Web: Lloyd Taco Truck & Catering
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"Now that it has succeeded in bringing the social media-assisted food truck formula to Western New York, Lloyd's next steps will hopefully fuel the next stage of its growth - and the improvement of our local dining scene, too."
In recent reviews and articles, we've noted that there were only three truly important restaurant openings that took place when we were on hiatus last year: Bingo's Dim Sum House, Blue Monk, and Lloyd. Some might argue that Lloyd - a simple taco truck with no permanent address - isn't really a restaurant. Others might suggest that it's far less of a departure from the Tex-Mex norm than Southern California's Kogi BBQ, the famously influential Twitter-tracked gourmet taco truck we profiled early last year, and thus not worth reviewing. But by local standards, Lloyd is indeed important. It is boldly testing a different business model in a region plagued with corrosively circular thinking, and it's succeeding, despite weather, permit, and mindshare challenges that its out-of-state predecessors have avoided. That's why Lloyd is the subject of our latest review, which discusses this rolling restaurant's concept, execution, and inspirational potential. Our take isn't entirely positive, but it's honest, and based upon multiple visits over the course of four seasons. Read on for all the details.
If you're not already familiar with the concept of a taco truck, the idea's fairly straightforward: tacos and other Mexican-ish items are served out of a narrow kitchen housed inside of a vehicle that can travel from location to location, using cardboard trays and styrofoam containers as inexpensive dishes for affordable meals. After obtaining permits - and permission from the owner of the place where it hopes to park - a taco truck can either set up shop at one reliable source of foot traffic or move around. Leveraging social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and a web site, Kogi BBQ evolved the classic taco truck formula to let people track its changing locations and new menu items from day to day, quickly generating crowds and eventually spawning hundreds of successors.
Lloyd hasn't changed much since we first visited it in August of last year, shortly after it first hit Buffalo's streets - then disappeared. The used but respectably painted white truck made headlines by breaking down only two weeks after its debut, leading supporters to launch a fund raiser for repairs. Over the subsequent eight months, Lloyd's truck has been mostly operational, only intermittently canceling scheduled visits on account of mechanical difficulties; these days, the business is challenged as much by months of line-discouraging weather as anything else. Location updates are posted on Twitter and Facebook four or five days a week, focusing primarily on the parking lots of city mainstays Roswell Park and Synacor, or the centrally located intersection of Main and Mohawk, but more recently adding suburban stops with visits to Amherst businesses on Maple or Transit. That the truck can be anywhere - at a one-day event, or parked at a busy office building - is a legitimately exciting difference between Lloyd and most area restaurants; at some point, Kogi BBQ became so well known that it started to draw people to wherever it parked, helping to generate additional excitement for the businesses it visited. Over time, Lloyd might achieve that sort of synergy, too.
Maybe. Kogi accomplished that feat with food you couldn't really find anywhere else: its Korean-influenced tacos initially sounded odd, but proved both brave and brilliant, quickly leading others to copy and riff upon the theme. As much as we appreciate the other risks it has taken and obstacles it has overcome, Lloyd's menu is not so ambitious. Apart from the fact that it's written with colorful markers on paper and white boards posted by the truck's serving windows, the menu could easily be confused with what's being served at Chipotle or other "fast casual" Tex-Mex restaurants seven days a week. The core items on Lloyd's menu are $2.25 soft shell, double tortilla tacos that have been stuffed with your choice of braised and shredded beef, pre-grilled chicken, carnitas-like tomatillo pork, or stewed beans. Each tends to come out soft, wet, and superior in quality to the chuck-grade stuff served at Taco Bell or Mighty Taco, but blind taste testers would probably struggle to find huge differences between the meats in Lloyd's, Chipotle's, or Salsarita's tacos. They're all good, not mind-blowing.
On a positive note, Lloyd's use of corn tortillas, fresh cilantro, shredded cabbage, and slices of lime set its tacos apart from low-end local versions that don't strive for authenticity. But on the other hand, its cheeses - seemingly cheap grated American stuff - go in the opposite direction. Why not use a good Mexican cheese, we asked last summer? The answer: it's too hard to find here. Fair enough. Lloyd scores points for knowing the difference, but loses some by settling for something plain.
Queso aside, we'd call the tacos pretty good, and they're helped a lot by Lloyd's sauces. In addition to a base drenching of a mild verde sauce, you have the option of mild, medium, hot, or extra hot ("Rocket") salsas, the latter punchy enough to rate as memorably good in our books. Combined with the squeezed lime and the meats, each taco packs just enough flavor and high-quality ingredients to merit its price. As we've said in prior reviews, you can find cheaper tacos than these in Western New York, but the difference is certainly worth paying for.
Our single biggest issue with Lloyd's tacos is one that goes to the very heart of the business - the "what does Lloyd really want to be?" question that comes up whenever it announces a new specialty taco. For instance, we were beyond excited when Lloyd tweeted that it would start serving fish tacos, and were literally ready to drive to wherever the truck might have been to sample them. But we were deflated when they turned out to be deep-fried fish - easier to make, Lloyd explained, and more like fish fry. Okay, fine. The latest special is a cheeseburger taco, shown above, complete with slightly taco seasoned ground beef, sliced tomatoes, onions, lettuce, cheese, and pickles on top. We're not going to deny that some people will get excited just hearing the words "cheeseburger taco," and Lloyd's version was surely like-worthy. But there's something soul-crushing about the idea that a business here would be inspired by something as revolutionary as Kogi, then wind up serving fish fry and hamburger meat tacos that could as easily be sold at a Mighty Taco. If Lloyd aspires to becoming more than a roving Chipotle with Guy Fieri specials, it'll need to dream up (or borrow) some better recipes. Kogi started stronger, and has only become more ambitious over time.
