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10 Best Cities for Food Trucks and Quick, Cheap Eats

Some parts of the United States have a longer relationship with food trucks – or their predecessors – than others. The first mobile kitchen, the chuckwagon, catered to cattle drivers on the High Plains of Texas and Oklahoma from the mid-19th century onwards. In urban areas, the first food carts sold hearty meals to third-shift workers, long after regular restaurants had closed for the night. New York’s ubiquitous hot dog carts are remnants of this past as well. And starting in the mid-20th century, taco trucks – serving cheap, homestyle food to the region’s booming Latino community – appeared in southern California cities.

Another Los Angeles original, the Kogi Korean BBQ truck, is widely credited with re-energizing the present-day food truck movement. This truck uses social media marketing to alert followers to its ever-changing location, as Twitter and Facebook are now key marketing tools for many food truck operators. Once the value proposition – high-quality, relatively healthy, and often unique food at a reasonable cost – became clear, urban foodies clamored for more.

The economic downturn didn’t hurt business either. Talented but unemployed chefs desperate to find new sources of income seized on the mobile food truck business model. Kogi’s approach caught on like wildfire. Local food truck business associations, multi-city finder apps, and even online marketplaces for used food trucks popped up.

Fast forward several years, and food trucks are everywhere. They’re still cheaper and faster than high-end restaurants, though prices do vary between them. For instance, Washington, D.C.’s Feelin’ Crabby charges about $20 for a seven-ounce lobster-and-crab sandwich, while $3 still gets you a gourmet beef or pork taco at many neighborhood taco trucks. In Denver, the Spicy Kitchen splits the difference on nachos, tacos, and other no-nonsense Southwestern fare.

Food trucks are increasingly specialized now as well due to increased competition and limited food storage space, which forces some vendors now focus on narrow niches. For example, in Minneapolis, Foxy Falafel serves nothing but falafel and hummus, while multi-city Coolhaus specializes in ice cream sandwiches (and delivers nationally to folks not within reach of one of its mobile eateries).

Best Cities for Food Trucks in North America (Best Food Truck Cities)

It’s now possible to find food trucks in small towns, tidy suburbs, medium-sized industrial cities, and major metropolitan areas. Whether due to sheer numbers or a commitment to innovative mobile cuisine, some North American cities have developed a reputation as food truck meccas. In no particular order, here are some of the best food truck cities on the continent.

1. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia has hundreds of food trucks. Many cluster in business districts such as University City and Center City, as well as around transit hubs like 30th Street Station. During the warm season, Love Park (home of the famous LOVE sculpture) is a popular gathering place as well. And the city’s big universities, such as Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, attract a disproportionate number while classes are in session.

Economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the northern and western sections of the city, which suffer from a lack of eat-in restaurants and full-service grocery stores, tend to be ignored. However, the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, one of the industry’s most powerful local trade groups, aims to change this by “developing alternative eating spaces throughout Philadelphia on underutilized private and public spaces…while providing increased food choices to the public.”

  • Why It’s Great. Philly has roughly one food truck for every 10,000 inhabitants, and that ratio is becoming even closer. The local industry is tight-knit and community-focused, with a highly developed advocacy network in the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, which lobbies the city council and neighborhood associations for truck-friendly changes to zoning, siting, and licensing rules. The homegrown Philly Food Truck app connects hungry folks with their favorite vendors, showing their current locations and hours. And, since Philly has a high student population, many trucks are affordable, adventurous, and willing to keep late-night hours.
  • Trucks to Try. If you live or work in Center City, visit Say Cheese (try the Presto Pesto and Wild Bill), which has long haunted the corner of 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, or Octopus Falafel Truck for an enormous falafel sandwich (prices vary, depending on fillings) at 20th and Market.

2. Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland has more than 40 mobile food vendors, mostly clustered downtown or in University Circle. As in Philadelphia, college students make out well: Both Cleveland State and Case Western University have native food trucks, and many roam between these two points.

Cleveland’s weather does pose a challenge, with many operators closing for the long, snowy winters. Some focus on their brick-and-mortar restaurants during the cold season. Come May, springtime festivals rouse the rest from hibernation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cleveland has a high number of reservations- and events-only food trucks, like River Dog Food Truck. These operators don’t roam the streets like their brethren, but you’ll see them at public and private events around town.

