FOOD TRUCK FILES: The Smoke Truck
RESUME: North Carolina-born, Mississippi-bred chef Mark Coates opened Bebe's Barbecue in a tiny Ninth St. storefront in the Italian Market in April of 2009. Despite endless acclaim from industry insiders, bloggers and press hungry for his take on Carolina pork barbecue, Bebe's had to close in May 2010. "We literally had what money couldn't buy," says Mark. "It was tough having that much response from the public, and food writers bein' so gracious, but we couldn't sell enough food. We were on the Best Food Ever as the number six barbecue in the nation, and the episode aired two months after we closed."
BUSINESS PLAN: "I was working at Fergie's," says Mark, who came on as chef of the Center City pub soon after he shuttered Bebe's. "I ran into Carmen Cappello and Chris Martino, who would come into Bebe's while they were building [their Italian Market gastro-bar The Wishing Well]. I was just walking down Ninth St. and Carmen stopped me. Pretty soon after we started making sausage." With Coates as culinary collaborator, Cappello's small side business, North/South Meatery & Canning Co., began to take off. With their smoked sausages, Tasso ham and pickles selling at boutique retailers like DiBruno Bros and Green Aisle Grocery, the two chefs "got to talking about a food truck," says Coates. Confident in their meaty chops, Chris Martino agreed to fund the startup Smoke Truck in May 2011.
EDIBLE OUTCOME: "It's just my food," says Coates of his roving bill of fare, all prepared in the truck's on-board smoker. "Dry rubs and sauces are the same as Bebe's, plus mac and cheese, spare ribs, chicken and specialty sandwiches." Mustard-spiked sauces differentiate Carolina ‘cue from its Texas and St. Louis cousins; beef and pork both make appearances on the menu. A brisket cheesesteak takes the Philly icon for a spin through the smoker, while a piquantly spiced Tasso ham grilled cheese gets sandwiched between French toast for a particularly lavish brunch treat.
PROS KNOW: In addition to showing up at 4-5 events a month, like last month's Craft Beer Festival at the Navy Yard, Coates is collaborating with Collin Flatt, editor of Eater.com/philly, on a series of pop-up events they have dubbed Flesh Mob. "It's a play on ‘flash mob'," says Coates. "People will show up and eat a bunch of pig, at an undisclosed location kind of thing. We'll let them know where it is just a few hours before. It should be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out – we just wanna have parties and have fun, cook pigs and let people enjoy themselves. It's more like a circus than anything else – we'll have sideshows, and performers." Keep an eye on Twitter if you're keen to attend: @TheSmokeTruck and @BebesBarbecue.
GET IT: Though Coates says The Smoke Truck's hours are "regularly irregular," you can count on seeing them at Drexel around 33rd & Arch, Mon.-Fri. from 11am-3pm. Bar-goers can also get a brisket and rib fix late-night; follow @TheSmokeTruck on Twitter for the changing locations.
FELICIA D'AMBROSIO is a Philadelphia-based food writer. Her work also appears in City Paper, GRID, Metro, and Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.
Mark Coates with the Smoke Truck
Coates and one of his Chopped Brisket Sandwiches
Chopped Brisket Sandwich with Pickles and Sweet Tea
The Smoke Truck on Drexel's Campus
Brisket right out of the on-board smoker
The Smoke Truck
Smoked Pork - seconds before chopping and sandwich insertion
Coates in the tight but efficient quarters of the Smoke Truck
Smoked Pork awaits patiently in the on-board smoker
All Photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO