Organizing a food truck rally is probably an exercise in crazy-making even under the most ideal circumstances. The permits, the generators, the facilities upkeep alone. Organizing the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally (it’s expected to be certified by Guinness later this month), which took place Aug. 31 at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, must have been a whole different animal. According to the Tampa Bay Times write-up, 99 trucks showed up, besting the previous single-event record of 62 by a fair margin. (Incidentally, the location of the previous record-holding rally? Miami, naturally, with whom our fair city has had other culinary beefs of note.)
In any case, the record-breaking festival stood out for two things: 1) one of the hands-down best pork sandwiches I’ve ever had; and 2) a failure of organization that bordered on total incompetence. The event’s organizers have spoken of making this an annual Labor Day event. Let’s pray they learn their lessons from this one. Perhaps a second entrance to the massive parking areas might be helpful? Hell, while we’re at it, a simple map of the fairgrounds and each truck’s location within would be quite helpful, also.
OK, so to the sandwich. Admittedly, I arrived at the rally harboring a secret longing for a long-standing favorite truck; on a more conscious level, I wanted to try something new. Hunger and lack of mobility led me to “settle on” Tampa’s Hott Mess, a truck I’d seen around at other rallies but never sampled. Considering the name of the truck, I feared something large and formless, a hash of melted cheese, sauces, condiments, and other toppings — a sundae of meat and bread. But the Panko-breaded and fried pork tenderloin sandwich is surprisingly simple. (I ordered it with a side of butter-drenched, deep-fried corn nuggets that were, as well, refreshingly mess-free.) The sandwich is served on a toasted kaiser roll that doesn’t even come close to containing the massive sheet of fried pork between. If you’ve ever eaten schnitzel, the tenderloin comes across similarly: a massive, lean, flat-pounded filet of deep-fried pork dressed with lettuce, tomato and a chipotle mayo. My lone complaint is that, like the Chicken and Waffle BLT at Datz, the sandwich becomes a knife-and-fork meal very quickly. Even this is not much of a complaint, because it’s all delicious.
My day at the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally was all but done after this, which in a way defeats most of the purpose of a food truck rally. I did sample some damn good étouffée from Orlando-based NOLA On Da Geaux, a vanilla milkshake from Purple Belle on the way out, and a deep-fried Oreo someone in our party gave to me from “truck unknown.” The heat and crowds and general lack of organization finished me off, as I was well into a food coma by the drive home. Events like this are the equivalent of seeing Independence Day fireworks on the National Mall: They’re nice to say you’ve done once, but the thought of going again makes you cringe a little.
None of this, though, affects my opinion of Hot Mess. I will definitely seek them out for the pork tenderloin sandwich, and for their bacon-wrapped, deep-fried hot dog, which is apparently a signature item.
Christopher Nank, Ph.D., is adjunct instructor of literature at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. His contributions to the Carrollwood, Florida, Patch blog can be read here. He resides in Tampa.