, will allow food truck owners to sell their wares from parking spots on city streets. Previously, food trucks were restricted to selling only on private property.

IMG_3701Columbus politics are known for moderation and consensus, and the food truck legislation was no different. The vote on the law was unanimous, after City Council worked with food truck owners interested in greater access and restauranteurs concerned about safety issues raised by patrons congregating in the areas between food trucks and brick and mortar dining establishments.

Under the new legislation, food trucks will be able to park in the first or last parking spots on blocks in most commercial areas. In high-traffic areas, like the Short North, the food trucks will need to reserve one of 20 designated spots. Food trucks also will be subject to health and fire inspections and must buy a license and pay for an annual street parking permit. The legislation also established an advisory board that will periodically review the food truck rules and consider whether they need to be revised.

This is a great development for those of us who are food truck fans and love the passion, diversity, and entrepreneurial spirit — not to mention the tasty and interesting grub — that food trucks bring to Columbus. I’m hopeful that those of us who work on Gay Street, which as the coolest street in downtown Columbus is home to a number of restaurants already, will be happily surprised to see a food truck or two parked on our block as temperatures warm and we move into the food truck season.