The coronavirus pandemic has been good for parking lots. Well, it’s been good for people repurposing parking lots, for freeing ourselves from the belief that they’re only good for holding cars and generating ungodly summer heat.
Across Dallas and its suburbs, restaurants are putting picnic tables in former parking spaces, businesses are blocking spots off with flower boxes and, in general, people are reclaiming areas of our city that were previously reserved for empty machine storage. Of course, some local government agencies are more supportive of these efforts than others; one Dallas restaurant was threatened with fines for creating an unlicensed “parklet.”
Meanwhile, in Garland, a strip mall parking lot has become one of the city’s liveliest spots to eat on weekends. Outside the Cali Saigon Mall, Vietnamese food trucks open their windows every Thursday through Sunday, serving all kinds of delicious plates to customers sitting at tiny folding tables.
The food trucks began pulling up in late 2019, and when I visited last weekend, there were five. One of the first, District 1, opened just before Christmas; another, Em and Bubba’s, arrived less than a month ago. Each night, the five trucks open their windows and set out their portable seating, including the tiny footstools I used as a 6-year-old to reach the sink and brush my teeth.
The result is a little night market of sorts. Last weekend, we sampled fare from three of the five trucks. At a vivid blue trailer called 4 Seasons, I had a cup of crab and shrimp soup ($5), with a veggie medley of peas and corn not so far removed from an American chicken noodle. We also ordered stir-fried squid, but received stir-fried corn instead ($5); anyway, it was good enough not to complain.
Siêu An Vat Texas does lively business selling cheesy spiral-cut potatoes ($5), dumplings and rice paper rolls ($6). The rolls are nice snacks, drizzled with a spicy sauce, and grab some fish and shrimp balls, too ($3 for a skewer of five).
The longest line crowds in front of District 1, in part because the truck serves juices, smoothies and desserts (cassava waffle, anyone?). District 1 opens slightly later than the other trucks and trailers — officially at 8 p.m., although when I visited the windows rolled up at about 7:40 — and its specialties are in high demand. When I got in line at 8:15, they’d already sold out of pork congee bowls.
The consolation prizes were fine, though, including fried bao filled with ground pork and scallions ($6 for three) and a “Cambodian kebab,” a skewer of marinated and accordion-sliced meat grilled over the coals ($5). When you’re placing your order at the truck’s window, look over the employees’ shoulders at the grill and just try not to order a few kebabs of your own.
On future weekends, we’ll have to head back and try the other two trucks. Ham An Fam, dressed in can’t-miss-it pink, specializes in seafood dishes like razor clams, cockles, crab soup and masago fried rice; Em and Bubba’s is a husband-and-wife operation with Em serving Vietnamese food and Bubba cooking American barbecue and comfort classics. Some dishes combine the two, like a smoked brisket bánh mì.
As the spring nights grow warmer, word is going to spread about Garland’s food truck night markets. When the sun sets on weekends this summer, a group of Asian-American entrepreneurs will be reclaiming that suburb’s parking lots. But if word about this hot spot travels too far, you might want to pack your own folding chairs.
Cali Saigon Mall, 3212 N. Jupiter Rd. (Garland), Thursday through Sunday evenings, exact times vary by truck.
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