The crop of new spring food trucks is particularly bountiful this year.
By April, according to Portland city records, 21 food trucks had been licensed or renewed their licenses, with another 11 licenses pending. On top of that, nearly 15 newcomers have announced plans to hit the road this summer, serving tacos, fish and chips, vegan comfort food, lobster rolls, burritos and banh mi. That’s nearly 50 food trucks that will be roaming the Greater Portland area this summer. Why so many?
The reasons are varied, but yes, the pandemic – and the soul searching it has prompted – has definitely played a role.
Dan McCluskey of Raymond, who grew up in Maine, was working in the tourism industry in New York City last year when the pandemic hit. He had planned to move back eventually, but COVID “really put a fast forward on things.” This year, after 15 years living away from his home state, McCluskey and his wife, Stephanie McCort, came back to open a taco truck with McCluskey’s nephew, Joe, a chef who has worked in the food industry for a decade.
The events of the past year, McCluskey said, “really showed us how important family is, how important that connection and community is. It was really challenging to feel those things in New York City in a pandemic. It was a hard place to be.” McCluskey figures that 2021 is the perfect time to get a food truck rolling, while people are still skittish about eating indoors.
For six years, Luke Benning and David McGuirk worked together in Portland-area restaurants and at the Woodlands Club in Falmouth. Benning’s father is from London and McGuirk is from Dublin, and they often found themselves opining about the lack of proper fish and chips in local restaurants. “Why isn’t someone doing it right?” they asked. The pandemic, they decided, was the right time to take matters into their own hands. Their fish and chips truck, The Paddy Wagon, will open quietly the second week in May, followed by a belated St. Patrick’s Day celebration and official opening on May 17.
Taylor Stanton, the former executive chef at the Tides Beach Club in Goose Rocks Beach, will launch his food truck, The Salty Moose, at Gneiss Brewing Co. in Limerick in early May.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a food truck,” he said, “and especially with everything that has happened in the past year with the pandemic and job uncertainties in restaurants, I decided to just go for it. I needed a change from the daily high-volume restaurant work life I had, and what sounds more exhilarating than starting a food truck?”
Lots of people, apparently, agree. Here’s a sampling of the season’s new food trucks and what they plan to serve:
CHEESE THE DAY
The owner: Aaron Milberger
The story: Milberger has worked in healthcare IT for 15 years. “Life is too short to just do one thing,” he said. “I’m chasing something new. I want to connect with my community, I want to promote local businesses, I want to build a business of my own, I want to interact face to face with people, and I want to create. I’ve always enjoyed cooking for my friends and family. This is just taking it to the next level.”
The eats: “Grown-up grilled cheeses” using Milberger’s own blend of cheeses. The Smoked Pork and Poblano sandwich, for example, is made with a cheddar cheese blend, smoked pork, roasted poblano peppers, pickled red onions and cilantro. This food truck for grown-ups will also sell a grilled cheese sandwich for kids.
The price: $8-12
Hits the road: The truck is already in Windham, and will arrive in Portland in May. Look for it on Wednesdays at Battery Steele Brewing on Industrial Way; other locations still to come.
Find it: Facebook and @cheesethedayme on Instagram.
The owners: Suzanne and Trent Grace
The story: Suzanne Grace became a vegetarian in 1993 and a vegan in 2011. She raised six children on those diets as well. Along the way, she says, “I learned that there was a lot of misinformation and lack of information about a plant-based diet and lifestyle.” She started cooking vegan food to share with others so they could try it for themselves. She wants to do the same thing, on a larger scale, with her new vegan food truck. “That is my goal,” Grace said, “is to share really good, delicious comfort food that is lacking animal products but not lacking flavor at all.”
The eats: Mac and cheese; fried chik sandwich; burgers; fries; specials such as California burritos and tacos; non-dairy soft serve ice cream. To start the day: breakfast sandwiches, breakfast burritos and hash browns. The truck will have a kids menu and offer gluten-free items as well. An occasional special: A lobster roll made with hearts of palm, seasoned with Old Bay, paprika and vegan mayo, and mixed with red onions and celery. “I figured we’re a vegan food truck in Maine, we have to have vegan lobster,” Grace said. “We have to at least try.”
The price: $3 to $15
Hits the road: Memorial Day weekend.
