Those curious to get a glimpse into fast food’s promising future need look no further than World Street Kitchen.
Actually, the pejorative “fast food” does a disservice to this remarkable re-imagination of the food truck of the same name, run by the innovative Wadi brothers, Sameh and Saed.
At the tender age of 29, chef Sameh Wadi feels like a fixture on the Twin Cities restaurant scene, having opened the groundbreaking Saffron Restaurant & Lounge seven years ago. What’s most exciting about the casual, moderately priced World Street Kitchen is how it allows Wadi the opportunity to insert his fine-dining aesthetic into quick-service fare, exposing his smart, adventurous cooking to an entirely new audience.
Ironically, the truck grew out of a bricks-and-mortar business plan that was close to fruition. But when Minneapolis officials reworked the city’s draconian street-food regulations, launching a truck suddenly became a much less expensive — and faster — expansion proposition. The brothers called their mobile enterprise World Street Kitchen, a reflection of its global culinary inspirations.
Nearly three years and countless devoted customers later, the Wadis have come full circle, taking the lessons learned at WSK the truck and applying them to WSK the restaurant. The counter-service menu borrows elements of Chipotle’s format, sharing key building-block ingredients across several platforms, including a modest selection of rice bowls, sandwiches, tacos and other portable foods.
The carb-seeking missile that is my appetite invariably zeros in on the rice bowls. They are astonishingly good. The rice is moist, sticky and steamy, and it’s enriched by crunchy peanuts and a barely poached egg that’s tauntingly sexy — if an egg can be sexy, and yes, it can — in its yolky runniness.
From there, the variations start with thin-sliced beef short ribs tenderized in an umami-laden marinade and seared to sigh-inducing caramelization. The other chief ingredient is a feisty kimchi. Demand is so great that the kitchen is now turning out 100 pounds of the fermented Napa cabbage per week, a breakneck pace that surprises Sameh Wadi more than anyone else.
“I’ve never made kimchi before, but I’m getting really good at it,” he said with a laugh. “I want to challenge myself. I like to try new things. But that’s the difference between the two restaurants. Saffron is a reflection of me as a chef. World Street Kitchen is a reflection of me as a person.”
Don’t look for pork belly — this may be the only restaurant, outside of McDonald’s, that hasn’t latched onto that ingredient of the moment. Instead, Wadi treats his customers to lamb belly, a gloriously fatty exercise in excess.
Tofu frequently deserves its bad rap, but not here, as it is transformed by a chiles-soy-herbs marinade before being delicately fried. “Where I come from, vegetarian dishes are as hearty as meat dishes,” said Wadi. “Some of the most delicious street food in the world is vegetarian.”
Which explains why some of WSK’s most delicious food is vegetarian, too. My three favorite new words are aloo tikki chaat (translation: potato cake snack), a soft, grilled disc of yellow lentils folded into highly seasoned shredded potatoes and topped with tamarind, date and jalapeño accents bearing a stealthy sweet-hot kick. An acidic-tangy note from a lime-infused yogurt, plus a texture-contrasting garnish of crisp rice noodles, demonstrate — typically, as it turns out — just how much thought and careful preparation goes into a dish that’s just $4.75.
Or there’s the excellent guacamole, “blinged out,” as the cheeky menu so accurately describes, with toothy edamame and roasted garlic. Or the snack city that is the trio of scooped dips — a first-rate hummus, a robust olive tapenade and cream-cheese-like Bulgarian feta enhanced with paprika and smoked chiles — tailor-made spreads for grilled pita.
Then there’s what just might be the city’s best veggie burger. It’s based on a straight-up family recipe, fortified by so much parsley and cilantro that the thick patty’s dark, crispy shell reveals a lawn-green burst of puréed chickpea creaminess and tender, sumac-stewed onions. Naturally, as with all of Sameh Wadi’s cooking, each bite boasts a complex, carefully calibrated spice profile. Additional flavor-layering gets piled on in the form of a golden, onion-topped bun, baked in-house, and a perky pickle relish.
Kudos to the spectacular Moroccan-style spin on the fried chicken-in-a-biscuit sandwich. After basking in one of Wadi’s one-of-a-kind spice rubs, the jumbo-portioned chicken is finished in a tempura-style beer batter, wedged inside a tender white-Cheddar/green-onion buttermilk biscuit and garnished with smoked feta and a preserved lemon-carrot salad flourish. The results are almost shamelessly tasty.
Burritos, tacos and lettuce wraps fill out the remainder of the menu, repurposing that full-flavored lamb belly and barbecued short ribs, and adding different but similarly winning embellishments. Other standouts include meatballs perfumed with deeply fragrant lemongrass and the hearty mushroom-squash tacos; both leave me wanting more.
Dessert hounds — well, this one, anyway — will find themselves obsessed with the salted caramel frozen-custard-style soft-serve, done up like a sundae with chocolate-covered smoked almonds and a luscious chocolate sauce (although the cheesy supermarket mini-marshmallows are a rare misstep). But the goodies don’t end there. Baker Rick Smrstick is following his boss’ lead and having some fun, turning out salty, crackle-topped chocolate chip cookies, curried pretzels, killer layer cakes and other easygoing, savory-meets-sweet desserts.
Yes, the disposable cutlery and dishes are appropriately eco-friendly, but switching them out — after all, this is a restaurant, not a food truck — with honest-to-goodness flatware and sturdy, leakproof stoneware would be a huge improvement. Some components — a tough jerk-style brisket, a greasy, muddled pho, a not-quite-there vegan coconut milk/soy milk soft-serve “ice cream” — could benefit from a few tweaks.
Back to that future-of-fast-food thing. As I was scoping out Southdale’s great-looking new food court, it occurred to me that owner Simon Malls is fumbling an opportunity to innovate. Or, at the very least, set its property apart from its lookalike Dale brethren.
Rather than defaulting to the usual chain suspects — seriously, Panda Express, Qdoba and Subway are the best you can do? — imagine forward-thinking WSK occupying some prime So’dale real estate. That would get me to 66th and France faster than a Dayton’s revival, and that’s saying something.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib