The District of Columbia is synonymous with the term “gridlock” (both the partisan and the traffic kind), but the food scene in our nation’s capital is cruising the autobahn at Mach 1 speed. DC natives have long been wise to the city’s plethora of diverse & delicious eats, but outsiders are taking notice too: Michelin published its first guide dedicated to DC in 2016, making it the 4th AND most recent North American locale to receive this rare distinction.
Some of the city’s hottest fast-casual and full-service spots (including Michelin-recognized Timber Pizza) started their journey to culinary stardom as food trucks/mobile vendors, and many of these brick and mortars remain active in the street food market today. Making it to this level is challenging in any city, but it’s especially impressive in DC, the second-most difficult spot in the country to operate a food truck (according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, only Boston was deemed tougher). All food trucks need a strong combo of creativity, quality cuisine and hustle to survive in DC’s culinary race, but rest assured, the 14 vendors on our list are solidly Grand Prix material.
Nearly 5,000 miles from the state that inspires its menu, Abunai is making major waves in DC’s streets. Only a year after launching her food truck in 2016, Honolulu native Akina Harada leveraged massive mobile success into two permanent locations. While these popular lunchtime spots specialize in authentic, seafood-centric poke, the truck’s following is as loyal as ever thanks to its unique focus on Hawaiian favorites from the land.
The slow-roasted Kalua pork shoulder with braised red cabbage, pickled onions and scallions is perfect for a quick lunch hr luau, and poke lovers looking to ditch the fish will go pupule for Abunai’s fried tofu imitation. You won’t need a plane ticket to feel whisked away from the mainland—this truck’s wheels are more than equipped for the job.
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Spam Katsu Musubi – Panko-crusted spam with rice wrapped in flavorful nori and topped with furikake and ginger scallion sauce, anyone? Nobody could have predicted that this Minnesotan pork product would become such quintessential Hawaiian cuisine, but we’re certainly not complaining.
Serving modern Vietnamese food by way of Houston, this family-run truck wheeled into DC in 2012; dazzling adventurous eaters with flavor and quality that’s anything but faux. With the most savvy Instagram game on our list and a fleet of formidably positive Yelp reviews, PhoWheels has a serious license to give your eyes and tastebuds the ride of their lives.
With every bite of Bánh mì (did we mention they have croissant buns) or roti tacos, you can simultaneously taste Chef Huy Nguyen’s reverence for the traditional Vietnamese cuisine he grew up with and the excitement that comes from putting his own American spin on things. We hope this truck’s wheels keep spinning around the district for a long time to come, lest it leave hordes of rioting foodies in its wake.
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Vietnamese-Style Porkbelly Tacos – Pho may be this truck’s namesake, but its more portable options are also its tastiest: these umami-packed tacos with sriracha lime mayo, pickled carrots and daikon wrapped in a roti canai are so good that—well, actually—you’re going to want to sit down and savor every bite.
Dangerously Delicious Pies’ trucks give “glam metal” a whole new meaning with their bold black-and-red paintjobs and tattoo-inspired iconography. But there’s nothing artificial about their stylishly bold aesthetic—the Pie Shop’s origin story rocks as hard as its bakers roll their (soon-to-be flakey, buttery pie crust) dough. Though the chain began as a brick and mortar operation, its spirit has always belonged to the road; while touring with his rock band, founder and Next Food Network Star runner-up Rodney Henry built up the business selling pies in parking lots and his band’s merch table to supplement his musical income.
His pies were so good, he was even able to barter them for places to stay between shows. That hustle’s led to a growing empire of three permanent locations in Baltimore and DC as well as two mobile trucks slinging sweet and savory slices all across Washington. With over 50 rotating flavors of pies and quiches to choose from, there’s something on the menu to satisfy every genre of pie lover.
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Baltimore Bomb – An ode to DC’s northern neighbor, the frontman of this pie is the Berger cookie, a local fudge-topped shortbread treat chopped up and melted into a backup chorus of rich vanilla Chess filling.
DC poultry aficionados have been hip to the crispy charms of Roaming Rooster’s fried chicken sandwiches for years—it was even named “Best Fried Chicken” by Washington City Paper readers in 2019. But the chain of four trucks and one sit-down location reached a new level of fame in August, when musician Bri Hall gave it a Twitter shout-out for being a worthy competitor to the juggernaut Popeye’s chicken sandwich.
The viral moment translated into booming sales for this already popping family-owned business, which drives laps around any of the fast food giants by offering five different preparations for their free-range chicken sandwiches and three heat levels to suit your preferred level of spiciness. While viral fame may lead to longer lines, we have a feeling both new and longtime customers will withstand the wait.
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Honey Butter Fried Chicken Sandwich – Never had cheddar on a fried chicken sandwich? It’s the perfect complement to Roaming Rooster’s sweet, honey-buttered chicken breast.
Hamilton vs. Jefferson. Nixon vs. Kennedy. Butter vs. Mayo? The question of how to prepare a lobster roll is as contentious in New England as the greatest American political rivalries, so it’s only natural to settle the debate once and for all in the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, Red Hook Lobster Pound offers no resolution in this matter: a true centrist, this truck offers both preparations, and its candidates are equally matched in deliciousness. Maine Style touts fresh lobster with a savory safety net of light, lemony mayo. The Connecticut Style offers a stripped-to-basics preparation served with warm melted butter and a lemon wedge.
If neither party speaks to your stomach’s concerns, consider the BLT Style, a renegade third contender shaking up the scene with chipotle-apple mayo, thick-cut bacon, lettuce and tomato. Washingtonian opinions remain split down the middle for which style reigns supreme, but Red Hook’s bipartisan approach ensures all diners leave satisfied.
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Lobster Mac and Cheese—we won’t be taking sides on the mayo vs. butter debate, but this delectable combo of lobster, cheese and macaroni is running unopposed.
6. Smoking Kow
Facing stiff competition to the south and the west, DC isn’t known for being a top BBQ destination. Federal consultant – and BBQ lover – Dylan Kough (pronounced like “cow,” naturally) sought to change that in 2012, when he purchased a smoker and began dabbling in the carnivorous arts on nights and weekends after a fateful trip to Kansas City. Kough soon transformed his hobby into a true American dream with the (somewhat) eponymously named Smoking Kow, which boasts a fleet of two food trucks and two sit-down locations in Northern Virginia.
The foundations of Smoking Kow’s menu are as traditional as it gets (customers can choose between chopped brisket, pulled pork or chicken), but Kough thinks outside the pit when it comes to presentation. You can order your meat in a fresh, homemade tortilla for some Kansas City meets Tex-Mex fusion, or indulge in their most popular preparation, the “Mac ‘n Meat,” which is exactly what it sounds like. With Kough interested in franchising his trucks to other cities, it looks like this Kow is getting ready to make some serious moo-ves (sorry)!
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Mac n’ Meat with Brisket—Diners don’t return to Smoking Kow again and again to skimp: go all in with some hickory smoked beef brisket topped lovingly over a bed of garlic and jalapeno-infused mac and cheese.
Need to cool off after a visit to Smoking Kow BBQ? DC’s got a bovine for that, too! And she’s…orange? Your eyes might be the first to spot this purple-spotted vehicle, but your stomach will quickly take the reins as it herds you full speed ahead to The Orange Cow ice cream truck. Don’t let the unnaturally psychedelic paint job fool you—everything that comes out of this hip Holstein is hand-dipped and farm fresh.
With 7 flavors & a variety of preparations, any ice cream lover’s sure to find something to satisfy their craving. And for customers wary of dairy, take heed – there’s always mouthwatering money to be found in their Belgian chocolate-dipped frozen bananas. Even on the hottest summer days, this off-beat heifer is worth the time in line.
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Mini Fudge Brownie Sundae—This petite treat punches above its weight class in flavor thanks to a peanut butter and walnut brownie topped with your choice of ice cream (we recommend Coffee Oreo for a flavorful scoop with a pinch of caffeine to get you through that 3 o’clock slump).
Too chicken to play hooky from the office and catch an afternoon baseball game at Nats Stadium? Swizzler Gourmet hot dogs has you covered with a truck full of elevated, international-meets-All-American fare that’s sure to beef up your lunch break. Three college friends spent two years incubating Swizzler’s menu before unleashing their perfected dogs on the streets of DC in 2015, and that patience and dedication has paid off with a dedicated legion of fans willing to line up for their goods.
Swizzler’s namesake, a signature spiral-cut frank made with 100% grass-fed beef, is the perfect mechanism for soaking up all of the herbs and spices in their homemade sauces, fresh toppings and creamy cheeses. Not to be outdone by the main event, their fries are some of the best in the city (made from scratch and topped with sea salt or aged parmesan and truffle oil for an extra gourmet kick). So if you’re not ready to brave the ballpark, try braving the line at Swizzler instead. Unlike your boss catching your face up on the Jumbotron, you won’t regret it!
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Leonardo Dog Vinci—This caprese-inspired dog rocks fresh mozzarella cheese, grape tomatoes, balsamic glaze and housemade pesto on a toasty Brioche bun. It’s as Instagrammable as it is delicious! If you’re a vegetarian—allegedly like the artist that inspires its name—try swapping the beef for a tasty Field Roast vegan sausage.
It’s technically a myth that the District of Columbia was built on a swamp, but that doesn’t make the city’s infamously hot and humid summers any less oppressive. Luckily, Puddin’ Divine Comfort Food is here to give Washingtonians a taste of the flavorful Cajun and Creole cuisine that Gulf Coast residents rely on to make their muggy days a little more bearable.
With two food trucks as well as a stall in DC’s Union Market food hall, it’s easier than ever to drown your summer sorrows in a bowl of their signature Brown Butter Bourbon Bread Pudding. And if there’s no heat to beat, Puddin’s got plenty of dishes to keep you warm and satisfied in the winter months, like their chicken sausage gumbo and creamy Louisiana etouffee. No matter what time of year it is, your taste buds will be swamped in flavor, and that’s a certifiable fact.
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Fried Catfish Po’Boy—Did you know you can help save the environment just by eating? If that sounds too good to be true, you probably haven’t tried Puddin’s catfish po’boy, which pairs wild-caught blue catfish (considered an invasive species in these parts) with homemade remoulade and vinegar slaw. Yummy for you, yummy for the Chesapeake!
Looking for the busiest man in Washington? You won’t find him on Capitol Hill, in the White House, or in any government building for that matter. When he’s not feeding millions affected by conflict and natural disasters across the globe through his World Central Kitchen nonprofit, you’ll find restaurateur and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés at the hub of his culinary empire in DC’s Penn Quarter. This chef knows the secrets to an efficient yet mouthwatering lunch, and the proof is in Pepe, Andrés food truck specializing in quick bites inspired by his home country of Spain.
Ham lovers rejoice: you’ll find more pork in this truck than the budget bill being voted on down the street in the Senate. But there’s plenty of filling options for dine-and-dashers of all preferences, like patatas bravas and warm sandwiches served on uniquely long, thin bread that’s perfect for munching on the go. Whether Andrés is saving the world or saving your lunch break, we can’t wait to see what this hometown hero cooks up next.
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Chorizo Flauta—Andrés’ reputation as master of global cuisine shines in this Mexican-Spanish fusion dish of pork sausage, queso manchego and tomate fresco, wrapped up and fried in a crisp tortilla.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or well into adulthood—an ice cream sandwich can be a real hero when you’re having a crummy day. If help seems far away, have no fear! A member of Captain Cookie and the Milkman’s league of super trucks is bound to be busting a block near you with fresh-baked cookies, local milk and ice cream.
Captain Cookie’s menu offerings all carry their weight on the marquee as standalones, but their team-ups are where the magic happens: these ice cream cookie sandwiches are fully customizable with 8 cookie options (select different flavors for the top and bottom cookie, if you feel so inclined) and your choice of fresh strawberry, vanilla or chocolate ice cream (but keep an eye out for some seasonal cameos). With a Captain Cookie sandwich at your side, the only villains you’ll have to worry about are some seriously sticky fingers.
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Peanut butter cookies with chocolate ice cream—Name a more iconic duo.. we’ll wait.
12. Yellow Vendor
District of Columbia residents love their Korean food, but some of the best spots require a bit of a hike to nearby Virginia or Maryland. Fortunately, Yellow Vendor brings the deliciousness of Korean cuisine right to the heart of downtown DC. The ingredients are so fresh and authentic, you might be forgiven for thinking the truck is secretly some sort of submarine Transformer that can cross the Pacific and the continental United States at light speed.
This truck’s prices are reasonable enough to assume that’s unlikely, so we may never know all of its delicious secrets. But if that’s not enough, Yellow Vendor also provides some of the hugest portions of any food truck in town, so you can easily make two meals out of just about any entrée. That’s a very good thing, because you’ll definitely be wanting more.
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Tofu Bibimbap—There’s a time and place for fusion eats, but Yellow Vendor sticks to the classics, and their budget and vegetarian-friendly tofu bibimbop is one traditional treat that will never go out of style.
DC’s southern expats may head to spots like Marvin or Founding Farmers to get their chicken and waffles fix, but where do fried chicken and breakfast lovers who think a little more outside the box go? To the stars—err—the streets for a combo that’s out of this world (flavorwise, anyway) at Astro Donuts & Fried Chicken. Before you assume the buzz around this truck is all about the gimmick, we’ll have you know both its fried chicken and donuts have routinely topped local and national best-of lists since Astro started up in 2012.
Far from fading away like other viral food trends of yore, Astro’s grown enough to open four permanent locations, two in the DC area and two in Los Angeles (and you know it takes some seriously savory muscle to impress the California crowd). With its rapid ascension into culinary glory, we wouldn’t be surprised to see an Astro outpost on a future Mars colony, but for now, we expect to see their trucks roving around DC and pleasing eaters with their quirky creations for generations to come.
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Crème brulee donut with chicken fingers—This combo is like if you let a 10 year-old plan the menu for a French brasserie, but in the best way. Seriously though, this is a great idea.
14. Roro’s Modern Lebanese Cuisine
The culinary chops of Chef Roro and his truck “Big Red” aren’t exactly a well-kept secret in town: the duo was voted Best Food Truck in DC by the readers of Washington City Paper this year, and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining with them, you know it’s hard to separate the truck from its charismatic, first-generation Lebanese owner.
Diners might be seeing less of Roro soon as he prepares for his next venture, a brick and mortar vegan pizzeria. But until then, they’re happy to catch him curbside as he dishes out his grandmother’s fresh tabbouleh, famous hummus recipe and chocolate-covered baklava with orange blossom syrup. For a city full of transplants, Roro’s family-centered cuisine always tastes like home.
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Loaded Falafel Fries— Roro’s has a stellar reputation among DC’s vegetarian crowd thanks to its abundance of plant-based options. These loaded, handcut fries tossed with Za’atar seasoning and topped with perfectly fried falafel prove a worthy indulgence for hungry diners of all dietary proclivities.