Street food takes over the Twin Cities
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.
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 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.
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.
My favorite was the Greek-themed dill orzo pasta with feta and cucumbers. It was light, fresh, healthy, and tasted like something you'd make at home and tote to work in a Tupperware—and I mean that in a good way. As summer wanes, Fork in the Road will be adding heartier fare, such as Italian meatball sandwiches and salmon sliders. Frechette and Offerdahl plan to keep their truck running all winter long—"maybe not every single day," Frechette says, making exceptions for blizzards or below-zero temps—and adding more warm-me-ups such as soups and chili.
Location: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Fork in the Road typically serves lunches in Mears Park in St. Paul; Tuesdays and Thursdays they tend to book visits to private businesses' parking lots.
Minnesota Public Radio staffers have called Meritage's new crepe stand a "sign of civilization" in their employer's often-sleepy city. The creation of the made-to-order treats—there's always one savory option and one sweet—looks just as it might in les rues de Paris. The batter is poured onto a large, circular griddle, then smoothed into a wider, paper-thin disc with a T-shaped tool. When the first side begins to freckle with brown spots, the crepe is peeled and flipped with a thin paddle that resembles a balsa wood model airplane wing. The crepes change each day (flavors are posted each morning on Twitter) and run $4.50 a pop.
One warm but windy day, the options were a delicious ham and cheese or dark chocolate with cherries and whipped cream, and the crepe cooker struggled a bit to keep the flame of the griddle lit. The savory and sweet taste great by themselves but create a synergistic effect if you have one of each.
Location: The crepe cart is open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons outside Meritage (410 St. Peter St., St. Paul). Meritage plans to keep it open through early fall, weather permitting.
128 Mobile Café
In the window of the128 Mobile Café, a sign in the tip jar reads "St. Paul is the new Minneapolis," and if anything could convince a die-hard Minneapolitan of such truth, it might be St. Paul's beloved 128 Café. The 14-year-old restaurant is admittedly "a little tucked away," says chef Ian Pierce, referring to its cozy digs in the basement of a Merriam Park apartment building. The kitchen-on-wheels has allowed the café to "build the brand" a little more, Pierce says, and shed some daylight on a more casual version of the restaurant's American bistro fare. "We've had people in the restaurant specifically because of the truck," he says.
The converted linen truck gleams as white as its former wares, but it now serves up an ever-changing menu of sweet corn fritters, tender chicken skewers, beet salads, and sockeye salmon sandwiches, all prepared with fresh ingredients and careful attention to detail. (A tuna sandwich, for example, means seared tuna with pickled onions and mixed greens, versus the usual mayo-slogged version made with tuna from a can.)
But there's one item that never changes: the famed baby back ribs. "People would probably freak out if we didn't have 'em," Pierce says. For $11, 128 Mobile offers a one-third rack with kettle chips or coleslaw. These ribs are known for the tenderness of their meat, practically creamy with fat, that's lightly blackened and then slathered in a well-balanced barbecue sauce. They taste just as delicious eaten out of a paper basket on a park bench as they do from a plate on a fabric-draped table. These ribs are good enough to justify the existence of the porcine species—and perhaps the city of St. Paul.
Location: The 128 Mobile Café tends to spend Thursday lunches in downtown St. Paul at places like Mears Park, Rice Park, or the Ecolab Plaza (370 Wabasha Street, St. Paul), but it will always Twitter its whereabouts. It should be out into the fall, as long as the weather stays warm.
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