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Meals on wheels: Grand Rapids' newest taco truck arrives Uptown

Owner Paul Lee beside What the Truck

Owner Paul Lee beside What the Truck /George Wietor

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What the Truck's menu

What the Truck's menu /George Wietor

Grand Rapids’ newest food truck is officially open for business and cruisin’ the city streets. Well, one street at least. What the Truck made its grand debut last Monday, setting up outside of The Meanwhile Bar, a neighborhood watering hole located at 1005 Wealthy St SE. What the Truck’s owner, Paul Lee, who owns the Wealthy Street restaurant The Winchester with his wife, Jessica, sees his newest venture as an Uptown thing. “I want to keep it more locally focused on the neighborhoods rather than going downtown,” Lee said, “that means that it’s outside The Meanwhile, it’s in Eastown, maybe at '80s night on Sundays.”

While What the Truck is at least the second in the area (Don Rafav’s, a Mexican restaurant formally located on Wealthy Street in Eastown, lives on in truck form), food trucks remain somewhat of an oddity in the Grand Rapids area. The relative scarcity of delicious treat-wielding vehicles could be related to prohibitive city codes that make food cart operation difficult in the city, particularly downtown. Lee describes his truck’s name, “What the Truck?,” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the city ordinance that does prohibits cart vendors in certain parts of downtown. “While they are trying to protect the bars and restaurants downtown,” Lee lamented, “there is no protection for me as a bar and restaurant owner, from someone like myself for parking in front of my place [uptown].”

“It’s an ordinance we’re looking to fight.”

Lee looks to west coast cities like Portland, OR for both legislative and culinary inspiration. “In Portland, you have these lots that are catered specifically to food trucks, and there are so many people on the street walking around. As you try to make an area more vibrant, what you want is people on the street, not inside. I would love to have this city support more food trucks, I would love to see downtown reverse that ordinance. I think one the things that downtown doesn’t have, and the way to have more retail downtown is to get more people on the sidewalk.”

Former West Coaster Rob Givans agrees: “I was born and raised in California,” Givans said, “And I’m used to having taco trucks [around] - that’s how I ate for most of my childhood when I was at the beach, surfing or whatever. I think Grand Rapids can totally use one of these - if it was riding around downtown, I think a lot of people would take advantage of a little taco truck.”

Also like the many food truckers of Portland, Lee carries on the tradition of fusion cuisine he and his wife began at The Winchester, focusing on a mixture of Korean BBQ and Tex-Mex portability. What the Truck serves both tacos and burritos in three varieties each: bulgogi beef barbecue, barbecue chicken and stir-fried barbecue tofu. And vegans, take note: The vegetarian options are totally safe.

The truck, which was formally owned by the University of Maine, can serve about 200 diners and took just over two months to prep for its maiden voyage last Monday.

“Typically, a truck like this is a $100,000 investment,” explained Lee, “Which is quite a bit of money, but if you are looking to open up a restaurant that’s essentially a kitchen, it’s a small part of what it would cost to set up a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It has a [commercial range] hood and a full Ansul (fire protection) system just like a regular kitchen would.”

Collaboration with existing businesses on Wealthy Street will be a key element of What the Truck’s future.

“We've been talking to them, and they might be able to come down here a couple nights a week on really busy nights,” said Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of The Meanwhile Bar, “I've heard that it's like 90% local food. To have local food and local beer: It's perfect!”

You can find What the Truck parked outside of The Meanwhile Bar tonight until 3 a.m. Follow it on both Facebook and Twitter to get updates about where the truck will be on any given night.

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