Food carts have been around in the Philippines for quite some time. From your friendly neighborhood fish ball carts to the endless stalls you see in malls and train stations, these quick snack peddlers have filled many hungry tummies on the go. They satisfy your craving for the latest milk tea drink or the classic bibingka (a spongy cake made with rice flour) at a cheap price, without the salmonella risk.
The food carts began as a moneymaking franchise, a business fad of sorts. We’ve seen, however, that they’re here to stay. And while most of them still offer run of the mill food, a new generation of carts is now on the rise. These meals on wheels are now coming full circle, offering something for everyone. They continue to satisfy their regulars with the familiar, while piquing everyone else’s attention (and palate) with a growing list of innovative offerings.
We’ve known food carts all our lives. They peddle our favorite fish balls and mystery meats. They sell pares (a viand of beef cooked in a sweet sauce and a bowl of soup, usually served with rice) and mami (noodle soup) to growling, often drunken stomachs in the early morning hours. These independent vendors found their heyday in the 80’s and 90’s alongside the rapid urbanization of the metro and still flourish today, providing the basis for street food on wheels.
Food cart history has also made its mark in some of the country’s top schools, enticing even non-students into becoming regular customers. The University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman has a proud history in its isaw (barbecued pig or chicken intestines) and aristokarts, so named as a pun on the popular Aristocrat restaurant. De La Salle University (DLSU) in Taft Ave. has the Agno food court, where food carts line a small alley. Their cheap prices have helped many a college kid to spend their allowance on better things (like beer).
The Jolly Jeeps near office buildings were once just jeepneys. They churned out goto (rice porridge with beef innards), lugaw (plain rice porridge), and other home cooked viands to fill the stomachs of a hungry workforce.
However, these early food carts couldn’t cut it in upscale malls and train stations. Despite their rickety wooden charm, it was hard for customers to look past their makeshift carts and the promise of hepatitis lurking in their paint-chipped surfaces. So, the food cart changed with the times. The era of pre-fabricated, customizable, and sparkling clean food carts began. These all-stainless steel models soon brought street food like fish balls and shawarma into elite, air-conditioned buildings and malls.
Outside these buildings, the Jolly Jeep also transformed. The box type, aluminum beauties we see in the business districts came to replace the original smoke-belching jeepneys. They still dish out the same good food that generations of rank-and-file swear by, but they now do so with a complete set of business and sanitary permits.
From their inception in the early 80’s to their current prominence in the local food scene, we see that the food cart is not only here to stay, but is poised to dramatically redefine the term “street food”. Adapting to food trends helped them stand the test of time, and their resulting foothold in the industry will now allow them to dictate what a new generation of diners will crave for when they hit the streets.
The food cart boom sparked the appetite of hungry customers, and ignited in brilliant entrepreneurs a revolutionary idea that would take the mobile food industry to a whole new level. It was time to upgrade both the food and the wheels.
A lonely, moustached truck makes it way to Bonifacio Global City (BGC). It stops, the doors suddenly open and light shines through. Money is exchanged, people grab orders, and everyone is happy. No, they’re not selling drugs.
The truck that pulled up is called Guactruck. It was the first designer food truck in Manila and is a beauty, with its quirky moustache and graphics laden panels. Born out of the vision of its owners for something akin to or better than the food trucks in the US, it first offered burrito bowls, mounds of cilantro lime rice with your choice of fillings, salsa, and toppings. To take things up a notch, the meals are served in a cardboard origami flower box, and with cutlery made out of cornstarch. Guactruck’s owners evidently considered environmental responsibility alongside the usual standards of good food, great design, and sustainability of operations.
More food trucks would come roaring in from the horizon. Big stores like Brothers Burger and The Cheese Steak Shop now have trucks of their own. Other entrepreneurs have also come up with new food truck concepts. Apart from trucks, they have also employed mini-buses and customized vans that serve anything from the old-reliable burger to more exotic Middle Eastern fare.
The concept of food truck convergence also paved the way for “Cucina Andare” in Makati. The creators of the weekend food bazaar Mercato Centrale established it to bring together these different trucks in one place for people to enjoy, just like in other countries that first experienced the advent of food trucks. While “Cucina Andare” is Italian for “go to the kitchen”, this revolutionary idea came into being to bring the kitchen to you.
The evolution of the food cart continues in Manila and the rest of the country. It proceeds to usher in a new melting pot of taste buds, cultures, and even social statuses. The food cart/truck revolution breaks down the walls separating certain dining concepts by elevating street food, and making high-class food more accessible. The movement also keeps our local street food from disappearing, and has massive potential to educate people about food.
As the wheels turn on the food carts/trucks, so too do ideas and preferences. The positive market response encourages the development of more concepts, and entices new customers to join the ride. With the food cart/truck scene serving as a true middle ground for testing new ideas, things can only get better. For now, buckle up and enjoy the ride, so that when your children ask about where you were during the food cart revolution, you can proudly say you were in the front lines, with your face deep in a bowl of food.
Do you have any food cart ideas? What are your favorite food carts and trucks? Share them with us below!
Guactruck regularly parks at Bonifacio Global City (BGC) but can also be found in Cucina Andare.
Cucina Andare is at Glorietta 3 Open Park (right in between Landmark, Makati Shangri-la Hotel and 6750). It is open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 4PM to 3AM. It has different food trucks along with desktop food stalls.
[thumbnail via Commons.Wikimedia]