Food trucks saved Knoxville’s dining scene from a downward spiral of monotony.
Six years ago, downtown was accelerating its boom period with more buildings being refurbished and more/more/more restaurants being opened. The quantity of dining options was exciting to see after decades of sparse choices, but with few exceptions (such as Matt Gallaher’s newly launched Knox Mason or the nouvelle bar eats at Public House) the food did not spark many thrills (at least for me). How many upscale burger joints do we really need? Or brewpubs? Or pizza/pasta parlors? Or vaguely defined serve-everything places like the instantly forgettable Latitude 35?
But when Byron and Kiki Sambat’s Savory & Sweet Truck hit the road in 2012, people took notice. Especially downtown’s restaurant owners, who fought this incursion into their domain via tooth and nail and lawyers. As more and more entrepreneurial chefs started their own trucks—and found an appreciative clientele of diners—restaurant owners claimed the food trucks had an unfair advantage of low overhead and demanded they be banished from downtown. Which would have been even more unfair. In the end, regulated food-truck spaces (not too close to restaurants) and specific hours helped solve the dispute.
In my opinion, however, the real reason why restaurant owners suddenly faced such stiff competition wasn’t the new chefs’ cheap wheels—it was the fact that they were serving more interesting and original food. Whereas most brick-and-mortar restaurant owners felt they only had to supply Knoxvillians with familiar dishes to succeed, food-truck chefs were expressing their own ideas for what makes a good meal. And for a lot of people (such as myself), that’s much more fun than eating the umpteenth Vol burger.
Since those dark days, the food truck scene has exploded with more mobile chefs than one person can reasonably follow. To make food-truck dining easier for us, a couple of food-truck courts have opened: the Food Truck Park at the Historic Railway Station every third Thursday, and Central Filling Station (900 N. Central St.), open Wed.-Sun. for lunch and dinner, which is where I tried Fai Thai Food Truck for the first time.
Knoxville is not lacking in Thai restaurants these days, though a few decades ago we only had one by the name of Champa in Fort Sanders—and it was truly awful. Now, Thai cuisine has become a universal standard that even Chinese restaurants find they must include it on their menus. So why do we need a Thai food truck? Because Fai Thai offers homestyle versions of classic dishes that are more straightforward than the “Americanized” (read: sugary) Thai food we’ve become accustomed to with its ascension into the mainstream.
I had a difficult time choosing which dish to order from Fai Thai’s window—pad Thai is everywhere today, including frozen-food sections at groceries, but it is a good test dish to determine how a chef approaches Thai cuisine in general. Will it be dry and spicy, or wet and syrupy? Meanwhile the ginger and shiitake stir-fry sounded different, and it’s my official duty to try new things. But, finally, my undeniable love of coconut-milk curries won out: so it was red curry with tofu and vegetables, $9. And, since I’m on a never-ending quest for a great egg/spring roll, I had to order a veggie spring roll. (I was permitted to purchase one for $1 rather than having to get four for $3.50.)
While the spring roll was pretty ordinary (but equipped with a pleasantly pungent dipping sauce), the red curry was excellent; but it may require a palate reset for those used to the red curries usually available from local restaurants. As mentioned, this one’s less sweet, which means the curry’s other ingredients are allowed to shine through, such as Kaffir lime leaves, galangal root, Thai chile peppers like prik haeng or prik kii noo, cilantro, ga-pi shrimp paste, and more. It’s a sauce with more going on than we’ve been trained to expect, and it exudes a fair amount of heat (though not really hot-hot). This is a curry that makes you want to eat just one more bite not only to enjoy it but also to figure it out. What makes this curry taste so good?
Speaking of culinary mysteries, my curry included an ingredient not listed on Fai Thai’s menu; in addition to the slices of bell pepper and bamboo, there were lumps of… sweet potatoes? Pumpkin? They tasted like the former and looked like the latter, with a green-ish outer layer. Still stumped after eating my lunch and conducting a few Google searches, I went back to the Fai Thai truck to ask—but by then the line was long and the chefs busy. Maybe another time…
Worth a return visit?
I think so, but further research will have to be conducted to make a definitive determination.