Saturday, March 03, 2012
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Good eats on the streets

Two new food trucks are bringing gourmet meals on wheels to Roanoke-area lunch crowds.

Juan Urrea co-owns Noke Truck with his wife, Claudia. Their menu includes sweet and savory crepes as well as Colombian specialties, such as quesadillas and tacos.

Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

Juan Urrea co-owns Noke Truck with his wife, Claudia. Their menu includes sweet and savory crepes as well as Colombian specialties, such as quesadillas and tacos.

Simon Urrea and his mother, Claudia Urrea, prepare Colombian cuisine and crepes in the family's enterprise, Noke Truck, a former ice cream truck.

Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

Simon Urrea and his mother, Claudia Urrea, prepare Colombian cuisine and crepes in the family's enterprise, Noke Truck, a former ice cream truck.

A hungry crowd gathers at Bruno's GastroTruck in downtown Roanoke. Bruno's is an extension of The Landing restaurant at Smith Mountain Lake, and both are owned by Bruno and Tiffany Silva.

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

A hungry crowd gathers at Bruno's GastroTruck in downtown Roanoke. Bruno's is an extension of The Landing restaurant at Smith Mountain Lake, and both are owned by Bruno and Tiffany Silva.

A Far East rice bowl from Bruno's GastroTruck

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

A Far East rice bowl from Bruno's GastroTruck

GastroTruck co-owner Bruno Silva and Stacy Noland prepare an order in downtown Roanoke. The truck's menu changes constantly according to what Silva is in the mood to fix and what's in stock at the The Landing, the restaurant he also co-owns with his wife, Tiffany.

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

GastroTruck co-owner Bruno Silva and Stacy Noland prepare an order in downtown Roanoke. The truck's menu changes constantly according to what Silva is in the mood to fix and what's in stock at the The Landing, the restaurant he also co-owns with his wife, Tiffany.

An order of french fries cooked in duck fat from Bruno's GastroTruck

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

An order of french fries cooked in duck fat from Bruno's GastroTruck

Just before 11 on a recent Wednesday morning, an elaborately painted black-and-maroon truck backed into the corner of Firestone's parking lot in downtown Roanoke.

Bruno Silva threw open the back doors, strains of The Ramones' "I Just Wanna Have Something to Do" drifted from the front speakers and, within 30 minutes, Silva and his crew were serving up drunken chicken sandwiches and duck fat french fries from the wide side window.

It was another day of hawking what Silva, 45, calls "gourmet fast food" from Bruno's GastroTruck, a mobile restaurant that draws curious stares from passers-by.

The GastroTruck appeared on the streets of Roanoke not long after Juan and Claudia Urrea, both 43, started dishing up homemade crepes and Colombian cuisine from their baby blue-and-mocha brown vehicle, Noke Truck.

These are the first food trucks to take serious aim at Roanoke's lunch crowd, and they are another example of a big-city trend catching on in this smaller metropolis.

"There has just been an explosion of food trucks" in cities of all sizes, said Ron Tanner of the New York-based National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. "People are looking for relatively interesting food to get at lunch, and operating a brick-and-mortar location can be very expensive."

Tanner estimates that food trucks can be run for about 20 percent of the cost of running a restaurant. In Roanoke, food truck owners need only have an itinerant merchant business license and a health department permit to sell on the street. If they're parking on private property, the property must be zoned for eating establishments and the vendor must have a zoning permit.

Both the Silvas and the Urreas post their locations daily on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. So far, word of mouth has been a highly effective marketing tool.

"Someone tweets about carnitas," said Juan Urrea, "and the next day, everybody wants carnitas."

Noke Truck

When the Urreas moved to Roanoke about seven years ago, the mountainous surroundings reminded them of their hometown of Bogota, Colombia.

Juan Urrea works full-time at Lowe's, and his wife has a cakemaking business, Fiesta Cakes, based out of their home. They have been serving Colombian food at Roanoke's annual Hispanic Festival for the past five years.

Claudia Urrea wanted to open her own bakery, but the cost was too high for their budget. At last year's Hispanic Festival, Juan Urrea started looking at food trucks and got an idea.

"She didn't much like the idea at first," he said. But he managed to convince his wife, which is a good thing because she mainly runs the truck. They bought the used ice cream truck in Washington, D.C. Until they could afford a professional paint job (and strip the ice cream stickers), they parked the truck at a Hispanic market on Williamson Road and sold tacos and enchiladas.

"Boys came to the truck crying for a popsicle," Juan Urrea said, chuckling.

After the truck was snazzed up and outfitted with refrigerators, a sink, a flat grill and a crepe grill (for a total of about $30,000, including the truck), the Urreas hit the streets. Their sons, 23-year-old Mateo and 19-year-old Simon, have helped with marketing, truck maintenance, food prep and sales.

