Mr Whippy is rarely around today. Unlike the days when he could frequently be heard driving down suburban streets, he now only occasionally pops up. He may appear at St Kilda beach from time to time, or sit in the car park at Brighton beach waiting for children desperately seeking salmonella. His truck is worn, off white, with pictures of the ice creams peeling off from too many years of sun exposure like that English woman who was on 60 Minutes because she was obsessed with tanning.
And that’s because deep down inside, Mr Whippy knows that he can no longer compete. He is not the king of the meals-on-wheels business anymore. His throne has been usurped by a new wave of pop-up food vans that have hit Melbourne over the past year. Through the use of Twitter and Facebook (our social media friends at their best once again), anyone can now like, locate and be fed by the new cool in fast food. Vans such as Beatbox Kitchen, Taco Truck, Gumbo Kitchen and Dhaba Curry are hitting the streets with a flair of gourmet flavour faster than you can get your take-away at Maccas.
Developed about a year ago, the vans update their locations daily via tweets or Facebook posts and then are inundated with hungry customers after they set up their grills. Trading strictly out of vehicles, the food is fresh and good quality. We’re not talking your average fast food outlet here; with Beatbox Kitchen frequently touted as having the best burgers in Melbourne, it’s Grab ‘n’ Go Gourmet.
Beatbox Kitchen and Taco Truck are probably the best known names of the ‘eat your food out of a truck’ trend. Both are owned by Raph Rashid, whose attention to detail is clearly evident in the menu of both vans. Beatbox Kitchen offers beef burgers for the meat eaters and ‘shroom’ burgers for the vegetarians (think a big marinated portabello mushroom instead of a beef patty) among other delights. Taco Truck offers its own delectables in an ingenious mixture of textures and flavours such as poppyseed mayo, along with fish tacos freshly crumbed in the van. The vans are easily recognizable too. Beatbox Kitchen? It looks like a Beatbox. Now if that’s not cool, then I don’t know what is.
Gumbo Kitchen and Dhaba Curry, both also about a year old, are for slightly more adventurous palettes. Inspired by a visit to New Orleans by owners Michael Cotter and Patricia Stanton, Gumbo Kitchen brings Cajun-style food to the Melbourne masses. That means a traditional ‘po boy’ – white bread stuffed with spiced deep fried shrimp or slow cooked beef with gravy, or both – as well as the van’s namesake, gumbo stews: lots of flavour, lots of spices, and lots of stuff in it. If Louisiana jazz doesn’t do it for you, search for one of the Dhaba Curry trucks instead. With a choice of six different curries and an extensive entree menu, Dhaba Curry has apparently taken their Kyneton restaurant and given it wheels.
The trucks hang around Brunswick, Carlton and the like; keep an eye out on their respective twitters to get exact locations. They also make regular and well-received appearances at music festivals like Falls, Meredith and Groovin’ The Moo.
The cool thing about these new age food vans is that they are pushing the envelope of what can be considered ‘fine dining’. The food van trend is turning gourmet food into something you can eat out in the open with your mates, without having to shout over a bad music loop at a restaurant or forking out a small fortune. If you’re feeling like a good feed, then check out the next stop for a van, grab a picnic rug and throw yourselves a spontaneous (and delicious) picnic lunch. And if you see Mr Whippy, maybe bring him a burger. He’s probably hungry.