Until about a year ago, a quest for a quick snack on the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. turned up little more than slightly sketchy hot dogs, not-so-soft pretzels and those ubiquitous frozen novelties—at least on the fringes of the National Mall, where I spend most of my weekday lunch hours.
So it's been a thrill to watch the food-truck trend gathering strength in the city. My coworkers and I rejoiced when a quirky silver van run by the so-called Fojol Brothers of Merlindia materialized beneath a gloomy underpass one winter day last year, bearing addictively good curry. They showed up about once a week, but only revealed their plans on Twitter, which hardly anyone else in my office uses. For a while I became a sort of oracle, sought out by near-strangers with the urgent question: "What does The Twitter say? Is there curry today?"
And then there were many. The next year brought us Sauca ("globally inspired" flatbread wraps); Sweetflow Mobile (salads and frozen yogurt); El Floridano (bahn mi and Cuban sandwiches); DC Slices (pizza); and Red Hook Lobster Pound (fresh-from-Maine lobster or shrimp rolls). For dessert, there's Sweetbites, Curbside Cupcakes or Sidewalk Sweetsations.
This week, another food truck joined the ranks: Eat Wonky. It sells fries, hot dogs, and grilled cheese, but not in way most Americans would expect. These "wonky fries" are smothered in gravy and "squeaky cheese"—a combination Canadians know and love well by the name of poutine. Their "wonky dogs" are topped with poutine. And their grilled cheese consists of squeaky cheese and spices melted in a hoagie-roll panini, with gravy on the side.
The Wonky truck is the brainchild of Jeff Kelley and Minas Kaloosian, childhood buddies who aren't Canadian, to my surprise. They're from southern California, and hadn't even heard of poutine until pretty recently. These are just smart, savvy guys who wanted to tap into the food-truck trend.
"I consider myself a foodie, but I'm not a trained chef by any means," says Kelley, a West Point and Yale graduate with a background in commercial real estate. "I've always been an entrepreneurial type, and I was inspired by the popularity of trucks like Kogi in Los Angeles and the Fojol Brothers here. So I convinced Minas to join me—he has business experience, and knows food from working in the world of country clubs—and we started looking for something really unique to feature."
They found their concept while visiting friends in Vancouver. They noticed long lines for a hotdog vendor who specialized in Japanese toppings (Japa Dog), and wondered if they could do something similar. At the same time, they were asking around about unique Canadian foods, and kept hearing the same thing: poutine.
"When they described it, at first we were like, uh, fries with what?" Kaloosian says. "But then we had some, and we were like: Dude, this is really good. Dude...what if we put it on a hot dog?"
Combining poutine and hotdogs is what Canadians might call a "wonky," or weird, idea—thus the truck's name.
"The name had zero to do with the idea of political 'wonks' in D.C. That hadn't even occurred to me until someone asked!" Kelley says, noting that they also considered launching the truck in California. In the end, D.C. seemed like the best place because it has so much foot traffic concentrated within a relatively small area.
The men may not have known much about poutine when they started, but they're experts now, having sampled and crowd-tested dozens of permutations in the five months between the idea's inception and the truck's launch.
"We tested different dogs, different buns, the fries in different oils and with different cuts—we went all out," says Kaloosian. "And for the gravy, there are a lot of regional variations in Canada, so we tried to find sort of the pure poutine, the essence of it that forms the base for all of those. We had all sorts of people taste-testing, both Canadians and people who had never even heard of poutine, and it was unanimous. Everyone liked this gravy mix the best."
Their brown gravy looks meat-based, but is actually vegetarian, Kelley said. He wouldn't tell me what was in it, other than "herbs and spices." As for that squeaky cheese, which melts into a stretchy, mozzarella-like consistency, they get it from a dairy in upstate New York. They go through about 50 pounds a week—which is probably what you'd gain if you indulged in poutine for lunch routinely. I liked their grilled cheese, but was ambivalent about poutine (it looks so, well, wonky!) until they convinced me to try a bite. Then I got it: Dude, this is really good.