The Forks blog

Steel City sandwich truck: On a roll

Written by Hal B. Klein on

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“Who knew the cult of tacos al pastor would become a nationwide sensation?” legendary food critic Jonathan Gold recently wrote about the nation’s enthusiastic embrace of food served from a truck.

Over the past few years, food trucks have steadily filled the streets of nearly every major American city from New York to Portland.

Except, of course, the streets of Pittsburgh.

At the moment, there is only a smattering of fleet eats here, many of them offshoots of popular brick-and-mortar establishments. Food trucks appear at beer gardens and special events, but late-night denizens of Carson Street or East Liberty aren’t able to regularly grab a hot dog, cupcake or grilled cheese from a truck on the way home.

Proponents of food trucks argue that the city’s existing laws crush the entrepreneurial spirit of mobile chefs. Opponents of reform believe that the addition of low-cost ventures might hurt the city’s burgeoning restaurant industry.

Nearly everyone agrees that Pittsburgh’s inclement weather can make eating outdoors a tricky proposition.

Whatever the reason may be, Pittsburgh isn’t a food truck town — at least not yet. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that Pittsburgh’s best food truck isn’t found anywhere near Pittsburgh. In fact, you’ll have to take a plane if you want to grab a bite.

The Steel City Sandwich Truck, emblazoned with images of industrial Pittsburgh, is roaming the star-studded streets of Los Angeles.

The food truck, at least its contemporary incarnation, was invented in Los Angeles. It has the perfect elements for mobile food innovation: Year-round, near-perfect weather. Traffic-choked roads and freeways that discourage diners from spending hours in their cars just to grab a bite at the hot new restaurant on the other side of town. A vast array of immigrant and ethnic food cultures.

The modern food truck craze largely can be traced to chef Roy Choi and the 2008 rollout of his Kogi truck. His Korean-influenced tacos were novel and the truck’s presence was an event.

Angelinos hovered over Twitter feeds, waiting to see where the truck would park. Hordes of hipsters and foodies waited in long lines to taste Mr. Choi’s food.

Another factor in the rise of the food truck: Los Angeles loves to both embrace and export new trends. Now there are hundreds of food trucks in Los Angeles, ranging from those selling deep-fried eggroll sandwiches to gourmet delights created by "Top Chef Masters" alums.

Pittsburgh transplants Taylor Funkhouser and Neil Shuman decided to hop on the bandwagon and open their own truck to feed the bellies of Steel City fans.

Ms. Funkhouser, a Point Park graduate, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Mr. Shuman, a chef trained at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute, was ready to expand his repertoire in a new city. But both agreed that something was missing in Los Angeles: A taste of home.

“We missed Primanti’s. We missed my grandma’s pierogies,” she said.

So 18 months ago, after spending some time serving sandwiches to friends from their home kitchen, the two decided to purchase a beat-up 1980s lonchera, “wrap it in a $3,000 sticker,” and open the Steel City Sandwich Truck.

Now Angelinos have access to sandwiches with french fries and slaw, pierogies and a little taste of Pittsburgh. Ms. Funkhouser knows that, even if she’s far from home, she’s taking on an iconic sandwich. “When you’re doing such an epic sandwich, we have to strive to do it even better,” she said.

Indeed, her sandwiches might even eclipse their inspiration. The hand-cut french fries are never frozen and the crisp flavor of the apple-cider vinegar-soaked slaw is a particular triumph. 

Other sandwiches stick close to the Primanti’s classics, though the avocado-topped, vegetarian “California Transplant” does reflect the local culture.

Still, Ms. Funkhouser knows where to draw the line. For example, what if a newbie asks for the fries or slaw on the side?

“I politely say no.”

The truck is usually found outside of Dillion’s Irish Pub in Hollywood during Steelers games, though they will, from time-to-time, cater a private party.

Ms. Funkhouser says those are her favorite events because the spirit (and often sprits, especially Iron City beer) of Pittsburgh truly shines. 

But a food truck can’t survive on orders from just the home team, and a sandwich loaded with French fries might seem to be a hard sell in a town best known for its farmers markets.

“That was my big concern, because Californians have a reputation for eating vegan and all-natural. But it’s just the opposite; they get the fattiest sandwich I could possibly make (the Steel Curtain). They house it,” she said.

Despite the distance, she is aware of the struggle to get better access to food trucks in Pittsburgh and checks in with friends in the industry. Yet there are no plans for the Steel City Sandwich Truck to roll the streets of its hometown anytime soon. 

Both Ms. Funkhouser and Mr. Shuman are living the California dream. They recently shot separate episodes of a cooking competition reality show. Still, she knows that Los Angeles isn’t always as peachy as it appears to be on TV, that there are some things that Pittsburgh just does better.

“I miss cheap beer," she said. "And I miss Gooski's."

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Hal B. Klein is a food and drinks writer living in Pittsburgh. He regularly contributes stories on the intersection of food and the environment to The Allegheny Front, which airs on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station. Hal writes a weekly drinks column, "On the Rocks," for Pittsburgh City Paper and his work has been seen in TABLE Magazine, The Inquisitive Eater and Drink Me Magazine. Hal holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from Chatham University. He tweets @thismanskitchen.

Hal B. Klein photos

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