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When I finally get my hands on an order of Yuan Wonton’s emerald-hued Sichuan eggplant dumplings, all I can think about is sinking my teeth into the crispy-bottomed parcels of charred vegetables. I forget how cold my fingers are from waiting in line outside for 30 minutes. I don’t care that I’m perched on a bench inside a crowded brewpub. And I’m definitely not pondering all the logistics it takes for chef-owner and 2023 James Beard Award nominee Penelope Wong to serve her menu of refined Chinese cuisine from a converted Ford E350.
Yuan Wonton is just one of the more than 600 food truck businesses in the Mile High City that battle ever-changing city regulations for mobile eateries, complex vehicle maintenance, and volatile weather conditions to stay on the road. Those challenges are, of course, in addition to the usual trials of running a restaurant, from skyrocketing food and labor costs to uncertain consumer demand—all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In fact, about 10 percent fewer food truck licenses were active in Denver in January 2023 compared with January 2020. “[Operators] need public gatherings,” says Eric Escudero, marketing and communications manager for the city and county of Denver’s excise and licensing department. “The licensing data show that the food truck industry in Denver has not completely recovered yet.”
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In January, Denver City Council passed a measure to help support a comeback. Starting in June, operators will be able to apply for and renew their retail food establishment licenses online for the first time. They will also pay a variable annual fee of $25 to $225, depending on how susceptible their food-processing activities are to foodborne pathogens (e.g., the risk of scooping ice cream versus smoking meats), rather than the current range of $95 to $445. Those may sound like small changes, but in an industry with such tight profit margins, every extra dollar and minute counts. Want to support these peripatetic makers? Good news: All you have to do is chase them down to score some of the tastiest eats in the metro area. —Patricia Kaowthumrong
What You Should Know About Running a Food Truck
The Build Is Expensive
After 10 years of cooking in fine-dining kitchens across the Front Range, Zurisadai Resendiz hit the streets this past June. Since then, the Mexico City–raised chef’s Luchador Mexican Food truck has been a popular fixture at festivals and breweries, where he slings up to 200 daily orders of his spins on Mexican street food. He gave us a peek under the hood of his operation. —Ethan Pan
$7,000: Amount Resendiz paid for a 1974 Chevrolet P30 van with a refurbished engine and transmission
$35,000: Cost to install cooking equipment, lighting, plumbing, flooring, and insulation
$3,000: Fee for Luchador’s custom vinyl wrap job
$25: Wage, by the hour, Resendiz pays his wife, Cristina Bazan, and fellow hospitality veteran Heriberto Sosa
$8: Net profit made on each order of the $14 quesabirria, the truck’s most popular item: four griddled tortillas loaded with melted cheese and juicy beef shoulder and served with braising broth
Permitting Is a Nightmare
When the city abruptly banned food trucks from LoDo on Fridays and Saturdays in late July because of a rise in violence in the neighborhood, it brought attention to the complex system mobile food operators must navigate simply to set up shop. –Patricia Kaowthumrong
In much of the Mile High City, food trucks may operate for up to four consecutive hours between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. each day in each designated zone for which they hold an annual permit ($50, on top of their retail food establishment license). The vehicle must be parked at least 20 feet from any intersection and 300 feet from a public park or parkway (unless it is part of a festival or contracted event). As the LoDo situation demonstrated, the city can implement extra restrictions in specific neighborhoods, often at the behest of area residents or business owners. Trucks are never allowed in downtown’s Central Business District, and although LoDo’s weekend mobile vendor ban was mostly lifted, limits on how late trucks can be out and how many can serve in specified areas remain.
To park at breweries, office parks, and other privately operated businesses, food trucks must negotiate agreements with the landowners and will likely pay fees, which can be weekly or monthly rates and/or percentages of sales. For example, RiNo taproom Improper City charges food truck operators 10 percent of their daily sales.
How a Food Truck Is Built
Building efficient mobile kitchens has become a full-time gig for Colorado companies such as North American Food Trucks (NAFT) and Mile High Custom Food Trucks (MHCFT), who say it generally takes $25,000 to $120,000 to convert vehicles of all shapes and sizes into deliverers of deliciousness. —Shane Monaghan
In order to meet state regulations, every food truck—even if it’s only serving grub, not preparing it—needs to have a hand sink.
Special Order: Fire and Vine, which dishes up Italian cuisine, asked NAFT for a ride with four sinks, one of which is dedicated to washing fresh veggies, another to mops.
Food preparation equipment varies greatly but can include anything from a stove to a fryer to a convection oven—all appliances that must be bolted to the floor.
Special Order: Megachain Taco John’s tasked MHCFT with building a $220,000 truck equipped with everything its restaurants have, from taco warmers to a prep line.
