I have a confession. Well, three confessions, to be exact, and I'm going to list them in order of the increasing level of embarrassment they cause me, especially considering my chosen profession. Deep breath, here goes. Once when I was in elementary school and insulated bags had just replaced the old thermos-and-lunch-box sets, I packed a popsicle in my lunch and really believed it would still be frozen by the time I got to it in the early afternoon. Much to my dismay, it instead compromised my sandwich and damaged a library book. In another dessert-related mishap, the first time I went to a fingerbowl-fancy restaurant, it had fresh butter sculpted into perfect spheres displayed in decorative dishes on each table. The scoops were so smooth and white I thought they were vanilla ice cream, and I immediately downed a huge spoonful before I realized my mistake. And finally, even though I've spent a fair amount of time walking around Mears Park and Nicollet Mall in search of the latest and greatest street eats, until last week I had never eaten anything from Sameh Wadi's World Street Kitchen food truck.
I know, I know. I should be a more responsible citizen, but the important thing is that I have now been several times to the new brick-and-mortar location in Uptown, and my eyes have been opened. At first glance, it might be easy to write off this place as another fast-casual empire extender (Wadi also owns the fine-dining Middle Eastern restaurant Saffron in downtown Minneapolis), but for food that's served so humbly in a paper tray, every dish still gets the royal treatment when it comes to flavor. The result is a menu filled with confident mash-ups of various cuisines: Thai with Mexican, Indian with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern with American. And because of the relaxed atmosphere and attitude, you don't feel forced to refer to it as "fusion" food. It's just really good, really bold, and it seamlessly pulls off that innovative-yet-approachable thing that modern diners really go for. If WSK's food was someone you went to high school with, it would be the popular girl you wanted to be jealous of but couldn't because once you got to know her you realized she was really nice and had actual depth.
Though WSK's menu is not huge, you should still go in with a plan of attack, because you'll want everything and you'll get full fast. An ideal experience for two or three hungry diners is to share two of the larger mains and two smaller sides or tacos.
There was widespread love for the red curry chicken Bangkok burrito, a dish that several employees identified as their favorite thing on the menu. It's a massive tortilla roll-up stuffed with all the rich, spicy, saucy, comforting qualities of a good bowl of Thai curry with rice. "It has everything, and it all works," commented one of my dining companions after his first bite. "I'm even tolerating the cilantro." And he hates cilantro.
Next on the list of triumphs was the MFC biscuit sandwich, a Moroccan take on the Colonel's secret recipe. Made with a big hunk of crisp fried chicken doused in ginger, various peppers, coriander, chiles, and cinnamon, on a buttery, perfectly lumpy cheddar biscuit, it is topped with a few well-placed pinches of carrot and preserved lemon relish and a schmear of feta cheese. It's as indulgent as it sounds, but if you're going to tuck into a bunch of calories, they might as well be in a dish that manages to be bright and interesting through and through. Let's face it, no matter how good a plate of biscuits and gravy or chicken and mashed potatoes is, you do start to look for that little acid kick that helps give a rich dish life and stave off palate fatigue. Well, it's here in this sandwich.
It's also in the flavor-packed but still light-eating lemongrass meatball lettuce wraps with tasty homemade pickles, and in the awesomely complex aloo tikki chat, an Indian potato and lentil patty that's crispy on the outside, soft and satisfying on the inside, and painted with three complementary sauces: one sweet (date-tamarind), one savory (cilantro chutney), and one cooling (lime yogurt). To keep it all from being mushy, it's finished off with some crispy fried noodles. It's unexpected and shows a commitment to creating thoughtful balance to each dish, no matter how small.
That's evident too in the two-to-a-serving corn tortilla tacos. Though the lamb belly and jerk taco versions were tempting, the overall favorite was the squash-and-mushroom one, with salty yet mild queso fresco, a robust pumpkin-seed salsa, and a scattering of piquant pickled onions. The veggies get a touch oily on the grill, but all the heat and earthiness come together beautifully in the end, even if much of it gets all over your hands. What do you want? They're tacos.
If there were any misses, they could only be called such in comparison to those really strong dishes. Even then it's splitting hairs, especially when you consider the moderate price tag. Though the falafel burger was anything but dull, I still prefer my chickpea balls with their traditional serving vehicle. The chewiness of pita just works better than a big, glossy hamburger bun when you're eating it with a large, soft-textured patty and a thick layer of hummus. There was a lot going on in the short rib rice bowl — crunchiness and funkiness from the kimchee, texture from the peanuts, richness from the short ribs — but once the components mixed with the rice and the poached egg was broken, the dish became overly saucy as the yolk blended with a heavy helping of WSK's "secret sauce." The first several bites were still great, and I am sure many will disagree, since these Yum Yum bowls have a cult following, but there are more interesting things to try here.
Like what else? The homemade soft serve. Both of the current offerings are equally good, though those with a sweet tooth will probably prefer the salted caramel sundae finished with chocolate-covered almonds and mini marshmallows, while even the dessert-averse will appreciate the fruitier one, inspired by both the salted and mango lassi drinks that are so popular at Indian restaurants. The latter is finished with puffed wild rice (again, hooray for these bits of texture throughout) and a splendid apricot chutney.
And the cocktails! WSK makes really smart use of its limited liquor license by creating the kind of beer-, wine-, sake-, and bubbly-based cocktails that make you not even miss the hard stuff. If you really want to go full-on party animal, you can pick up a 40-ounce of High Life or a Mickey's on ice at the counter. Though I know very few people who opted to drink either of these beverages once they reached the legal drinking age, it seems like a bit of a wink and nod to the area and the late-night hours. Word on the street is that WSK will go for a full bar license eventually, but it hardly matters with tipples like the celebratory Bittercube (made simply with a generous serving of sparkling wine and a sugar cube dotted with orange and cherry bark vanilla bitters from local designer-bitters maker Bittercube) or the stunningly complex Usagi Yojimbo (a sake-based cocktail that blends carrot juice, tons of fresh ginger, orange bitters, and Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif wine with a bitter bite that's all the rage now).
Are you hungry yet? Oh, and if the Uptown parking situation is holding you back, WSK has you covered with two grab-and-go parking spots. So you can get all this well-executed, fun, global fare to take home or to your office, and you can rationalize eating dessert first in the car on the way. Now that's the gift that keeps on giving.