Every day the sidewalk between the Main Building and the Bossone Research Center is lined with grey and white food trucks serving everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to General Tso's chicken.
The newest kid in town is Cucina Zapata, the last food truck on the line, and one that catches customers' eyes with its brightly colored graffiti-style exterior. Since April 2011, Cucina Zapata has been enticing customers with its unique, fresh menu, and it has garnered quite a buzz that stretches beyond Drexel's campus.
"We'll have customers who drive here from Manayunk; one student from Penn said she heard about our food and skipped class to come try it," said Robert Zapata '02, owner of Cucina Zapata and hotel and restaurant management graduate. "When I hear those things I'm just blown away."
Robert and his dream team – wife Ruk and cousin Chuck – opened Cucina Zapata after purchasing the truck which was previously A&M Halal. Their menu features tacos, platters, sandwiches and teas with Thai, Mexican and even Japanese influences.
Robert met his wife while working in Thailand and once they had their first child they decided to move back to the United States.
"I brought my wife to campus one afternoon and I wanted to show her the food trucks that I survived on as a student," Robert said. "We learned that the owners of the last truck on the line were willing to part with their truck. We took it as a sign that the opportunity was right in front of us and it was at Drexel, so we made the decision to go with it. We decided to roll the dice and here we are 8 months later and I'd say we're doing okay."
The feedback from customers suggests that they are doing more than just okay. Cucina Zapata started out giving away free food to people walking by and now has "regulars" visit them 5 days a week, and patrons who will stand in line on 106-degree afternoons.
After being open for just 3 months, Cucina Zapata was entered by public nomination into the inaugural Vendy Awards in Philadelphia. Eight Philly food trucks were nominated to participate from a pool of more than 1,000 food trucks in the city. Cucina Zapata took home the People's Choice Award for its tacos and its sweet potato chicken curry.
Food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Craig LeBan, visited Cucina Zapata in December and wrote that he would return to the truck, "simply for a straight-ahead bowl of vegetables lavished in a coconut-rich and rustic red curry."
While the menu is small, it boasts big flavors using fresh ingredients and sauces and marinades prepared each morning. The inspiration for the flavors stem directly from the dishes that Robert's wife grew up making with her family in Thailand. He calls her the soul of the business, and the one who drags him out of bed at 5:30 each day to go to the market.
"We aim for quality over quantity," Robert said. "Aside from our veggie patty, nothing is frozen. We get our produce every morning."
The most popular item on Cucina Zapata's menu is its curries which change based on which vegetables are in season. The curry is followed closely by the chicken satay taco and beef short rib Thai taco. According to Robert, they sell out of curry every single day and once went through 40 pounds of it in just over an hour.
One of their goals is not to have leftovers by the end of the day which is why they sometimes sell out before their 6 p.m. closing time. Anything they do have leftover either gets donated, or goes to their family – Robert and Ruk have 3 year old twin daughters and a 6 year old son.
With a busy household and frequent 16 to 18-hour days, it's a good thing Robert loves what he does.
"It's been a crazy experience and I'm just so happy that my team has stuck with me through it all," he said. "My favorite thing about working in a food truck is the customers. It's inspiring to be in University City, and to meet so many different people. You feel the potential everywhere and it makes me want to keep going."
As far as future plans goes, Robert hopes to one day import the organic chilies that Ruk's family grows on a small farm in Thailand, as well as bottle and distribute their popular sauces and marinades.
Cucina Zapata is open Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit them on Facebook or follow them on twitter @cucina_zapata.