Outside the Box
The standard service window size is six feet, enough space for owners to take orders and deliver food.
Special Order: MHCFT built Dilly Dogz an eight-foot window for extra hot-dog-slinging room.
Brick and Mortar Is Sometimes the End Goal
For many food truck owners, mobile operations are the first step toward realizing the dream of opening a stand-alone restaurant. We caught up with the proprietors of Saucy’s Southern BBQ, who did just that.
For four years, co-owners Ki’erre Dawkins and Khristian Matthews of Saucy’s Southern BBQ lugged their open-air food trailer around Denver, dodging the elements while meeting the snowballing demand for their Mississippi-style barbecue. All that hustling paid off this past October, when they upgraded to a fast-casual brick-and-mortar in University Park. There, Dawkins and Matthews—who met at Mississippi State University—pair friendly Southern cookout hospitality with a food-coma-inducing menu of hot links, wings, and ribs. (They also offer a line of barbecue and wing sauces infused with THC, which patrons can pick up at more than a dozen local dispensaries.) We asked the duo about the highs and lows of finally setting their business in concrete. —Ethan Pan
5280: What changed for the better after you opened the storefront?
Matthews: We always wanted to [give] our customers somewhere to eat, ’cause when we had the food truck, everybody’s just eating in their cars or taking it to go. The food truck sold out at like 2:30 p.m. Now, we can handle almost 100 to 200 people a day.
Dawkins: We didn’t have the typical style of food truck where we were enclosed. So if it was windy, raining, hot, cold, it was bad. We got great help now, too. It was just us two, and we were getting our ass whupped.
Any unexpected challenges?
Dawkins: Almost everything…electrical stuff, getting legal, transitioning the licensing, and teaching our process to [our employees].
What’s next for Saucy’s?
Matthews: Our responsibilities increased to where we’re responsible for people and their families, so we just take it that much more serious.… Hopefully by this time next year, we’ll be opening up our second or third location. We building a family [with our staff], and each one in our family wanna own a restaurant.
A Day in the Life of James Beard Award Nominee Penelope Wong
Denverites are crazy for Penelope Wong’s delicate wontons, fluffy bao, and giant soup dumplings. The high demand translates into super busy days, which is why we decided to outline just one week in the life of the Mile High City’s favorite dough wrapper. —Allyson Reedy
Wong, along with her co-owner and husband, Rob Jenks, and sous chef, NgocAnh Nguyen, heads to Yuan Wonton’s Montbello commissary kitchen at 9 a.m. They grind and knead meat; chop ginger and cilantro; roll out silky, stretchy dough; and hand-pleat dumplings until nearly 10 p.m.
Back at the commissary from 9:30 a.m. into the evening, Wong finishes folding and pleating 4,000 dumplings for the week’s single planned service. “I can roll, cut, cook, and do dishes, but I’m not allowed to pleat,” Jenks says. “That’s all Penny.” Then, the team flash-freezes the savory parcels to preserve their tasty fillings. Today, some are stuffed with a take on one of Wong’s favorite childhood dinners: slow-poached poultry over rice with ginger-scallion oil.
Early in the day, Wong adds the menu to her website, where fans can reserve a select number of items when the page goes live a day before the pop-up. The goods available for preorder, which claims 50 percent of the food (the rest is for walk-ups), almost always sells out within minutes. The afternoon is reserved for whisking sauces and chile oil (and for cooking noodles, if they’re on the menu) on the commissary’s stove.
In the morning, Jenks preps their circa-1983 truck. On this December day, it’s well below freezing; he uses a blow dryer and space heaters to thaw the rig’s pipes. Jenks, Wong, and Nguyen set up at Baker’s Novel Strand Brewing Company for Wong’s favorite task: feeding customers, from 4 to 7:30 p.m. or until they run out of food. Afterward, Nguyen loads up her car with the dirty dishes and heads back to the commissary. Jenks power-washes the truck and empties the cooler.
Because Yuan Wonton doesn’t typically have events on the weekend, Wong catches up on administrative tasks. She books events for the following weeks, calculates budgets, works on plans for the brick-and-mortar restaurant she hopes to open this spring in Park Hill, and writes the lineup for Monday, when the team will be back at the commissary to mix, roll, and fold all over again.
Food Truck Collectives
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When Aurora’s La Plaza Marketplace opens this spring, more than 20 food truck owners will get the chance to take their operations from pavement to more permanent digs.
