Twin Cities street food Pt. 2: Smack Shack, Sonny's, and more
Street eating can take a bit more effort than its skyway-based alternatives. First, there's the matter of protecting your meal from hovering bees, curious pigeons, and hungry squirrels. Second, there's finding a place to sit.
In downtown St. Paul, diners find refuge on the shaded benches and wide stone ledges in city parks—Mears Park even pipes in classical music. But in Minneapolis, only the Smack Shack truck has its own seating area, so most street diners are left to plunk down on a stone planter along Nicollet Mall or get creative with grittier surrounds. That could mean perching on a parking lot curb and being misted by air conditioner spittle, or balancing on a retaining wall as buses pass gas and disgorge rowdy passengers.
And yet, what Minneapolis lacks in ambiance it makes up for in street food options.
Here's what I never thought I'd see on First Avenue, amid the squad cars parked in the bike lane and the high-heeled women leaned up against the Fine Line: a guy in a truck picking leaves off a sprig of fresh tarragon, readying it for a lobster roll.
The vehicle, Smack Shack, which is parked in a surface lot at First Avenue and Fourth Street North, is the brainchild of Josh Thoma, best known for his partnership with Tim McKee at La Belle Vie, Solera, and Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque. If MTV ever launches Pimp My Food Truck, this mobile seafood shack could star: It's tricked out with a built-in video screen showing a tank full of lobsters. Unfortunately you can't claim your own crustacean, as it's not a live feed from inside the truck but a taped loop recorded at Smack Shack's supplier, Coastal Seafoods. Still, it's pretty cool.
The seafood at Smack Shack tastes so fresh that you might mistake the sound of the truck's humming generator for the ocean's lapping waves. Those with a bit of gustatory gumption should order the King Roll, a good half-pound of fat lobster hunks—sweet, pink-speckled meat studded with crisp bits of cucumber and celery, laced with ocean brine, and dribbling a seasoned mayo. The lobster overflows its edible pocket: a buttery hunk of griddled Texas Toast sliced like a bun to help prevent spills. The King rivals those sold at East Coast fish shacks for upwards of $20, but it costs just 13-and-a-half smacks (the smaller roll costs $8.50). Are these guys trying to lose money?
The limited menu—andouille sausage po' boys and hot dogs are the only options for the seafood-averse—suggests that diners should stick with the lobster roll, the lobster and arugula salad, or the shrimp po' boy. The plump shrimp in the po' boy are lightly battered and fried and then tucked, piping hot, into a roll with tomato, arugula, and raw onions. Each bite layers hot and cool in a way that mimics the sunny-breezy contrast of a day at the beach.
Locations: Smack Shack is parked in a surface lot at First Avenue North and North Fourth Street. It's usually open Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, and Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight.
TURKEY TO GO
Turkey to Go, a Minnesota State Fair mainstay since 1959, brings its famous turkey sandwiches—along with homemade, build-your-own cookie-and-ice cream sandwiches—to Nicollet Mall. You can have your turkey drumstick slathered in a sweet, savory, or spicy Buffalo sauce, or, if you ask extra sweetly, a mix of all three. Sometimes the meat is so tender it falls off the bone—so nix any thoughts of walking around wielding it like a club and pretending you're at the Renaissance Festival. The thing looks like a big, sloppy mess, but if you pick through the bones and fat you'll be rewarded with succulent bites of meat dripping with glossy red sauce.
Every time the warmer door opens, the turkey truck wafts a Thanksgiving scent. But don't expect to find any stuffing: The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, with which the truck is affiliated, wants to broaden the bird's image beyond fall's annual feast and encourage people to eat turkey as often as they eat chicken. Nor do they want office workers to worry that they're going to go into a post-lunch food coma and fall asleep at their desks. "What people don't know is that chicken has as much tryptophan as turkey," says Drew Levin, who co-owns and operates the trailer. Levin likes to proudly inform customers that our state is the country's largest turkey producer. "Wisconsin has cheese, Idaho has potatoes, and Minnesota has turkey," he says.
Locations: The trailer is usually parked at Eighth and Nicollet during lunch, Monday through Friday. During Twins home games, it moves to Sixth and Hennepin.
SONNY'S ICE CREAM
One sunny day, a young extrovert staffing the Sonny's ice cream cart on Nicollet Mall solicited customers like a carnival barker. "Looks like he needs an ice cream," he said to one mother, a child straining against her grip and pulling toward the cart. When a couple walked past, the barker cried out, "Dude, buy the lady a cone," but the man didn't break stride. Sounds like grounds for a dumping, no?
Here's what those passersby missed: a selection of ice cream and sorbet flavors from south Minneapolis's beloved Crema café, which makes some of the best frozen confections in town. The $4 cups or cones are small, but they're made with top-notch ingredients and pack a lot of flavor punch. Traditionalists will stick with the classic Crema, a coffee-infused ice cream named after the foam on an espresso, while the more adventurous might pick a sorbet made with cantaloupe and lime.
Locations: The Crema cart may be the most weather-dependent of the bunch. For the rest of the season it will be stationed at Eighth and Nicollet on Thursdays during the farmer's market, if the temps are balmy.
