Chef Shack goes brick-and-mortar
It's quite a feat for a food truck to make the transition from mobile kitchen to brick-and-mortar restaurant, but if anyone in the Twin Cities was going to do it, not once, but twice in the space of about a year, it would be Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson of Chef Shack. After opening a location in Bay City, Wisconsin, in late 2012, these powerhouse producers of Indian-spiced mini donuts, creamy vegan almond-based curry, and beef cheek hangover hash are now serving up succulent Southern-inspired barbecue in Seward at the freshly opened Chef Shack Ranch.
Just a few months ago, the pair announced they were taking over the space that formerly housed Lucy's Ethiopian (and Raja's Mahal before that) and planned to remake it into what they called a "modern urban truck stop." In our experience, you rarely find more than a mediocre Denver omelet, Subway sandwiches, or heat-lamp pizza at pit stops along the Interstate, but their interpretation has meant big bison burgers on gorgeous Salty Tart brioche buns (fast becoming the standard bread for local top-notch sandwiches, a trend we have zero complaints about), barbecue plates with pulled pork and smoked brisket that are sure to become this location's signature, and orecchiette with loads of meaty wild mushrooms and a creamy, herby, almost gravy-like sauce. The turnaround was fast, thanks in part to their long-held vision for this standalone space, but Summer reveals it was actually their shoestring budget that helped them avoid some of the common pitfalls that usually cause delays.
"With the truck and just the general nature of our business, we had a lot of specific needs for the space," says Summer. "When we found this little 40- or 50-seat spot that had parking and a workable kitchen, a place to load the truck, and the real intimate feel we were going for, we just said yes. We decided not to spend money doing a big overhaul on the building, but instead work with what was already there and focus on the food. Sometimes having limitations is a good thing."
The feeling they've created in the dining room is cozy and casual with loads of rustic charm by way of repurposed farm equipment, souvenirs from the owners' travels, and just enough country kitsch. "We wanted this place to feel like our clubhouse, basically," says Summer. Borrowing from their food truck roots, they also decided to do counter service at the Ranch, which works well with a small staff and a menu that contains fewer than a dozen items.
"We have the Bay City restaurant, which is more full-service, and that's kind of our vacation home, our retirement plan," says Summer. "But we had always been looking for a spot in Minneapolis — probably since 2009. We couldn't be happier to be in Seward. With places like the Birchwood and the Seward Co-op nearby, we feel like it's the community that really embraces our food and understands our commitment to how we source all our ingredients."
Their other aforementioned venture, Chef Shack in Bay City, on the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin, is a weekend-only affair and shuts down for the winter months when tourist business slows down. "So the Ranch gives us something to do during that time," Summer laughs. "Really though, it's super costly to run the truck and be renting out commercial kitchen space to do all our prepping, so having our own space right in Minneapolis is ideal."
They're using that extra room to their advantage, taking on more butchering, smoking, and sausage-frying — all of which comes into play when they put together their Big Boy Ranch Plate, the dish that seems to be the main event here. It's available by the half or whole order (just like many of the other hearty dishes) and includes lean beef brisket, pulled pork, house-made pickles much like grandma's quick refrigerator version, a Fischer Farms bacon beer brat, a crumbly baking powder biscuit, and sides of baked beans, a mustard-laden potato salad, and a really outstanding vinegar-based red cabbage slaw. The barbecue we do have in the Twin Cities is quite good, we just don't have enough of it, and there's really never been a good option in this neck of the woods. Seward can breathe a sigh of relief knowing the days without a neighborhood meat hut are now behind them.
"Doing the barbecue is a challenging focus," says Summer. "But Lisa and I do meat really well. We are just trying to modernize some of these heritage recipes and — I know it sounds clichéd, but — make elevated comfort food."
To that end, they're also serving brunch on Sundays from noon until 4 p.m., featuring a Hangover Hash, with broccoli and lovely caramelized cauliflower, ultra-tender braised beef cheeks, and fluffy scrambled eggs, all on a pile of potatoes that have a texture somewhere between hash browns and griddled mash. There's a Ranch-style version of poutine on the menu that is also sure to cure your Sunday-morning ailments: Hand-cut fries with nice creamy centers are doused in salsa verde and "shotgun sauce" (a seasoned sour cream), and topped with shredded pulled pork. They're as good as they sound and should be ordered to share with the table, just like the tempura wings, a definite highlight from our visits to the Ranch.
Whole joint Kadejan Farms wings are first braised, then lightly tempura battered, flash fried, and covered in a combination of brown sugar and what Carlson will only call "the secret wing dust." It's sweet, savory, and keeps you curious, as does the intensely citrusy cranberry-yuzu sauce that comes on the side. It's not a buffalo or hot wing type of heat, but there is some spice from the pickled jalapenos that decorate the plate.
The recent influx of new kids on the block and the generally high concentration of food trucks out in the downtown zones of both cities have caused Summer and Carlson to change up their plan for their brand, preferring to hit the streets only once a week and spend more of their time cooking up a storm in their new kitchen. Come spring, they're planning to add patio seating and a walk-up window for takeaway service, an option that is bound to be popular with river-walkers and families in need of a quick weeknight meal solution. Carlson says they'll also expand on their vegetarian options at this location.
"This has just been a great creative kitchen for us so far," says Summer. "It feels like an extension of our living room. We hope people come and eat and treat it that way."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.