Like many culinary school graduates (Seattle Culinary Institute, class of ’99), Chef Kimberley Calvo wanted her own restaurant. But Calvo realized it was a bad idea. “The more I looked into what it entails in terms of money and financial backing, it wasn’t feasible in this economy,” she says.
So she invested in leasing a food truck instead. The Seasonal Palate, as it’s been christened, usually sets up on Hwy. 165 in her home town of Placitas, about a mile up from I-25. With a dramatic angle on the Sandia Mountains as a backdrop and a steady stream of commuters passing by, she’s developing a niche for her revolving menu of victuals, many of which are made from local and organic ingredients. And if business is slow, or if there’s an opportunity in Albuquerque or elsewhere, then away she goes.
Food truckers are the gypsies of the food business, but beyond the obvious similarities in gear, it’s tough to generalize them. Some are quite territorial and will grumble, or worse, if another food truck sets up too close. Calvo associates with a group of trucks that shares a common chunk of ground every Wednesday at the Talin Market parking lot, where a weekly food truck pod holds court from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Many of these trucks have what she calls a “gentlemen’s agreement” to not overlap their menu offerings. These trucks also follow each other on Twitter, retweeting each others’ location and specials.
Calvo’s menu changes frequently, which makes giving recommendations a tricky task. While she usually has a slider entrée, it might be a buffalo burger or a short rib. The po’boy could be shrimp or oyster. But if her Thai green curry is on the menu, get it, no matter what the featured ingredient is. Spicy, and with sweet peppers as well—a brilliant combo—the curry dish I tried had tender beef leftover from the previous night’s flat iron sliders.
Another dish worth trying if it’s available is the Asian chicken salad. This is not your grandma’s half-mayo chicken salad (not that there’s anything wrong with mayo). A mix of organic chopped romaine and salad mix is topped with edamame, carrots, cucumbers, and slices of chicken thigh that have been marinated in sambal, soy sauce and maple syrup. The marinade makes the chicken taste like duck.
Before moving to New Mexico, Calvo worked at Café Flora in Seattle, renowned for its vegetarian cuisine. Perhaps that’s why her falafel shines as brightly as it does, with East Mountain feta, housemade tzatziki and organic romaine hearts supporting the sturdy, coarse-grained falafel balls. But it might have been upstaged by the french fries it came with. Thin-cut and seasoned with an undisclosed spice mix, the fries are crispy with a clean flavor that Calvo credits to frequent changes of oil (a peanut-vegetable oil blend).
In my tenure at the Alibi, I’ve reviewed several restaurants that went under despite serving awesome food. It’s an incredibly tough business, and even in a great economy it takes a special breed of person to open a restaurant—the kind of person who likes banging his or her head against a wall. But the same economic realities that can drag down a brick-and-mortar restaurant are what help a good food truck succeed: You get better food for your dollar because you aren’t paying for overhead, service or tablecloths. For entrepreneurs who like to cook, this can make all the difference.
“In a few years I’ll own my food truck,” Calvo told me. “That wasn’t going to happen in a restaurant.”