When food-truck-friendly ordinances went into effect almost a decade ago in Minneapolis, only a handful of kitchens-on-wheels applied for a license. Now the street food scene is booming, with around 215 operating in and around the metro area, according to the Minnesota Food Truck Association.
But business can be unpredictable. Spring storms batter an already short food-truck season. And the competition to get a parking spot in a prime lunch area is cutthroat.
Those who soldier through, however, reap rewards. Food trucks are incubators for new dining concepts that can drive the Twin Cities food conversation as much as any brick and mortar restaurant — and there are lots of hungry eaters willing to pay for a chance to go along for the ride.
Looking for something new to chew on during your lunch break, at a brewery and beyond? From sushi and prosecco to tailgating and trailers, here’s what’s new in Twin Cities food trucks this season.
Cuisines are diversifying
If there’s one thing that stands out to Jess Jenkins, executive director of the food truck association, about the newest crop of street food residents, it’s how distinct they are.
“This year, we’re seeing more food trucks that are doing things that others aren’t,” said Jenkins. “It’s not just burgers, brats, sandwiches. We have one truck that’s just dedicated to tea. I’m seeing a lot of dessert-style stuff. There’s a truck that’s fully dedicated to pierogies. They do one item and they do it really well.”
That tea truck Jenkins mentioned, Jinx Tea, just opened a brick-and-mortar shop in south Minneapolis last month (4503 France Av. S., Mpls., 612-965-0107, jinxtea.com), and iPierogi (ipierogi.com) does dumplings with Eastern European flair.
Among other unique offerings: Que Tal Street Eats (facebook.com/quetalstreeteats) does Salvadoran pupusas. Nautical Bowls (nauticalbowls.com) focuses on power-packed smoothie bowls and KCM Eggrolls (facebook.com/kcmeggrolls) makes — you guessed it — egg rolls and other handheld Vietnamese goodies.
It’s easier to eat vegan
Three vegan trucks were launched during the 2018 season; this is the first year all three are up and running from the get-go, meaning diners on a plant-based diet can almost always find something to eat that isn’t just someone else’s side dish.
The J Mobile (jselbys.com) is a spinoff of St. Paul’s J. Selby’s, and it brings to the streets the restaurant’s popular “Dirty Secret,” an entirely plant-based version of a McDonald’s Big Mac. They also have a vegan gyro and tacos that aren’t sold in the restaurant.
Reverie Mobile Kitchen (reverie mpls.com) replaces the former Minneapolis cafe with a rolling home for their brand to carry on while they look for a new brick-and-mortar spot. They serve up trendy dishes done plant-style, such as tacos with batter-fried tofu, a kimchi BLT and — coming soon — a vegan poke bowl.
And northeast Minneapolis vegan “butcher” shop Herbivorous Butcher (theherbivorousbutcher.com) is on the go, slinging more than its much-adored imitation meats.
“We don’t want people thinking a vegan diet is comprised entirely of substitutes,” said John Stockman, food truck manager for Herbivorous Butcher. “The dishes on the truck are vegan by default, and look how good they are.”
Trucks tap into experiences
A black metal cylinder parked in downtown Minneapolis might look like part of a train that carries oil across the Dakotas, but it’s actually one of the more elegant mobile restaurants in town. Gohan (gohansushimpls.com) is a trailer with a surprise inside. Both sides of the cylinder roll away to reveal one long sushi bar, with chef Kou Kue behind the counter making omakase nigiri and temaki sushi cones.
Christi Kue, Kou’s wife and co-owner, designed the trailer, which first appeared at farmers markets and private events. This is the first season the Kues have brought the trailer onto the street.
“We really wanted to push the boundary between street food and a fine-dining experience, in a chef-driven restaurant on wheels,” said Christi Kue.
While the sidewalks of Minneapolis don’t allow for it, in other spaces — private events, parks and parking lots — the Kues put chairs out on both sides, so diners can take a seat. Office workers have to stand and go, but the view is the same: Kou Kue making fresh sushi by hand.
“To see Kou making it, that’s one of the beautiful parts of sushi,” Christi Kou said. “I knew I wanted to make that accessible to customers, to have it in plain sight.”
