Famous Food Carts That Are Better Than Any Sit-Down Restaurant

Though food carts in some form or another have been meandering the country for hundreds of years, the mobile dining revolution truly took hold of America during the last decade.

From the chuck wagons and pushcarts that served cowfolks and city workers after the Civil War, food trucks have evolved into a $2.7 billion industry. Food trucks, carts, and trailers provide burgeoning chefs a platform to experiment with unique dishes while taking advantage of low overheads and the millenial's love affair with mobile dining.

Once known as "roach coaches" and associated with greasy food of dubious hygiene standards, the mobile eateries of today are humble homes for some of the most innovative menus in America. From these tiny kitchen on wheels, chefs experiment with and circulate foreign, bold, and creative flavors throughout their cities. Food trucks, carts, and trailers superior to any sit-down restaurant are wheeling across the country, and we've listed some of the tastiest of them here.

Portland: Potato Champion

Even as other major cities are hit by a food truck renaissance, Portland's food trailer scene still manages to astound. The city hosts more than 500 food carts, arranged in parking lots as clusters or "pods." Pods of food carts and trailers scatter the city, serving everything from roasted jalapeno-peanut butter and bacon sandwiches to traditional Scandinavian lefse.

In a city with pods upon pods of mind-blowing food carts, it was hard to pick a favorite. Potato Champion stood out among the many exceptional contenders as a quintessential Portland trailer, started by 29-year-old drummer Mike McKinnon in 2008. The drummer-turned-chef spent months researching the after-hours frite world of Holland and Belgium to develop the menu, which includes options like PB&J fries and satay poutine.

The cart is located at 12th and Hawthorne within the Cartopia food pod, the city's go-to late-night spot. There, Potato Champion slices up hand-cut, twice-fried Belgian-style fries with a mouthwatering array of toppings until the wee hours of the morning.

Austin: Dee Dee

The Lone Star state's quirky, ever-innovating capital, Austin is another one of the country's shining food cart hubs. Like Portland, Austin grows clusters of food carts, trailers, trucks, and silver bullets in outdoor food courts around the city.

Recently relocated from its East Cesar Chavez location in the Aztec Food Trailer Park to a new courtyard on East Sixth, the Dee Dee food trailer dishes out Northern Thai-style street food to long lines of foodies. Dee Dee (or "Good Good" in Thai) was established by husband-wife team Lakana and Justin Trubiana. Raised in the northern countryside of Thailand, Lakana cooks everything to order using generations-old recipes. Her complex, herbal dishes differ from many traditional Thai restaurant classics in the U.S., pulling more culinary inspiration from neighboring Laos than central Thailand. Instead of long-grain jasmine, Lakana serves sticky rice with dishes like sweet moo ping pork skewers or fiery shredded papaya-carrot som tom salad. The sticky rice can be used like a kind of bread to soak up the fragrant sauces, she advises.

New York City: Kwik Meal

In a food-crazed city abounding with Zagat-rated and Michelin-starred restaurants, New York food carts compete with the best of them. Hundreds of mobile vendors — many of whom are immigrants who have ran food carts for decades — scatter the city, hawking goodies like Filipino-style spring rolls, mac-and-cheese, and New York's iconic dirty water dog.

Amid the many carts peddling meat on Sixth Avenue in the mid 40s, Kwik Meal shines with its juicy, marinated lamb on pita. The food cart is captained by Mohammed Rahman, a Bangladesh-born chef who formerly worked the kitchen at the Russian Tea Room. Within the tiny food cart, Rahman and fellow chefs wear floppy white hats while grilling lamb, chicken, shrimp, and fish. Their signature lamb dish is marinated in yogurt and mashed green papaya and served with a tangy white sauce and bright green jalapeno hot sauce over basmati. The success of the lamb and other Kwik Meal favorites has enabled Rahman to expand to two other midtown food carts.

Various: Coolhaus

Long before Coolhaus became a national ice cream sandwich sensation, founders Natasha Case and Freya Estreller — 20-somethings with backgrounds in architecture and real estate development — bought a beat-up postal van on Craigslist. The girls towed the van (which didn't drive) from Los Angeles to Indo, California to serve their homemade ice cream sandwiches at the 2009 Coachella Valley Music Festival.

The sandwiches, which were inspired by different architects and architectural movements, were a huge hit among Coachella festival-goers. Case and Esteller sold their modern architecture-themed ice cream sandwiches until 4 a.m. and awoke just three hours later to a line of customers waiting in the morning.

From the Coachella debut, Coolhaus has evolved into a fleet of 10 hipster ice cream trucks that rove Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas. Trucks tote all-natural sandwiches handmade from rotating cookies and ice cream flavors, such as avocado sea salt and balsamic fig with mascarpone. In addition to hand-delivering ice cream sandwiches from trucks, Coolhaus serves up sammies at two Southern California-based shops and distributes products to major grocery chains.

Chicago: The Corner Farmacy

Shattering former notions of food-truck fare as unhealthy or unrefined, The Corner Farmacy crafts locally sourced ingredients into a seasonally rotating menu of farm-fresh eats. A favorite among the 70+ eclectic food trucks parked around Chicago, The Corner Farmacy has managed to thrive even as tough city regulations have driven out other mobile dining establishments. The secret to their success could lie with their strong partnerships with local farms, artisans, and businesses.

