Fast Food

Five Tips for Navigating Civic Center Eats

Civic Center Eats, the food-truck convergence on the main plaza at Civic Center Park that's now in its eleventh season, kicked off earlier this month to better weather than last year, when May saw rain on all but one day of the month. Which is fortunate, because this year the rally has added a third day to its lineup, so over the week you can visit a mind-boggling array of nearly eighty trucks, trailers and carts on Tuesdays, "WeWork Wednesdays" and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you've yet to attempt to procure a meal at Civic Center Eats, here are a few tips for an optimal experience.

1. Go Early
The food trucks begin serving at 11 a.m., and the lines begin forming at the most popular vendors soon after, so don't dally and expect an easy time of it if you show up at high noon. With somewhere in the vicinity of thirty mobile kitchens serving on each of the three days, it can take a few minutes to even narrow down your options. And sure, the crowds die down after the main mid-day rush, but if you think waiting until after 1 p.m. is the way to go, keep in mind that vendors often sell out of their best dishes — and you don't want to be left scrounging up a meal from what nobody else wanted.

2. Be Patient
Like the best international markets in vacation destinations around the world, Civic Center Eats is cacophonous and crowded. Clashing strains of music mingle with wafting aromas from a multitude of ethnic and American eats, from deep-fried mac-and-cheese balls to Colombian stews. The food vendors are lined up in two rows on either side of the plaza, so lines forming at each truck cut across the same space visitors are using to wend their way to the lunch of their choice. Most people are either laden with food or are scanning menus as they walk, so collisions are a real concern. Plan ahead by checking the vendor lineup online and then use the grassy areas of the park to cut quickly to your truck of choice. But even once you're there, ordering can be slow, and there's often a wait after you've paid. 

3. Go for Value
Street food shouldn't cost an arm and a leg, but even if you're springing for high-end fare like lobster rolls or baby-back ribs, know what you're getting yourself into so you won't feel disappointed after you get your meal. If you're not sure what you want, stake out an observation spot and check out portion sizes before stepping into a line. Paying ten dollars for a for a couple of under-filled tacos r acheesesteak that's half the size of nearby brick-and-mortar offerings can leave you hungry — maybe even hangry. And bring cash so you'll know your limits and you won't get dinged with hidden credit-card service charges — or feel pressured to tip big while the cashier is watching. (You can always throw some cash in the tip jar of the vendors who provide good service and food.)

4. Think Weird
Why get a burger or a slice of pizza when those are available at any number of sit-down joints downtown? Food trucks are known for culinary fusions, rare international specialties and fun creations you won't find anywhere else. New to Civic Center Eats this year is Kesitas, a converted Airstream trailer that specializes in tropical ice cream flavors and a strange crepe/sugar cone cross filled with sweet and savory ingredients. Each kesita starts with a fresh-made, paper-thin crepe that's cooked in a two-sided press. Fillings are added and the crepe is rolled into a cylinder — and then the magic happens. As the crepe cools, it crisps into a crunchy roll similar to a sugar cone or an Italian pizzelle. Simple cheese-filled kesitas start at $4.25; sweet combinations include cheese and Nutella or cajeta (goat-milk caramel sauce), and savory styles come in ham-and-cheese with chipotle sauce or cheese with peanut butter and jelly.
Also new this year is the Pikine Grill Senegalese food truck, which serves the traditional stews, skewers and fatayas (like empanadas) of the West African country. While the Pikine Grill's menu certainly wouldn't be considered weird in its homeland, Senegalese cooking isn't exactly common in Colorado, so a chance to sample the bold, spicy flavors at Civic Center Park shouldn't be missed. 
Of course, if you're content with a cheeseburger or pepperoni slice and just need an outdoor escape from the cubicle farm, there are plenty of options for you. Check out the hockey-themed Hamburghini burger truck on Thursdays or El Toro the Tot, with a Spanish twist on American burgers, on Tuesdays.

5. Have Fun!
If you come prepared, Civic Center Eats isn't a grueling slog through a mass of humanity all trying to jockey for food at the same time. It's a boisterous lunchtime event where you can make new friends by sharing a table with strangers (you'll almost certainly have to), learn something new about international cuisine (so you'll know your arepas from your patacones), or join friends and co-workers for a variety-filled picnic. Look for vendors who seem to be having fun, too; a smile makes for a much better customer-service experience than grim determination.