Mobile chefs' cross-country race rolls through Vegas

All roads lead to Vegas -- including the one bringing eight eclectic food trucks to the Strip for "The Great Food Truck Race."

The Food Network's cross-country challenge (think "Cannonball Run" with food trucks instead of souped-up cars) returns for its second season at 10 p.m. Sunday. And when the cameras, and wheels, start rolling, Las Vegas provides the backdrop for the show's first episode, titled (what else?) "What Happens in Vegas."

It would be tough to find a place that better represents the show's two themes: food, naturally, but also striking it rich. After all, there's a $100,000 grand prize on the line.

Food and fortune combine as all eight food trucks hit the road to Vegas following an initial challenge at Southern California's Malibu Pier.

And once competitors hit the Strip, they hit their first "Speed Bump," as host Tyler Florence spins a large wheel, depicting numerous food truck problems. The wheel of misfortune stops on "out of propane," forcing the teams to compete without the fuel.

After two days cooking up a storm on the streets of Las Vegas, the team that sells the least food heads home.

Las Vegas' status as a culinary mecca played a definite role in bringing "The Great Food Truck Race" here, according to Brian Lando , the Food Network's vice president for programming and special events.

"We wanted to pick a city that had a lot of diversity in all aspects," he explains, including "the people who live there, the people who vacation there, and the amount of activities that happen on a daily basis, so the trucks would be able to compete not only against each other but also the other offerings Las Vegas has."

Five of the show's eight teams represent Southern California, serving up everything from Cuban cuisine (Los Angeles' Cafe Con Leche) to creative comfort food (San Diego's Devilicious ) to healthy vegan options (Seabirds of Orange County). Rounding out the Southern California contingent: Sky's Gourmet Tacos of Los Angeles and The Lime Truck, also from Orange County.

The other three food trucks had a bit longer drive to the starting line: Cleveland's Hodge Podge, the New York-based Korean grill Korilla and Roxy's Grilled Cheese from Boston.

"It's really the American dream on wheels," Florence says of the competitors and their fellow food-truck entrepreneurs, who have responded to the sour economy -- and resulting restaurant shutdowns -- by "re-engineering the casual dining experience."

The social-media explosion also has made it possible for food trucks to draw big crowds, despite their lack of big advertising budgets, Florence adds.

"There's a big leveling of the playing field," he contends, noting that "if a truck has got a big, dedicated fan base," and connects with that fan base through Facebook or Twitter, "there will be a line when they show up."

The food-truck phenomenon means "accessible, inexpensive and diverse food choices" are as close as the food truck on the corner, Lando points out.

This season's "Great Food Truck Race" takes competing trucks from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City and a ranch outside Denver, then to Manhattan, Kan., Memphis, Tenn., Atlanta and finally Miami.

"As long as they didn't get arrested or get a speeding ticket," competitors faced "no rules to the race," Florence says, which set the stage for "shenanigans at the highest level. They try to get away with things that will give them the competitive edge."

In Lando's view, that describes "the personalities that are drawn to the food-truck industry," he comments, characterizing them as "young entrepreneurs (who) are innovative and willing to take a chance."

And while those risk-takers sound like very Vegas types, some of them made mistaken assumptions about Las Vegas, he notes, citing competitors who "thought the Strip would be the perfect place to sell with all the foot traffic. However, they soon realized parking on the Strip isn't as easy as they hoped."

Which didn't seem to dampen their, or the show's, overall embrace of Las Vegas.

"It's one of the most interesting cities in America," Florence says. "You can't get Vegas anywhere else. You can't get that flavor."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at or 702-383-0272.