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Portable for the Palate

GastroNomad defies genre

Some food carts create a specific type of cuisine: Mexican, pizza, Southern food, vegetarian. GastroNomad owner Ben Maude reinvents his menu on the regular not by picking a genre, but by running his food truck as some sort of delicious pop quiz.

Maude says that his ground rule for making his menu is finding the best fresh and local ingredients that he can. Then it’s creativity time. “I take the ingredients that I find, and I take the flavors that I want to cook with that day or that week,” he says, “and I turn them into what I think is going to be the best dish.”

GastroNomad’s third requirement is more practical than tasty: Maude prefers to make street food that’s easy to eat on the go, if necessary. “That’s really the thought, to not have to necessarily use a fork and knife but be able to hold your food, take it on the go,” he says.

This portability principle led Maude to his current taco kick. “It’s very easy to place food in a tortilla and have it be easy to eat,” he says. “Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s Mexican food! It just means that it’s in a tortilla.”

When Maude says that tacos aren’t necessarily Mexican, he’s talking about dishes like the seared scallop taco with strawberry and basil “salsa,” which consists of strawberries, a little bit of olive oil, a touch of lemon juice, finely minced red onions and fresh basil cut to order and placed over the top. “It’s an interesting taco,” he says, “it’s not something you’re used to tasting between a tortilla.”

Thus far, GastroNomad’s pork belly tacos are its biggest hit. “I probably sell three pork belly tacos to any one of anything else,” Maude says. It’s not just that pork belly is trendy right now, though. “It’s rich and easy to cook and inexpensive, so you can have something that’s really spectacular without having to pay an arm and a leg for it.”

For much less than the price of human limbs, customers can grab the tacos made of pork belly confit marinated in a rub of paprika, garlic, olive oil, cinnamon, chili powder, cumin and coriander. Maude says he renders off the fat, and he compares the process to a slow poach in its own oil. “It’s very rich.” He also adds jicama and cabbage slaw that’s been quick-pickled in salt and lime juice, plus roasted pasilla pepper sauce and cilantro-lime yogurt.

GastroNomad always has a vegetarian option, which is often vegan. Right now, Maude invites customers to order the pork belly taco vegetarian, which uses the same marinade used on the pork but puréed with soy curls. “You get the general flavors of the sauce without the pork,” and the rest of the taco is the same as the pork belly option.

Right now, the vegan option is soy curls with ginger hoisin, marinated together and sautéed with pickled carrot and cucumber. “I wasn’t sure if people were going to be ready for an Asian vegan taco!” Maude says.

“I’m using pretty much everything that I can get that’s local and organic,” Maude says. “For the yogurt I use Nancy’s, pork from Carlton Farms, tortillas made fresh at Plaza Latina and Don Froylan Queso Fresco,” which is made in Albany. When he can’t find a local product he needs, he usually looks to small markets like Capella that favor organic ingredients.

GastroNomad operates out of the vintage VW van that used to house Devour. However, that wasn’t Maude’s original plan. Within three days of bringing his first food cart home, the 400-pound cart was stolen from his yard. “It threw me for a loop, but at the same time it sort of lit a fire and sent me on a path toward looking for something else, looking for something new,” he says.

Maude discovered the VW on Craigslist, and the day he purchased it, the police located his cart miles from his home. “It’s sort of funny how things end up working out for the better,” he says. “It was a blessing in disguise.”

It’s not just the VW van that Maude gained while his cart was stolen. He says the community at large made him feel welcome and supported, and the food cart community especially stepped up: In particular, Ume Grill offered to let him use a spare cart “for the sake of being nice,” and Garbanzo Grill gave him the “no-BS story” on how to run a food cart.

True to its name, GastroNomad moves around a lot, but Maude is regularly with Garbanzo Grill and the Sandwich League in a lot at 3rd and Van Buren. He announces his location and current menu every day on Facebook.

Find GastroNomad via facebook.com/GastroNomad