Ah, Cherry Festival Week!
I love all its sights and sounds – the concerts, the fireworks, the parades with their marching bands and floats, the shrieks from the midway, the shouts of the vendors. Dogs launching themselves into the air. Kids planting their little faces into plates of cherry pie.
But mostly I love the smells of festival food. Elephant ears, brats with onions and peppers, smoked turkey legs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried foods of all kinds. Can’t eat it much these days, but at least I can sniff it on the wind in all its artery-clogging deliciousness.
By now everybody knows that TC has also been attracting attention as one of America’s most unique culinary destinations, thanks to fans like celebrity chef Mario Batali, who helped it get named one of the country’s Top Five Foodie Towns by Bon Appetit. But for all its restaurants, wine bars and brewpubs, our town has lacked one key ingredient of a vibrant urban food scene: good, cheap street food.
After months of heated debate, local officials agreed this spring to make it easier and less expensive for mobile food vendors to operate in the city. Almost immediately, a half-dozen food truck operators announced that they were setting up shop in Traverse City’s shady downtown district -- and a pair of transplanted New York restaurateurs has even opened a bar whose parking lot serves as a base for the trucks and their customers.
Other pioneer food trucks include King Wubbz Pita Dubz, the brainchild of local foodie Brian Welburn and Curbie, a 1946 Ford drafted into service in 2012 by Sam Porter, organizer of the Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival and several other food-themed events. (The brightly painted truck is operated by a staff of student interns, serving locally made sodas, ice cream and dishes from whitefish tacos to paella, at special events and downtown festivals.)
The new policy wasn't embraced by everyone in the city's culinary establishment. Owners of some downtown restaurants complained that the mobile eateries had an unfair competitive advantage, since they were exempt from high property taxes and could simply shut down when cold weather thins out the pool of customers.
But even before the policy was hammered out, Gary and Allison Jonas – who created the popular Brooklyn eateries Sycamore and The Farm on Adderly before moving to Traverse City, announced that they were turning a former party store into The Little Fleet, a full-service bar whose food service is being largely provided by the food trucks they’ve invited to open up shop in their parking lot.
“We think it’s going to bring a lot of spirit to our city,” they said.
Almost all the new food trucks involved the venture are owned or operated by existing Traverse City restaurateurs. They include:
Pigs Eatin' Ribs, from chef Adam Kline, who pioneered the street food scene in neighboring Charlevoix. Kline intends to present a revolving menu centered around favorites like St. Louis spare ribs, pulled pork, brisket and probably a chicken item of some kind.
The Dragon Wagon, an Asian-flavored entry from Dan Marsh, owner of Red Ginger. Marsh's signature Asian influences at work in dishes like duck confit quesadillas, sushi, bao buns and gourmet “sliders” featuring crab cakes and seared tuna.
Anchor Station from Michael Peterson, owner of Siren Hall and Lulu’s Bistro, which has already made a few festival appearances. The new truck will pair some festival favorites with dishes including blackened fish, burgers, falafel and Dirty Fries (French fries tossed with smoked pork belly, Asiago cheese, scallions and herbs.)
EZ Cheesy, a Jonas-owned truck operated by Kim Ryan, formerly of The Cooks' House and the Om Café that will specialize in upscale grilled cheese sandwiches, featuring locally sourced cheese and bread, as well as unique sides and rotating specials.