Earlier this week, Endless Simmer’s New York-based coeditor Brendan Spiegel wrote an article for CHOW talking about the rise of upscale mobile dining options across the country, like New York’s Dessert Truck and LA’s Green Truck.  If you haven’t read it already, you should check it out.

When I finished reading it, I found myself thinking about last year’s eagerly welcomed expansion of DC’s vending license program for street food.  Although it has not yet resulted in anything quite as gourmet as some of the operations Spiegel talks about, it has definitely spawned at least one undisputed winner: Home Slice LLC’s On The Fly SmartKarts.  By offering fresh, high-quality food through partnerships with well-known local vendors in environmentally-friendly vehicles, these guys have managed to coalesce three desires of DC lunch crowds into a successful enterprise that has really taken off in less than a year.

Read all about it after the jump.

If you work near the Verizon Center or Nationals Stadium, chances are you’ve already seen these guys at work.  And if you have, chances are your reaction was something along the lines of “What the heck is that?”  On The Fly’s zero-emissions electric SmartKarts are manufactured by Global Electric Motorcars (a division of Chrysler), and they have the smaller profile that is often associated with electric vehicles.  Their vibrant green-and-white color scheme and the nylon banners they set up when they arrive help to further draw attention (and crowds). 

Once they’ve got your attention, it’s pretty hard to walk away and go for a half-smoke instead.  The first thing you notice once you’re up close is that the rear vending space is small, but seems more roomy than that of your average hot dog cart.  And while you’re thinking this, you see the LCD screen with the kart’s menu.  That’s when you realize that this alien-looking lunch truck is serving up udon noodle salad with gingered vegetables and tofu stir fry with brewed Moroccan mint tea, courtesy of Teaism.  Or you smell the unmistakable aroma of Rockland’s chopped BBQ pork sandwich.  Or you see tacos and empanadas on the menu and ask, only to find out that they are, in fact, Julia’s Empanadas – but she’s willing to share.

By partnering with these established local vendors, On The Fly has tapped into their loyal customer bases and given themselves an opportunity to make their own fans without having to sell them on the quality of the product.  And by supplementing these marquee names with local labels like Route 11 chips and Honest Tea, they help to reinforce their commitment to the local community in the minds of everyone who stops to look closer – whether they ultimately buy that day or not.

Each of the On The Fly karts has its own unique personality, which is a fancy way to say that one kart has the Teaism offerings (at the corner of 8th and H Streets, NW), while another is strictly tacos and Julia’s empanadas (7th and F Streets, NW, across from the Verizon Center metro exit).  Rockland’s BBQ originally enjoyed a kart to themselves, but they currently are making cameo appearances on weekends and game days at the kart down by the new baseball stadium.

The karts are supplied from a catering kitchen in the Barracks Row neighborhood, and they are supplemented by a pair of SmartKafe brick-and-mortar locations – inside Results the Gym on Capitol Hill and in the Farragut North metro station.  The size of these shops allows for more diversity of products, including a wider range of salads, sandwiches and snack foods that also follow the twin directives of fresh and local.

Prices for On The Fly’s offerings are high for lunch cart food, but reasonable in light of their relative quality.  Seven dollars will get you an entree and a cup of Moroccan iced tea, and the flavors are all just what you’d expect.  Honest Tea goes for $2 a bottle, and the Rockland’s BBQ sandwiches will set you back $7 by themselves, but the tacos come 2 for $4 and the empanadas are only $4 each, making the Latin-flavored kart the best buy of the bunch.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out one of the existing karts, you may not have to wait long before you can find one in your own neighborhood.  On The Fly is actively seeking privately-owned space to set up additional karts throughout town, and their website promises that they will be “coming soon to a University near you.”

It may not be gourmet creme brulee or rotisserie chicken from a truck, but On The Fly’s SmartKarts are hitting some decidedly upscale notes with their current offerings.  I would love to see them continue to expand and partner with a wide range of local favorites.  Their success helps to justify the decision to expand the vendor licensing program in the first place – a good thing as we watch for even more creative street cuisine.

On The Fly SmartKarts
7th and F Streets, NW
8th and H Streets, NW
Nationals Stadium (Half Street entrance)
www.dconthefly.com – Check out their site for other locations, including some that are listed as coming soon