The Corner Farmacy sets up around downtown Chicago, doling out all-day artisanal breakfast sandwiches and goodies like curried pumpkin soup and glazed lamb skewers. A favorite is bacon-date paninis featuring Beeler's bacon with a caramelized onion-medjool date compote on toasted bread. Their food menu is complemented by kombucha, house-made nut milks (dubbed "Nilk"), and small-batch juices, cold pressed from raw fruits and veggies by a hydraulic press. The first to sell out every morning, the juices pack more than four pounds of produce into each 16-ounce bottle.

Tucson: Ricuras de Venezuela

In a town that didn't have a single brick-and-mortar Venezuelan restaurant, Ricuras de Venezuela changed the game when it first appeared outside of Club Congress in 2015. Ricuras de Venezuela (Spanish for "Riches of Venezuela") was dreamed up by Marlene Baquet, who wanted to bring her mother's recipes from La Guaira, Venezuela to Tuscon. Baquet and her husband Steve searched high and low for a vehicle with a suitable grill for making arepas, finally discovering the perfect truck in Sinaloa, Mexico.

Now, the truck parks outside of Club Congress on Friday and Saturday night to serve the late-night revelers wandering Tucson's downtown. From 11 p.m. until 3 a.m., the Baquet family and their staff stuffs soft, homemade arepas with mechada shredded beef, pernil pork, and plantains, and serves them deep-fried or baked. In addition to hot, made-to-order arepas, Ricuras de Venezuela shells out empanadas and cachapas — traditional Venezuelan pancakes with sweet corn and melted cheese. The family's South of American eats can be doused with a locally inspired avocado-cilantro sauce made from fiery chiltepin peppers.  

Los Angeles: Kogi BBQ

They say you're not a true Angeleno until you've had a spicy pork taco from the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck. The iconic LA and Orange County-based taco truck is credited with spearheading the Korean taco phenomenon.

The truck is headed by famed chef Roy Choi, who spent years in fancy kitchens places like Le Bernardin and the Beverly Hills Hilton before plunging into the rough-and-tumble food truck world. The Korea-born chef took to the streets with his Mexican-Korean tacos back in 2008 when the modern food truck revolution was just beginning. Since then, Kogi has blossomed into an LA institution with four trucks, a restaurant, taqueria, and bar.  

The Kogi truck menu includes the notorious short-rib taco, which wraps two charred-and-grilled homemade tortillas around double-caramelized Korean BBQ  with chile-soy slaw and salsa roja. Other favorites include the quesadillas oozing with melted jack and cheddar cheeses and caramelized buttered kimchi, and the all-beef Kogi dog with house slaw and cilantro-onion relish.

Boston: Roxy's Grilled Cheese

When James DiSabatino first bought a food truck off Craigslist, food trucks weren't legal in Boston. The recent Emerson College grad somehow managed to convince the Boston Parks Department to give him a food cart license and pass the city's health inspection. That's how Roxy's Grilled Cheese became Boston's first food truck to park on the streets.

Years later, nearly 100 food trucks are registered in Boston, despite the fact the city has been dubbed one of the unfriendliest places for food trucks due to its bleak weather. Even after opening brick-and-mortar locations in Allston and Central Square, the Roxy's Grilled Cheese truck remains among their number. With the iconic grilled-cheese-wielding punk rocker painted on its side, the Roxy's trucks deliver inspired grilled cheese sandwiches around the city. Inside, chefs grill up an inspired menu of grilled cheese sandwiches, layering Iggy's organic pain de mie bread with Vermont cheddar, fontina, bacon, and barbecue-braised short rib and slicing truffle fries by hand. Sandwiches are paired with an ever-rotating selection of house-made lemonades.

Seattle: It's Bao Time

Taiwanese-American chef Sean Jen fell in love with Taiwanese food in the seventh grade during his first trip to Taiwan. That was when his relatives introduced him to traditional night markets, bustling, vibrant food centers packed with vendors and diners chowing down late into the night.

Jen was inspired to open It's Bao Time, a Taiwanese food truck, in order to bring the flavors of Taipei night markets to Seattle. In a city that is home to hundreds of food trucks, It's Bao Time is one of the handful that offers Taiwanese eats.

Within the cheerful white and blue truck, Jen is joined by Seattle Refined's Best Chef on the Block Young Cho, the mastermind behind former Mexican-Asian restaurant Phorale. The duo fills soft, steamed bao buns with chicken and oyster mushrooms, and shower braised minced pork belly over rice. They round out their menu with taro fries with siracha mayo.

New Orleans: Taceaux Loceaux

Here's another taco truck with a twist: Taceaux Loceaux is a New Orleans mobile dining pioneer that sizzles up street tacos with creative ingredients. The Mexican-fusion food truck first hit the city streets in 2010, back when mobile dining establishments in New Orleans were few and far between.

Now, fine food trucks flood New Orleans and Taceaux Loceaux leads the way as one of the finest. The taqueria on wheels serves inspired tacos across town, parking outside of popular bars to the delight of tipsy patrons. The Taceaux Loceaux menu includes classics like the Messin' with Texas taco with seasoned slow-roasted brisket, the Seoul Man with Korean-style bulgogi chicken and sriracha aioli, and the Carnital Knowledge with slow-cooked pork and chipotle. Tacos come two-per order and can (and should) be paired with crispy avocado fries. Over the years, Taceaux Loceaux has won the hearts of celebrity fans like Anthony Bourdain in addition to a massive Twitter following.