Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on mobile food in Centre County.
Fall semester isn’t the only thing that is on a roll in the Centre Region. Food is mobile now too, rolling out on carts, trailers and capricious food trucks that make a game out of tracking them down, in the spirit of Pokemon Go.
It’s not all that new. In America, the precursor to the mobile units of today was the chuck wagon that accompanied cowboys driving the cattle across the plains. Texas rancher Charles Goodnight is credited with outfitting an army surplus wagon in 1866 with cooking equipment and supplies to accompany a cattle drive from Texas to New Mexico as the American appetite beefed up.
As the century turned, so did the wheels of the automobile, mass produced in 1901 in Lansing, Mich. By 1917, the Army was using mobile field kitchens to feed troops. In 1936, the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile, the iconic portable hot dog-shaped cart that still makes an appearance now and then for a retro thrill, appeared. In the 1950s, ice cream trucks lured children playing outside with catchy tunes like an automotive Pied Piper — the Mr. Softee tune is an earworm that rings for me still.
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The boom building years of the 1960s favored unsavory sounding “roach coaches” visiting construction sites to provide lunch to the workers, their quilted stainless steel sides folding up to reveal full batterie de cuisine.
During the 1970s, taco trucks appeared in East Los Angeles to serve the Mexican immigrants, and by 2010 an estimated 7,000 trucks operated in populous Southern California, especially in trendy areas with a lot of bars and nightlife. A patron of the taco trucks, then 30-year-old Mark Manguera had an “aha moment” one night when he was out on the town indulging in a traditional taco: combine Korean BBQ and tacos. Fortunately, he partnered with a talented local chef, Roy Choi, to bring the dream to market and in 2008, Kogi, a gourmet Korean taco truck with a simple menu that included Spicy Pork Tacos, Kimchi Quesadillas and Short Rib Sliders, started a new chapter in food truck history.
Less than a decade later, we have our own fleet of food trucks and food stands that sell both traditional and trendy cuisine right here in rural Pennsylvania. We have five licensed and operating mobile food trucks that offer a wide range of creative options, with a sixth one poised to launch as soon as the inspection is final this week. Plans for a seventh truck are in the works for later this fall, and this doesn’t include all the mobile units that operate in the area.
Backstory: This column has been in the works for months; these food trucks are as ephemeral as butterflies, this summer’s Centre County totem. I would get a tip about where one was parked, speed down to Science Park Road, only to catch a glimpse of taillights as the truck rounded a bend. I guess I don’t check Facebook enough for current information about schedules. I’ll have to change my alerts to keep up with the constant buzz feed and pay attention to those spiky tweets.
There’s a difference between food trucks that roam to various locations and food carts or trailers that stay in one location. Shaker’s Grill, perched on the crest of Beaver and Pugh Street like a sentinel, is on the pulse of daytime downtown State College. This Halal food stand serves generous portions of delicious Middle Eastern dishes such as kofta or marinated chicken with garlic sauce either with rice and salad, or as subs. It is well-supported by the international community, especially by young men who gather under the umbrella at the picnic table to enjoy the flavors of the Fertile Crescent, the homeland of Palestinian owner Shaker Abdulwahab.
Abdulwahab first parked his food cart there three years ago and has been running the business while his Turkish wife pursued a doctoral degree. On Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Children and Youth Day in July, his young son Mehmet was on the scene with him, selling freshly-made lemonade while his newborn son, Yusuf, was home with mom, who recently graduated. The personable owner, whose phone seems to be an extension of his hand as he takes orders, will gladly discuss food, family or world politics — in between text messages and emails.
Although we all still miss the friendly smile of John Cocolin Sr., who ran Johnnie’s Hot Dog Cart for many years outside the Hotel State College where his son John is a partner, the cart is not in operation today and John Sr. is no longer with us. But there is another dog option if you are a night owl. Ken’s Best Wurst is located in the parking lot at Garner Street late at night (read: after the bars close). Ken Baumgarten, chief sausageologist, is a former pastor who tends to all the lively student partyers at that hour with a hot dog or a hot sausage sandwich and a kind word. Baumgarten is eager to engage with his sometimes besotted customers and offers the incentive of $1 off a $2 hot dog if they use the “word of the day” that he tweets in the afternoon properly in a sentence.
“The $1 Discount Word is tweeted in the early afternoon of the relevant day, allowing the students time to look up the word while they’re sober,” clarified the uncommon vendor who has a master’s degree in first-century Greek language and knows his customers — and cares about them.
“I was encountering poor communications skills with alarming frequency, so I instituted surreptitious education in the night,” Baumgarten explained. For more information about Ken’s Best Wurst, which may be the best name ever for a hot dog stand, check out his Facebook page that links to several articles and videos that his appreciative customers have made about him.
For daytime mobile sausage options, there are two local anchors. Scott’s Roasting is a mobile unit that has been around for 21 years in the Centre Region, selling delicious roasted pork and “whole hog” sausage sandwiches made from the hogs that they raise at their Sylvan Acres Farm outside Bellefonte. “Whole hog” refers to sausage that includes all five primal cuts — loin, tenderloin, shoulder, bacon and hams. A mainstay at the Grange Fair, Scott’s has a schedule that is posted on its website about where the mobile unit will be during the summer months, which includes a long list of fairs and festivals as well as the parking lot of Triangle Supply in the spring before their circuit starts.
Gunzey’s Sausage is another Grange Fair mainstay that now has a presence outside the Lowe’s store on North Atherton Street every day. Around since 1963, Gunzey’s food trailer travels throughout the summer to various fairs in central Pa. and has a loyal following for its sausage sandwiches.
Next week: the food truck saga continues with El Gringo, Food for Thought, Rollin’ Smoke, Street Meat, World’s Fare and maybe even one more, if the inspection goes well. Plus, insight about the mobile food truck phenomenon from State College borough Health Officer and food safety expert Kevin Kassab, who oversees the licensing and inspection of the units.
Owners: George and Brenda Scott
Food choices: roasted pork sandwiches, pork in a dish, BBQ pork nachos, sausage subs, sausage nachos, sausage gravy
Price: $5 to $7
Locations: Central Pa. fairs and festivals from May through October; Tractor Supply parking lot on the Benner Pike in April and May
Owners: Four generations of the Harold “Gunzey” Gonzales family from the Milton area are involved in the enterprise. Current owners Taffney Strous, of New Columbia, and Tris West, of Lewisburg, are often helped by their mother, Theresa West, and grandfather, founder Gunzey as well as all their own children. Co-founder Lois Gonzalez passed away eight years ago.
Food choices: Breakfast sandwiches, sausage sandwiches, steak sandwiches, burgers, grilled chicken, salads, fries, hot dog and chicken tender baskets for kids
Price: $4 to $7.50
Locations: Central Pa. fairs and festivals from April until October; open daily outside Lowe’s in State College and Selinsgrove 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 p.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.
Track them down: At www.gunzeys.com
Ken’s Best Wurst
Type: Food cart
Owner: Ken Baumgarten
Food choices: Hot dogs and Italian sausage
Price: $2 to $5
Location: Garner Street parking lot 10 p.m.-3 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the PSU fall and spring semesters
Type: Food cart
Owner: Shaker Abdulwahab
Food choices: Mediterranean Chicken, kofta (spiced beef patties,) falafel and vegetarian stew served with rice, salad and hummus or as a sub
Price: $5.50 to $7.50
Location: 137 E. Beaver Ave. from noon-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Track him down: at the Shaker’s Grill Facebook page
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink .com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.