  • Why It’s Great. A ratio of roughly one food truck for every 10,000 inhabitants is impressive for a city that’s not always associated with innovative cuisine. It doesn’t yet have a local trade group, but Cleveland Food Truck News serves as its unofficial PR mouthpiece. Cleveland does have a longtime resident food truck ambassador in Chris Hodgson, whose truck won second place on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race and who appeared on the Cooking Channel’s “Unique Eats.” Weekly gatherings (and regular business activity) attract upwards of a dozen trucks to fixed locations in the city’s business district.
  • Trucks to Try. Off The GRIDdle (try the veggie pita for a healthy, delicious bite) is a staple of Cleveland and surrounding suburbs. Seti’s Polish Boys is an elusive but ever-in-demand truck that trawls Cleveland’s east side and serves up its namesake, a local sandwich delicacy. Fire Truck Pizza Company brings its on-board pizza oven (in an actual fire truck) to Berea’s Italian American Festival and the Walnut Wednesday gathering. Its affordable pies are specially priced for catered events.

3. Vancouver, British Columbia

With the mildest climate of any big Canadian city, Vancouver has an entrenched outdoor dining culture. There are at least 100 officially licensed food trucks here, though the exact count fluctuates. Many of them cluster in the densely populated downtown and West End districts, but you can find a few in suburbs like New Westminster too. Even by the industry’s eclectic standards, Vancouver’s food trucks are innovative and globally focused, with many inspired by Indian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisine.

  • Why It’s Great. Vancouver’s official mobile food industry association, StreetFood Vancouver Society, has strict membership criteria, including local ownership, homemade ingredients, and high-quality food. Members pool their resources for marketing, PR, and regulatory advocacy. The city-run Vancouver Street Food Program has its own truck-locating app. And Vancouver Food Cart Fest is one of Canada’s biggest mobile food gatherings, with around two dozen regular vendors and thousands of attendees at weekly events in Olympic Village and Surrey.
  • Trucks to Try. Vancouver’s food truck scene is diverse and cheap. Reel Mac and Cheese now has three trucks in the greater Vancouver area and serves up simple delicacies for under $10 Canadian. Super Thai is a vegetarian-friendly favorite that regularly appears around downtown parks. And Bobbie’s Indian Food Truck offers a rotating fusion menu that blends Subcontinental seasonings with North American sensibilities.

Mildest Climate Vancouver Canada

4. San Francisco, California

Food trucks are increasingly important to San Francisco‘s legendary food scene – and a welcome alternative to the business district’s pricey restaurants. The city has about 200 active trucks, with many more in nearby Bay Area communities. Many cluster near the Embarcadero and along the Market Street corridor, but the University of San Francisco, San Francisco General Hospital, and AT&T Park (during Giants home games) are popular too. The city’s sophisticated food culture rewards experimentation, and its high student population and vibrant nightlife encourage many trucks to remain open well after dinner hours.

  • Why It’s Great. Local foodies rely on the Off the Grid food truck curator to stay abreast of the latest events (and news of new trucks). If you can’t make it downtown at lunchtime, Off the Grid brings an impressive concentration of trucks to outlying areas, including Presidio Park, Fort Mason, and the Serramonte Center in Daly City. In August, the annual San Francisco Street Food Festival brings more than 50 chef-driven businesses to the Mission District.
  • Trucks to Try. Hit up the SoMa StrEat Food Park to find dozens of sought-after vendors in one place (and, if you please, get your hair cut outdoors at the in-residence Barber Collective). Elsewhere, The Chairman Truck uses sustainable, organic ingredients to support a citywide campaign that’s earned it high praise (including “best food truck in San Francisco” one year). For dessert, try the cupcakes and mini pies at Sweet Treat Stop, which roams the Bay Area and offers delivery to boot.

5. Houston, Texas

Houston is a sprawling city, so being able to locate a food truck near you is important if you’re pressed for time. With more than 1,000 of them in the city and surrounding communities, that shouldn’t be hard. Trucks tend to favor busy business districts such as downtown Houston and the Westside, as well as shopping areas like the Galleria and Greenspoint. Affordable, student-friendly options cluster near Rice and Baylor Universities. And the always-busy Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest healthcare facility, draws vendors well before and after the lunch rush.

