The smell hits you as soon as you turn from 2nd street on to Marble Ave.: sweet and tangy barbecue pork infused with a delectable blend of apple, oak, and hickory woodsmoke emanating out of a no-frills 1961 silver food truck. “Wood is a spice,” explains Artisan Valley Smokehouse pit-master Ben Gonzales, “we choose our firewoods for their flavor, and we roast our meat low and slow.” Slow is the operative word to describe the process AVS uses to prepare their increasingly popular “Whole Hog” Saturday meal at Marble Brewery. Co-owners Gonzales and Gilbert Aragon–who is also the executive chef at Hotel Albuquerque–begin every Whole Hog Saturday on Monday morning. Aragon begins by shaving the hide and cleaning the silver skin off of a locally raised Kyzer Farm hog. Next he brines the pig in a sugar, vinegar mixture combined with ingredients from that week’s particular flavor profile, such as Hawaiian lemongrass and Kahlua, or local stouts. After the meat marinates for thirty-six hours, Chef Aragon applies a custom rub to the skin and lets it cure for twenty-four hours. On Friday morning, Aragon hands over the savory swine over to Gonzales who carefully smokes the meat; adding fresh wood every three hours, for over twenty-four hours, until it has been roasted to juicy, fall-off-the-bone perfection.
It is evident from their Whole Hog Saturday menu that AVS is dedicated to local and artisan-made ingredients. On any given weekend the pork may be paired with “brew bread” baked with La Cumbre’s “Slice of Hefen” beer yeast, handmade pickles, apple-smoked cheddar, local kale-slaw, or New Mexican favorites like caramelized green chile and chicharones. While AVS is not the first food truck in town offering fresh local ingredients and artisan street food, they are striving to separate themselves from the peripatetic pack by becoming a more self-contained sustainable operation who grows their own produce, eggs, and honey.
The ambitious duo originally conceived of a farm-to-truck business supported by an urban microfarm. But their hog supplier “Mr. Kyzer” (as they respectfully refer to Robert Kyzer of Kyzer Farm) convinced them to “think big, be big,” and offered AVS two acres on his property in the far South Valley. For the last six months Aragon, Gonzales, and their families and friends have prepped and planted the soil. They enlisted local chicken outfit Renegade Poultry to construct a Zia decorated chicken coop. And they built relationships with local restaurants and breweries to buy their food and collaborate on special meal events.
Although AVS is new to the food truck and farm markets, Aragon and Gonzales have a long history with and passion for Albuquerque’s food scene. Both grew up in Albuquerque and Valencia County, surrounded by family members who were farmers, gardeners, and cooks. Aragon’s uncle Steve, a chef for Harrah’s Casinos, taught him how to cook. And though he has participated in his fair share of matanzas, Aragon actually learned his snout-to-tail techniques from a German chef, Hans Seblin, while working for the Hyatt. Gonzales’s background was in welding and working on cars and motorcycles, but had felt for a while that he “wanted something different.” After meeting Aragon at Hotel Albuquerque, where Gonzales works as a bartender, the men discovered they shared a mutual love for local and speciality ingredients, sustainable agriculture, and unique recipes. They say their friendship and partnership was “meant to be.”
Mexican street food has long been a mainstay of the Albuquerque foodscape–Gonzales’ grandmother even owned a taco truck!–but the gourmet/artisan food truck scene has really only taken off over the last three or four years. There are now about one hundred locally operated trucks. Albuquerque’s ever-growing brewery scene has greatly contributed to the spike in mobile eateries by allowing them to park pubside. The situation has been mutually beneficial as most brew pubs have a limited to nonexistent food menu. Community support for these roving restaurants has taken shape in various forms, from the recent “Great New Mexico Food Truck and Craft Brew Festival” at Balloon Fiesta Park to UNM’s “Food for Thought” fundraisers to Mayor Richard Berry’s “Truckin’ Tuesdays” initiative which allows food trucks to set up for lunch in Civic Plaza every Tuesday. Not everyone, however, is thrilled with the roach coach renaissance. Brick-and-mortar restaurants in Nob Hill and Downtown have complained that trucks take away from their businesses, and many support a proposed local ordinance that would prohibit trucks and food carts from setting up within 100 feet of a restaurant. It’s easy to understand how stationary establishments may feel threatened when local trucks roll up offering up affordable specialties such as Oak Smoked Meatballs, Korean short-rib lettuce wraps, and Maine lobster rolls.
While it may seem the co-owners of AVS are just the latest young foodies to jump on the gourmet food truck band-wagon, their combined culinary training and family history makes them strive for authenticity and quality in their dishes and in their multifaceted business. Beyond the Whole Hog Saturday meal, AVS offers a Chef’s Choice menu at La Cumbre Brewery every Sunday as well as special event catering. But in the “think big, be big” mentality, the AVS guys also plan on making their farm into a weekend brunch destination; a “you pick” produce market; a source for medicinal poultices; and a site for cooking, pickling, and farming classes. Their vision is ambitious but Gonzales says all the hard work is worth it. “We work with our spouses, Gil’s mother was out here just loving walking around the farm, this is one of the happiest times of our lives.”