Food truck vendors redefine fine dining at Penn

From hot dogs to haute cuisine, the food trucks and carts on and around Penn’s campus offer menus to please even the most discerning palates.

Food Network programs have showcased several of the University’s street food purveyors, including Magic Carpet food cart owner Dean Varvoutis. He’s been at the vanguard of the street food movement since 1984 when he wheeled his first cart to the corner of 36th and Spruce.

“I took what was already happening and ratcheted it up a little bit,” he says. “For us it was vegetarian, but now there is more gourmet food on the street and it’s more widely accepted.”

Varvoutis is a fixture at his second cart, at 34th and Walnut in Penn’s open-air food cart pavilion. “Want cheese or hot sauce with that?” he asks a customer as he fills a container or wheat pita with their meatless meal, always reminding them, “Don’t forget to take a fork.”

Lunch-hour crowds line up 15-20 deep for Magic Carpet food. Popular selections include the Bella Donna, tofu meatballs in red sauce over rice and veggies, and the Seizan, a mock pepper steak made out of seitan, in a pita or over rice and veggies.

A few blocks away, at 37th and Spruce streets, across from the Quad, there are Chinese food carts, Le Anh and The Real Le Anh, fruit carts—one now offers made-to-order smoothies—Hemos, known for its cheesesteaks and chicken sandwiches, and a couple of carts that serve South of the Border delicacies, Lucky’s Mexican Spot and Mexi-Philly.

Cross the street for Indian food at Lovash or global food at the Chez Yasmine cart, which specializes in French, Greek, Mediterranean, and Vietnamese cuisine. Menu items honor members of the Penn community. The Wharton sandwich, for example, is made of  dolphin-safe albacore tuna, tomato, spring mix, Emmental cheese, carrot, hard-boiled eggs, mayo, and herbes de Provence on an 11-inch baguette.

The GiGi’s and Big R food truck at 38th and Spruce streets, across from Wawa, serves platters of Caribbean and soul food. The truck won the 2011 Vendy Award for its dishes such as Jamaican jerk chicken, oxtail, fried fish, yams, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese.

Tony Fitzgerald, a manager in the multi-truck operation, says, “A student came here for four years and graduated in May. He had us come and cater his graduation party at his family’s mansion. He had 80-100 people, who all ate out of our truck.”

On the Western side of 38th Street, north of Walnut, the Korean and Japanese food truck KOJA has one of the “Best Sandwiches in the U.S.” according to Food & Wine Magazine. It’s called the Korean Bulgogi Cheesesteak, a spicy version of the traditional Philly sandwich.

One truck stands alone among the street vendors—Sugar Philly. Parked next to KOJA on 38th Street, it features an all-dessert menu. French macaroons, both small and large, and crème brulee are “foodie” favorites.

Many of the street food vendors are active on social media, engaging with a faithful throng of followers, and they accept debit, credit cards, and of course, cash.

Food Truck