The mobile food scene booms ever onward. We’ve already undertaken some early roundups, finding healthy grub and burgers galore in St. Paul, and then everything from sushi to doner in Minneapolis, and here’s a quick look at four more you might want to seek out. Remember to consult our ever-expanding Street Food Directory for our full listings.
“Do you mind if I finish off that pizza with a squeeze of lemon?” Big River Pizza owner Steve Lott asks us. We’ve ordered the Brown Bear ($11), topped with Copper River salmon, bacon jam, and yellow cherry tomatoes on a base of arugula-almond pesto – and now, with a squeeze of lemon. We’re glad he asked. It’s a beautiful pie and the citrus makes it sing.
His Valoriani oven is the star of the show. Ovens from the respected Italian manufacturer are Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified and also used locally by Punch. Lott fires it to over 800 degrees with specially treated red oak. It gives the bottom of the crust a super-thin layer of char and allows the rest of the dough to rise slightly, leaving it at a good crossroads of crunchy and tender. Call it extra-Neapolitan. The bit of added heft is especially nice on breakfast pizzas, like the Bacon Jam Slam ($10), to withstand a runny egg in the middle.
You’ll find him at farmers markets: Fulton on Saturdays, Eagan on Wednesdays, and Centennial Lakes on Thursdays. This makes sense because his suppliers are there, including Sunshine Harvest Farm for pork and Bossy Acres for garlic. We’re still a bit disappointed we missed out on the pie with Heartland’s 30-month-aged prosciutto.
Though not VPN-certified in name, Lott’s certainly there in spirit. “We’ve got a really nice oven. We take the best ingredients we can find, and do the best we can to cook them,” he says. “I feel pretty confident in the outcome.”
For achieving a sublime crust and having scrupulous sourcing habits and pretty flawless technique, this author puts Big River Pizza into the top five pizzas in the metro. That’s right, Lola, Black Sheep, Nea, and Punch, you have mobile company.
Farmers market regulars know that the “Tollefson” name is synonymous with great pork. It’s growth hormone- and antibiotic-free, locally raised, and has quite the following. So it only makes sense that they would jump into the mobile game by simply grilling it up for the lunch crowds.
“Our truck is kind of a one-trick pony,” admits Nick Tollefson, “but we know we have the best pork on the market.” That’s not hubris, that’s a family reputation cultivated over decades.
Go for the pulled pork ($6). Far from the routine version served up on many trucks, Tollefson’s is set apart by wonderful depth of spice that doesn’t obscure the fragrant meat. It’s designed by Tammy Wong of Nicollet Avenue’s Rainbow Chinese – same with the Asian slaw you should be piling on top of it.
Blessedly, they offer the pulled pork as a condiment, and you would be wise to top off a sausage for 50 cents. You can expect to find one featured sausage for $4, or two for $7. We chowed down on one with smoked mozzarella, which was great, but not as good as the cheddar brat ($5, above) with the pulled pork and a little slaw.
Tollefson’s also features some non-meat-based condiments from their farmers market friends — Curt’s Salsa and Chef Earl’s Barbecue Sauces. They’ve carved out a permanent spot on the sidewalk at 5th and Nicollet for weekday lunch, and can also be found at Lake Nokomis on Friday afternoons and Saturdays.
The Trinh Truck experience is pretty straightforward: Banh Mi sandwiches with various proteins for $6. They’ve got two trucks for you to catch: one white, the other bright red and orange.
We found their Banh Mi renditions pleasing and requisite – nothing jaw dropping or innovative, just a solid sandwich. The bread is from Trung Nam French Bakery on University and it’s right on the money, flaky and spongy. Each Banh Mi comes with cold and snappy carrots and cucumber, jalapeno, stalks of cilantro, and a swipe of mayo instead of pâté. The exception is the House Sandwich, which has pâté along with slices of thick cold-cut pork.
We found a few inconsistencies between the two trucks, though no harm done. During one visit, the bread-to-filling ratio was slightly excessive, though the next time it was more balanced. On one order, caramelized onions replaced jalapenos. This added a welcome rich flavor (especially needed in a Banh Mi without pâté) but left the sandwich without a kick.
We like the marinated pork version the best, with teriyaki chicken the runner up. Also check them out for Vietnamese coffee. You’ll often spy them near Rice or Mears Park on weekdays and at the Northeast Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Much like the local brewery boom, you start to wonder when the street food craze is going to hit a saturation point. The metro has gone from nearly zero to 100 trucks in just a couple years. Though we’re not yet to the likes of Manhattan – where mobile food licenses are so in demand they’re exchanged on the black market.
Phil Gaffney spent the last four years on the fringe of that crazy scene. He co-owned a craft services company that catered to the likes of Boardwalk Empire and other productions. He noticed the loosening laws in his native Minnesota and sold his share of the company to start a truck here.
Why empanadas? He learned to make them from an Ecuadorian family in New York and noticed the gap for them in the Twin Cities. His version is nicely composed. The exterior has shatter-thin air bubbles that crackle around the shell, which has a softer interior consistency like a egg roll. Though the fillings are juicy the empanadas are never in danger of falling apart.
We preferred the chicken rendition, with its creamy potato and egg filling, to the beef (both $7 for an order of two), though you’ll be satisfied with either. Both come served with a citrus-garlic mojo sauce. We haven’t yet ventured a taste at their mac and cheese (“Minnesota-Style”) version – please comment below if you have.
He also offers side orders of Tostones ($4). The fried plantains are pleasantly crispy but they suffer slightly from a lack of seasoning. Just a touch of salt at the end would do wonders.
He’s still in his first month on the streets, and this week you can find him around downtown St. Paul. Or check him out along with Saucy Burt’s, Smack Shack, and Vellee Deli in the food truck court of our upcoming North Coast Nosh on Aug. 17 at Open Arms.