Kentucky Food Trucks and Spicy Eats

By John Gregory | 6/26/17 8:00 AM

How about a burger, barbeque, or shrimp tacos for lunch? Maybe you prefer a Greek salad, a Thai noodle bowl, some Cajun gumbo, or a cool cup of gelato.

Those options and many more are available at food trucks that are navigating the commonwealth these days to sell a range of cuisines to customers on street corners and at parks and parking lots.

KET’s The Local Traveler sampled Lexington’s food truck scene. Host Amy Hess also checked in with local purveyors of foods created to help you feel the burn.

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Since food trucks are essentially kitchens on wheels, the chef-operators have the flexibility of traveling to different locations each day to set up their mobile restaurants. But that can also make it difficult for fans of a particular truck to know where to find them.

That’s why entrepreneur Josh Boldt and his partner founded the website Lexington Food Trucks http://lexingtonfoodtrucks.com and created a companion smartphone app to help people find their favorite trucks. His site now tracks more than 30 food trucks operating in and around Lexington.

“These are small businesses who are trying to get a foothold in the economy,” Boldt says. “Beyond that, their mobility allows them to come up with really interesting dishes on a daily basis, so the menu on a lot of these trucks will change every day.”

Food truck chefs can find a good parking spot on their own, or they can come together in groups like the weekly Friday lunchtime gathering in a south Lexington parking lot called Food Trucks for a Cause. Boldt says participating trucks donate 10 percent of their profits that day to a local charity.

From Mobile to Bricks and Mortar
A recent Friday event included Rolling Oven, which offers pizzas and sandwiches cooked in a wood-fired mobile oven; Gastro Gnomes, which specializes in what owner Andrew Suthers calls locally sourced, chef-driven cuisine; Bradford BBQ Grill and Catering, purveyors of Memphis-style, slow-smoked meats; and the Fork in the Road Mobile Galley that features dishes made from fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients.

Food trucks are popular with some chefs because they allow an entre into the food service industry without the steep initial investment and ongoing overhead costs of operating a traditional restaurant. But some food truck owners do decide to put down roots. Fork in the Road’s Mark Jensen is one of several chefs who parlayed their mobile success into a bricks and mortar restaurant.

Some chefs have decided to go the other direction. Toa Green closed her restaurant to devote her energies to her pop-up kitchen called Thai and Mighty Noodle Bowl.

“We love operating out of our food tent/food truck because it allows us to see our customers… out in the community and have our presence be in community,” Green says.

Along with Lexington’s thriving mobile dining operations, food trucks can also be found in Louisville, Covington, Ashland, Bowling Green, Owensboro, Paducah, and other communities around the state.

Bring on the Heat
The hot chicken craze started in Nashville and has finally made its way north into the commonwealth with the opening of Joella’s Hot Chicken in Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky.

“Hot chicken essentially is your good old southern fried chicken made by great grandma and great grandpa back in the day,” says Bruce Rosenblatt, Joella’s director of operations. “It’s crispy fried chicken. We spice it up to different heat levels of your choice.”

Customers can chose from six different levels of heat at Joella’s. There’s the basic chicken, which has no spiciness, all the way up to “Fire in da hole!” which is labeled as “inferno.” Regardless of the spiciness you choose, Rosenblatt says you’ll find great flavor to balance out the heat.

Where there’s fried chicken, there has to be delicious sides dishes. The restaurant has the traditional potato salad, slaw, and macaroni and cheese, as well as more trendy sides like kale salad and parmesan-garlic fries. The Lexington location also offers a selection of local craft beers that customers can pour themselves.

Joella’s is the brainchild of Louisville businessman Tony Palombino. He got his start working at his parents’ fried chicken restaurant in the 1970s. There Palombino watched the cooks, Joe and Ms. Ella, make chicken each day. Joella’s honors their spirit and dedication to making great home-cooked meals.

If you want to add spice to other foods, then pick up a bottle of Back Porch Hot Sauce that’s blended by Stacy Hicks in Winchester. His heat levels range from a mild, banana-pepper based sauce to a dangerously hot sauce containing ghost peppers.

“I didn’t want anything to blow your head off,” Hicks says. “I wanted that heat to gradually build so that’s the reason that I mix the peppers – each one of them attacks a different piece of your tongue.”

Hicks got into the hot sauce business after a work colleague gave him some pepper plants. He didn’t know what to do with all the peppers they produced, so Hicks started experimenting with hot sauce recipes he found online. His self-bottled sauces soon became so popular with coworkers and friends that he decided to turn it into a business. It’s a family affair that Hicks operates out of his home. His mother Carol Simmons tends the pepper plants and Hicks handles the cooking and bottling.

Back Porch hot sauces are available in stores in Lexington, Winchester, Paris, and Berea. Other Bluegrass entrepreneurs that sell hot-and-spicy wares include Screamin’ Mimi’s hot sauces and salsas in Lexington; spicy dill pickles from Smoke Doctors BBQ in New Castle; hot sauces, pickles, and Bloody Mary mixers from Pops’ Pepper Patch in Louisville; and a concoction called Devil Dust from Waddy Spice Traders that includes the warning, “use with caution.”