By Suemedha Sood / Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
The marinated grass-fed steak drips with sweet and spicy flavors. The bright greens, carrots, daikon, and radish create a kaleidoscope of freshness. And on top of it all is a flawlessly fried egg, its yolk a vivid orange bubble just waiting to burst.
It’s pretty impressive that this fresh and tasty bibimbap, a traditional Korean rice dish, is prepared in a little truck outside the Ballston Metro in Arlington, Va. What’s more impressive is that its ingredients are almost entirely sustainably or locally sourced. Seoul Food DC’s bibimbap is its most popular (and possibly most delicious) menu item. That’s probably because at just $7 to $8.50 (depending on what kind of protein you get), it costs pretty much the same as comparable dishes at local food trucks that don’t use as fine ingredients.
“We don’t make the price like the ‘organic price,’” says co-owner Chef Anna Goree. “Customers don’t want to pay $10 or $12 for lunch…So we have to reduce our profit.”
Because Anna and her husband, co-owner J.P., use sustainable and local sources, they pay an extra $2 to $2.50 per pound for beef and an extra $1.50 per pound for chicken. But they see the benefit in using higher-quality products. “Eighty-five percent of our customers are regulars,” Anna says. “And they are our promoters.” She frequently overhears regulars enlightening new customers about Seoul Food’s antibiotic-free grass-fed beef or its pole-and-troll caught skipjack tuna.
In Arlington, she says, people are becoming a lot more conscious about where their food comes from. Before starting Seoul Food this past summer, Anna and J.P. both worked at Whole Foods—Anna as a pastry chef (her training was at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland) and J.P. as a butcher. Anna grew up in the food industry; her mother owned a restaurant in Seoul.
Seoul Food incorporates fusion elements, serving dishes like kalbi burritos, bulgogi sushi, and a butternut squash curry. “It’s because I’ve lived here almost 25 years,” Anna explains. “I don’t eat only Korean.” After years of cooking at home for three kids and crafting desserts for work, her repertoire incorporates Mexican, Italian, French, and all sorts of other influences.
But her Korean upbringing informs the philosophy about food that she and her husband share. “There’s a saying in Korea that you shouldn’t go more than 10 miles to get the food that you eat.” The products at Seoul Food may come from more than 10 miles away, but they come from regional growers. The husband-and-wife team tried to work directly with farms, but ended up having to turn to their former employer, Whole Foods, to find their ingredients instead. With no employees, they couldn’t afford the time to drive out to the farms each week.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” says Forrest Pritchard, farmer and owner of Smith Meadows, a Berryville farm that operates its own food truck in Arlington and D.C. Small farms are already so bogged down with raising animals, growing produce, and selling at farmers markets that working with restaurants can be a challenging addition. Restaurants need high volumes of customized shares, and they need them on a deadline. “That’s the problem the CEO of Chipotle kept running into,” said Pritchard. “He said he’d go to find some of these small farms and they’d only be raising three pigs in a month. Well a lot of these food trucks go through three pigs during lunch, easily.”
Smith Meadows has a unique perspective, of course, having both a farm and a food truck. The truck sets up shop at the Arlington Farmers Market, the Takoma Farmers Market, and in Rosslyn on Lynn Street. The idea for a food truck came from years of selling at farmers markets. “The first thing we noticed was that nobody else was doing it,” Pritchard said. “We’re always interested in potentially doing something else to bring people to the farmers market, and it just seemed like a really easy way to take the products that we already had and make the market better.”
Smith Meadows raises grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, and chickens, and its food truck serves up such dishes as a rosemary lamb sandwich with organic pesto and organic mustard, a breakfast sandwich made with free-range eggs and cheese from Fields of Grace Farm, and an array of empanadas. Like Seoul Food, Smith Meadows works hard to keep prices low. “There’s so much that somebody expects to pay for a hamburger in a food truck,” Pritchard said. “I ignore that at my own peril.”
His truck serves hamburgers for about $5 each, empanadas for about $3 each, and other sandwiches for between $3 and $8. So if it’s possible to use local products, keep prices competitive, and make a profit, why don’t more food trucks and carts do it? “My instinct would be to say it’s a matter of not enough abundant supply,” Pritchard says. “We’re in this really simultaneously amazing and frustrating point in food production where we don’t have enough experienced food producers growing the food that we need.”
In urban areas, there’s the added hurdle of distribution. That’s certainly been the experience of Michelle Nguyen and Gauri Sarin, the co-owners of Something Stuffed, a new food truck coming to Arlington and Tysons this month. “It is very difficult to get these products close to where you’re vending your food, instead of having to drive out to farms,” says Sarin. Something Stuffed plans to source from farms including Mount Vernon Farm in Sperryville and Maple Avenue Market, a farm and local foods store in Vienna. The truck will work with Mount Vernon through a buyers’ club. Similar to a CSA but without the long-term commitment, the club lets customers place orders to be delivered every two weeks to a few central drop-off points in Northern Virginia. If more farms offered such programs, Sarin says, it would be far easier to source locally. While Sarin and Nguyen plan the debut of Something Stuffed, they are testing out menu items by hosting tastings and catering events. As the name suggests, the truck will feature stuffed foods like dumplings, empanadas, rolls, and wraps. “If you think about it, almost every type of cuisine from anywhere around the world has items that are stuffed, and that’s a big draw for me,” says Sarin, a self-taught chef. “It gives us more opportunity to be creative with our menu items.”
Something Stuffed also plans on affordable pricing. “Food trucks have the reputation of being cheap and convenient,” Sarin says. “But [that] doesn’t mean you can’t be utilizing good products too.”
Smith Meadows Food Cart
Suemedha Sood is a columnist for BBC Travel and a lover of food, craft beer, and cute dogs.