Ben Murphy has been driving a food truck in northwestern Minnesota since 1985. That’s more than two decades longer than youngsters in trucks have been dishing out artisanal bacon sandwiches and falafel on Nicollet Mall and at Rice Park.
We ran into Murphy and his Oof-da Tacos truck one late spring evening in Crookston. He was parked on a strip of grass between a bank and a gas station. Behind the food truck itself were a couple of picnic tables and a larger panel truck, packed with supplies. The unexpected sight of an awning, a pass-through window, and a patient line signaled that dinner might just be about to get a whole lot better, so we pulled a U-turn to check it out.
“Oof-da” might make you think “lefse,” but, no, this is Native American fry bread, big as a bedroom slipper, made fresh, and topped with classic American taco fixings: slightly orange-y seasoned ground beef, shredded iceberg, and pre-shredded cheddar ($6). For a little extra, you can add sliced black olives from a can and a squeeze of sour cream. If you like it hot, there’s a squeeze bottle with something between salsa and sriracha available.
“You don’t know how many times people ask me, ‘What’s an Oof-da Taco?’” Murphy says. “If I had a dollar…”
After more than 25 years, Murphy has the frying down: The bread is crispy, light, and not at all greasy. And it hits the Styrofoam take-out box perfectly hot. On this particular evening, Murphy’s daughter and granddaughter are helping out in the truck, stretching balls of dough, dropping them in the fryer, and spooning toppings into the center. But when the school bell rings, as Murphy says, he gets plenty of help from area college students.
Murphy says he’ll probably come back to this spot about four times this year. He’s got his summer mostly mapped out: A few days in Crookston, a few days in Grand Forks, a few in Grafton, Fertile, Red Lake Falls, Baudette. And plenty of county fairs on the weekends. “It’s like fishing,” he says. “You don’t stay in the same hole for too long.”
Even with an itinerant schedule like that, Murphy says he’s got regulars, people who watch for the truck and, like us, change their dinner plans when they see it. Oof-da Tacos is actually a small franchise: Murphy knows of one guy who runs a truck out of Erskine and another out of Alexandria. Collectively, they’ve been around long enough that the trucks are a known quantity in the region. “In northwest Minnesota,” he says, “people know they ain’t gonna get sick when they get home. The name goes a long way up here.”
Murphy works mid-May through mid-September, seven days a week, opening the truck 11 to 7 when he parks in town. He calls that “banker’s hours,” because even when you figure in two hours of prep and clean-up, a 10-hour day is a cakewalk compared to working a fair.
Even with hours like that, Murphy says he wouldn’t trade his business for any other — except maybe retirement, which he’s looking at in a couple of years. “It goes pretty well,” he says. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world, to be able to do something like this.”