Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn was just three months old when Susan Povich and Ralph Gorham decided to expand their business beyond those sweet, twin-clawed crustaceans from Maine. The couple graduated to lobster rolls, the classic New England sandwich of summer, which they began selling on Saturdays at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene. They quickly discovered that people were willing to wait an hour, or longer, just for the privilege to plunk down $15 for a sliced roll stuffed with fresh claw and knuckle meat.
Povich and Gorham figured a food truck was the next logical step, not just to ease the pain of those poor souls waiting in line at the Brooklyn Flea but to expand their business into the thriving street-food scene in Manhattan. But they soon learned a hard lesson about New York curbside vending: It’s damn near impossible to get a Health Department permit. At least not without some serious cash and perhaps a Machiavellian sense of business operations.
“There is kind of a black market, but it’s not black because it’s legal,” says Povich, a self-described lapsed lawyer and the daughter of Maury Povich (and granddaughter of legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich). “I don’t know how the agreements work, but if I wanted a truck in New York, essentially I have to find some stressed-out hot dog vendor and say, ‘Look, I’ll give you $20,000. Be my partner.’ Set up some weird LLC where he has no control over it whatsoever. He’s a limited partner, and he gets a small revenue stream. And I get his license.”
Povich didn’t learn about this “loophole” in the vending code until a sympathetic New York City official pointed it out to her. By that time, however, she had already turned to her first cousin, Douglas Povich, a telecommunications and technology lawyer in D.C., to help launch a Red Hook Lobster Pound food truck in the District. They had done their homework and determined that, when it comes to street vending, D.C. is the place to be. D.C.’s bureaucracy may not be the world’s speediest, but it apparently beats New York’s when it comes to giving food-trucks the green light.
This news, of course, delights Sam Williams, the vending and special events coordinator for D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. For years, he’s heard almost nothing but complaints about the District’s immature street-food culture, which has yet to outgrow its adolescent chips-and-soda stage. And for years, Williams has been patiently talking to the intransigent parties—mostly the old-school street vendors and the depot owners who house their carts—to try to pass legislation that would bring more variety to our street foods. The city’s work has largely paid off: Most of the pieces are in place for a renaissance of D.C. street food, but Williams can’t seem to reach consensus on the final two regulatory pieces: the price of a site permit and the lottery process by which vendors would be paired with a site.
Food trucks, naturally, don’t need site permits or even a site, which is why these mobile units have assumed the spotlight in D.C., much like they have in the Los Angeles metro area, which boasts an estimated 90 mobile vendors that peddle everything from grilled cheese to dim sum. In D.C., food trucks have two obvious benefits over the sidewalk-based carts: They’re more spacious (and therefore able to accommodate more than a steaming pot of dirty-water dogs), and they’re not fixed to a specific location. The District’s trucks also have a huge advantage over their New York counterparts: There are plenty of licenses available here.
Still, the District has presented challenges to the Red Hook principals. For starters, the city limits the size of vehicles. Williams notes that food trucks cannot exceed 18 and a half feet in length, so that they fit within the standard D.C. parking space. There is absolutely no wiggle room with this rule, not even a single extra inch is allowed. “There is no exception for it,” Williams says. “It’s the law.”
Douglas Povich knew all about the restrictions but still decided to buy a used Freightliner step van, which he had to literally chop down to size to meet the D.C. regulations. The Red Hook owners wanted the wider girth of an oversized truck. Shortening the vehicle “was not an inexpensive task,” Douglas Povich says. “We thought the additional investment in the wider truck, but shortening it, made sense.”
The biggest shock for the Red Hook owners, however, may be yet to come. They hope to have their truck on the road no later than the end of June, Douglas Povich says, so they can sell their Maine-style (chilled lobster, with mayonnaise) and Connecticut-style (warm, with butter) lobster rolls during the height of the summer season.
But as the food trucks that have come before Red Hook know, one of D.C.’s most burdensome restrictions remains stubbornly in place. Call it the ice cream truck rule: In Washington, a truck—whether hawking upscale lobster rolls or down-market fro-yo—can’t simply pull up to a curb and set up shop. There has to be a line of customers waiting. While ice-cream vendors traditionally relied on their ding-ding-ding jingles to drum up a crowd, modern vendors will have to rely on social media to do the trick. “You’re going to have to adhere to the law or you’re going to put your license in jeopardy,” Williams says.
The law won’t change under those proposed regulations that Williams has been working on for years (and hopes to pass this summer). But the city does have other ideas to help ease the burden on mobile vendors: They hope to take control and improve a lottery system, currently administered by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which passes out prime Mall locations to food trucks. And the District also hopes to create “destination” spots for food trucks, perhaps in parks, so that people seek out these mobile vendors at specific locations. The ice-cream-truck regulation would be waived in these permit scenarios.
Even without the assistance of a site permit, however, Red Hook could work within the existing ice-cream-truck rules by using Twitter and Facebook. With enough followers, the lobster truck could notify people to meet it at a pre-determined location. Whatever the rules, though, Susan Povich doesn’t seem worried. She even jokes about adding a theme song to blare from her truck. In fact, she already knows what tune she wants, a folk song about “two lobsters talking before going into the pot.”
