It’s the lights that grab you.
What looks like a neighborhood carnival illuminates the park beyond the Wellington Amphitheater in the darkness, which, on this average Thursday night, is buzzing with live music.
As good as the cover band is, the main attraction isn’t so much on stage — but in the parking lot.
Here, it’s a midway without the Ferris wheel. A carnival without the rides.
Tonight, the attraction is the food.
Long before you see the more-than-20 food trucks lined up in an oval around a gathering crowd, you can smell it: Argentine beef on the grill. Tacos over a flame. Redolent roasted pork. Sweet and savory Asian scents.
Flavors swirl. Generators buzz. Lights flash. It’s a party for the senses, and taste buds are the guests of honor.
The food truck phenomenon has arrived in Palm Beach County — and it’s only growing.
Food trucks have sparked television shows (“The Great Food Truck Race,” Food Network), a movie (“Chef” by “Iron Man” producer Jon Favreau), and countless enterprising chefs who band together to roll into towns like a traveling fair.
These so-called food truck rallies are going on somewhere in the county every day of the week. In Wellington, it’s every Thursday night. The biggest, a rally of more than 40 trucks, gathers in Jupiter’s Abacoa once a month.
Trucks usually specialize in one style of cuisine: It could be sliders or tacos, it could be Pan-Asian fare or Argentine parrillada, it could be cupcakes or gelato on a stick. So when they park next to one another, it makes for a foodie festival.
And the venues play up the festive atmosphere, sometimes booking live music acts or face-painters and street performers.
“There’s music, a park for the kids and we can be picky with our food. There’s something for everyone,” said April Greeson, 33, who moved to Wellington two weeks ago and attended the last two Wellington rallies.
While she and a friend ate at picnic tables near the trucks, within earshot of the Coral Springs band What a Rush, their children took bites of their mini burgers and ran around.
The best part, though, is the selection.
You are never locked into one menu. One might order mini turkey sliders from Brian Perry and Marcia Quadrozzi’s “The Mini Van.” An order of fish tacos from Curbside Gourmet, the longest-running of Palm Beach-based food trucks which have segued into wedding catering. And finish with a Hip Pops Mexican chocolate gelato bar dipped in dark chocolate and coated in pistachios on the spot.
Don’t get it confused. This isn’t fair food.
Many of these food truck owners were once chefs or sous chefs at successful brick-and-mortar restaurants. They’re not slinging meals out of lunch trucks. This is carefully crafted cuisine — on the move.
“We’re basically a restaurant on wheels,” said Matt Somsy of Curbside Gourmet, whose wedding catering service — waiters in black tie — was featured in Martha Stewart’s “Weddings” magazine. They have an off-site commissary kitchen in West Palm Beach where they prep most of their meals.
“These events are marketing tools for us,” said Somsy, whose company has catered seven wedding so far this year.
Each truck is a pied piper, playing a particular tune that loyal diners follow on social media, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
For some, this is a test kitchen. Perry and Quadrozzi’s Mini Van is on its way to becoming a stand-alone restaurant. They get to test out recipes and build their name as they drive to rallies from Pompano Beach to the Treasure Coast.
“We’re still chefs and we like to get creative,” Perry said. “Every day is a new setting. It never feels mundane.”
These little food trucks are big business. The Hip Pops gelato truck, a South Florida startup, even sold its first franchise — to Dubai.
It’s also a great proving ground for those not ready to jump straight into a full-fledged restaurant. A food truck can be started with between $45,000 to $100,000, several food truck owners said.
“This is just the beginning for us,” said Lou Cordo of his year-old, Sebastian-based Buenos Nachos truck. “It’s hard work, but it’s a labor of love, because I love feeding people.”
Life in a truck does pose its challenges. Sometimes, the restaurant breaks down on the side of the road. Sometimes, as happened to Mini Van, the power steering goes out.
The state inspects the trucks twice a year, and their propane tanks have to pass a local inspection before every rally in Palm Beach County.
For all the love food trucks have gotten, they have seen quite a bit of push-back from local chambers of commerce. Some restaurants have argued the food trucks bite into their profits, but “the only restaurants that have to worry about food trucks are bad restaurants,” Somsy said.
Wellington was the first city in Palm Beach County to make room for the food truck rallies. And it’s profitable beyond the $1,500 every week the city earns in rent from the organizers, Food Truck Invasion. It means exposure for Wellington.
“You see all the people interacting. Young people, old people. What more can you ask for?” said Joe Piconcelli, Wellington’s cultural programs and facilities manager who organizes the village’s rallies.
As the Mini Van was serving sliders with sweet potato tater tots, local stable-owner Danielle Torano was going truck-to-truck looking for the right fit to cater her daughter’s 9th birthday party while she and her family tasted the smorgasbord.
“It’s such a great concept. We can all eat something different,” she said. “And for a party, you can’t go wrong.”
Food Truck Invasion rallies
Abacoa Town Center
Where: 1200 Main St., Jupiter
When: Every second Friday, 5:30 p.m.
Downtown Lake Worth
Where: Cultural Plaza, corner of Lake Avenue & South M St., Lake Worth
When: Every second Monday, 6 p.m.
Royal Palm Beach Commons Park
Where: 11600 Poinciana Blvd., Royal Palm Beach
When: Every last Friday, 5 p.m.
Village of Tequesta
Where: Constitution Park, 399 Seabrook Road, Jupiter
When: Every first Friday, 5 p.m.
Where: 12300 Forest Hill Blvd., Wellington
When: Every Thursday, 5 p.m.
Sunset Cove Amphitheater
Where: 11200 Park Access Road, Boca Raton
When: Every first and third Wednesday of the month, 5 p.m.
Where: 2400 N. Flagler Drive, West Palm Beach
When: Every second and fourth Tuesday, 5 p.m.
Ocean Avenue Amphitheater
Where: 129 E. Ocean Ave., Boynton Beach
When: Every third Friday, 5 p.m.