It was a sunny Monday afternoon outside Marty's Market in the Strip District, and James Rich helped a new customer with his order. His face tacky with sweat, the 41-year-old owner of PGH Taco Truck had been feeding hungry patrons since noon. He wore an extra-large T-shirt emblazoned with the truck's red, black and yellow logo. He wiped his brow as he spoke.
"You really should get the pork taco," he suggested. "It's especially good today."
His truck's daily menu consists of six tacos. Among them are the chicken, bacon and cheddar taco with Sriracha lime cream; the curried potato and guacamole taco; the braised beef and kimchi taco; and a ground beef with cheddar and salsa taco. Prices range from $3 to $5. The menu warns, "Tacos are fairly large."
Mr. Rich and the customer fell into easy conversation as he dolloped pulled pork on a tortilla and garnished it with a Thai chili slaw.
Since PGH Taco Truck rolled out in January, Mr. Rich has adjusted the pork recipe each time he makes it. This round it included cider, peppers, tamari, lard, cilantro, onion, ginger and, of course, a secret ingredient.
"Secret to me," he quipped.
The customer took a bite and said, "This is awesome." Then he declared himself a customer for life.
If this seems over the top, consider this. On Twitter last week, a customer announced that his lunch was "a miraculous experience." Many of his patrons are restaurant owners and staff.
The chef of Kaleidoscope Cafe crooned over a jerk chicken taco. Proprietors of Espresso a Mano and Donnie from Double D's Saloon, both in Lawrenceville, were among one day's patrons.
And it's not just quick visits from restaurant types that support PGH Taco Truck. Chef de cuisine of Salt of the Earth in Garfield, Chad Townsend, had the truck cater a bonfire during his wedding weekend. And the truck set up shop at a Memorial Day party at the farm of Kate Romane, owner of E².
"It's not authentic," a diner noted, stating a preference for the tacos sold outside Reyna's in the Strip. But it works.
As taco shops and food trucks increase in Pittsburgh, PGH Taco Truck lures customers with creative, fresh and inexpensive fare.
Mr. Rich also has built a following because he seems to be everywhere, logging in 15 hours a day, often seven days a week, in parking lots from the North Hills to the South Side, hitting children's parties, church events and round-ups along the way. A blog (pghtacotruck.com), a Twitter account, @PghTacoTruck, and Facebook have helped, as have his relationships within the restaurant industry.
A bumpy beginning
In May 2012, Mr. Rich flew to Denver to buy a bare-bones truck with "a really good generator" and drove it back. Rather than booking hotels, he slept in the truck. Once it was outfitted in Indiana with a kitchen that included solar panels, the truck was ready to go by August.
But it stayed parked as illness killed his momentum.
"A lot of issues took me off course," he said.
This wasn't the first time illness waylaid Mr. Rich. When he opened Cafe Du Jour in November 2001, the bistro with a tiny kitchen charmed patrons with its cozy interior and a verdant patio. In December, the Post-Gazette's Munch also spoke in superlatives about Mr. Rich's cooking, describing the roast turkey and autumn chutney with flatbread "the most delicious lunch ... in recent memory."
Medical issues that involved surgery and bedrest led him to sell the restaurant to Paul Krawiec seven months after opening.
This time around, treatment and the support of friends helped Mr. Rich jump-start his ambition to launch PGH Taco Truck. He noted Bobby Fry, a partner at Bar Marco in the Strip, and Hoon Kim, owner of Fukuda in Bloomfield, in particular.
"I don't know what I would have done without those guys."
The food truck keeps him focused, perhaps a reason that he spends so many of his waking hours tending to his work.
"James needs this kind of outlet for his creativity, for his vision," said Mr. Kim, who is modest about his role helping Mr. Rich. "He likes to be out there in the thick of things. A food truck is the perfect venue for him."
His first stint as PGH Taco Truck was at Bar Marco in mid-December for a No Menu Monday, a night during which the restaurant books guest chefs.
When Mr. Fry invited him, "I blindly said yes," he said. "When someone I respect extends an offer like this, it's a big deal."
