Summer Guide 2011: Food Trucks!

The food trucks line up for lunch every Wednesday in downtown St. Paul / photo by Tom Wallace

By Kat Kluegel |

The food trucks line up for lunch every Wednesday in downtown St. Paul / photo by Tom Wallace

Talkin ’bout a (food truck) revolution this summer.

My initial reaction to the term “food trucks” was like a bad-acid flashback from grad school: a colony of dubious-looking “grease trucks” parked outside my dorm in New Jersey, surrounded by throngs of drunken Jersey dudes ordering “fat cats” — grotesque sandwiches, engorged with fries and mayo and ketchup and chicken fingers and gyro meat.

Thankfully, this memory has absolutely nothing to do with what you can find today at the best food trucks in the Twin Cities. The new food trucks feature some of the most interesting, healthful, organic, locally sourced, cutting-edge food you can get anywhere. It just happens to come from a truck.

In April, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to expand the number, and permitted locations, of food-truck vendors. They can now roam beyond downtown Minneapolis and set up shop in designated areas of Northeast, Midtown, Uptown and Cedar-Riverside. Vendors no longer have to commit to a permanent location, provided they stay 100 feet away from a licensed restaurant or sidewalk cafe. And now even St. Paul will be able to revel in food truck fever: On Wednesdays, the food trucks line up at Kellogg and Wabasha, right across from City Hall.

So grease up that stache and slap on that white baseball hat. Let’s go food truckin’.

The Smack Shack

The Smack Shack offers fine seafood on Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis / photo by Carlos Gonzalez
  • Where: Between 6th and 7th Sts. on Marquette Av. S., Mpls., outside Wells Fargo Center. They report they probably aren’t straying from their prime downtown spot anytime soon.
  • When: Generally 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Check, Smack Shack on Facebook or @Smack_Shack on Twitter.
  • Best for: Harried professionals looking for a fancy lunch escape but short on time.
  • Payment: Cash and credit cards.
  • Recommended: Lobster roll, $12.

A “smack” refers to an old-timey fishing boat. The Smack Shack, however, is not run by salty sailors but by cool, young guys with an intense passion for seafood. They are affable and jokey, but very serious about their food. Josh Thoma stands at the helm, painstakingly separating chunks of flamingo-pink-speckled, tender, lightly briny Maine lobster meat with his pincers. This dedication has paid off: Bon Appétit recently ranked Smack Shack’s lobster roll as one of the nation’s best. Step up to the truck, place your order, and then fiddle around with your cell phone for a few minutes until your red-and-white checkerboard-lined box of dreams appears. Large chunks of chilled lobster are delicately dressed in a creamy sauce, punctuated with bursts of crisp diced cucumber, herby strands of tarragon and lemon aioli that allows its sweet marine essence to shine.

World Street Kitchen

  • Where: 5th St. & Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
  • When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Check, Facebook, or @eatwsk1 on Twitter.
  • Best for: Spice lovers, food adventurers.
  • Payment: Cash and credit cards.
  • Recommended: Pressed beef torta ($7), salted caramel ice cream sandwich ($4), Yum Yum rice bowl ($9).

Saed Wadi is Saffron chef Sameh Wadi’s brother and partner, who spearheaded the campaign to vote Sameh one of the Most Innovative Chefs of 2011 on Saed is a charismatic master of truck ceremonies, and champion of the Moroccan- to Vietnamese-style street-food offerings that are part of the “eat wsk!” phenomenon (grab a sticker to show off your loyalty). Banh mi and short rib pho are popular, but I opt for the pressed beef torta ($7), a savory, tingly condensation of pot-roast flavor: tender beef, garlic, carrots sassed up with exotic spice, gooey white cheese and guacamole, all pressed into a melt-in-your-mouth portable, personal euphoria. The veggie Yum Yum rice bowl was a whirlwind of herbaceous, sweet heat and texture with plentiful sticky rice, a perfectly cooked egg with an oozing yolk, plus scallions, cilantro, rice crisps, hoisin, sriacha, bountiful basil leaves, peanuts, shiitake mushrooms and peapods. Yum yum indeed.

The Chef Shack

Pulled-pork tacos from Chef Shack, left, and Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer of the Chef Shack / photos by Tom Wallace
  • Where/when: Mill City Farmers Market, 704 S. 2nd St., Mpls. (8 a.m.-1 p.m. Sat.); St. Paul Food Truck Court, see facing page. (11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wed.) Check, Facebook or @chefshack1 on Twitter for other locations.
  • Best for: Hip foodies who crave affordable, organic street treats bedazzled with condiments to their own specifications.
  • Payment: Cash only.
  • Recommended: Sweet potato tacos ($6), Indian-spiced mini-donuts ($5). Make sure to partake in the condiment bar, featuring everything from kimchee hot spears and hot cumin sauerkraut to bacon “ketjap” and pickled veggies.

Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson, the sassy ladies of the Chef Shack, are beloved food-truck pioneers who rock their kitschy rig through the Twin Cities’ coolest events. They even have a resident go-go dancer and a DJ. Like many food truckers, they take culinary adventures during the winter months, most recently to Southeast Asia. Their airy cinnamon sugar and cardamom-kissed mini-donuts are huge crowd pleasers, as are their tender beef tongue tacos ($6). Add some spicy salsa to their sweet potato tacos for a sweet and spicy organic tuber-licious treat. The only thing missing here is the B-52s’ Fred Schneider, who seems like he should be somewhere on the premises, gleefully shouting: “Chef Shack, baby!”