DIMILLO’S ON THE ROLL
The owner: DiMillo’s Restaurant
The story: The DiMillo family has talked about starting a food truck for years. When the pandemic started, the idea of serving some of the restaurant’s favorites in a safer, outdoor environment became that much more appealing, says Chelsea DiMillo, who most recently has managed the bar and wine program in the floating restaurant on Long Wharf. (She volunteered to run the food truck because “I love talking to people and seeing where they’re coming from and where they’re going.”) The new project will also tap into foot traffic on Commercial Street, where despite signs for the restaurant, people sometimes still have trouble finding it, she added. The hope is if tourists eat lunch at the food truck, maybe they’ll return another day for dinner in the restaurant.
The eats: Lobster rolls and clam chowder to start, with more dishes to be added as the season progresses. The truck will also sell cooling summer sweets such as ice cream sandwiches and freeze pops.
The price: Starting at $22 for a lobster roll, $8 for a bowl of clam chowder.
Hits the road: Shooting for May 15, but definitely open by June, DiMillo says. The truck will be parked at the end of the DiMillo’s lot, just to the left of Gorham Savings Bank, Mondays through Saturdays. Hours are still to be determined.
Find it: Facebook and Instagram, and through the restaurant’s social media pages.
HIGH ROLLER LOBSTER CO.
The owners: Baxter Key, Andy Gerry, Peter Bissell
The story: High Roller started out as a food cart, then became a brick-and-mortar restaurant on Exchange Street in 2017. Now it’s returning to its mobile roots. Key says they found a truck for sale during the pandemic and decided it was an opportunity to upgrade the restaurant’s catering program and, in the future, sell their food at public events.
The eats: All of the restaurant’s lobster favorites, including (we hope, we plead, we beg) the lobster cheese crisp taco. Also, bony burgers – quarter-pound smash burgers with shredded lettuce, cheese and choice of sauce on a toasted potato bun – and French fries.
The price: Ranges from $6 for a hot dog to $28 for a lobster roll.
Hits the road: Beginning of summer, exact date uncertain.
Find it: @highrollerlobsterco on Instagram
The owners: Dan McCluskey, Joe McCluskey and Stephanie McCort
The story: The heavy metal imagery on the truck and its merchandise is there because Dan McCluskey is a fan of heavy metal music, and it speaks to the owners’ desire “to bring really good energy, positive vibes.”
“It’s important to us that it’s not just food, we are creating a fun time too,” McCluskey said.
The eats: Four tacos with regional flavor profiles. The Chop Cheese taco is “a New York bodega classic,” according to the McCluskeys, and the Thrashville Chicken taco is a take on Nashville hot chicken. The Riverbottom Nightmare Beef is made with Mississippi-style beef and melted jack cheese, topped with blueberry-gochujang sauce. And yes, there’s a New England-themed taco: the Bean Suppah, filled with slow-smoked baked beans, pulled pork and housemade slaw. The menu also includes a vegan taco made with smoked cauliflower.
The price: Three tacos, a side and a drink for under $15.
Hits the road: Soft launch in May, grand opening in June. Already booked at local breweries most Saturdays through October, beginning with Fluvial Brewing in Harrison on June 12. Plans to park regularly in Portland at locations such as the Eastern Prom and Western Prom.
The owners: Martha Leonard and Niky Watler
The story: This food trailer is connected to Maiz, the restaurant on Forest Avenue in Portland that serves Colombian street food. A fritanga, according to the owners, “generally refers to all the amazing fried treats you might find on the streets of Cartagena.” Maiz got its start in the Public Market House, but with this new addition its food returns to the streets.
The eats: Leonard says the menu will focus on the smaller bites from the restaurant, such as empanadas, buñuelos (corn and cheese fritters), and carimañolas, yuca fritters stuffed with cheese or other fillings.
The price: Leonard did not supply pricing, but in the restaurant, prices range from $2 to about $10.
Hits the road: First week in May.
Find it: @La.Fritanga on Instagram.
The owners: Kaleb Caron
The story: Caron grew up in Gardiner, in an entrepreneurial family that has owned a deli, a landscaping business and a food truck, which they sold recently so they could open (on April 1) Ted’s Trackside Grill in Winthrop. Now Caron has decided to strike out on his own, move to Portland, and launch a food truck inspired by his grandmother’s burritos, which he describes as “addicting.” Why are they so good? “Honestly, they’re the simplest burritos,” he said. “They’re not loaded with a bunch of crazy ingredients or anything. They’re straightforward, but you can’t just have one.”
