Gastro Truck, Barrio, Hola Arepa, and more
Last summer, a fleet of food trucks took to the streets of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul to traffic in turkey legs, Reuben bratwurst, mini donuts, and more. This season, several new vendors have joined the curbside smorgasbord, rolling out soft-shell crab tacos, black bean sliders, and breakfast burritos, among other tasty treats. Here's your guide to what the latest crop of food trucks are serving—and how to track them down.
Facebook: Gastrotruck, Twitter: @Gastrotruck
Chef Stephen Trojahn traded the world of fine dining (he formerly oversaw the kitchens at Cosmos and Bradstreet Craftshouse in the Graves Hotel) for the more cramped confines of Gastrotruck. The switch is good news for downtown St. Paul diners, as Trojahn treats street eats with four-star seriousness, creating thoughtful flavor pairings from seasonal produce and local, naturally raised meats, and serving them in compostable packaging.
Trojahn mans the stove while his partner, Catherine Eckert, manages orders. Pre Gastrotruck, the two were running a catering business and thinking about opening a bricks-and-mortar restaurant when they decided to go for the more immediately gratifying mobile kitchen.
Sliders are a main component of the Gastrotruck menu, but they're a serious step up from their White Castle cousins. The mini-burgers come two to an order for $6 to $8, in several variations, including the likes of grass-fed beef meatloaf with tomato-bacon jam, smoky pulled pork with red cabbage slaw, and black bean cakes with sour cream and sprouts. The sliders disappear in about four bites, but they're carefully crafted, with the details done right, from the griddled bakery bun to the house-made pickles set out on the truck's condiment rail. Typically, between seven and 10 topping options are available every day.
Trojahn sneaks a few healthful tweaks into his fare: a side of wheatberry salad, penne, and melted cheese is made with whole-wheat noodles; potato salad substitutes a lighter yogurt dressing for mayonnaise. Order those items and it's easer to justify indulging in the cinnamon-raisin bread pudding with rum-caramel sauce, or better yet, the white chocolate panna cotta or the banana-cake whoopee pie with whipped peanut butter filling. For those looking to tote some goodwill back to the office, the spicy-sweet caramel corn is easily sharable.
Facebook: Barrio Truck, Twitter: @Barrio_Truck
Last summer the Barrio restaurant group launched a mobile spin-off, but the big black truck spent most of its time at private events. This year the vehicle has taken up residence in downtown Minneapolis in the parking lot at Fourth Street and Second Avenue (Smack Shack's former home). Monday through Friday the truck serves lunch from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with extended hours during Twins games.
The Barrio Truck doesn't offer the long list of tequila that the bricks-and-mortar stores do, but it serves some of the restaurants' same chef-driven Latin street food, including the carnitas and lengua tacos, plus several wheels-only exclusives. The street-only options include a hefty barbacoa burrito, soft-shell crab torta, and a Mexican-style hot dog that draws inspiration, according to the guy taking orders in the window, from a bona-fide south-of-the-border snack. Think of it as a Latin chili dog: The all-natural beef hot dog comes topped with bacon, beans, roasted poblano peppers, pico de gallo, and mustard. The dog can be a mega mess for hand-held eating, but the fresh salsa is a nice alternative to ketchup.
The soft-shell crab taco, another truck exclusive, is a variation on the restaurants' signature Tecate-battered mahi mahi. The crab adds a pleasant crunch to a pair of soft corn tortillas, and the spicy rub on the crustacean is cooled by a blend of watercress, a sweet tomatillo-watermelon pico de gallo, and avocado cream. Round it out with a side of chips and guacamole and a Jarritos soda, and you'll feel like you just had a lunch-break-length vacation.
Facebook: Hola Arepa, Twitter: @holaarepa
Arepas are made with cornmeal, from a dough similar to tamale masa that's been formed into a thick patty and griddled. The South American specialty is the foundation of Hola Arepa's offerings, which come topped with everything from shredded chicken and avocado to pulled pork with black beans and crumbled cheese. Since the arepas are fairly starchy, they're well serviced by a scoop of pickled red cabbage or a hefty squirt of tomatillo salsa.
