Teenagers really go to college for the food.
Actually, they go to college so they can drink, but otherwise they go for the food. Perhaps they go firstly to meet girls or boys, and secondly to drink, and perhaps then for the food. More truthfully, along with drinking and sex, they go to college for the freedom, the parties, maybe the football games, but with some luck, they stumble, perhaps while drunk, into the food.
Because of the diversity of life large universities attract, college towns and college neighborhoods like the University District are some of the most interesting places to eat. Teenagers might not know that as they leave the small towns and suburbs they are from, but soon enough discover something they’ve never eaten while out looking for pizza or a sub sandwich. College might be a kid’s first taste of Indian masala or a Vietnamese sandwich or Korean stew.
This was likely more true of a student in the 1980s than of a student today, who probably grew up with more food choices and ethnic variety. These days, suburbs are full of immigrant-run restaurants that used to reside exclusively in city centers. Yesterday’s exotic fruits, like mangoes, Asian pears, and kiwis, are now commonly found in mainstream supermarkets. I did not taste olive oil until I was well into adulthood; my kid pretty much grew up on it. Ditto for a dozen other things that would have seemed special and mysterious in an American grocery 30 or 40 years ago but are pedestrian today, things like pesto or tofu or goat cheese.
University Way, a block from the University of Washington campus, is a pocket of cosmopolitan dining where you can find a Persian restaurant, a Brazilian restaurant, and a West Indian diner on the same strip — which illustrates the dichotomy of college dining. Off campus, the food is often surprising and different; on campus, it is mostly bland and institutional. College life is supposed to challenge your senses and expectations; the food seems to be mostly exempt from this obligation.
“I live in McCarty Hall (one of the UW dormitories) so I eat at McMahon (another dorm), By George (a food-court style restaurant in the undergraduate library) and Eleven 01 (another dorm restaurant) all the time,” said Corey Jones-Weinert, a freshman at the UW. “It’s always the usual pizza, burgers, and pasta…I think this place has the best food on campus.”
By "this place," Jones-Weinert was referring to the Motosurf food truck, one of three operated by the school’s Housing and Food Services department. Motosurf serves Hawaiian-style lunches inspired by the popular Marination food truck. Motosurf’s portions are big, prices low, and it gets the flavors right. The kalua pig is smoky and salty; its macaroni salad is savory. The truck serves grilled chicken ($5), Spam fried rice ($2.50), pork and spam sliders ($2 each) and even authentic Korean kimchee, which might mark the first time the state of Washington has been in the business of procuring kimchee.
Parked next to Motosurf in Red Square on a recent cold, wet afternoon was the Mexican food truck Siganos and a gourmet hot dog truck called Hot Dawgs. Plans are to add two more food trucks this year, one that serves southern-style barbecue and one that serves California-style street food, according to Gabe Kinney, the executive chef of Housing and Food Services.
“There are not too many school campuses that have done it,” Kinney said. “It was gutsy for us to think about it. So far, it’s been very successful. In a good week, when the weather is cooperating with us, each truck is expected to do about 1,600 transactions.”
The food trucks, collectively called UW Street Food, are open only for lunch, only on weekdays. They take only credit cards and student dining account cards. The trucks were installed to make up for the absence of the Husky Den cafeteria in the Husky Union Building, which was torn down so it can be replaced. The food lines were not overwhelming this week in Red Square, the symbolic center of the university, and the unofficial venue for protests and other forms of student expression.
The longest line of students stood in front of a table staffed by volunteers signing up participants for a game called zombie tag, in which human players with toy guns shoot zombie players who try to infect as many human players. Apparently, that too is what kids go to college for. On this day, and probably most, zombie tag proved more of an attraction than the Asian American Christian Fellowship, the Film Club, and the “Fast-a-Thon” put on by the Muslim Students Association, all of whom also had tables but no lines in Red Square.
Given the weather, the food truck lines were fairly consistent. Waits were relatively short. And based on my memory of campus food — I lived in McMahon Hall for two years in the mid-1980s — the food was a cut above. A small plate of kalua pig, which comes with a mound of rice and macaroni salad (only $3.50) was more filling, more tasty, and less expensive than most of the sandwiches served indoors around campus.