The eats: Chicken and beef burritos, tacos with chicken or barbacoa, nachos with homemade chips, homemade salsa and queso, and churro chips served with jalapeno–Maine maple syrup or chocolate sauce.
The price: Burritos will likely cost about $3 for one, Caron said, or two for $5. Nachos $10-13.
Hits the road: Scheduled to park at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market on June 10 and July 8 to start.
Find it: Look for @memes_burritos on Instagram.
THE PADDY WAGON
The owners: Luke Benning and David McGuirk
The story: The origin of the truck is rooted in the owners’ cravings for traditional fish and chips, the kind found in a British or Irish chipper shop. A lot of small details make the fish from those shops cook properly and taste better, they said. The fish has to be bone dry before dredging, for example, and the beer batter has to be ice cold when it hits the hot oil to maintain crispiness and prevent caking.
Benning and McGuirk plan to cook their fish in sunflower oil for its high smoke point and cleaner taste.
“It’s a much healthier oil as well because, since we can cook at a higher temperature, there won’t be anywhere near as much oil saturation in the food, so it will be a lot crisper, a lot lighter, a lot less greasy, and a lot better for you,” McGuirk said. “We’re trying to turn it into a staple that will be similar to back home, where people in neighborhoods and rural areas live on fish and chips every day.”
The eats: Fish and chips made with pollock and haddock, mostly, although Benning and McGuirk say they may also occasionally use cod or other species. All of it – the beer batter, the malt vinegar – will be gluten free. The truck will also make chip butties, McGuirk says, “which are basically French fry sandwiches on traditional white bulky rolls from Botto’s bakery.” Rotating specials will include battered sausages made with Irish bangers from North Country Smokehouse in New Hampshire. For dessert, Benning and McGuirk will batter and fry British candy bars and serve them with whipped cream and raspberry coulis.
The name: While the phrase the truck borrows for its name is sometimes considered derogatory toward Irish-Americans, Benning and McGuirk – who is still an Irish citizen – consider it “a clever play on words” that has a different connotation when used in this context, as a nod to McGuirk’s family (who approved of the name) and Irish heritage. McGuirk’s uncle, named Paddy, owned a well-known butcher shop in Dublin, Benning explained, “and there’s actually a street in Dublin now called Paddy Boulevard, named after his uncle.”
“If anyone raises the issue, we’re happy to have a conversation with them,” Benning said. “We’d love to hear it and explain where we’re coming from.”
The price: Fish and chips will be market price, $14-16 for eight ounces of fish and a pile of chips. Sandwiches will cost $6.
Hits the road: Quiet opening the second week in May, followed by a belated St. Patrick’s Day celebration and official opening on May 17.
Find it: The truck will be based at Free Range Fish and Lobster on Commercial Street. Hours will be 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Eventually, it will travel to events as well. Track the truck on Instagram @paddywagonportland, and on the FoodTrux app.
THE SALTY MOOSE
The owner: Taylor Stanton
The story: Stanton was chef de cuisine at David’s KPT in Kennebunkport, and for the past three seasons was the executive chef at the Tides Beach Club in Goose Rocks Beach. He’s always dreamed of having his own food truck, and when the pandemic hit, he decided to take the leap.
The eats: Hot and cold lobster rolls, smash burgers, buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches, chilled noodle bowls with and without protein. The menu will include gluten-free and vegetarian options.
The price: $5-24
Hits the road: Early May.
Find it: The truck will be at Gneiss Brewing Co. in Limerick Fridays through Sundays. Later in the season, Stanton may venture to Portland or Biddeford during the week. Find the truck on Instagram @thesaltymoosemobilekitchen and on Facebook.
VY BÁNH MI
The owners: Minh Nguyen and Vy Phan
The story: The owners grew up in Vietnam, where they ate banh mi – a sandwich made with pâté, mayonnaise, herbs, pickled vegetables and peppers — and other street food. Nguyen says they wanted to bring that food they loved “to the city that we love.” They launched their truck in March, and already have lots of regulars, Nguyen said. “Everything is going super well,” he said.
The eats: The couple sells seven varieties of banh mi, including sandwiches filled with cold cuts, lemongrass beef, bbq pork and Vietnamese sausage. They make their own Vietnamese baguettes, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, every morning. They also serve boba tea, and will be adding rice and noodle bowls to the menu this summer.
The price: $7.50 to $9
Hits the road: Launched in March.
Find it: On Facebook or Instagram @vybanhmi.maine