On any given day, a parking lot near the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Chambers Road in Aurora is packed with a maze of dozens of food trucks and countless hungry patrons. The gathering, which began at the start of the pandemic, is dubbed La Plaza Colorado. Doug McMurrain—who has developed big-box stores such as Walmarts and Home Depots and also founded a Hispanic-centric marketplace concept in Atlanta—owns the vast lot and began renting out spaces to mobile vendors for as little as $300 per month.
Yessamin Castro, 23, helps her parents operate Tacos La Victoria, which most visitors frequent for its rare-in-Denver tacos alambre: tortillas stuffed with carne asada, bacon, bell peppers, and onions. The business debuted in 2019, but the family saw an increased flow of customers after moving to La Plaza in 2020. “People sometimes come here just to see what it’s all about, which is better for us than if we were parked off on our own,” Castro says. “Plus, even though many of the trucks sell Mexican food, it’s still so diverse. Each state in Mexico has unique cuisine, and people keep coming back to try it all.”
With the lot flourishing, McMurrain turned his attention to his original project: the empty structure overlooking it. Nearly three years later, he hopes to cut the ribbon on La Plaza Marketplace in June. Inside the 100,000-square-foot building, McMurrain plans to lease repurposed shipping container stalls to 25 food vendors (monthly rents will start at $400). Most of the existing participants, including Tacos La Victoria, will move indoors, and new makers will likely join them. (A few mobile vendors will remain outside on weekends and for special events.) “Not only will we get more customers, but I think the new space will be more comfortable for us,” Castro says. “We’ll have more room to work, and it won’t be overly hot or cold.”
In addition to the mouthwatering fare, visitors will find a grocery store, a bakery, an arcade, hair and nail salons, and a full bar. For his part, McMurrain says he is looking forward to supporting participating business owners by providing an all-female, bilingual management team, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and a venue for them to take their concepts to the next level. “I can’t say I’ve ever saved someone’s life by developing a Walmart,” McMurrain says. “But I know I will with this.” —Barbara Urzua
More Food Truck Parks and Collectives
Satisfy your appetite at these food truck parks and collectives, which give patrons access to multiple menus and bonuses like craft coffee and booze. –Patricia Kaowthumrong
This six-year-old Boulder venue is a sprawling indoor-outdoor gathering place with a stage for live music, a coffeeshop, and a full bar. Nosh on bites from up to three rotating food trucks—regulars include Arepas Caribbean and McDevitt Taco Supply—at picnic tables on the fire-pit-furnished patio. Year-round; 2775 Valmont Road, Boulder
Civic Center Eats
On summer Wednesdays and Thursdays, a caravan of more than a dozen food trucks and carts offer lunch fare via downtown’s Civic Center Eats. The event started at the eponymous park back in 2011, but it became more accessible last year: Organizers piloted a pay-what-you-can model, a flexible fee structure for meals that will return this summer. May through September; 101 W. 14th Ave.
Run Westy Run
During the warm-weather months, the shaded picnic tables at Westminster’s nearly one-year-old Run Westy Run beer garden are packed with patrons and their leashed, tail-wagging buddies. Two-legged visitors sip suds from Denver’s Raíces Brewing Company (served from a converted shipping container) and enjoy meals like Simply Pizza’s Neapolitan pies from a lineup of six food trucks. April through December; 3151 W. 70th Ave., Westminster
An Ode to Cheese on a Stick
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Why nothing satisfies 5280’s food editor like molten goodness from the Mukja food truck.
As the food editor at 5280, my calendar is full of incredible meals at fancy restaurants, where $60 rotisserie-roasted chicken is presented on fine china and servers fold my napkin while I’m in the bathroom. Although I enjoy these swanky experiences, the truth is I don’t typically crave edible-flower-bejeweled scallop crudo or slow-roasted venison shank. I don’t yearn for the highly polished ambience of white-tablecloth establishments. Instead, my culinary daydreams are occupied by humbler hospitality and eats—namely, cheese dogs from a three-and-a-half-year-old Korean fusion food truck called Mukja.
When you bite into the crunchy batons of gooey fried mozzarella, which can be garnished with drizzles of spicy ketchup and homemade honey mustard or mayo, cotija cheese, and cilantro, it’s nearly impossible to prevent an epic cheese pull. And the act of ordering from Mukja’s window—often occupied by owner Julia Rivera and her children Kayla and James Makowski, who were inspired to start the business by their love of street food and Denver’s lack of Korean dogs—nourishes the soul like seeing an old friend. At watering holes such as Park Hill’s Station 26 and South Broadway’s Trashhawk Tavern, the family draws crowds in search of a warm greeting and freshly fried, portable comfort in paper boxes. For those devotees, and for me, it’s reliable, affordable joy that doesn’t require a reservation. –Patricia Kaowthumrong
Don’t miss our list of the best food trucks in Denver here.