The UW is either behind or ahead of the rest of the city in its food cart strategy, depending on how you look at it. Motosurf’s inspiration, Marination, which itself copied a pre-existing truck (Kogi in Los Angeles), has been around for almost two years.
Siganos' is a reliable formula already proven by the popularity of the region’s taco trucks, particularly Rancho Bravo, which has grown a following among local chefs. Sigano’s serves tacos ($2 each), burritos ($5.95), bowls ($5.50), and nachos ($5.25) that would be hard pressed to compete in El Paso, but hold their own against most of the Mexican fast/casual chains like Chipotle and Qdoba.
Hot Dawgs’ franks are similar to those found at night-time hot dog carts in Pioneer Square, Belltown, Ballard, and Capitol Hill.
“I wish there was more street food in Seattle, but this is a good start,” said Dave Hays, a UW grad student in the forestry department and a Motosurf regular.
Sensing the growing popularity of street food in Seattle, and some of the civic benefits that come with them (foot traffic, economic activity, a sense of neighborhood), city officials are considering amending rules to make it easier for merchants to sell food from trucks. Currently, city regulations make it illegal for trucks to sell food while parked on the street. Marination and other food trucks must park in private lots.
“We’re proposing as a pilot to designate zones, where food trucks could vend from the curb onto the sidewalk,” said Gary Johnson, with the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “We’re talking about maybe in the range of 10 zones and have looked at a number of sites. My favorite example is a block-and-a-half stretch of Broadway (on Capitol Hill) where the light rail station is going in. That would be a great spot.”
Health Department rules would remain the same, requiring trucks to have daily access to a commercial kitchen with plumbing and refrigeration. Food-truck employees must also have access to a restroom within 200 feet, requiring cooperation from a nearby merchant with a fixed building. These are obstacles UW Street Food does not face since it has full access to the university’s facilities.
The restroom and kitchen requirements are what make it difficult, if not prohibitive, to operate food-truck pods, or clusters of food trucks permanently parked in a commercially zoned lot — something Portland is famous for. Its food-truck culture is far more advanced than Seattle’s, partly because, as Johnson suggested, Portland’s health department does not enforce its rules as strictly as Seattle’s.
“You could argue that the environment in Portland favored food carts early on,” Johnson said, “and consequently there is more of a laissez-faire attitude. I think they’re a great thing for neighborhoods. They’ve really taken off there and there’s an incredible demand.”
Johnson said Mayor Mike McGinn is a “big fan” of the city’s street food initiative, as is the majority of the City Council. He said he hopes these changes to the city’s regulations will be in place by this spring or summer.
“Change is never easy in Seattle,” he said, “so I don’t predict a smooth transition. If you can figure out why that is, let me know.”
Johnson said part of the delay in embracing street food might go back to the 1980s when there was a “perception that vending from the street was out of control… that it was tacky, trashy, and blighted, so the city really cracked down on it. A lot of time has passed, and we now have a more positive understanding about street food vending, that it adds vibrancy and color and attracts people to urban neighborhoods.”
While trucks might have an easier time by this summer, carts still face many restrictions. Only a few items, like coffee, hot dogs and popcorn, can be sold from carts according to city regulations. It could soften on that point slightly, for example allowing crepes, but will generally place more restrictions on the type of food that cart vendors can sell.
If UW’s Red Square food trucks prove popular, the school will continue to operate them even when the Husky Den is reopened, Kinney said. There is talk of stationing food trucks near Husky Stadium, adding more hours and more variety, based on “what we felt was lacking at the university as far as cuisine types,” Kinney said.
“The Ave has a lot of options, and one of our biggest challenges and concerns has always been competing with that,” he said. “We really can’t. We have higher pay scale (because all employees belong to a union) and higher fees. But one thing that will never change is an individual’s sense of exploration; they’re always going to look for something new and exciting.”
If you go: Motosurf, Hot Dawgs, Siganos, Red Square (Central Plaza), University of Washington, Mondays-Fridays, 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Credit cards only.