The Magic Bus Cafe

  • Where/when: Community festivals, Midtown Farmers Market. Check, Facebook or @magicbushotdogs on Twitter.
  • Best for: Woodstock nostalgists, families, Grateful Dead followers, hot dog aficionados.
  • Payment: Cash only.
  • Try: The Meet Me in the Morning Dog ($6 regular or tofu, $6.50 grass-fed beef) with organic scrambled eggs, local bacon and zippy cheese will convince you that it is acceptable — even advisable — to have a hot dog for breakfast.

This place is a trip, man. Cathy and Chrissy Lockyear are identical-twin, copper-haired maidens who wear flower tiaras and hot dog sneakers. Their big smiles, tasty dogs and good vibes will make even the most hardened hipster melt. The cafe is a purple 1978 Chevrolet school bus with seating for eight. It’s bright and laden with 1960s rock memorabilia, an “I miss Jerry” sticker and a Warren Haynes bobblehead on the dash. Chris Lockyear, a former D’Amico chef, will “split and fry” your choice of grass-fed beef, regular or tofu dog, heaping on all manner of trippy toppings. The technique creates maximum caramelization — a culinary epiphany perhaps only possible in such magical surroundings. My grass-fed Grateful Dog came with Psychedelic Curry Relish made with organic pickle relish, mango chutney, yellow pepper and curry powder. The fruity, piquant laser light-show jazz of this relish perfectly complemented the earthy dog and snappy natural casing. I felt kind of like I was eating a Pink Floyd song.

Dandelion Kitchen

  • Where/when: Nicollet Mall between 7th and 8th Sts., Mpls., in front of the IDS Center (11 a.m.- 1:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.); Midtown Farmers Market, 2225 E. Lake St., Mpls. (8 a.m.-1 p.m. Sat.).
  • Best for: Downtowners who value gourmet, family-farm-sourced salads, soups and sandwiches.
  • Payment: Cash or credit.
  • Try: Grilled ham and brie with pear and arugula ($6.75), seasonal home-made soda ($2).

Natalie Coleman and Alexander Brand went on a yearlong bicycle expedition around the world and fell in love with the vibrancy of street food. They opened Dandelion Kitchen last year at farmers markets — in the middle of winter — and have been going strong ever since. Their food will make you feel just as inspired. Killer soups, pestos and chutneys will convince you to say goodbye to factory Mcfoot-longs once and for all. My microgreen salad with fresh roasted corn, pickled beets, goat’s milk brie, toasted pecans and a sweet vinaigrette ($3.75) was a blissful little vegetal dream. My blood-orange clove/cardamom/star anise-spiced soda ($2) almost made me holla with glee — bright, zesty and sparkling with a subtle yet resonating spice. I’d like to buy the world one of these sodas to drink, because I think it just might be a more harmonious place.

St. Paul Food Truck Court

  • Where: Kellogg Blvd. & Wabasha St., St. Paul.
  • When: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

May 18 marked the opening of the Wednesday Lunch Truck Lineup in downtown St. Paul. Lines were long (up to 20 minutes) and some trucks’ rations were depleted quickly. But these were likely just inaugural glitches.

The 128 Cafe‘s truck offered its impressively elegant fare: shimmery salads, lacquered ribs, and veal meatballs and robust asparagus spears resting on a bed of creamy polenta ($9). Savory and tender ginger-soy sirloin skewers, arriving on a bed of fluffy basmati, crunchy red cabbage slaw, green onion, limes, ribbons of piquant sweet carrots and herbaceous cilantro ($9), could possibly be the perfect summer lunch.

I proceeded next door to Gastrotruck, where I was riveted by the description of the Surly Coffee Bender-braised short-rib sliders, with grass-fed beef, caramelized onions, blue cheese drizzle and arugula ($8). But by the time I got to the front of the line, they were out of the blue cheese drizzle, which made me sad, because the sliders looked a bit naked without it. I opted for the smoked meatloaf sliders with tomato jam ($7), but again, after waiting in line, the slider buns were gone and the sliders were offered as smoked meatloaf tacos, and there wasn’t much left in the way of condiments, which made things sadder still. Unfortunately, the smoky, unremarkable meat and jam just didn’t make much sense in a taco context. I would definitely try Gastrotruck again.

If you are more interested in a good old-fashioned Johnsonville brat ($3) or sturdy Reuben ($7), Simply Steve’s is the truck for you. I was intrigued by the red quinoa slider, which had good curry flavor and healthy bean sprouts, but it wasn’t my fave texture-wise. Fork in the Road offered a crowd-pleasing BBQ pulled-pork grilled cheese delight ($7) and cute “caramel-dipped, chocolate-coated pretzel rods” (two for $3) which would make the perfect late-afternoon office treat. Finally, the Chef Shack offered its reliably tasty and reasonably priced fare, including bison burgers ($8) and a sweet little brownie in a mess-containing paper cone for a mere $1.

Even more trucks

These mobile food units, beyond the ones featured in this story, are also recommended. All times and places are always subject to change, so check online.

  • Turkey to Go Food Trailer: 8th Street & Nicollet Mall, Mpls., Northstar Building (110 S. 7th St., Mpls.), and Target Field (main concourse). Twitter: @TurkeyToGo
  • Barrio Taco Truck: 4th St, & 1st Av. N., Mpls. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Twitter: @Barrio_Truck
  • Foxy Falafel: Kingfield Farmers Market, 43rd St. & Nicollet Av. S., Mpls. (8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Sundays), Fulton Farmers Market, 49th St. & Chowen Av. S., Mpls. (8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. select Saturdays). Twitter: @FoxyFalafel
  • Natedogs Wiener Cart: 4th St. & Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. Twitter: @Nate_Dogs
  • Meritage Crepe Stand: 410 St. Peter St., St. Paul (11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Sat., weather-permitting). Crepe flavors are tweeted daily @meritage_stpaul