Lloyd's other dishes range from fine to good. We were surprised by how much we liked the Chili ($2.25/$4), a thickened dark red base with Mexican rice and a moderate level of spice, topped by sliced red onions, peppers, and a dollop of sour cream. It's rich and tasty, worthy of ordering in the larger size. Made with bagged tortilla chips rather than fresh ones, the Nachos ($2.25/$5.50) come in regular and "tricked out" versions, the latter loaded with cheese sauce, beans or a sauced meat of your choice, pickled red onions, and jalapenos, plus a little cilantro and a bunch of sour cream. Healthy, they're not, but our resident nacho fan found them to be quite good, and not surprisingly very filling.
We were also entirely pleased by Lloyd's Burritos ($5.50), which properly offer you the option of rice and/or beans as a considerable stuffing for what's otherwise an extra-large taco, made with a single 12" wrapper rather than overlapping 6" tortillas. Thanks to the truck's rice, which always seems to be moist and delicious, and the optionally spicy salsas, one big Burrito turns out to be a really nice alternative to ordering two or three tacos, though heavier on the carbs. Like the Tricked Out Nachos, an average-sized person could make a meal of a single Burrito and a drink. Churros are offered for dessert.
The rub with Lloyd is that the list of options effectively ends there, leaving aside canned soft drinks, a so-so chili-hinted and powder-mixed Aztec hot chocolate, plus the aforementioned specials - the latter sometimes offered only one day of the week, and not necessarily when the truck's in your neighborhood. Also limiting are Lloyd's hours: the truck generally only operates for two or two and a half hours per day, with a 11:15 or 11:30 start time, sometimes offering dinner or a late night service one day per week. This is a small business, emphasis on the word small, and unlike the ever-expanding Kogi - now running five different trucks at separate changing venues for lunch, dinner, and late night snacking - one gets the sense that Lloyd is still finding it challenging just to get people to show up en masse for a single suburban location at lunch time, let alone building the sort of traffic necessary for multiple trucks. In the summer, Lloyd draws lines, but not quite the mania generated by a Kogi truck; in the winter and early spring, as we've seen, wait times are virtually non-existent due to precipitation and temperatures. That Lloyd perseveres is a testament to its commitment to the business model, which we really appreciate.
In some cases where good restaurants struggle to generate crowds all year long, it's easy to point fingers at disinterested potential customers, apathetic local media, or other factors. But people here want Lloyd to succeed, and the local press has been more than supportive. So there are really a couple of issues at play. First and foremost, while the food's good and the prices are reasonable, the menu just isn't daring enough. Kogi's short rib, spicy pork, chicken, and tofu tacos got people talking, and the later temptations of seafood (calamari) tacos, crazy burgers, and interesting desserts created further incentives to visit Kogi rather than any of Southern California's hundreds of other taco places. By comparison, when Lloyd parked once on Transit Road, it was only blocks away from a Chipotle, a Moe's, a Salsarita's, a Mighty Taco, and a Taco Bell - restaurants with similar core food options and pricing, but more variety. The only advantage Lloyd had was our raw enthusiasm to support its mission; we could have had much the same meal elsewhere. And most of the time, we do. That needn't be the case, and a bolder menu with slightly more challenging ingredients, such as grilled fish and other seafood to go along with the grilled chicken, would really help.
The other issue is Lloyd's approach to social media. Like Kogi and its numerous clones, Lloyd relies heavily upon word of mouth to continually generate buzz - and just keep people aware of its changing locations. Yet if you compare Kogi's web site with Lloyd's, you'll notice two major differences: Kogi puts its daily schedule first, making it immediately visible to hungry customers, and it updates its blog regularly enough to keep fans amused and interested over time. By contrast, Lloyd's blog hasn't been updated in six months, and what's been at the top since November of 2010 is - surprise - the story of a relative's pilgrimage to visit a Kogi truck in Los Angeles. (Yes, people do travel across the country to see what Kogi's like. And for good reason.) Lloyd does a good job of keeping up with followers each day using brief Twitter and Facebook updates, but a social media-driven business like this relies upon a vital web site, not just a cheery one.
Based upon multiple visits and a pretty good understanding of what has made the taco truck phenomenon successful in other cities, our big picture view of Lloyd is positive, but with caveats. We love what Lloyd is trying to do. We honestly hope that it succeeds, and inspires other trucks to hit Buffalo's streets. But we also want to see it aspire to greater things. It's not just about changing the cheese, keeping the truck running, or updating the web site more often. Like Blue Monk and Bingo's Dim Sum House, Lloyd has become a local beacon, signaling to Western New Yorkers that we can in fact evolve our restaurant scene to embrace new and different things. But as the cheeseburger and fish fry tacos suggest, Lloyd runs the risk of becoming just as me-too as its predecessors here, fueled by the same old thinking. Between the weather, rising fuel prices, and other factors, a taco truck serving plain tacos will struggle against same-priced restaurants with similar dishes. We know that Lloyd can do better. If it ups the ante, we'll be back, and we'll gladly spread the word. That sort of buzz is, after all, the lifeblood of modern restaurants on wheels, and now that it has succeeded in bringing that formula to Western New York, Lloyd's next steps will hopefully fuel the next stage of its growth - and the improvement of our local dining scene, too.