The reluctant appearance of warmer weather in the Capital District means that lunch options for downtown Albany workers expand dramatically. Food trucks line West Capitol Park, and the weekly farmers market on Empire Plaza adds another batch of trucks and food vendors to choose from.
I was feeling summery and inspired this week to do a feature on the trucks of West Capitol Park. But after the first one, I realized something – I really never enjoy these particular trucks that much. They’re passable, and there’s a certain freshness to the first few weeks of spring when I can emerge from my office and order lunch in the sunshine and sit on the fountain to eat without a care in the world. But if I’m being completely honest, the food isn’t anything spectacular.
Exhibit A is this grilled chicken sandwich from Michele’s Charcoal Pit (the Triple S: ‘shrooms, swiss, and stout beer mustard). Michele’s always has one of the longest lines, and that’s not because of slow service. I’ve always found that they churn out their grilled burgers and sandwiches pretty quickly. So it’s safe to assume that this is one of people’s favorite truck options.
This sandwich was messy. And not in a good, scrambling to get every last drop kind of way, but instead like there was an entire bottle of mustard only on one half of the sandwich, and I needed to eat it with a fork and a knife by the time I got a chance to sit down. The lettuce and tomato I ordered was MIA, and the sweet potato fries weren’t even remotely crisp.
The point here isn’t just to bash Michele’s or its neighboring trucks. I decided to squash the rest of the feature because I wanted to avoid an all-negative complaining piece. So instead, I tried to reflect on the state of food trucks in the Capital District – why aren’t they better?
Last fall I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Austin, Texas, which is truly a hub for fantastic food trucks. Almost everything we ate came off a truck. We’re talking about delicious breakfast tacos with eggs and salsa verde, barbecue ribs and brisket carved right in front of you, and creative taco combinations served alongside open seating bars. It really opened my eyes to what could be possible.
So what’s wrong with Albany? Why haven’t we caught up yet? I offer a couple of theories.
- Maybe we make it too hard for new food trucks to open up shop. I’ve heard the red tape/regulation argument from a few folks, and I obviously don’t have any first hand experience to back this up. But it’s certainly possible that onerous requirements coupled with high costs of doing business could deter new competition from coming into the area. I’ve also heard that there’s not enough authorized zones where the food trucks can operate.
- Maybe I’m biased against local food trucks because the batch in West Capitol Park is fairly mediocre, but there are other good ones out there that I’m missing! I have always wished that new faces would appear on the lineup outside the Capitol. I assume that the regulars are somehow grandfathered in and get to return every year if they wish, but maybe some new blood would push the quality up through competition. Plus a rotating list of trucks would be more interesting.
- Maybe there’s something about the physical location of Albany that’s not conducive to food truck success. One of the obvious differences between here and Austin, beyond sheer population size, is the climate. A food truck isn’t going to have much luck operating in winter, and that could both deter new businesses and cut into the profits of the existing ones.
Let me know below – is there another reason I’m missing for why our food trucks don’t really push the culinary envelope? Am I being too harsh and missing some great ones?
Maybe it will just take some time for a better truck scene to develop. I’ll be waiting.