figuring out a food truck festival…

This past Saturday my friend Phil Grisdela and I zipped over to Brighton to gather some tasty intel on the Charles River Food Truck festival. Located on the large stretch of park space between the arsenal bridge and the kayak rental near the boardwalk, this extravaganza boasted plenty of space for LP’s favorite kind of automobile. These food trucks lined up, practically bumper to bumper, along a half-mile curb to boast their latest specials and menu items for public tasting.

Don’t get me wrong, these motored restaurants didn’t shell out their food for free. Rather, they used a ticket system much like one you’d find at a fair or a raffle. Pay a few bucks for a few tickets, and you can exchange certain numbers of them for corresponding menu items. Unlike a raffle ticket exchange, you’re guaranteed to win here.

Now Phil and I may not write for the Michelin guide, but we love food. Having rowed lightweight in college together for four years, we share a special appreciation for every meal of the day, and we will eat practically anything. Naturally, this excursion was like a national holiday for us. It was like plopping a pair of kindergarteners down at Six Flags and telling them they have one hour to enjoy it. We just didn’t know where to start.

Fortunately, the crowd helped us decide where to go. The ticket booth near the parking lot was packed, so we bought our tickets at the opposite end and worked our way back to the car. We only had an hour and a half before the fair closed (FYI, these events generally run from about noon to late afternoon), so we avoided the longest lines and instead looked along the queue of trucks for menu items that caught our attention.

As I scanned the area, looking for tasty samples with low ticket numbers, I remembered an article I had read recently in The Atlantic about how to dine like an economist. When you’re at a seafood place, the article advised advised, don’t order the burger. When you’re eating Chinese, for that matter, don’t get the chicken fingers. Yes, popular menu items are there because Americans like them. But they’re also there so that the restaurant has a back-up, in case their patrons don’t order what they cook best.

Food truck food is almost always specialized, because there just isn’t enough kitchen space to fill up a menu with consolation items. If you don’t like what they do best, chances are you probably won’t approach their truck. On the other hand, if you trust the cuisine with your palate then you’re probably in for a treat.

Phil and I ordered our food in this economic fashion. We searched among the cheaper menu items for the samples that were either the clear favorites…or the strangest-sounding stuff they served.

Case-in-point: At the Chubby Chickpea, Phil tried the falafel (the truck’s main attraction) and I the eggplant salad. The falafel was buttery and crunchy and melted in your mouth, but I preferred the salad. I’m no health freak, but I do appreciate freshness and flavor. And the veggies were fresh, the dressing was tangy, oily and sweet, and the cool temperature was perfect for the eighty-degree heat. A nice appetizer to start.

I sampled another kind of salad at Mei Mei’s, a Chinese-American “street kitchen” on wheels. This one mixed dark green kale with sea-salt feta and rice vinegar, dusting the top with a sprinkle of crispy noodles. Now I’ll admit, I’m not a big feta fan and I prefer lettuce to kale, but I was trusting Mei Mei on this one. And I must say, the balance of crunchy bitter leaf to sweet, soft cheese and the subtle finish of a lighter vinegar—it worked for me. Thanks, Mei Mei.

After Phil and I shared a nice caffeinated pick-me-up with some Vietnamese iced coffee (distinctive because of the sweetened condensed milk that settles on the bottom) at the Bon Me truck, we made my favorite stop of the day. Compliments Food Truck didn’t grab us with its name, but after looking at the fun, quirky titles of the menu items that either flattered you or themselves, Phil and I caved and handed our tickets over. My sirloin slider (called “We work well together”) may have been the best burger I’ve had this year. Cooked medium rare to perfection and served on two buttered, toasted slices of French bread, this mozzarella-topped, free-range wonder was worth the outing all by itself.

We finished with a red crabby gazpacho at Go Fish, a truck with a brightly colored aquarium painted on its exterior. The soup was cold and delicious, with a creamier base than most red gazpachos and a seafood-ier finish, like a bouillabase stew. With plenty of vegetables and even a little zing of spiciness, this treat finished our multi-course meal just as we reached the parking lot.

What did I learn from the Charles River Food Truck festival? First of all, that it’s a perfect excursion for practically anyone. Whether you’re a nervous, clammy-palmed teenager on a first date or a parent looking for a relaxing spot to take the spouse and kids, an event like this has all the proper ingredients for a pleasant (and reasonably priced) afternoon. There’s even a grassy stretch of field with twenty mini trampolines set up, so you can park your butt on a bench with your treat and let your four year-old jump til he’s zonked. Man, they really do have it all.

Did I mention we enjoyed ourselves?

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