Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 10, 2023

You’ll find something to love at Food Truck Fridays

The brisket meatball yakamein by chef Kenyatta Ashford of Neutral Ground has been a popular offering at Food Truck Friday. - Photo by Emily Dorio

In the dark comedy “The Menu,” celebrity chef Julian Slowik welcomes diners to Hawthorn, his ultra-luxurious restaurant, and asks them to not eat.

“I beg of you one thing – do not eat,” Slowik says. “Taste. Savor. Relish. Consider every morsel you place inside your mouth. Be mindful. But do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that.”

After viewing “The Menu,” you might wonder where in Chattanooga you can find cuisine so elevated it demands to be tasted, savored and relished. St. John’s? Bridgeman’s Chophouse? Alleia?

No doubt. But would you believe me if I said you could also find this level of fare at Food Truck Friday?

Believe me.

Located on Marlin Road, Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga hosts Food Truck Friday in its parking lot 11 a.m.-3 p.m. the first and third Fridays of every month. That means your next opportunity to experience this potpourri of pop-ups, trailers and trucks is Feb. 17.

Having enjoyed lunch at a handful of Food Truck Fridays, I can assure you there will be a variety of appetizing from-scratch fare on hand. Maybe you’ll want a steaming hot Philly cheesesteak from Mac’s Sub & Fries. Or perhaps Chattatater will reel you in with its loaded fries. Then again, you might be unable to resist grabbing a Mojo Cuban at Look-Out 4 Sliders.

To put it mildly, choosing a meal at Food Truck Friday is a Herculean task. Twenty-three vendors were tempting passersby with enticing selections last Friday as members of the Brainerd High School marching band and cheerleading squad paraded along the makeshift thoroughfare playing spirited, chest-thumping tunes.

Much of the food was the kind of comforting chow you’d expect from a chef operating out of a truck. Wings, burgers, hot dogs, pizza and more, all prepared by passionate entrepreneurs with the drive to start a business and the skill to leave you with a greasy grin.

After scrutinizing the menu at Nola Girl’s Gumbo during my first lap around the bumper-to-bumper smorgasbord, I came close to ordering the sausage and chicken gumbo. Later, I almost settled on the jerk chicken from Souther-Ribean Cuisine.

But I kept searching, waiting until I knew I’d found my personal Holy Grail of food truck lunches.

Choosing something for washing down my meal was easy after sampling the offerings at Mo Lemonade. While I could have been adventurous and purchased a bottle of Trap Juice or Sweet Thang, I went old school and bought the garden variety lemonade because it tasted close to what my grandmother used to make fresh. (I think my jaws are still tight from the tartness.)

I also purchased dessert before selecting my main course. Joseph Gonzalez, the proprietor of Broken Heart Cheesecakes, sealed the deal when he pulled a generous slice of Turtle Track Cheesecake from a cooler for another customer as I nosed around his table.

After telling me he makes his own cheesecakes – and wincing when I asked him if he ever froze them – Gonzalez explained the name of his business.

“We focus on broken hearts, whether it’s the loss of a family member or a pet, or feelings of depression and loneliness. We give 10% of our sales to the Jason Flatt Foundation, which helps to prevent youth suicide.”

Gonzalez could have named his operation Chattacheesecake, or Scenic City Slices, but he went with something consequential, so I felt less guilty buying one of his mega-desserts than I should have.

As I moved on from there, a puff of steam escaping from under a nearby popup tent caught my eye. Beneath it, a towering Black man was bent over portable kitchen gear. A small sign on a table identified the booth as the temporary home of Neutral Ground.

The sign also contained the menu, which consisted of a single item: brisket meatball yakamein, a dish made of smoked brisket meatballs, handmade spaghetti, pickled mushrooms, a soft-boiled egg and beef broth.

Hello, lunch.

“Who is he?” I asked a woman who appeared to be waiting for her order. She looked at me like my bottle of lemonade contained something stronger.

“That’s chef Kenyatta Ashford,” she exclaimed. “He won ‘Chopped.’”

An online search revealed the history of Ashford, who was laid off during the pandemic, was victorious on the Food Network’s cooking competition show and returned home to launch Neutral Ground at the incubator.

And there he was, making Brisket meatball yakamein at Food Truck Friday.

After receiving my order, I sat in my car, as winter had finally settled in with a near freezing temperature. But I did not eat.

Instead, I tasted, savored, relished and mindfully considered every morsel I placed inside my mouth. Ashford’s dish was, as chef Slowik would say, too precious to simply eat.

If you want quality comfort food, Food Truck Friday has it in spades. But don’t overlook the event if you’re in the mood for something more elevated. Located outside the incubator, it promises to always be chock full of culinary surprises.

See you on the 17th.