It’s lunchtime at Cheese Wizards, which means all three tables at the restaurant on Queen Anne’s 15th Avenue slope are full. Walls painted cheddar or black are hung with weaponry from various fantasy genres—Sauron’s mace from Lord of the Rings, She-Ra’s sword of protection, even an all-purpose troll’s ax provide a decidedly escapist backdrop against which to eat a grilled cheese sandwich.
The four-sandwich menu is the same as on the food truck where the business began. I eyed the meaty Voldemortadella, but the friendly counter dude recommended the Goblin King, which unites three cheeses—Emmentaler swiss, monterey jack, and cream—with chicken and roasted red peppers. Feats of butter and a hot panini press leave the bread not at all greasy—crisped, but with a distinct memory of what it was like to be soft. Mostly it achieves what I thought was itself a fantasy: grown-up nuance in a classic grilled cheese sandwich.
A fleet of trucks has opened permanent establishments this past year, from the vegan Cookie Counter in Greenwood to Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max in Hillman City. The reasons are pretty much what you’d think—steady wintertime business, a proper kitchen—but the restaurants themselves deliver the unexpected. Like Cheese Wizards, most sidestep the Capitol Hill and South Lake Union restaurant boom in favor of neighborhoods that could use more easy-casual places to eat. And like Cheese Wizards, most are indelibly offbeat.
It doesn’t get more offbeat than “vegan tiki bar.” No Bones Beach Club in Ballard is a palm-thatched, bamboo-adorned evolution of the No Bones About It vegan food truck. Surfboards hang on the walls, Blue Crush plays on the TV over the bar, and just about every table has a towering plate of nachos, with cashew and smoked poblano faux queso as a decadent stand-in for the real thing.
Truck culture breeds a particularly exuberant type of restaurant, says No Bones owner MacKenzie DeVito. “People are so happy to see you because you’re bringing them food.” She wanted to keep that vibe and challenge the premise that vegans are dour and serious. A tiki theme suited No Bones’ brand of coastal bar grub—like poke made with golden beets or tacos stuffed with smoky, crisp nuggets of beer-battered avocado. It’s food even an omnivore can love, and you’d have to be made of stone to resist a boat drink (painkillers, jungle birds, a creamy coconut mojito) bedecked with a paper umbrella. Though truck culture also yields learning curves on the service side: No Bones’ tiny dining room fills up fast during prime time, and the staff seems flummoxed by what to do with the people waiting for seats. Presumably they’ll figure this out before No Bones’ second location opens in Portland.
In simpler times (aka 2011), Marination and Skillet were the first of Seattle’s food truck vanguard to open restaurants, back when maybe two dozen mobile kitchens roamed the town. Five years later, trucks are fixtures on the landscape, but Seattle’s construction boom has changed how we frequent them. There are more trucks, but fewer places to park—and fewer pods. Our plethora of brewery taprooms, offering booze but not food, provide trucks (purveyors of food, but not booze) a sort of symbiotic soulmate.
On Saturday night, the woman behind the counter at Bread and Circuses hustles order after order to tables, mostly fried gnocchi tots and burgers with almost indecently lush buns (the brioche recipe swaps butter for bone marrow). I ask for the salad that’s a truck staple, a savory-piquant mashup of roasted brussels sprouts and a classic caesar; she hands me a small plastic ninja turtle so food runners can find me in the room. It’s crowded, though most people come to this industrial thicket in SoDo for the beer, not the food.
That’s fine with James Barrington and Syd Suntha, who launched Bread and Circuses as a shiny black truck whose gastropubby fare fuels beer festivals and bottle shops. They codified that relationship by building a walkup window here, inside the Two Beers and Seattle Cider Company tasting room. A traditional restaurant wouldn’t break even, but Bread and Circuses gives drinkers better-than-average bar food in exchange for a commissary space to prep mobile menus for the truck. (A sibling rig, Wood Shop BBQ, just spawned a restaurant in the Central District.)
In a city awash with potential investors, most food truck operators remain proud bootstrappers. Valhalla Sandwiches, a spin-off of the Now Make Me a Sandwich truck, recently opened on Greenwood Ave, a district where owner Ryan O’Toole could afford the lease without outside funds. Valhalla sports a less-despotic name than the truck—fitting for a neighborhood restaurant perennially full of young families—but the food is big and brazen as ever. The Bad Lieutenant sandwich stacks bacon, ham, and provolone atop pulled pork steeped in barbecue sauce, and caps the whole porcine pileup with crunchy slaw. Each table sports a little bucket filled with napkins and hefty knives; even when you cut these sandwiches in half, it’s a gloriously messy business.
Bacon atop ham atop pulled pork sounds like a novelty act, but the heady flavor is something far greater than the sum of its many pig parts.
That’s the thing about eating at a restaurant that sprang from a truck—whether it’s vegan nachos, disorderly sandwiches, or a grilled cheese named for a Harry Potter villain, enough people craved this food to make its permanent home a viable business decision and, by extension, a viable place for dinner.