With food trucks becoming nearly as prevalent as Starbucks in some cities, it was only a matter of time before a Challah food truck hit the road.
Last week, Challah, a mobile deli on wheels, began making the bar, work, and synagogue rounds in Columbus, OH. The truck features deconstructed, Jewish-inspired deli sandwiches–like whitefish salad with latkes and pickled beets, and corned beef with smoked coleslaw–all served on freshly baked challah rolls.
“Challah is just the perfect sandwich bread,” explained co-owner Shoshanna Gross. “It’s best if it’s crusty outside, with a super soft eggy sweet inside. It also has a little spring to it, so the sandwiches don’t get all mushy.”
The idea for the Challah food truck was formed last December, when Gross, 33, a former arts administrator, and her partner Catie Randazzo, 31, a cook, were living in New York City and contemplating their futures.
“I’ve been working in restaurants for the past 16 years,” Randazzo told me. “I’d been wanting to do a food trick since I lived in Portland three-and-a-half years ago. I saw food trucks as a great way to work for myself and produce awesome food with very low overhead.”
Randazzo was thinking of opening a truck that specialized in international-themed sandwiches and she wanted Gross to join the venture as a partner. Gross, though, wasn’t completely sold on the idea.
“I hadn’t found a way in yet,” Gross said.
Gross was still mulling over the decision when she received The Mile End Cookbook as a gift last December. The book, featuring recipes and photos from the Montreal-inspired Brooklyn deli, served as the eureka moment for the arts administrator.
“I definitely grew up cooking Jewish food,” Gross said. “We’d been talking about doing sandwiches, and I was sort of shocked that I hadn’t though of the idea before.”
To Gross, deli items like corned beef sandwiches were more than just symbols of comfort. “Jewish food is soul food to me,” she explained. “It reminds me of my childhood, sitting in the kitchen with my mom and sister talking about our personal histories and traditions.”
Over the past few years, Gross, who identifies as “very culturally Jewish” had been thinking a lot about her roots and her connection to the past. Jewish food, she had come to realize, was the thread connecting all of it.
She decided that a Jewish-inspired food truck was something she could wholeheartedly embrace—and told Randazzo she was in.
Deciding where to base their truck was a somewhat simpler decision. In the food truck business, much of success comes down to location. Food truck wars have been broken out over corner lots.
In Columbus, where Randazzo grew up, city administrators were encouraging food truck businesses, working closely with owners to get street parking permits issued. Randazzo also had a lot of support from local bar owners, who promised the partners they could park their truck in front of their bars for late-night food service.
Also working in their favor was the market in their area—there are “not a lot of Jewish delis in Columbus,” Gross admitted.
With the plan in place, the big thing missing was the name. “With food trucks, you have to have a sense of humor,” Gross said. “We wanted something that was fun.”
It was Randazzo’s non-Jewish sister who came up with the name Challah. “We immediately liked the camp and kitsch of it,” Gross said. “We liked that it described our point of view.”
The Challah food truck made its debut last Sunday afternoon at Seventh Son Brewing Company. It wasn’t long until the line looped around the corner. By closing, the women were out of challah. “We still had stragglers, so we started just handing out pickles,” Gross explained.
Having been one of those stragglers last week, Sarah Ginsberg, a job coach for individuals with disabilities, was determined not to miss out on the truck this week. “I built my Friday night plans around the food truck,” she laughed.
Ginsberg was excited, though a bit dubious, about buying latkes from a truck. “I’ve eaten a lot of latkes in my life,” she said. “My bubbe used to make them by hand. She’d boil the potatoes and fry each one individually. They were really, really good–but they had to be served right away,” she explains.
Biting into Randazzo’s version, Ginsberg was pleasantly surprised. “It can be hard to get the consistency between the potato and the onion right. They cook at different temperatures,” she told me. “But this latke was smooth and yummy. It wasn’t undercooked in the middle or too crispy on the outside. I could have eaten ten of them.”
The whole experience, Ginsberg said, evoked a feeling of nostalgia. “If my bubbe was alive, I totally would have brought her here,” she said. “She probably would have still thought her own recipe was the best in the world, but I think she would have admitted that these were really good too.”
Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.