The following February, on one of the coldest nights of the year, he rolled out PGH Taco Truck in the Bar Marco lot, where his first shift was 10 hours straight. Despite the cold, the experience rekindled his enthusiasm.
He also mentioned Yong Kwon, owner of The Golden Pig Korean restaurant in Cecil, as helping him navigate his decision to start a food truck. A regular since it opened, he sat with her to discuss her experiences.
Like him, she interacts directly with her patrons at the 15-seat spot. Should he open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, this is how he wants it to be.
"She puts her heart and soul into it," he said. "She is the Golden Pig."
The road here
With a blog on Pittsburgh dining called Burgh Gourmandand another dedicated to the birth of PGH Taco Truck, he launched with a readership of eaters. Since then, his social media presence has culled nearly 5,000 Facebook fans and more than 5,000 Twitter followers.
Online is also where he does business, announcing his arrival at Coffee Buddha in Ross, and setting up his shift in Braddock for Taco Tuesdays.
"Last Tuesday," he wrote in March on his blog, "a guy at Ink Division [a screen printing company in Braddock] sent me a tweet that said something like 'Hey man, we like tacos. Come here sometime.'
"I said, 'Sure. How about tomorrow?'
"It took only two minutes of tweets and texts to set this up. I call this the magic of Twitter in Pittsburgh, as well as the magic of small businesses collaborating."
Mr. Rich again benefited from industry collaboration last week, when a container of oil slicked the interior of his truck just before his lunch service.
"I was going to break a leg if I didn't do something about it," he said.
Parked under the 31st Street Bridge, "I saw at least 20 people from restaurants who stopped," he said. "They helped me mop, they brought me kitty litter [to absorb liquid]. It made a huge difference that I didn't lose out on lunch service because so many people had helped me."
His presence is helping the growth of Pittsburgh's food truck community.
"The cooperation between vendors and use of social media has created a strong following across the region," said Bill Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor, in an email earlier this year.
Mr. Rich has also supported fellow truckers such as the burger-focused Steer & Wheel, which debuted in March. He is part of Pittsburgh Mobile Food, the group working toward food-truck-friendly legislation that would allow trucks to park on the street longer than 30 minutes, for starters. Under current legislation, food trucks must park 500 feet from a business that sells food or drink and may not park in metered spaces.
Despite the growth of food trucks, some legislators bristle at changing laws. "We are still working with other council members to look at possible amendments that would make them feel more comfortable with the proposed legislation," wrote Mr. Peduto.
These days, Mr. Rich spends less time online as he interacts with customers who line up for his tacos.
"I've developed a passion for selling food from a window," he said. "I love delivering food directly to the person who's going to eat it."
The taco trail
Tacos take to the road well. Their U.S. debut came with the Chili Queens of Los Angeles and San Antonio, first mentioned in a newspaper in 1905, wrote Jeffrey Pilcher, author of "Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food." With the advent of the railroad, these pushcart vendors selling tacos and tamales served working-class food that was inexpensive and, like the reputation of Chili Queens, "exotic, slightly dangerous, but still appealing," he said.
Tacos are less exotic these days. "They're simple enough to prepare in a food truck and there's infinite opportunity for variety so I won't get bored," said Mr. Rich, who sells them from the 21st-century variation on a pushcart.
Staying engaged is half the battle, though even this early on, Mr. Rich said financially he is doing OK. Without staff, "I carry most of the burden," he said, "but it looks like it's going to be profitable."
Prior to this truck, his longest food gig was selling burritos in college at Ohio University in Athens, where Mr. Rich manned the Burrito Buggy for three years.
"It was my favorite job I ever had," he said.
It seems he has a fondness for tight quarters when it comes to the workplace. He grew up on sailboats in Annapolis, Md., before moving to Pittsburgh, so galley kitchens on sailboats have served some of his favorite memories grilling burgers or watching his mom cook.
He now knows the similarities of cooking on board and on the road. Those tight quarters were good preparation: Whether it's open water or Pittsburgh, "Neither has level ground."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM