Before it closed last December, few restaurants in town could compare to the Night Owl Cafe. Tucked in a hole in the wall in the Old City, the menu was inventive, yet seasonal, and lord, it was cheap.
There was the shiitake "bacon" on the vegetarian BLT's. There was the radish toast. And—for a brief time last fall—there was the trout. Cooked in parchment paper, or maybe a paper bag, topped with the last of the summer's cherry tomatoes, it was one of those dishes that make you say, "Jesus Christ, this is good," bite after bite after bite. It was special. And then it was gone.
If you talk to a certain subset of Knoxvillians—people who both love cooking and fine dining; people who are apt to know the difference between this local farmer and that one—you find a general skepticism as to whether the city can ever support the kind of restaurants that just landed Nashville in The New York Times last week. You know, the kind of restaurants that draw culinary tourism. The kind of restaurants that get nominated for Beard Awards (basically the Oscar of the food world).
Yes, we have the International Biscuit Festival and Baconfest, and sure, Blackberry Farm is just down the road, but sometimes it feels like there's this citywide apathy when it comes to creative cooking. Similarly situated cities have vibrant dining scenes—restaurants in Chattanooga and Asheville were nominated for Beard Awards this year, and smaller SEC college towns like Athens, Ga., and Oxford, Miss., have their own Beard Award-winning chefs. But in Knoxville, critics say, we don't often support the restaurants that try something different.
Yet is it really so hard to think that Knoxville can support the culinary arts the way Athens does? Local food scenes are hardly static. They evolve with every new chef, every new dish. And what's happening in Knoxville right now, this summer, just might make up for all the good restaurants that have tried and failed and left diners with only memories of what could have been.
Food trucks are finally here, Knoxville. With a little luck, our new generation of street-savvy chefs may put us on the culinary map.
The long summer day is drawing to a close at the Bearden Beer Market one Friday, and the tipplers are getting restless. It's time for a nosh.
And just beyond the roses, lit up with violet lights, the Savory and Sweet Truck awaits.
It's true that the Savory and Sweet Truck technically isn't Knoxville's first food truck—not by a long shot. There have been taco trucks roaming the streets for a number of years, and last year local fast-food chain Petro's started selling their chili-and-chips bowls from a truck, moving around all over town. A couple of barbecue joints soon followed suit, and for many, lunches or late night snacks became a lot more convenient.
But the Savory and Sweet Truck is different from Petro's, and barbecue, and tacos, even though owners Byron and Nikisha "Kiki" Sambat are no strangers to pulled pork and tortillas. Instead, the Savory and Sweet Truck is the first in Knoxville of what author and food historian John T. Edge calls the "New Guard" of food trucks. He describes this in his new cookbook, The Truck Food Cookbook, as "the insurgent band of young cooks who now stand at the helm of stepside vans, retrofitted Airstreams, and reimagined fiberglass carts. … Their work is informed, in equal measure, by the farm-to-fork movement, classic culinary matriculation, hard knocks education, punk rock gestalt, and a universal impatience, characteristic of cooks in their twenties and thirties."
These are the food trucks featured on the Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race, which is about to enter its third season. These are the food trucks that have gone from a Portlandia-esque fad to what food historian Josh Ozersky in Time this month calls a veritable revolution in the way we eat. "Like so much else in the world in which we find ourselves, like smartphones, Spotify, and all the rest, the food truck is bringing us flexibility and ease and liberation and, as Keanu Reeves memorably said in The Matrix, ‘a world without … borders and boundaries,'" Ozersky writes.
It's the lack of boundaries—specifically the brick-and-mortar kind—that attracted the Sambats to the idea of launching a truck. With help from Byron, Kiki had started an in-home bakery, Kiki Foods, last year, selling her wares at farmers' markets and to local restaurants. But the 33-year-old felt limited by baked goods, she says.
"It was always in the back of my mind that we wanted to do a savory component," Kiki says. "We kept waiting for a food truck here, especially because of the way that Knoxville always emulates Nashville, and it's taken off there so much." But no food truck came, so eventually the couple decided to bring the trend to town themselves.
"We thought about doing brick-and-mortar, but we didn't want to be tied down," Byron, 36, says. "We can find the crowd and go to them."
Since the truck debuted at First Friday downtown in March, it's been parked at the former Marble City (now Saw Works) Brewing Company, the Market Square Farmers' Market, Ijams Nature Center, the Beer Market, and any number of events around town. Their menu has ranged from candied jalapeño pimento cheese sliders to coffee-chipotle-smoked pork tacos to bacon-wrapped almond-stuffed dates served with blue cheese dressing. It's as local as the Sambats can make it, it's constantly changing, and most importantly, it's actually good—all for under $10 a serving. It's creative, but it's casual, and Knoxvillians seem to be loving it. The truck was a hit at Bonnaroo, and Scripps Networks has just hired the couple to bring the food truck to its West Knoxville headquarters while the cafeteria undergoes renovations.
The Savory and Sweet Truck may be Knoxville's first official new wave food truck, but that's almost a fluke. At least two more food trucks are in the works in the city, with more rumored (but unconfirmed by this reporter at press time). Another truck, Crazy Good Burgers, just opened in Morristown, with plans to make the occasional venture into Knoxville. And that's just the beginning of what's happening on the streets.
Wes Walker will be opening the Farm to Taco Truck in early July with his partner Chris Sparks. Both are veterans of the Orangery. Sparks, 32, also worked at Charlie Trotter in Chicago, and Walker, 27, spent three years at Blackberry Farm.
You know you're hanging out with fine-dining veterans when, on a sweltering afternoon on Walker's farm in Maryville, he asks if you want water, and after you say yes, he replies, "Sparkling or still?" But like so many of their compatriots across the country, the pair of friends have become obsessed with street food. They plan a menu with Southern, Southwestern, and Asian influences—items like barbecue-chicken quesadillas with caramelized onions and goat cheese and pulled-pork tacos topped with a vinegary coleslaw. Most importantly, they plan to grow the majority of the vegetables and herbs they use.
"It's just a superior product if you know what you're doing and put the time into [gardening]," Walker says.
He shows me the sizable organic garden and points out the heirloom peppers—banana, habenero, cayenne, poblano, jalapeño. We walk over to the custom-made smoker, where it takes eight to 10 hours to get the pork just tender enough. Then we sit down to a late lunch Sparks has whipped up: fried green tomato báhn mì sandwiches, with a side of sweet potato chips. Walker makes sure to note the purslane on the sandwich. Purslane! No detail has gone unnoticed.
The sandwiches are pure comfort food—crisp, tart, spicy, soulful. The chips are perfect airy slices of potato. The meal hits all the right notes, and in no time at all, we've wolfed it down.
Walker's been planning on opening a food truck for over two years, and he convinced Sparks to come on board earlier this year. Despite some snags with health-department permitting, including having to install a well-water filtration system, the pair is finally ready to bring their truck into Knoxville on weekends, with planned regular appearances at the Market Square Farmers' Market, Saw Works Brewing Company, and late nights at the Valarium.
Walker says the one thing that's been the most frustrating to him is the lack of support from the business community. He says he originally tried going through the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to learn about setting up a small business. "But it quickly became clear the Chamber didn't want that presence downtown," Walker says.
Whether or not the Chamber is enthusiastic, John T. Edge says that in a lot of ways, the new guard of food trucks is just as much about good business as good food. "It's a movement, but it's a movement of entrepreneurs," Edge explains in an interview while on a book tour for his cookbook. "I think that's the norm of what I saw across the country—people in their 20s or early 30s, with a good business plan, taking it quite seriously."
He says that battles that have cropped up in other cities between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks are a "non-issue."
"[Food trucks] can lead to a vital street life and have a benefit on food culture as a whole. They can benefit brick-and-mortar restaurants," he says. "Truck owners are small business entrepreneurs, not pirates slinging hash. … What I've seen is that it generally takes six to nine months for the city and cart owners to work it out. But competition is good for all."
Edge also notes that for many young chefs, opening a food truck is the first, more affordable step towards a less mobile dining experience.
"More than 20 percent of the people I write about in the book have since opened brick-and-mortar restaurants. These trucks can be small business incubators. There's a very good chance that someone can build a good business that can translate into a small, chef-driven restaurant," Edge says.
Of course, for people like Jeff Duke, the business plan isn't about eventually landing a storefront, it's about eventually having a fleet of food trucks that can do corporate lunches, weddings, festivals, and late nights around town. Duke, 44, is opening his Main Event Catering truck later this summer after running a sandwich shop and catering company for years, and after a career as a chef in upscale restaurants, including Peerless and S&W Grand.
"The different revenue opportunities from a food truck … are pretty much endless," Duke says. "You just pick the best locations and go there. You aren't dependent on foot traffic."