There are Minneapolitans who don't know that Brothers Deli exists. Sad to think about, isn't it? Jeff Burstein, owner of the famed skyway-level deli, says he hopes his sandwich cart on Nicollet Mall will introduce his fare to that as-yet-unenlightened group. Never tried the lip-smacking, garlic-soy Korean bulgogi sandwich? (It's been on the menu for seven years, people!) The guy making the sandwiches might just offer you a sample of its luscious marinated meat. And if you're having trouble deciding between that and a classic corned beef or pastrami (on rye with Swiss cheese and mustard, natch), you can have a half-sandwich of each, for $3 apiece. The only bummer about the Brothers cart is that, for now, they're offering homemade potato chips instead of their legendary potato salad. Burstein says if the cart does well, he'll add a refrigeration unit next spring and expand the inventory.
Locations: The Brothers cart is at Eighth and Nicollet Monday through Friday, typically from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will be out hopefully through October, as long as the weather holds.
Carlos Garcia has worked every restaurant job imaginable—washing dishes, busing tables, bartending, cooking, and managing the front of the house—so he was well-prepared for the multitasking skills required to staff Cruzn' Café solo. In fact, he seems to thrive with the challenge. "Hey, how are you?" Garcia cheerily asked a customer one afternoon, as Top 40 tunes played out of a radio imbedded in the side of the vehicle. When she returned the question, he replied, "Living the dream," and grinned a broad smile.
Cruzn's food offerings are limited—sandwiches, nachos, and hot dogs that incorporate pulled pork and chicken from the nearby Darby O'Ragen's—but they're tasty and affordably priced. Garcia says he's in the process of adding daily specials—tamale Tuesdays, for example—and soups, including a bisque-style option served in a coffee cup for those who want to sip as they stroll. Also in the works to make things even more convenient: a credit card machine and bicycle delivery.
Locations: Cruzn' Cafe typically parks at Fourth and Nicollet from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and hopes to be out into December.
Due to size and weight constraints, right now She Royal's trailer is parked in a less-trafficked area on First Avenue and Eighth Street, across from Ramp A. But Royal's Ethiopian fare, prepared by proprietor Samson Benti, is well worth the hike. (Benti also does American food with a twist, such as a hamburger made with Thousand Hills grass-fed beef and seasoned with Ethiopian spices.)
The $6 vegetarian platter, for example, features spongy injera bread rolled to look like two hot towels, plus potatoes, cabbage, greens, and spicy red lentils that leave a lingering burn. (If you'd like to read more about the health benefits of lentils, see the internet printout taped to the truck's window). The chicken and rice is equally delicious, with its moist chunks of marinated chicken, fruity hot sauce, and yellow rice redolent with the woodsiness of rosemary and cardamom. If you need an afternoon pick-me-up to counteract the generous portions, She Royal is famous for its Ethiopian coffee.
Locations: The trailer is parked at First Avenue and Eighth Street during lunch, Monday through Friday, and will keep operating "as long as the people keep coming," Benti says. Starting next week it will be at Seventh and Nicollet.
After working the Midtown and Uptown markets, Natalie Coleman and Alex Brand of Dandelion Kitchen have stationed their bright yellow box outside the IDS center on Nicollet Mall. There can be a bit of a wait during the lunch rush as the sandwiches—BLTs, grilled cheese with cabbage slaw, and smoked chicken apple chutney, for example—are made to order.
The simple menu incorporates local and organic ingredients but keeps prices low. The side salad, of greens topped with tomato, roasted corn, and maple vinaigrette, for example, is a steal at $2.50. Also worth trying: the homemade sodas (lemon-ginger, basil-lime) served in compostable cups.
Locations: The trailer is parked at Seventh and Nicollet during lunch, typically three to four weekdays.
WORLD STREET KITCHEN
The season's final arrival—World Street Kitchen, a more casual offshoot of the upscale Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant Saffron—was well worth the wait. Chef Sameh Wadi, who runs the Warehouse District restaurant with his brother, Saed, calls the food he sells out of the big red truck a "great way for me to step away from what I'm doing in the restaurant and showcase my cuisine in a completely different way."
The truck's menu spans the globe: everything from family recipes (Mom's "world famous" spinach pie) to lamb barbacoa tacos to Mexican-style corn on the cob coated with crumbled chilis, fresh cheese, and lime aioli. Wadi's curried chicken banh mi is better than that at most Vietnamese restaurants: a French baguette with a delicate crust, sliced in half and mounded with spicy shredded chicken, pickled vegetables, fresh basil, and cilantro. The day I had the sandwich, it was the most expensive thing on the menu, clocking in at just five and a half bucks.
World Street Kitchen's beverage selection includes Mexican Cokes and lemonade that's made with roasted preserved lemons to give it a more intensely concentrated flavor. If you need something sweet to get you through an afternoon's worth of conference calls or data entry, try the killer salted caramel ice cream sandwich—it's cream with a burnished copper soul tucked between two chocolate discs. To the downtown brown baggers who think they can do better: Yeah, right—good luck!
Locations: The trailer is parked in a surface lot at Fifth and Nicollet during weekday lunches. The Wadis hope to keep the truck going through October, weather permitting.
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