  • Why It’s Great. Even when you factor in the population of its suburbs, the greater Houston area has about one food truck for every 5,000 inhabitants. That staggering density – and the region’s culinary diversity, an artifact of its status as a mecca for immigrants – has created tremendous community support for mobile food vendors. Back in 2012, the Mobile Food Unit Houston Collective (now inactive, unfortunately) successfully lobbied the city council to eliminate several unfriendly regulations. “Houston’s Top 100 Food Trucks,” one of the few books written about an individual city’s vendors, speaks to its burgeoning food truck scene. And, every March, the Texas Food Truck Festival draws dozens of trucks and thousands of visitors to the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds in suburban Houston.
  • Trucks to Try. If you live or work in central Houston, try Houston Sauce Co., whose elevated comfort fare enjoys near-legendary status among local foodies, or the Waffle Bus, an outdoor breakfast haunt that’s great any time of day. Chilantro, which fuses Korean BBQ and Mexican street food (a highlight is kimchi fries), can typically be found near the Galleria or along the Westerheimer Road corridor. Oh My Gogi! is another fan favorite serving up no-nonsense Northeast Asian delicacies.

6. Twin Cities, Minnesota

Short summers don’t hamper the Minneapolis-St. Paul food truck scene, though trucks usually stick close to office building entrances during the cold season. On weekdays, vendors tend to park in the cities’ respective downtowns, with Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis and Galtier Plaza in St. Paul among the most popular destinations. The University of Minnesota and the surrounding Dinkytown neighborhood draw cheaper alternatives, while the St. Anthony Main nightlife district bustles after dark. Dinnertime partnerships between the area’s brewery taprooms and food trucks abound as well.

  • Why It’s Great. Like Philadelphia, Minneapolis-St. Paul has a tight-knit, well-organized food truck community. Though the two big cities have friendly regulations, the Minnesota Food Truck Association advocates for sensible ordinance changes in surrounding communities and sponsors or promotes local foodie festivals (like the Minnesota Food Truck Festival) that showcase new entrants. Whereas Cleveland’s mobile food business slows down considerably in the cold months, trucks here need to power through even longer winters to justify their existence. Fortunately, big festivals such as the St. Paul Winter Carnival rely on food trucks as their primary food vendors, catching folks who don’t leave their offices for weekday winter lunches.
  • Trucks to Try. If you work in downtown Minneapolis, visit 2nd Avenue’s Food Truck Row for fried tomato BLT sliders at the Moral Omnivore or Juicy Lucita empanadas at MidNord Empanadas. Potter’s Pasties, which sells at least a dozen types of Cornish pasty trawls the St. Anthony Main area and routinely visits area breweries.

Twin Cities Minneapolis

7. Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta’s food truck scene has grown by leaps and bounds since 2010. Trucks now roam the city’s three major business districts – Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead – as well as suburban business districts such as the Perimeter Center and the Castleberry Hill creative district. Academic and corporate campuses, including Georgia Tech, where many lower-cost options congregate, and Coca-Cola’s headquarters, are popular too. On nice weekends, vendors migrate to green spaces like Piedmont Park.

It’s not all Southern-fried meats and stewed greens either. Atlanta has some of this list’s most innovative mobile food vendors, at price points that reflect the area’s relatively low cost of living.

  • Why It’s Great. Though Atlanta has fewer trucks than Houston or San Francisco, it has a strong support and advocacy network. The Atlanta Street Food Coalition maintains a current calendar (though not an interactive app) with food truck locations and times.  Atlanta also has hubs where trucks can reserve space semi-permanently, including the Atlanta Food Truck Park.
  • Trucks to Try. Atlanta’s trucks have lots of momentum behind them. Local favorites include Buena Gente (Cuban comfort food and pastries) and Southern Crust Catering (wood-fired pizzas and more, seen mainly at special events around greater Atlanta). Also well-regarded: Yumbii, an Asian-Mexican fusion joint that alternates between the city’s business hubs and university campuses, with super-cheap tacos and burritos galore.

8. Portland, Oregon

Portland‘s reputation as an alternative mecca extends to its culinary scene. While there are some straight-up taco trucks here, you’re just as likely to find carts that sling over-sized green salads and smoothie stands that require you to blend your own smoothie by pedaling on a stationary bike (seriously, check out Moberi).

Though there are lots of options in downtown Portland, especially near MAX stations, coverage is also good in outlying neighborhoods like Southeast Portland and the Richmond district. The rainy winters don’t seem to affect business, with many of the city’s 500 trucks and carts generally staying open year-round. It’s no wonder U.S. News ranked Portland number one on its “World’s Best Street Food” list.

