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Hub officials try to steer future of food trucks

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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For two decades, an inventive Asian cuisine food truck has been as much apart of the MIT experience as math — parking near Kendall Square and dishing out sumptuous lemon-grass grilled pork and piquant Pho noodle soup.

But each evening, the Momogoose food truck motors across the Charles River to its home base in Allston. Because of bureaucracy and a mishmash of regulatory hurdles in Boston, Momogoose has never been able to permanently set up in the city where the truck sleeps.

“It would be very easy to operate in Boston, but it was very difficult to get the license,’’ said Tiffany K. Pham, 27, who helps run the business. “Think of trying to start a restaurant, now add on top of that 10 times the level of difficulty.’’

City officials hope that will soon change. Two Boston city councilors yesterday proposed an ordinance that would create up to 25 licenses geared specifically for mobile food catering vehicles.

It coincides with similar efforts in Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration, which spearheaded a competition this fall of nearly 30 food trucks vying for a spot next year on City Hall Plaza. The three winners — Momogoose; a Vietnamese sandwich outfit named Bon Me; and the international-sandwich maker World Eats — will set up shop in April.

Beyond the contest, the overarching goal is to streamline the permit process and increase opportunities for inventive chefs while creating a regulatory framework before the upscale mobile food industry mushrooms like it has elsewhere. The two councilors, Michael P. Ross and Salvatore LaMattina, have worked with Menino’s office, although the two sides may differ on some details.

“We want to make sure we do this well, and we do it so we are not putting any undue burden on small businesses,’’ said Edith Murnane, Boston’s director of food initiatives. “At the same time, we want to keep our streets accessible.’’

Food trucks are allowed in a limited capacity in Boston but must be approved by an array of regulators, including police, fire, inspectional services, and transportation. With proper permits, vendors could set up shop on private property or in city parks through a profit-sharing program administered through the Boys & Girls Club. But a mobile restaurant cannot park on a random city street and sell food — even if its truffle-infused fries are delectable.

The proposed ordinance, which requires a public hearing and approval by the mayor and council, draws on lessons learned by other cities that have experienced a proliferation of gourmet food trucks. It would require a fixed brick-and-mortar commissary for water, supplies, and cleaning; a ban on parking within 100 feet of an established restaurant selling similar food; and other crucial requirements of running a mobile kitchen, such as having a bathroom plan for employees.

Ross and LaMattina recently made a pilgrimage to the food-truck mecca of Los Angeles. The pair studied other cities’ food truck laws on the cross-country flight, crashed at LaMattina’s brother-in-law’s home, and spent a day at Venice’s First Friday food truck festival, devouring Korean barbeque tacos and grilled cheese stuffed with mac-and-cheese noodles.

“These guys are making money in a down economy, and the citizens of L.A. love it,’’ Ross said, who said he paid for the flight from his campaign fund and not with taxpayer money. “Every restaurant had lines out the door in addition to the food trucks.’’

The two councilors compiled their findings in a five-page report, which distinguishes between lunch wagons that deliver sandwiches and other pre-made food to work sites, and high-end food trucks, which are full kitchens on wheels.

In Los Angeles, the food-truck phenomenon exploded before the city passed regulations, according to the report, sparking disagreement with city officials and turf wars between mobile restaurants. LaMattina described walking down one block in Los Angeles lined with 27 food trucks that blotted out businesses and blocked traffic signals.

“We are trying to be proactive in case they become popular in Boston,’’ LaMattina said, fantasizing about a truck serving Italian deli specialties in East Boston or on Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown. “We’re not talking about roach coaches. . . . These are high-end trucks.’’

Speaking for Menino’s office, Murnane described the proposed ordinance as a good first step. “What will come out of the administration will look a little bit differently for a number of reasons, but this is really all about teamwork and making this happen for small businesses,’’ she said.

One truck that has already rolled out in Boston is Clover, which offers meatless dishes each day in Dewey Square on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway near South Station. Clover and other new food offerings on the Greenway technically operate on private property because a foundation runs the string of parks.

At lunchtime yesterday, an aroma cut through a biting wind from French fries with fresh rosemary ($2) and chickpea fritters ($5) on a pita with house-made hummus and cucumber tomato salad. Bundled in hats and gloves, a steady crowd withstood the chill.

“Always people here, that should tell you,’’ said David Ruote, a 47-year-old banker from North Attleborough who eats at Clover at least once a week to take a break from local restaurants. “I hate going to the places downtown. It all tastes the same.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.