Hola Areapa's turquoise truck, which often parks in Minneapolis on Marquette Avenue, is one of the city's most aesthetically pleasing—no surprise, since co-owner Christina Nguyen founded Minneapolis's chic Design Collective. Nguyen is also a partner in the Tea Garden shops, and her partner, Birk Stefan Grudem, is a former bartender at Town Talk Diner and Bradstreet Craftshouse, so the team's house-made beverages are exceptional. They do several lemonade variants, including cucumber mint and pineapple caraway, and their not-too-sweet hibiscus strawberry punch is one of the summer's best refreshers.
On top of its regular offerings, Hola Arepa has been slowly adding extra dishes, including ceviche and a corn dog made with deep-fried arepa dough and chorizo. On special occasions, traditional South American guinea pig, or cui, is available as confit, served in a guacamole-filled, fried tortilla cone.
POTTER'S PASTIES & PIES
Facebook: Potter's Pasties
A bona-fide Brit—she has the accent to prove it—brings Potter's Pasties & Pies to downtown St. Paul. Fiona Duncan met her husband, Alec, a Minnesota native who started his cooking career at 128 Café, when the two were teaching in Peru, and after several years spent living in Southeast Asia, the world travelers decided to bring their version of the U.K.'s famous portable pies back to the Twin Cities.
Alec spent six months perfecting his buttery dough, which he forms into crescent-shaped pockets and fills with everything from meat and potatoes to Thai vegetable curry. The pasties—pronounced pah-stees—are par-baked each morning and then finish cooking on the truck. One delicious version called "the Pig" is stuffed with so much shredded pork and sweet apple that it could fuel a full day of hard labor or hiking. (Alec says his off-season project is to figure out how to sell his par-baked pasties at retail, so hopefully we can soon get them in the winter, too.)
When you eat at Potter's, make sure to save room for the truck's sweetest treat: a slice of traditional British banoffe pie that's nearly impossible to find in these parts. The pie's crust is sealed with a layer of bitter dark chocolate to balance out the sweetness of bananas, whipped cream, and caramelized sweetened condensed milk.
Facebook: Velle Deli, Twitter: @VelleDeli
Vellee Deli mostly haunts Minneapolis's Marquette Avenue, with occasional forays into St. Paul, serving up Asian and Mexican fare, from eggrolls to tacos. The mobile kitchen is owned by William Xiong and Joyce Truong, and the two turn out everything from a traditional Vietnamese pork banh mi to a fusion riff on the sandwich called Mojo, which stuffs a crusty baguette with a spicy sausage, pico de gallo, and fresh papaya.
Vellee's Korean BBQ burrito is another great Asi-can treat. A flour tortilla contains marinated, grilled beef short rib, rice, and spicy kimchi, creating a first-rate flavor combination. It's one of the best burritos in the metro.
Facebook: Simply Steve's Mobile Food Truck
Simply Steve's, which typically hangs out on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, opens as early as 7 a.m. While Steve's serves a full list of lunch items, including bacon-Gouda burgers and buffalo chicken wraps, it's the first street truck in the Cities to place heavy emphasis on breakfast.
Chef Steve Ramlow is a veteran of such Twin Cities institutions as the Nicollet Island Inn and Muffuletta, and he is assisted by his daughter, Katie Newham. While his biscuit sandwiches are convenient, they're not as craveable as the breakfast burrito. The flour tortilla is stuffed with eggs, potatoes, and spicy chorizo, which sure beats a bowl of cold cereal. All it's missing is a side of fresh salsa.
One more bonus: If you're lucky, you might get a sample of Simply Steve's chocolate chip cookies.
