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Lunch Trucks on a Roll: Hold the Sauce

Carb port: A soft-pretzel vendor sells on Penn's campus circa 1970.Courtesy of the University of ...Carb port: A soft-pretzel vendor sells on Penn's campus circa 1970.
Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives


Some food historians believe that lunch trucks date back to chuck wagons in the old west. Others trace the origins to a nineteenth century Rhode Island sandwich seller. On Penn’s campus, the tradition began in the 1940s with soft pretzel and ice cream vendors—and has evolved into a virtual United Nations on wheels, offering everything from Caribbean to African, from soul food to Mexican, from kabobs to crepes, from tofu to cheesesteaks.

“The trucks have become more health conscious,” says Monique Dowd, MA, RD, LDN, CDE, CSG, a Penn clinical dietitian and certified diabetes educator. “The fruit trucks provide a mega-dose of nutrients, and a lot of the ethnic trucks offer whole grains and steamed rice, which is healthier than fried rice.”

According to Rick Furstein, leader of “Beyond the Cheesesteak,” a tour of University City food trucks, “You see more diversity these days,” such as halal, kosher, and gluten-free offerings.
Many of the vendors are “first- and second-generation immigrants who are bringing their cultures to Penn,” he says. If you frequent a truck, “the people there will begin to recognize you and
customize your order. It’s a place to buy food and to connect.”

For value, Furstein recommends breakfast sandwiches. “They use hoagie rolls, so if you order egg and cheese, you get a lot of bread. It’s the best way to get the most for your money.”

Nutrition-wise, when ordering, says Dowd, remember that some trucks use more sauce than is needed. “Get the sauce on the side,” she advises. “Or no sauce at all.”