Food trucks offer upscale curbside fare

Specialties, such as seafood, have restaurants crying foul

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It’s not just half-smokes and hot pretzels anymore.

Navigating D.C.’s workday traffic and its equally challenging regulatory obstacle course, an ever-growing fleet of food truck entrepreneurs are touting the variety and convenience of delivering authentic regional foods right to the curbsides and doorsteps of Washington’s hungry and time pressed.

“There’s a lot of places in D.C. where there aren’t many food options,” said Alex Tsamouras, owner, head chef and chief bottle washer of Feelin‘ Crabby? The food truck, founded in June 2011, sells a variety of crab entrees. “There’s nothing really within walking distance of these buildings,” he said, pointing to the buildings surrounding 19th Street and Virginia Avenue Northwest.

As one of two seafood-only trucks among the 685 licensed roadway vendors, Feelin‘ Crabby? serves two main dishes, including a signature $11 “Crabwich,” heaped high with fresh jumbo Maryland crab. On the side, the menu includes crab soup, potato chips and soft drinks marketed to a client base of “crabivores.”

High-end cuisine food trucks are booming in Washington and cities across the country, attracting rabid fans and, at times, equally rabid critics who complain of the vendor’s unfair edge over established brick-and-mortar competitors. The District is currently weighing a package of regulations to bring order to the sometimes fractious relationship.

“On a good day, we could get up to 100 customers,” said Mr. Tsamouras, who thrives on the lunchtime rush of business and office workers who look to food trucks to deliver them from the dullness of corporate cafeterias and brown bags filled with leftovers.

Brian Sheridan, a contractor at the State Department, described himself as a “food truck addict.”

He praised the selection and growing sophistication of food truck fare and added that a major appeal of the trucks is the convenience of being right outside the office. “Food trucks just bring a high quality of a variety of food,” said Mr. Sheridan.

Breaking in

Government licenses for food trucks aren’t just handed out, however. Getting a license in Washington is a six-step application process through the District of Columbia regulatory affairs office (DCRA). Would-be entrepreneurs must first navigate the application criteria and pay fees like any other restaurant or street vendor.

“We’re really excited about this phenomena,” said Heather Vargas, program manager of communications for the DCRA. Ms. Vargas explained that city officials are keen on working closely with food trucks to promote the industry and achieve a better cooperative relationship.

The relationship was tested after the District government put out a 67-page proposal designed to upgrade regulations — on parking, idling-time limits and operating hours, among other things — that were promulgated 30 years ago, when the only food trucks on the road sold popsicles and Nutty Buddy ice cream bars. The regulations, first announced by Mayor Vincent C. Gray in January, are expected to be in place by the end of the year.

The D.C. Food Truck Association, the local industry’s trade group, said it generally supports the city’s plans, and predicts the new rules will ease some tensions that have come up in recent years.

But the association also said it has reservations about several of the regulations, including the plans for vaguely defined “food development zones” that could give local officials greater say on where food truck can operate and park, and a requirement that food trucks close by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends — seen as a concession to traditional bars and restaurants.

Still, food truck owners say they welcome the overall stability and clarity the updated regulations could bring.

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