Facebook: Natedogs, Twitter: @Nate_Dogs
Nate Beck is a hot dog fiend. When he makes his annual pilgrimage to the state fair, he says he puts away seven or eight foot-longs in a single day. His new business, Nate Dogs, applies an artisan approach to the humble hot dog cart, which he sets up across from Central Library at Fourth and Hennepin in Minneapolis, as well as sites in downtown St. Paul.
To pick just the right dog, Beck visited every craft butcher around the metro and collected a cooler full of samples. After taste testing, he chose an all-pork, skin-on, uncured wiener (and wiener-sized bratwurst) from the family-run farm Pastures a Plenty. Beck boils his tubesteaks so they don't risk splitting the casing and losing their juice, as they can when grilled.
Beck's homemade condiments include caramelized onions, coarse-cut sauerkraut, and a variety of blended mustards that he wears in a waist-slung holster for quicker dispensing (try one made with a local beer). The tubesteaks and toppings outshine their ho-hum, mass-produced buns, but that's kind of the point: The bread needs to fade to the background so the meat can be the star.
Beck has instilled his business with a philanthropic philosophy: For every dog purchased, he makes an equivalent donation to charity. "Get a dog, give a dog," he says. "That's our motto."
Facebook: Cook'n Wheels
On a Friday night, when the parking lot at Union Liquors on Lowry and Penn Avenue North is filled with idling cars, one vehicle stands out among the others: a bright green-and-orange RV tricked out to serve picnic fare of hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and salads. Cook'n Wheels tends to make stops in north and northeast Minneapolis, as well as outside the Midtown Global Market. One of its specialties, the Memphis pulled pork sandwich, tastes just like summer, piling creamy coleslaw on top of tender shredded meat in a super-sweet barbecue sauce.
CUPCAKE ON THE GO
Facebook:Cupcake, Twitter: @cupcakempls
The bright orange van parked along Nicollet Mall doesn't look that conspicuous until you notice the cartoon cupcakes painted on its exterior, and the small tray mounted on its hood to hold the coffee fixings.
The vehicle comes to Minneapolis from St. Paul's Cupcake cafe on University Avenue and usually carries about a dozen varieties of the shop's signature confection. Classics like the Trademark, a chocolate mousse-filled vanilla cupcake, and Red Velvet are bestsellers, but we're extra partial to the flavors that pack in three times the fun, Triple Chocolate and Caramel Cubed. The treats are world class. No wonder Cupcake's pastry whizzes, owner Kevin VanDeraa and catering manager Alicia Hinze, were recent competitors on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars.
Facebook: Saucy Burt's, Twitter @SaucyBurts
Sarah Burt has one of the smallest street carts and most limited menus, but her $7 Italian meatball sandwich is so good you won't be looking for anything else. Burt sets up shop at Fifth and Nicollet Mall, just a few blocks from her other cooking job at the more highbrow eatery Haute Dish. Her grandmother's Italian heritage influenced Burt's street food specialty, and its meatballs, made from a blend of beef, pork, and veal, come out perfectly rich and tender. The tangy marinara is chunky with bits of onion, garlic, and herbs and tastes as if it was just ladled from nonna's pot—though to keep the sandwich's ratios working out right, you'll either have to ask for an extra scoop of the red stuff or leave the last few bites of the bun's hinge behind.
THE TWISTED SISTER HOUSE OF HUNGER
Facebook: The Twisted Sister House of Hunger
The Twisted Sister House of Hunger offers a short menu of deep-fried hot dogs, tacos, and sliders. There's better beef brisket to be found at eateries that specialize in barbecue, but Twisted Sister's has a pleasant smokiness and crisp, browned edges. The secret to the sandwich is the griddled bun and a generous squirt of sriracha mayonnaise, a.k.a. "polygamy sauce," owner Wesley Kaake's take on Utah's signature fry sauce. For dessert, Twisted offers four-bite wedges of frozen Chubby Girl cheesecakes for $3 a pop. The salted caramel version dipped in dark chocolate is especially delicious.
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