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In McAllen, food trucks on the horizon

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Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2013 9:00 am

McALLEN — At 850 degrees, turning dough into a sizzling thin-crust pizza takes just 90 seconds.

The killer ingredient, though, isn’t local produce or the dough fresh from a Palmview bakery. It’s Alberto Gulino’s wood-fired pizza oven, which he hauls around behind a black-and-gray pickup truck.

“Nobody’s really tasted wood-fired pizza down here,” said Gulino, 40, a teacher at IDEA Public Schools who owns Rio Pizza.

Oak and mesquite smoke lend the handmade pizzas a hint of barbeque. Combined with whole-wheat crust and local ingredients — chorizo and farm-fresh vegetables — they’ve made Gulino’s pizzas a hit.

After attracting attention at local farmers markets, Gulino said he’s ready for the next step: Investing in a full-fledged food truck.

Last month, the McAllen City Commission approved a pilot program designed to slowly introduce food trucks, starting with 12 “mobile food vendor” permits.

Vendors may operate from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m., according to the food truck ordinance. If operating from private property, the food truck must have written permission from the owner. Food trucks parked on public streets must move every 30 minutes.

While many people have picked up the required paperwork, McAllen hasn’t received a complete application, said city Health and Code Compliance Director Josh Ramirez.

On Friday, three or four applicants had submitted nearly complete paperwork, Ramirez said. Some still needed written permission from private property owners and others hadn’t acquired their food trucks — and had the vehicles inspected.

“But it's a great thing,” Ramirez said. We’re looking forward to it.”

Other Rio Grande Valley cities, including Brownsville, already allow food trucks. In Austin, both stationary and mobile vendors attract foodies from across Texas.

Austin requires food trucks to be “constructed of smooth, durable, easily cleanable surfaces,” according to guidelines available on the city’s website. For workers, Austin also requires food trucks to have a “restroom facility agreement” with a nearby building.

Brownsville also regulates the construction of food trucks, which must have approved door types and window screens. Mobile vendors also must have warning lights and reflectors, among other safety features. Brownsville even regulates the clothing worn by food truck workers. Shorts and “muscle shirts” aren’t allowed.

In McAllen, the city’s 12-page ordinance doesn’t regulate food truck construction, but does establish common-sense rules.

Food trucks may not operate at public parks with competing concessions or within 100 feet of a restaurant’s main entrance. McAllen also requires food trucks to have trash receptacles for customers and have an off-site area for food storage and cleaning supplies.

McAllen’s new food truck rules convinced Gulino, the teacher who runs Rio Pizza, to upgrade from a mobile oven to a 20-foot, full-service trailer from Rocky Mountain Wood-Fired Ovens. The Colorado-based company sells trailers starting at $40,000.

It’s a longtime goal for Gulino, whose parents ran pizzerias in Michigan and Italy.

“I grew up in that, and kinda cooked my way through college,” Gulino said, before becoming a teacher.

Recently, Gulino started cooking wood-fired pizzas at home and served them to friends. Gradually, the hobby grew into Rio Pizza, which sells hand-made pizzas at farmers markets and caters special events.

On Saturday, Gulino had a steady crowd outside the McAllen library’s weekly farmers market and three people helping from an adjacent tent.

The trailer should be ready in April, Gulino said, and he expects to receive a permit shortly afterward.

“There really isn’t a pizza culture here,” Gulino said. “We’re trying to start one.”

___

 

Dave Hendricks covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at dhendricks@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4452.

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