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Best in Tow

Chefs bring big-time flavor to small-town Graham for the Food Truck Championship of Texas

After parking my car across from a feed store, I make my way up Fourth Street in Graham toward the downtown square. It’s a little after noon, and the area is buzzing with activity. Live music rattles through the streets up ahead, and I pass a group of people heading back to their vehicles, toothpicks in hand. “Scrumdiddlyumptious!” one of them says, patting his stomach in satisfaction. I get excited.

Forty-two food trucks are competing today in the Food Truck Championship of Texas, an annual contest that has been held in Graham since 2015. Admission is free for all guests, who can also enjoy live music, an artisan showcase, children’s activities and a late-night concert at the Young County Arena after the food.

Up for grabs are numerous awards, bragging rights and the coveted $10,000 grand championship prize for the best food truck—crowned by a panel of expert judges. The stakes are high for competitors who arrive from hundreds of miles away—rigs in tow—in a test to be the best. This year’s event is June 4.

volunteer holds up grand champion belt

Event volunteer Jayne Beale shows off the grand champion belt.

Tom Hussey

judges discussing dishes at table

Judges, from left, Ched Pagtakhan, Debbie Workman and Dante Ramirez experienced a day of tasting and hearty discussions.

Tom Hussey

For folks like me, choosing what to eat is the real food truck challenge. And we can’t lose.

As I approach the competition, my mouth waters and my nostrils are filled with the scent of fried seafood—no doubt coming from the combination of Mac’s Cajun Shack, Catch Me If You Can Southern Creole and Blazin Cajun—all positioned near Fourth and Oak streets and serving dishes such as seafood pot pie, gumbo, shrimp and grits, boudin egg rolls, crawfish, and smoked alligator.

In a nearby building, judges Debbie Workman, a chef and restaurateur; Ched Pagtakhan, a chef, culinary arts teacher and food truck owner; and Dante Ramirez, a restaurateur and catering consultant, sample fare from all 42 trucks.

Picked-at plates litter tables across the room, each dish assigned a number to make the entries anonymous.

“I really like that egg roll,” Pagtakhan says.

Workman agrees. “The texture was good and flaky. And that pizza, No. 37, was so delicious and unique.”

No Small Wonder

One mile around, it’s no wonder that Graham calls its business district “America’s largest downtown square.” About an hour south of Wichita Falls and home to the Young County Courthouse and about 9,000 residents, Graham comes alive each June, when the chefs pull into town.

people lined up at food truck

Folks in line ponder the menu at one of the 42 food trucks.

Tom Hussey

couple eating corn dogs

Corn dogs proved hard to pass up.

Tom Hussey

The smell of beef cooking on a flattop makes my stomach rumble as I approach Big Kat Burgers, but I press on, wanting to see all my options before diving in. A long line for Happy Dogs Corn Dogs tempts me, as does the mega line for Cousins Maine Lobster’s fresh lobster rolls.

Maya Justice, who is at the event with friends, recommends Bada Bing Wood Fired Pizza, and several people are buzzing about the fried alligator from Crawldaddys Cajun Kitchen.

“To be able to have pad thai and a Maine lobster roll at the same time here in Graham, America, is incredible,” says Grant Ingram, executive director of economic development with the city of Graham. “It’s so hard to pinpoint a favorite because the variety of trucks we’re able to attract in north central Hill Country is amazing.”

I decide the best approach here is sampling smaller items from multiple trucks, and I hop in line at Treviños Craft Smokehouse truck and wait.

happy bulldog

Merle takes in the sights and scents.

Tom Hussey

girl being pulled in wagon

Shaved ice makes a hot ride nice.

Tom Hussey

“That Dr Pepper pulled pork taco from the Gypsy Kit truck is oh-em-gee,” says Jenny French, who’s behind me in line at Treviño’s. She and her husband, Ken, came to support their neighbors, the Treviños, at the championship and are getting their fill like everyone else. “I wanted that Maine lobster, but the line is so long,” Ken says. “I’ll never know how it tastes.”