Another out-of-the-ordinary truck you won’t find on the streets just yet is the Tiny Tap (thetinytap.com). Inspired by trucks they saw on their travels in Europe, co-founders Colin Mihm and Trevor Pierson brought home an idea for a prosecco truck. They launched theirs last August and have had no trouble booking weddings. They’re hoping to add music and art festivals to their docket, but don’t look for them lunchtime.
“We can’t pull our truck onto Nicollet Avenue and sell alcohol,” Mihm explained.
Why a booze truck?
“My generation is definitely looking for more experiential experiences,” said Mihm, who is 30. “People walk up and grab a glass of prosecco and form a circle around the truck. It’s so new and very Instagrammable.”
Restaurants go mobile
Like the vegan restaurants that have spun off into food truck territory, other brick-and-mortar establishments are joining the fray. “That happens way more than the other way,” said Jenkins of MNFTA. “A lot of food trucks start out and dream of going brick-and-mortar, but I think it just works for restaurants” to invest in a set of wheels, usually for catering.
New in the past couple of seasons: Lu’s Sandwiches (lusandwiches.com), the northeast Minneapolis bánh mì shop, and Birchwood Cafe (birchwoodcafe.com), which bought a truck to use as a mini kitchen at the State Fair, where they partnered with the Minnesota Farmers Union coffee shop to sell their knockout heirloom tomato BLT.
For some restaurateurs, a food truck can be a way to stay in business after doors close. The owners of Tin Fish (tinfishmn.com) bought a truck to use in conjunction with their two sites, at the pavilion on Bde Maka Ska/Lake Calhoun and the golf course at Braemar.
“Then our lease at Calhoun ended and the city of Edina closed the golf course [to renovate]. We thought, ‘Now we have this truck, let’s see if we can work it or if we are done with the restaurant business,’” said the owners, Sheff and Athena Priest.
Fortunately, they are so not done. The Tin Fish To-Go-Go truck was launched last summer, and their popular fish tacos live on.
Some trucks don’t move
In lieu of lining up a food truck a day to serve customers at the Twin Cities’ many craft breweries, some breweries are opting to invest in their own stationary trailer.
Yia Vang’s Union Kitchen (unionkitchenmn.com) is currently in residency at Sociable Cider Werks (1500 NE. Fillmore St., Mpls., 612-758-0105, sociablecider.com/foodtruck), where he makes his take on Minnesota-Hmong comfort food. Little Tomato (facebook.com/LittleTomatoBrickOven) has set up a brick oven in the lot of Number 12 Cider House in Minneapolis’ North Loop (614 N. 5th St., Mpls., 651-246-9995, number12ciderhouse.com).
And Jon Wipfli’s Animales Barbeque Co. is perfuming the neighborhood next to Able Seedhouse & Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. (1121 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., 612-405-4642, ablebeer.com/food) with his smoked beef cheeks and over-the-top Meat Tornado sandwich.
Tailgating is a new arena
When Allianz Field opened earlier this spring, soccer fans found a global selection of cuisines at the stadium’s food stalls.
They also found international flavors outside the stadium on the “Great Lawn,” where up to eight food trucks park before each game to create a tailgating experience free and open to anyone, with or without a ticket.
The setup harks back to when the team, Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United, played at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Food trucks provided the grub.
“It was important for the team to bring that component for the game day experience,” said Eric Sampson, general manager for Delaware North, food vendor at Allianz Field. “The idea was to make the Great Lawn celebrate that history.”
The party starts about three hours before home games. Kick a soccer ball, watch the big screen, have a beer, grab a bite. This season, vendors include Hot Indian (hotindianfoods.com), West Indies Soul Food (westindiessoul.com), Sweet Gypsy Waffle (sweetgypsywaffle.com), Fare Well, Los Ocampo (losocampo.com), Maui Wowi (mauiwowi.com), MyBurger (myburgerusa.com), Eastern Promises (easternpromisesmn.com) and Pharaoh’s Gyros (facebook.com/pharaohsgyros).
The food truck lends itself to global cuisine, Sampson said. “If you grab five or six food trucks, you’re going to check a bunch of boxes. And we’re not creating competition. The worst that could happen is if we have three Mexican food trucks out there.”
Among the other stadiums in town, the intentional food truck district at Allianz Field is unique, according to Sampson. Sure, the trucks could take away business from the kiosks inside, but the team is willing to take the risk.
“There’s something cool about walking off the Green Line, seeing those trucks and smelling those different things,” Sampson said. “It primes the appetite when they do come inside.”