Waiting for a Hero
The sizable crowd milling around the new Rebel Heroes truck told me one of several things: The Ballston neighborhood continues to struggle for cheap and decent lunch options, the magnetic pull of street food remains undeniable, or the banh misold from this mom-and-daughter operation is something special. Or a combination of all three.
I put 30 minutes’ worth of coins into the parking meter and got in line with the rest of the hungry masses. Standing right in front of me was another professional mouth, whose name I won’t reveal. We decided to buy two sandwiches apiece and divide the bounty between ourselves. We had plenty of time to strategize; hell, we had enough time to plot out a Middle East peace plan, since co-owner Tan Nguyen and her mother, Ninh, don’t prepare sandwiches ahead of time, whether their traditional “Old Guard” banh mi and Cubanos or their cheese-laden “Rebel” bites.
I fear that the crush of diners surrounding the truck — with their fidgeting need to have their orders filled now — caused some lapses in service with the stressed-out Rebel Heroes crew. Nguyen never asked us what kind of sauce we wanted with our sandwiches nor whether we wanted our Rebels pressed, Cubano-style. The sandwiches merely came out as the RH team decided they should.
Now, let me just say for the record: I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the four sandwiches we ordered — the roast pork banh mi and the pressed Cubano from the “Old Guard” menu and the “che-che-che chicken” and the “eggs de resistance” from the “Rebels” menu. These are lusty and multi-layered sandwiches that lean on tradition without being beholden to them. They are far more successful at hitting the sweet spot of the American palate than any of the items sold from the high-tech Sâuçá truck, which also aims to adapt international street foods for hungry office workers.
Part of Rebel Heroes’ success, I think, can be traced to the owners’ decision to rely on traditional Vietnamese-style French baguettes, which are fresh and crusty and sturdy enough to ferry all the juicy ingredients that could destroy lesser breads. The crunch on these sandwiches is as satisfying as the savory, mayo-slathered meats, the pickled veggies, and the fresh, aromatic garnishes.
I hate to put so much pressure on such a young business, but I think Rebel Heroes may already be the best food truck going. Note that I said food truck. The little yellow bulgogi cart at 14th and L streets is still untouchable.
And by the way, when I got back to the car, my meter had expired. Factor that into any trip you plan to make to Rebel Heroes.
Follow Rebel Heroes at twitter.com/rebelheroes
Passport to Nowhere
Like the Fojol Bros. before them, the Sâuçá truck is not satisfied to just sell quality street food. It’s selling an experience.
In this case, the experience is a concentration, perhaps more like a distillation, of the global cultural community into one high-tech truck. You can taste it in the international flavors packed into Sâuçá’s soups, Belgian-style toffles, and flatbread “sâuçá” sandwiches. You can hear it in the world music pouring from the truck’s sound system. You can even see it in the “passport”-style design of the company’s trucks, which now number two.
As a concept, Sâuçá is less interested in authenticity than in its own custom-made mash-up of international flavors. It may madden the traditionalists among us, but you can’t argue with one thing: Sâuçá has style.
I’ve sampled a good number of items from Sâuçá’s menu, from the pork banh mi and the butter chicken sandwiches to the chicken mulligatawny soup to a burnt and blackened toffle topped with sliced bananas and Nutella. I’ve even sampled the housemade (truck-made?) limunad, which is billed as a “citrus cooler infused with mint and orange blossom.”
I should say it was billed that way on the menu; the friendly dude in the truck kept calling it “lemonade,” which it decidedly is not. The orange blossom adds such a floral note to the drink that I almost thought Sâuçá had dumped rose water into the liquid. Once your taste buds adjust to the shock, though, the limunad proves fascinating. It’s sweeter than lemonade and far more aromatic. It tastes like some exotic, Middle Eastern take on Country Time lemonade.
The mulligatawny soup, a thick curry-laced puree of chicken and lentils over rice, plays to your sweet tooth, too, no doubt due to the addition of coconut milk. It makes for a fairly vanilla soup. In fact, my first spoonful brought to mind butternut squash, not Indian curry.
But the most interesting (and frustrating) dish has to be the pork banh mi, which is Sâuçá’s take on the classic Vietnamese sandwich. It’s filled with what looks and tastes like sauteed pork meat (not sliced deli meat), which is then layered with pickled vegetables and chiffonade basil and drenched in at least two different sauces, including peanut and Thai coconut. The border-crossing bite comes rolled in a flatbread that has the airy, slightly chewy texture of naan fresh from the tandoor.
If you’re looking for the classic flavors and textures of a banh mi, this soft, overly dressed sandwich will be a sore disappointment. If you accept it on its own sweet-and-spicy terms, it’ll prove satisfying, even tasty, if not exactly authentic to any particular cuisine. It’s a cross-cultural mutt of a sandwich, arguably perfect for the global-world-without-borders-melting-pot vibe that Sâuçá is attempting to create. The same thought holds true for the butter chicken sandwich, which wanders even further from its Subcontinental source of inspiration.
Sâuçá is an odd concept: It provides a taste of the world without allowing you to feel rooted in any particular country. I’m still trying to decide whether that’s a good thing or not.
Follow Sâuçá at twitter.com/eatsauca
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.