I grab a pulled pork taco on a homemade tortilla and head for a table on the courthouse lawn for my first bite of the day. The tender pulled pork and soft tortilla hit the spot on this hot day, and after perusing a few craft booths, I hit the streets again to walk it off and make room for more samples.

The growing line at Addie Cakes & Lily Pies gets my attention, and dessert sounds like just the thing after walking three laps around the square. Toe-tappin’ tunes fill the air, making my wait for a white chocolate Key lime cheesecake more enjoyable. The tart yet sweet treat is perfect for summertime and makes waiting in line feel like a no-brainer.

While visiting with more foodies, I hear lots of chatter about a chicken sandwich on a biscuit. I have to have it, so I make my way to the Bite My Biscuit truck—the 2016 grand champion—for the Nashville hot fried chicken sandwich on a buttermilk biscuit with honey coleslaw and pickles. The $5 dish is the perfect size (and price) for an event like this, and upon trying the spicy, buttery, delicious concoction, I see why everyone is talking about it.

dishes on table ready for judging

An entry labeled with a number for anonymous judging.

Tom Hussey

There’s the Beef

Full and satisfied, I grab a chair and wait for the awards ceremony.

“To go through 40-plus plates and taste them all and go through each one on uniqueness, presentation and flavors, it’s tough,” Ramirez announces. “This was difficult for us.”

The audience cheers and whoops for each winner, including Bite My Biscuit for that tasty Nashville hot fried chicken biscuit, Yatai Food Kart for their signature ramen dish, Addie Cakes & Lily Pies for their pecan praline cheesecake, Cousins Maine Lobster for the best menu award, and Sakura Southern Seoul for best food truck design.

people seated with their food

Attendees dig in.

Tom Hussey

Rack Attack Barbecue team

The crew from Rack Attack Barbecue celebrates winning the grand champion belt.

Tom Hussey

As the emcee inches closer to announcing the grand champion, the crowd grows quiet. “The 2021 Food Truck Championship grand champion: Rack Attack Barbecue with their dino beef rib and taking home a check for $10,000.” The crowd erupts in applause as the Rack Attack team roars with excitement, hugging each other as they claim their prize and a professional wrestling-style belt emblazoned with “2021 Grand Champion.”

It was Rack Attack Barbecue’s first time competing in the event, so a championship win makes owner Brandon Anderson, who opened the business in March 2018, ecstatic.

“This is the first time I’ve ever presented food that I’ve made to real chefs and real food critics, so it’s a big deal for us,” he says. “I’m really happy.”

Anderson knew they’d won something when they were dispatched to the awards ceremony, and as the ceremony progressed, they knew through the process of elimination that grand champion was a possibility—as astonishing as that seemed. “I still can’t believe it,” he says after the ceremony. “We’ve worked so hard.”

Anderson says he thought the winning dish might relate to Texas, which inspired him to serve a beef rib—what he calls “king in Texas.”

“I figured everyone would want to try it, so we smoked them, pulled the meat off the bones and served it on top of smoked mashed potatoes,” he says.

It worked. “Their dish was very unique,” Pagtakhan says. “The doneness on the smoked beef rib was perfect, the flavor was balanced, and the smoked mashed potatoes was a perfect pairing.”

Unfortunately, Rack Attack Barbecue ceased operations a few months after the 2021 Food Truck Championship, so this year’s showdown will have a new grand champion in addition to plenty of friendly competition and delectable grub up for grabs.

Gina LeGrand, owner of Addie Cakes & Lily Pies, which won the best dessert category last year, will be ready. “I hope we continue our winning streak—or maybe win overall,” she says. “Winning the grand prize with a dessert is challenging, but how incredible would that be?”

cooks working in burger truck

The Big Kat Burgers crew.

Tom Hussey

Brandon holds up grand champion belt

Brandon Anderson of Rack Attack Barbecue displays his team’s grand champion prize.

Tom Hussey