I picked Chef Janos Wilder up shortly after 11 a.m. today at his restaurant Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, and we headed south in search of street food. We’d never met before and had no plan other than two empty stomachs and a bit of food-truck fever to contend with.
Sonoran hot dogs, street-vendor corn and other roadside foods have popped up at Wilder’s restaurants, but his yen for street food runs deeper than that. He once ran a food truck out of his original downtown restaurant—he laughs out loud and beams while describing the tricked-out truck that didn't work out—and is credited with helping El Guero Canelo grow from a tiny food trailer into a thriving business.
Why does Janos Wilder— author, chef, James Beard Award winner and owner of three acclaimed Tucson eateries — care about street food? And, more than that, why is he willing to drive around in some food writer’s un-air-conditioned and unkempt truck in triple-digit heat to talk about it?
“Because I love it,” says Wilder, in between bites of a tostada at our first stop, food truck Mariscos El Primo on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Aviation Drive. “Because the food is totally worthy, and it’s good, and it’s cheap, and it’s the food people eat every day.”
Wilder pointed out that the seafood tostadas we were eating were less than $3 and left little to be desired. “The octopus is tender; the tostada is good. The tomato is fine. Sure, some of it may be frozen, but all the ingredients are fresh and balanced.”
It was getting hotter, and we needed refreshments, so we headed to food trailer Primavera Raspados and Hotdogs. Downing a pineapple and mango version, Wilder said he’s thinking about adding raspados to the menu at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. He’d also like to do a version of tostinos preparados, a Mexican street food that is basically a bag of chips cut open and covered with condiments.
Can I just say that standing in a parking lot on Ajo Way with traffic going by and Janos Wilder going off on the virtues of street food is, well, a lot of fun? His eyes get wide when he talks about the first Sonoran hot dog he ate ("I said, 'This is really something. This is something that is identifiable as being from this region.'"), and he’s got stories for days about tiny taco stands and going “carting,” or hopping from food truck to food truck in search of good eats.
Winding our way through the streets of South Tucson, Wilder spoke of pork tacos and other roadside meals he’s had over the years. Then he spoke of $30 plates of beef cheeks, guiding top-notch restaurants to high acclaim and fine French cuisine, and how it all fills a common space in his culinary mind.
“I’ve always considered demystifying food as part of my job,” said Wilder. “Part of that job is also to demystify street food and to show people, just like with the fancy stuff, that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
We made one more stop for jerk chicken and oxtail stew at food truck D Island Grill JA, on the corner of Grant Road and Sixth Avenue. The drink of the day was sorrel-ginger. Wilder had to be at a meeting. I rushed one last question.
"So, how would you say all these food trucks fit into Tucson food culture?"
“It’s like the bass note. It keeps the rhythm moving in a sense, and it plays a huge economic role, too,” says Wilder. “This is immediate, inexpensive food that pulls from the culture and heritage of regular people. It becomes folk food, in a sense.”