I stop by (and step into) the 128 Mobile Café to chat with Chef Ian Pierce about his latest venture. 128 Café, whose home base is near St. Thomas University in St. Paul, is now on the road, offering a mobile lunch service in downtown St. Paul on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
With music blaring and grill sizzling, Pierce and his two assistants are doing more than a few things at once. While talking to me, Pierce is taping up incoming orders and tossing a bowl of mixed greens in a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette. (The greens are part of a $7 grilled asparagus salad that also includes goat cheese, fennel, red onion, and shaved pickled carrots.)
“It’s so crazy,” Pierce admits about his first attempt to operate out of a truck. Since service began a few weeks ago, he’s been spending “14 hours a day rocking it out here.” That means — not only preparing and serving food but unloading, loading, and cleaning out the truck daily. In order to provide made-to-order entrees, the cramped quarters of the truck include a condiment station in between a grill station and salad station.
Pierce says that “coordination is way different” for truck service. If an ingredient is left back at the restaurant, someone has to get off the truck to retrieve it. Another potential obstacle? Parking. To combat possible pitfalls, one 128 employee arrives in downtown St. Paul early to stake out a parking spot for the truck. The spot is then posted on Twitter so potential customers can find the exact location.
The mobile truck offers some of 128 Café’s regular items (a third of a rack of the restaurant’s well-known ribs, with chips and choice of slaw or pasta salad, goes for $11), but also offers new lunchtime salads and sandwiches, including a fresh fish sandwich each week. On this visit, that meant a Copper River sockeye salmon with a stone-ground mustard, lemon aioli, and served on bread from New French Bakery. In recent weeks, Pierce has also served up a grilled ahi tuna sandwich and was pleased that downtown lunch goers aren’t afraid to eat rare tuna.
Although he has five pages of ideas of possible menu items at home, Pierce says he’s starting off simple. When he creates the weekly menu for his new shrunken down kitchen on wheels, he thinks about a couple different factors. “You’ve got to watch food cost today; it’s got to be speedy; it’s got to be interesting and fresh… and I don’t want to screw with the integrity of the food,” he says.
Translation? Take a look at some of these menu items:
Shrimp skewers in a pesto marinade with a Greek-style pasta salad (think: feta, tomato, kalamata olives, and red wine vinagrette), $8
BLT with chipotle-lime aioli, and kettle chips, $8
Beef skewers in a ginger-soy marinade served with a cashew sauce, and a red cabbage cole slaw, garnished with cilantro sprigs and sesame seeds, $8
Fresh mint lemonade ($2) and Kahlua Rice Krispie treats ($1)
Though life in the truck is hot (did I mention the grill?), crowded, and somewhat harried, Chef Pierce is up for the adventure. “I love a challenge… I love 128. I’ve been there for years, and it’s very, very comfortable for me there… but it’s fun to do something different and kind of get kicked in the ass a little bit.”
Outside the Truck
Outside the truck, it’s a tranquil, hot summer day in St. Paul.
“Well, I’m kind of an expert on lunch trucks,” my lunch companion says, having survived almost entirely on truck food during her four years of college. “I know they are just starting out, but this is too slow,” she critiques about her wait for her salmon sandwich.
We’re both fans of the cool, but very tart, mint lemonade, and she likes her sockeye and aioli, but she’s disappointed in the choice of chips to accompany her “I’m trying to eat a healthy lunch” fish sandwich.
I’ve ordered the sirloin skewers and am impressed with the pairing of the tangy, crunchy red cabbage slaw. The intense, bright flavors work well with the salty beef. The cashew sauce that also accompanies the skewers is a hit – nutty, obviously, but with a spicy kick, definitely above typical truck food expectations. (I later learned the ingredients in the sauce include sambal oelek, ginger, scallion, and lime juice).
When my lunch companion tastes the cashew sauce, she says simply, “I love it,” then finishes it off. Soon after, we make plans to meet at the same time, same place in two weeks’ time.