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Street-legal food keeps on truckin' in Alaska as food trucks proliferate

Suzanna Caldwell
Vendors and customers turn out for the Spenard Food Truck Carnival in the parking lot of the Anchorage nightclub Chilkoot Charlie's, but food trucks are popular across the state, with more than 200 registered mobile food vendors statewide. Loren Holmes photo

On a bright, sunny Anchorage day, Jessica Parks and her coworkers decided to head to the carnival.

Not just any carnival. This carnival -- the Spenard Food Truck Carnival -- is all about food.

It was Parks' birthday, and she and her RurAL CAP colleagues munched down on a random assortment of delicacies -- cod tacos with a citrus cabbage slaw and cilantro lime sauce, tequila lime chicken sandwiches stuffed with bacon and Swiss cheese, crab salad tacos served on crispy wontons, and prime rib skewers, served rare and bloody with a slice of baguette to absorb all the drippings.

“It's so much fun,” Parks said as she took the last bites of her "Palin's View" sandwich -- corned beef, pickled coleslaw, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese.

“It's like that fair mentality -- it's a party, it's fun,” said colleague Wayne Oldford. “Plus, it's food on a stick -- but it's prime rib.”

A dozen choices at Spenard Food Truck Carnival

Fun seems to be a common theme at the Spenard Food Truck Carnival. Fire dancers swing flaming batons and try to spit fire from their mouths while musicians play 1990s acoustic covers. Kids ride around on tiny bikes. And then, of course, there's the food.

The trucks -- most are brightly colored and favor pun-happy names like “Wheel Good Food” and “What the Truck?” -- circle up, covered-wagon style. Most have chalkboard signs showing off their menus. On Thursday, five showed up, but other weeks have seen as many as 12, according to carnival coordinator Darrin Huycke.

Anchorage residents who think they're seeing more of the trucks around town are not confused. There are 62 registered -- aka street-legal -- mobile food vendors in the municipality of Anchorage, up from 37 last summer.

It's a trend that's even finding its way across the state. According to the state department of environmental conservation's food safety and sanitation program, as of April there are 175 permitted mobile units in the state of Alaska, up slightly from 164 in 2012.

But for all the fun there are definite drawbacks to food truck eating. Fickle Alaska weather means a sunny afternoon with a plate of barbecued brisket can quickly turn into a windswept, rainy fight to keep the sauce off your clothes and napkins in your lap. Small kitchens and small staffs can mean long serving times. After the afternoon lunch rush on Thursday, popular items were quickly sold out, a testament to the small prep space and popularity of the trucks.

But don't mention those negatives to those who frequent the trucks.

Julie Glover didn't mind, especially on a sunny Thursday afternoon. As she waited for her Palin's View sandwich to be prepared, her husband munched on the prime rib skewer. The waits at other popular midtown restaurants can be long and cut into the lunch hour, and she prefers not to eat at chain restaurants.

'It's all about the love'

Glover loves the creativity chefs can have -- something that's clear from the eclectic menus -- and the fact that the person who created the food idea is the same person who hands it directly to the customer.

“It's all about the love,” Glover said. “You can get some good love in your food.”

Rebecca Baril took her family, visiting from Michigan, to the carnival for something “cool” and a chance to partake in the fair atmosphere. As they finished up a plate of bright red barbecued chicken from the Cajun Justice stand, Jennifer Kabat, of Rudyard, Mich., noted that even in her small town of about 1,000 people, there are multiple food truck vendors.

EAT owner Matt Tocchini said food trucks are harder to operate in some ways, because everything happens in a small space, and the rules and regulations on cleanliness are stricter than conventional kitchens.

He said after years in restaurants (25 of them in Alaska), he knows chefs often work long, hard hours behind the scenes with no recognition and little satisfaction.

“Here you work hard, fast and for a lot of smiles,” he said. “And it's not even an 8-hour shift.”

Huycke said the carnival has plans to continue into the fall -- perhaps even the winter, though that would depend on community interest. There's a possibility of even doing a large sort of “wrap up” finale. Those plans are an “evolving thing,” he said.

Kind of like the food trucks themselves.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com