Before there were food trucks, there was Chef Shack, a magical red truck that would park at the Mill City Farmers Market and dispense tacos, brats, curries, and Indian-spiced doughnuts. Oh, those doughnuts.
People lined up from the banks of the Mississippi to the doors of the Guthrie (okay, that’s an exaggeration) for their Saturday morning brunch and then took a seat on the stone steps in the sunshine. They’ll do this again, come summer. Chef Shack helped convince Twin Citians that good food tastes even better when handed through the window of a vehicle and eaten outside.
That red truck helped launch the food truck movement — and the inevitable uproar — and now it’s the progenitor of a scrappy, unlikely little empire. Two trucks, a trailer, a sit-down restaurant in Bay City, WI, and now a cozy, counter-service hangout in Seward. That’s our kind of empire.
Chef Shack Ranch opened very quietly late last year in the former Raja Mahal / Lucy’s space. They didn’t even put up a sign until very recently. That was probably for the best, because early reports indicated it took them a little while to get on top of their game. Now, it’s fair to say, they’re ready for the crowds. And now you couldn’t miss their sign if they tried. (Not to mention the big red truck parked outside.)
Chef Shack Ranch’s sensibility can be summed up in one singular menu item: the Big Boy Ranch Plate ($15 / half, $25 / whole). We went for the half, after our server said she didn’t think one person could ever finish it, much less the whole. It’s a quarter sheet pan, lined with butcher paper, and dotted with delicious things: very good beef brisket, pulled pork, and a half a Fischer Farms bacon brat that we jealously shared out in tiny bites — all excellent. The meat comes with perfectly fine, but not fork-your-husband-to-get-the-last-bite good, beans and slaw, a delicious and decidedly Yankee biscuit, and a potato salad so forgettable nobody even had a second bite, even when the meat was long gone.
I know there are people rolling their eyes out there right now: “Dinner served on sheet pans. Ha. I bet they serve wine in quilted jelly jars and hang outdated kitchen implements on the walls and have handwritten butcher-paper menus and rusted pressed tin ceilings.”
Yes and yes. The butcher paper is actually the extensive, detailed purveyor’s list. The pressed tin is actually on the walls, not the ceiling. So, you’re right. It’s an undeniably of-this-moment kind of place. Hip, if you will. Hipster, if you must.
But you know what? It works. It’s a warm, embracing, comfortable interior. (And, while you laugh at people who drink out of canning jars, remember this: A quilted jelly jar of wine is an 8-ounce pour. For $5, it’s the best deal on the menu.)
The best things on the menu are the ones most like the Big Boy Ranch Plate — generous, hearty, and varied. The Ranch Burger ($15) is a big, sloppy, almost over-the-top mess, in the best sense of the word. It’s a loose, salty, well-done patty topped with an egg, Sriracha mayo, and microgreens, barely contained inside a soft brioche bun from Salty Tart. The Veggie Burger ($13) is more restrained in appearance, but not in flavor: a beet and goat cheese patty that will make the carnivores feel left out.
The Trucker Fries are, as they say, so wrong they’re right. This is the kind of dish you want to pretend you’d never order, much less finish. But there you are with your fork, fishing out another dark brown, crispy fry, a nibble of pulled pork, and a hot pepper, trying to make (another) perfect bite.
The misses and near-misses on the menu are the ones that stray away from this big, bold modern cowboy sensibility: a sad overcooked pot pie with a bland interior; some decidedly utilitarian sweet potato tacos that surely do well on the street but barely felt like a meal when we were sitting down inside with a glass of wine; meaty, filling wings with almost zero flavor. But even over the course of our recent visits, things kept improving and changing.
Notice that the menu is printed on individual sheets of paper and pinned to a bulletin board. Expect things to change up not just night to night but in the course of the evening, especially as the kitchen adjusts to the crowds. (We got the last veggie burger one night and rushed to the counter to order doughnuts on another, after overhearing someone say they were running low.)
Lastly, even if you ordered the Trucker Fries, try to save room for dessert. Chef Shack Ranch churns its own silky, custardy ice cream. And, yes, there are doughnuts.
Chef Shack Ranch
Barbecue-ish casual place in Seward
Learn more about this business in Heavy Table’s Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking.
3025 E. Franklin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55406
OWNERS: Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer
Sun. brunch noon-4pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7–25
BAR: wine and beer