The sun glistens off the metal siding of the Roadrunner food truck, reflecting its image onto the swimming pool at The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain in Marana. Nearby, kids and adults alike form a line and order from the parked truck’s window. On today’s menu: three flavors of homemade ice cream served with a selection of toppings that would satisfy anyone with a sweet tooth (think chocolate sauce, white chocolate curls, toasted pecans, whipped cream, fresh berries, and assorted candies). The Roadrunner serves as a mobile culinary service for the resort and makes regular appearances on its manicured Sonoran Desert grounds, which are shadowed by the nearby Tortolita Mountains.
The food truck made its debut in 2012, three years after the resort opened. Much like The Ritz-Carlton’s six other onsite eateries, which include a bistro and a sushi bar, food quality is paramount. Chefs prepare dishes using the freshest ingredients, some of which come plucked straight from the onsite herb garden or citrus orchard. The only real difference is the method of delivery. Rather than having a waiter with a white cloth draped from his wrist serve you, the food is delivered from the truck’s open window.
“Guests know The Ritz-Carlton name and associate it with luxury,” says Sam Arnold, a cook for Ignite, the resort’s lobby lounge, who also cooks regularly for the food truck. “They’re excited to learn that we have a food truck that serves quality meals that aren’t fast food.”
Arnold was part of the culinary team that created the dozen or so menus for the truck, which change each year. Along with Andy Kalikas, the resort’s former executive assistant manager for food and beverage, the team took inspiration from Tucson, a city rich with Mexican culture, when deciding on dishes. Tacos were a given, but keeping luxury in mind they opted to include dishes that would make even the biggest foodies salivate. So they added inventive tacos like mahi-mahi topped with spicy slaw, cilantro, and honey mustard and spicy pork belly with kimchi, sweet chili, and a squirt of sriracha. Over time, the menus began reading like a Michelin-starred brick-and-mortar restaurant, with selections like puffed-rice salad with fried vermicelli, tamarind, cilantro chutney, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes—a kind of Indian street food—and Earl Grey tea and chocolate-ganache cake pops.
“The buffalo tacos are my favorite,” Arnold says. “It has every flavor in it—sweet, salty, and spicy—plus a nice crunch thanks to the lettuce.”
The idea for the truck stemmed from attending local farmers’ markets and seeing how popular food trucks were at these events. It’s not uncommon for long lines to form as soon as these restaurants-on-four-wheels roll through. Seeing the trucks’ popularity, members of the culinary staff approached corporate about purchasing a truck. At the time, no other luxury resort in the United States owned one, so, as one can imagine, it took a little convincing to get the higher-ups to agree. After eventually getting approval, the next step was finding a truck fit for a company that has made a name for its fine dining while also keeping simplicity—one of the hallmarks of food trucks—in mind. In other words, they wanted to offer luxury to more than just the 1 percent.
“People don’t often associate luxury with a food truck,” Arnold says, “so we’re trying to change [their perceptions] by offering high-quality meals not served on fancy china. We want to keep things simple.”
When I visited The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain last fall, I had the chance to climb aboard the Roadrunner after hours, when hotel guests were off to dinner. As I scaled the truck’s metal steps, the first thing I noticed was how small it was on the inside. Although I’ve never worked professionally in a kitchen, it was hard to believe that chefs can maneuver in such tight quarters, especially with the grills ablaze and a line of hungry guests queued up at the window. And that’s all while I stood in a spotless, empty kitchen. I wondered what it would be like once it’s fully stocked with ingredients and cookware.
As I climbed back down, I asked Kalikas what he thought made the truck so popular and he had one word: “simplicity.” “People like simple stuff, but with a twist,” he adds. “Let me show you what I mean.”
He led me down a manicured path to Ignite, making a detour through the resort’s citrus grove. Much of the fruit had been picked for dinner service, where it will pop up in everything from desserts to Ignite’s signature cocktail, the Arizona Paloma, made with grapefruit-infused tequila, fresh-squeezed grapefruits, and a splash of tonic. (The food truck often uses the bounty to make agua frescas during the summer.)
The fact that the citrus for my Paloma came from a short walk away rather than a store made it all the more delicious. The grapefruit juice tasted sweeter and tarter than what I’m used to as a consumer. As I took another sip, I could see what Kalikas meant by simplicity. A cocktail made with the freshest ingredients didn’t need the fanfare of exotic add-ons, rather, the fact that it was such a simple drink made me want another glass. No wonder the food truck has proven so popular with guests. The food is innovative and approachable at the same time.
The truck is most often used for corporate events, banquets, and even weddings, but on autumn weekends it’s parked outside Ignite for Tailgate Sunday football parties where it draws Marana residents and tourists alike. There it serves tailgate favorites with a twist, like Kobe beef Sonoran hot dogs, sliders, gooey chili-cheese fries, and smoked barbecue pork belly, which chef Arnold marinates in a dry rub of spices and mustard for 24 hours before cooking it in a smoker for four hours.
“The guests absolutely love the truck,” Arnold says. “They’ve been very receptive to it and are excited when they stay at the resort and get to try it.”
As I finish my cocktail, I can’t help but think that Dove Mountain is on to something with its food truck concept. In the time since its debut, several other luxury hotels around the nation have added food trucks to their culinary repertoire; it’s anyone’s guess how many more will follow suit. But with any trend, it’s important to be the first, and for that, The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain takes the crown. ✜
Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain. 15000 N. Secret Springs Drive. 520.572.3000.
Jennifer Nalewicki grew up in Tucson but now calls Brooklyn home. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Vegetarian Times, Wine Enthusiast, and Hemispheres.