Duke grew up going to food trucks in California—first traditional taco trucks serving fresh tortillas filled with lengua (tongue) or cachete (beef cheek), and then the Korean trucks, whose influence has now filtered all the way down to T.G.I. Friday's. (Yes, really. You can get "Korean Steak Tacos" at Friday's.) As a result, he says he plans a multinational menu, with Latino, Asian, and Indian influences.
"It's gonna be pretty eclectic," Duke says. Like the Savory and Sweet Truck and Farm to Taco Truck, vegetables and meats will be coming from local farmers, and like the other two trucks, Duke hopes to lure in the tipsy, with plans to park late-nights on weekends at the Corner BP downtown.
"To get started out, I think this is the way to go," Duke says.
There are lots of difficulties to running a food truck, of course. There's the weather, for one. If it rains, you're unlikely to have customers. If it's steamy, you're stuck inside a narrow metal trailer in front of a hot stove. There's the issue of actually getting the food you cook—you'll be hard-pressed to find vendors who deliver to your truck they way they would to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Then you need to worry about getting the word out—building a follower base on Twitter and Facebook so your would-be customers can find you.
But when the word gets out, good things happen.
Take Manjit Bhatti. He's a Nashville native who moved to Knoxville in 2001 for school. After finishing a B.A. and an M.A. in German, he realized his heart wasn't in academia but the kitchen. He's currently a line cook at Northshore Brasserie, and he's also worked at Foothills Milling Company in Maryville. It may be an impressive culinary pedigree for the 29-year-old, but it's his $5 meals that are drawing raves this summer.
"I'm amazed they can do this quality of food off a truck," says Chris Jerger, nibbling on one of Bhatti's creations at the Market Square Farmers' Market.
"It's not just the food—it's the presentation and everything," adds his wife, Alice Schoo-Jerger.
The couple, like many, have become weekly devotees of Bhatti's Saturday morning kitchen mastery at the Cruze Farm Dairy truck. He started cooking for the farm three years ago, grilling sausage and bacon to add to Colleen Cruze's fluffy biscuits on Saturdays. Biscuits turned into hamburgers, and, this year, turned into Indian food. So, yeah, it's now an ice cream truck selling biscuits, milk drinks, and Indian food.
"I think that a lot of people think that it doesn't make sense," Bhatti says. "But it's everything obsessed with dairy. … Indians really love milk a lot."
Whether it makes sense or not, Cruze and Bhatti are doing something extraordinary every weekend. There's the ice cream, with flavors from kale to buttermilk lime cardamom. There are a range of milk drinks—mango lassi, whey lemonade, carrot milk. But the star of the show is Bhatti's food. Punjabi buttered lentils are topped with roasted bitter melon and preserved lemon. Bombay-style pigeon peas come with a dosa and coconut chutney. The whole roasted baby eggplants melt in your mouth.
This is not Indian food you can find anywhere else in Knoxville. This is Indian food you're lucky to find anywhere at all.
"It's just regular home food," Bhatti says modestly. "I felt there are a lot of similarities between Punjabi and Southern food. … To me a biscuit with butter is a very Indian food."
But when Bhatti makes a Goan-style congee with grits instead of rice and then tops it with a soft-boiled egg, crunchy paneer that's been marinated with preserved lemon, pickled oyster mushrooms, salty peanuts, cilantro, and sliced radishes? It's the best of all worlds, and you can only feel blessed to be sitting on a stool in the middle of the city spooning it into your mouth. This, this is what food can be.
In the new July issue of GQ, writer Brett Martin traverses the country in search of good food—new wave gourmet food, not just holes in the wall with amazing barbecue—and he finds it on food trucks, true, but also in a hospital in Raleigh, a Vegas casino, and even the Atlanta airport.
"It had long since become clear that the fortuitous collision of political, philosophical, health, and fashion movements that together form the Food Revolution had, over the past decade, penetrated nearly every corner of American life. … We the people have come to rely on, indeed feel entitled to, good food everywhere," Martin writes.
Martin almost came to Knoxville for this story, and he almost went to the Night Owl, and it's kind of too bad that the restaurant didn't get to be memorialized in a national magazine. But it's summer now, a whole new season. We have food trucks, and more on the way.
As Martin writes, "Food trucks have become to food scenes what porcupines are said to be to a forest: a sign that you've got a healthy, vibrant ecosystem at work."
And if people like the Sambats, Walker and Sparks, Duke, and Bhatti have anything to say about it, that Food Revolution is here to stay. It'll just be on the pavement.