So many food trucks, so little time.
Of the dozens of choices currently perched at parking meters, parked outside breweries and setting up shop at farmers markets, my appetite continues to return to a small number of players.
First up is AZ Canteen (www.andrewzimmernscanteen.com, @AZCanteen), where adventure meets prowess.
Sure, it’s branded within an inch of its life, and anything that sprouts from the well-polished cranium of Andrew Zimmern and his media-industrial complex is hardly a mom-and-pop operation.
But for local diners whose memories don’t extend beyond 1996, Zimmern more than proved his mettle during his mid-1990s run at the helm of the former, much-lamented Cafe Un Deux Trois.
He’s also smart enough to hire another talent to keep the engines running: Asher Miller, a 20.21 vet who contributes a level of expertise that stands out among the all-too-frequent mediocrity that is Foodtrucklandia.
Although there’s frequently a daily special invoking pork, the truck’s protein of choice is young goat, and diners who reflexively shy away from that not-mainstream-for-Minnesota meat need to step away from their fiercely defended comfort zone and give it a shot.
The payoff is considerable. There’s a burger, a hefty patty of that lean, wildly herbaceous meat (think lamb, only punchier) that’s fried, Midwestern-style, in butter enriched with tarragon, parsley and shallots.
Toppers include charred onions and tomatoes (remember, brown equals flavor), and the bun, a toasted pretzel number, is sturdy enough to handle the prodigiously juicy patty.
It’s spectacular, and worth the $11 price tag. Ditto the zesty, just-about-foot-long sausage, dressed with a roasted tomato/onion/garlic mayonnaise and a roasted red pepper/Fresno pepper relish and blanketed in a crisp, minty cabbage slaw. Talk about 10 well-spent bucks.
Another treat? The truck’s thirst-quenching beverages, including a lemonade humming with mint and a ruby red hibiscus punch infused with Christmas-y overtones of citrus, cinnamon and allspice.
Bacon lovers, and vegetarians
After enduring 70-hour weeks in restaurants, Moral Omnivore (www.themoralomnivore.com, @Moral_Omnivore) co-owners Ross and Linnea Logas thought they could cut back on their work schedule by becoming their own bosses in a mobile kitchen.
“We were gravely mistaken,” said Ross with a laugh. “But we were young and stupid enough to give it a shot.”
Any naiveté on their part — their hours rose exponentially — was more than matched by some serious curbside cooking chops.
That prowess is evident in their brilliant, slider-style version of a BLT. A panko coating and a spin through the fryer lend much-needed personality to dreary plum tomatoes.
Ordinary lettuce is replaced by a crunchy, yogurt-tossed cabbage slaw (and, for good measure, collard greens jazzed with chipotle) and one of the state’s premium producers, Waseca’s Fisher Family Farms Pork, supplies the top-shelf bacon.
The formula grew out of happenstance: Vegetable-phobic Ross was attempting to pull together dinner, utilizing whatever was on hand. “It was like trying to make Super Glue and ending up with Post-it notes,” he said.
The vegetarian-friendly menu includes two more instant food-truck classics. Who needs beef when beet sliders are this good? The recipe evolved from the couple’s weekly CSA box, and that eternal farm-share question, “What are we going to do with all of these beets?”
Plenty, as it turns out. The second classic is portobello caps, battered and fried, the panko coating’s crispness (and gentle curry seasoning) a marvelous contrast to the meaty mushrooms. They’ve become so popular that the couple are finding themselves cleaning and slicing 150 pounds of Minnesota-raised mushrooms a week.
Vegans will be happy here, too — witness the superb wild rice sliders — and the couple’s commitment to locally sourced vegetables and herbs has made them familiar faces at the Midtown and Northeast Minneapolis farmers markets.
Be on the lookout
Chipotle alum Jean Hutar has transferred her quick-service food smarts to Butcher Salt (www.butchersalt.com, @ButcherSalt), and she’s now the source of stellar beef sliders — plus-sized, grass-fed patties, finished with just-right toppings — as well as a prizewinning hot dog, an all-beef beauty imported to the mean streets of Minneapolis from Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale, Minn., and lavishly dressed. Dessert? Hutar’s well-made salted caramels, of course.
After trying to nail down a skyway location for their restaurant concept, Dustin Naugle and Tiffany Hauser decided to channel their energies — and shrink their start-up costs — by test-driving their Green + the Grain (www.greenandthegrain.com, @GreenNtheGrain) as a food truck. The main event is tossed-to-order salads, but the sleeper hit — for me, anyway — is the tangy soft-serve frozen yogurt.
At first glance, the seemingly innocuous koshary — a bowl of rice, lentils, elbow macaroni and spaghetti — could almost be mistaken for a Lutheran potluck hot dish. But then Flavor Wagon (@Flavor_Wagon) entrepreneurs Rommy Ayoub and Mohamed Ebrahim unleashed their secret weapon, a cayenne-infused cumin-tomato sauce that’s several pay grades above Minnesota spicy. Pair it with the refreshing, garden-fresh tabbouleh.
The grilled cheese sandwich in all of its buttery, gooey, toasty glory is the house specialty at O’Cheeze (www.ocheeze.com, @O_Cheeze). Co-owners Haley and Tony Fritz take a thoughtful approach to their most basic iteration (a harmonious cheese trio), and when they really get going (fontina playing off salty bacon, tart apples and mellow honey) they hit pay dirt. Three cheers to their well-executed soups.
As chef Keven Kvalsten and his crew at Red River Kitchen hopscotch between farmers markets and breweries (www.redriverkitchen.com, @RedRiverKitchen), they jump between breakfast (richly embellished scrambled egg/roasted potato tacos) and not-breakfast (fully-loaded turkey burgers) mode with equal flair.
Kris Olson is so obsessed with chiles — he cultivates nearly two dozen varieties — that he christened his just-debuted food truck after one of his favorites. Filius Blue (@FiliusBlue) specializes in well-seasoned Caribbean and Latin-style flavors, funneling pork, chicken and beef into well-sauced sandwiches and tacos. Salads, too.
A question: Why do noon-hour downtown Minneapolis consumers put up with the hassles of Marquette Avenue when the diner-friendly platform of Canadian Pacific Plaza — Tons of seating! Well-attended trash receptacles! — await 2nd Avenue food-truck patrons?
And a suggestion: For those interested in a favorite’s whereabouts, start speaking the food truck lingua franca that is Twitter. It’s easy, it’s free, and it will become indispensable.
Hall of fame
The food truck universe is in a constant state of flux. Still, if these players — none associated with bricks-and-mortar outlets — are on the street, by all means, stop and eat: MidNord Empanada (@MidNordTrucks), Gastrotruck (@gastrotruck), Scratch (@scratchfoodtrk), Dandelion Kitchen (@dandelionktchn, Get Sauced (@ChefDrivenCo), A la Plancha (@aLaPlanchaMPLS), Emconada Food Truck (@Emconada), Vellee Deli (@VelleeDeli), Sassy Spoon (@SassySpoonTruck), Natedogs (@Nate_Dogs), Gogi Bros. (@GogiBros) and Brava (@eatbrava).
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib