Street food takes over the Twin Cities

In search of the best meal on wheels

We're not quite Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where roadside vendors roast skewered bats over glowing coals, but mobile food entrepreneurs in St. Paul and Minneapolis have made big strides this summer. In just the past few months, a new generation of vendors has quickly established a burgeoning street-cart culture in both urban cores, upgrading the typical boiled hot dogs and canned sodas with goat curry and fresh-fruit smoothies.

To think that just a few years ago, Minneapolis had only five licensed sidewalk vendors restricted to serving the downtown zone. The carts were limited to selling packaged foods, precooked sausages, hand-dipped ice cream, beverages, and "non-potentially hazardous" veggie sandwiches (whatever that means). But around the same time the street truck trend was taking off on the coasts—a CIA grad started serving Seattleites bistro fare from a retrofitted Airstream trailer, former Le Cirque pastry chefs began bringing New Yorkers mobile desserts—local culinary whizzes Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer launched Chef Shack, pioneering a new mobile food scene in the Twin Cities.

Carlson and Summer have been cooking together since their days at the old Café Barbette, and they put a gourmet chef's touch on all their Shack fare, which has included everything from bison burgers to tongue tacos to torched-to-order crème brûlée. The Shack gals established a following by parking their first truck at the Mill City Farmers Market during the 2008 season and began lobbying the city of Minneapolis to expand its street food regulations.

Sure beats boiled hot dogs: Sweet potato tacos at Chef Shack
Emily Utne
Sure beats boiled hot dogs: Sweet potato tacos at Chef Shack

Location Info

Map

128 Cafe

128 Cleveland Ave. N.
St. Paul, MN 55104

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Details

128 Cafe
Facebook: 128 Cafe
Twitter: 128cafe
651.645.4128; www.128cafe.net

Meritage
Facebook: Meritage - St. Paul Restaurant
Twitter: meritage_stpaul
612.354.3233; www.meritage-stpaul.com

Fork in the Road Truck
Facebook: Fork in the Road Truck
Twitter: forkNroadtruck
612.354.3233

chef shack
Facebook: Chef Shack
Twitter: chefshack1 and shackattacks
507.358.4220; www.chefshack.org

While there's less hassle for small food vendors to ply their wares on private property—including farmers' market regulars Magic Bus and Foxy Falafel, or Barrio's taco truck and the Italian-pie–producing fire engine Streetza, which focus on catered events—the city streets offer a larger market of potential customers. This spring, the Minneapolis City Council opened up just such an opportunity by unanimously approving an ordinance that allows vendors to serve a wide range of foods in locations throughout downtown. The legislation is a major improvement, though it doesn't offer nearly as much entrepreneurial freedom as St. Paul's rules, which allow food vendors to operate anywhere they can park—so long as they obey posted signage and feed the meter like any other vehicle.

After a few bureaucratic delays, this season's new crop of food vendors has finally arrived on the streets. I recently put the downtown lunch carts in both cities to a road test, and here's what I found.

MINNEAPOLIS & ST. PAUL

Chef Shack

Chef Shack has expanded its fleet to three mobile kitchens and actively works both sides of the river. Carlson and Summer are constantly changing their menus, expanding their cuisine's reach from their original list of grass-fed beef hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches to biscuits and gravy and house-made charcuterie. Their fresh, handmade fare uses first-rate, natural ingredients, whether it's a spicy, bone-flecked goat meat stew or tacos stuffed with black beans, pickled cabbage, and pureed sweet potato.

This season, the Shacks have served squash blossom quesadillas and herring—a fish that many have only tried pickled—from Lake Superior that's been tempura battered and fried. After traveling in Asia last winter, Carlson and Summer rolled out several new Thai and Indian curries, which are a source of particular pride. "The Indians who come and eat it give me a thumbs up," Summer says. "Here I am a white girl doing Indian curry and the Indians love it."

One of the Shack's most ambitious new items is its charcuterie plate, which piles up several house-preserved meats next to potatoes, broccoli, and beets, with the option of adding just about every possible picked vegetable imaginable—including ramps, cabbage, cucumbers, and beans for starters. The duck liver pate was lovely, but the roulade made from braised pig's feet will likely be a tougher sell for most Shack customers. Between its funky flavor and gummy texture, the only option I could see for making the misanthropic meat more palatable would be to sandwich it between a couple of the Shack's signature Indian-spiced mini-donuts.

Carlson and Summer say they hope to stay open through December, weather permitting. To extend the season, they're planning a Halloween food-truck party at the plaza between the Guthrie Theater and Mill City Museum on Sunday, October 31, with truck eats, beverages, bands, and costumes. Who's coming dressed as a mini-donut?

Locations: Chef Shack typically offers lunches on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Fifth and Hennepin in Minneapolis; Thursdays at Mears Park in St. Paul and Fridays behind the Minnesota Public Radio building (Ninth and Minnesota streets, St. Paul). On Saturdays the Shacks frequent the Mill City and Northeast farmers' markets; Sundays the Kingfield and Uptown markets.

ST. PAUL

Fork in the Road

Amy Frechette and Kari Offerdahl have been best friends since the tender age of two, and the self-taught cooks are now business partners who are parking their bright-orange Fork in the Road truck at Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. Their mantra is "fresh and familiar," the sorts of foods you make at home. In the summertime, much of their menu resembles the fare of cookouts and picnics. There's a Reuben brat—griddled sausage in a soft white bun topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Thousand Island dressing—and a diner-style pulled pork, with mildly sauced meat and a slice of American cheese melted between grilled toast.

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