  • Why It’s Great. Portland clearly supports its food trucks, both formally and informally. Portland Food Carts, a well-run blog, bills itself as “an ode to Portland’s food carts, and a practical guide on where to find them and what to eat once you get there.” It regularly announces new openings and noteworthy regulatory changes. Oregon Mobile Food Association is an advocacy organization that prods the city’s government to be even more accommodating than it already is (and provides valuable support to aspiring food truck operators too). On the ground, many food cart vendors belong to well-organized “pods” – lots or street corners with anywhere from two to two-dozen permanent or semi-permanent tenants. And annual shindigs like the Portland Craft Beer Festival attract dozens of vendors.
  • Trucks to Try. Up early and craving day-old chicken eggs? Try MF Tasty, a hidden gem serving food best described as “Northwest-Southwest fusion,” featuring standouts like paella. For a downtown lunch option, try KoiFusion, a Korean-Mexican truck that offers mind-bending choices like bulgogi beef tacos. KoiFusion occasionally visits the Nike and Adidas campuses, too. And don’t miss Bao Bao, which (arguably) has the best Chinese buns in the city.

9. Los Angeles, California

Unless there’s an air quality alert, the weather doesn’t really affect L.A.’s food truck scene. Veteran taco truck operators now work alongside farm-to-table specialists, pizza trucks, mobile donut shops, and trucks that serve gourmet Brazilian cuisine. Coverage isn’t uniform across L.A.’s many neighborhoods, but it’s not confined to the downtown core, either: West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Century City all host clusters with permanent or semi-permanent members. A few brave souls even make it out to Valley communities such as Van Nuys and Northridge.

  • Why It’s Great. Surprisingly, L.A. doesn’t have a robust advocacy group, though the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association (SoCal MFVA) offers lots of helpful information for budding entrepreneurs. LotMom, a local booking company, got its start connecting operators with spots at several permanent food truck lots around the L.A. Basin, including the Santa Monica Food Truck Lot, the University of Southern California Lot (USC Village), and the Century City Lot. (Food truck lots were long popular in L.A. because of a local ordinance that requires trucks to have a bathroom on-board or serve within 200 feet of a public restroom with running water. These days, the action is more dispersed, but many trucks continue to cluster near historic lots.) The Find Food Trucks app maintains a real-time database of food truck locations too. In addition to the annual L.A. Food Festival, trucks converge on neighborhood food fairs and ethnic heritage celebrations throughout the year.
  • Trucks to Try. For no-nonsense Greek favorites like lamb gyro, Meat the Greek is second to none. In West L.A., Lobos Truck shuttles between locations in Westwood and Santa Monica, serving “American comfort food with a twist.” In the Studio City area, Steel City Sandwiches sells massive Pittsburgh-style sandwiches – think lots of Italian-style meats and cheeses, with fries.

Los Angeles California

10. Seattle, Washington

Contrary to popular belief, Seattle doesn’t run on coffee alone. The city’s food truck scene features plenty of fresh fish, locally sourced greens, and other solid ingredients.

Coverage extends well outside the central business district, to the University of Washington campus, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, South Lake Union, and commercial suburbs such as Bellevue and Renton. The main campus of Swedish Medical Center attracts trucks during business hours as well. The outskirts of Pike Place Market are a dinnertime and after-hours draw, especially on bustling weekend evenings.

  • Why It’s Great. Like its two Pacific Northwest neighbors, Seattle has a well-organized, vibrant food truck scene. Seattle Food Truck is the city’s native truck-finder app, though its mobile functionality needs some work. The Washington State Food Truck Association performs political advocacy work, distributes PR materials, and organizes truck gatherings around Washington State. August brings the Seattle Food Festival, a four-block gathering featuring dozens of mobile vendors and several pop-up food truck events. Smaller foodie events abound throughout the warm season.
  • Trucks to Try. If you live or work in central Seattle and enjoy hearty meat sandwiches, Marination Mobile is almost certainly on your list of go-to mobile eateries. Falafel Salam, meanwhile, serves up lighter, vegetarian-friendly fare (though the menu does have meat options). Off the Rez, a downtown staple (often near the Viaduct), sells Native American frybread, as well as tacos and empanadas.

Final Word

The ongoing food truck boom is great for entrepreneurial chefs and time-pressed foodies alike. Though having lunch at a food truck every day may not be any cheaper than visiting Panera Bread or Wendy’s – or certainly bringing a bag lunch to work – mobile food vendors deliver affordable, convenient cuisine rooted in the culture of your city. And, since it’s generally cheaper to start a food truck than to open a fixed-location restaurant, more talented chefs have the opportunity to become food truck owners – to to be their own bosses and showcase their skills to a broad audience.

What’s your favorite food truck, and where is it located?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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