The Noke Truck owners have a hybrid menu that includes savory crepes stuffed with goodies such as sauteed vegetables, chicken curry, ham and cheese with eggs, and beef stroganoff. Their sweet crepes are filled with ingredients such as Nutella and strawberries or caramel and peaches.

On the Colombian side of the menu, they offer quesadillas, as well as tacos with beef, chicken or pork carnitas. They have also merged French and Colombian cuisine to create yummy offerings such as the Noke enchilada, a crepe stuffed with shredded chicken breast, cream cheese, shredded Mexican cheese and green salsa.

The Urreas have chosen the nomadic approach, parking their truck in legal parking zones on the street in places such as downtown Roanoke, Grandin Village or Crystal Spring, then moving to another spot when the time is up. He said he doesn't want to fool with zoning issues.

When Noke Truck parked in Crystal Spring on Monday, Kathy Gee and Meredith Smith looked out their office windows at First Presbyterian Church and could not resist coming down to investigate. On Thursday, they were back for more.

"I love the tortillas," Gee said. "They are really good and fresh."

Bruno's GastroTruck

If the food at Bruno's has an international flair, that's partly because Bruno Silva was born in Peru. He moved to the United States when he was 14 and graduated from L'Academie de Cuisine in Maryland in 1999.

After working at several restaurants in and around the nation's capital, Silva and his wife, Tiffany Silva, 41, were ready to escape to a quieter life. They considered moving to Duck, N.C., but then discovered Smith Mountain Lake.

Bruno Silva was head chef at The Landing, a fine-dining restaurant at Bernard's Landing Resort and Conference Center, for one year before the Silvas bought the restaurant in 2005.

Today, Bruno Silva says the global cuisine at their award-winning restaurant is "always evolving," and so is their business plan. The couple investigated the possibility of starting a brew pub in the restaurant, but the financials didn't make sense.

Instead, they turned their rather sedate lounge area into Bruno's GastroPub, a far more casual hangout that offers gourmet pub grub, 75 microbrews and a broad array of wines. The Silvas were familiar with the concept of food trucks and decided that would be a nice outgrowth from the pub.

They bought their truck from a local company, Center Stage Catering, and had it custom painted. The inside was tricked out with a four-burner stove, a griddle, a grill, two refrigeration units, a freezer, a hood, a drink cooler and a hand sink. Two air-conditioning units on top of the truck keep the inside cool, and the whole affair runs off a 13,000-watt generator. The whole project cost about $100,000, Bruno Silva said.

That wasn't cheap, he said, but he wanted something close to an actual restaurant kitchen.

"The trick is how can I make gourmet food and cook it to order and be fast about it," he said. "Because it has to be fast."

Each day, Bruno's offers about eight entrees and sides costing $6 to $10, as well as a couple of sweet treats. The menu changes constantly according to what Bruno Silva is in the mood to fix and what's in stock at the restaurant.

For example, last week's options included fish tacos on grilled naan bread with toppings and homemade chips; Cincinnati chili; and a Far East rice bowl with tenderloin, peppers, onions and bean sprouts over jasmine rice. For dessert, they sold "gooey nuts," a bread pudding made with Krispy Kreme donuts and brioche, and brittle from the Smith Mountain Lake confectionery Stacy's Sweet Spot, which is owned by Tiffany Silva's sister, Stacy Noland.

The Silvas, who often park their truck on private property, come to Roanoke several days each week. They have parked at various locations around downtown Roanoke, as well as near Crossroads Mall. At Meridium on Jefferson Street recently, a long line of employees waited to order lunch; a few days later, the truck drew a crowd at Firestone.

One happy customer was Pam Trompeter, who became familiar with food trucks at Temple University.

"In Philadelphia, there were trucks everywhere — Chinese, breakfast, cheesesteaks," she said, "and they were set up all over the campus."

Not an 8-hour job

Bruno's GastroTruck and Noke Truck have been serving lunch for only a short time, so it is difficult to judge their success so far. But both sets of owners say they've been delighted to see the same customers show up repeatedly, and the word is spreading.

"We have three or four events [scheduled] between festivals and private events," Juan Urrea said. "People have been emailing and asking if we want to be a vendor" at festivals.

The Silvas, too, plan to take the truck to special events. They're considering being at FloydFest in July, and they said they may take the truck to Lynchburg and gauge the street scene there.

Both Roanoke owners say they've poured a lot of time and energy into the businesses. The Silvas, who have a 6-year-old daughter, Zoe, have been working 80- to 100-hour days, including restaurant shifts, and Juan Urrea said their truck requires "22-hour work days" for his wife.

As more people discover food trucks, the work isn't liable to get much easier. But that's OK with Bruno.

"I'm always in the midst of something," he said. "It's not like I get bored, but I like to be busy."

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