It seems like Minneapolis and St. Paul are only just beginning to understand the aesthetic of street food, inhaled without ceremony on a sidewalk, park bench, or other urban perch. We are only just beginning to appreciate the pleasure of plates of food — donuts, hot dogs, goulash, and fried green tomatoes — delivered steaming hot, straight from the chefs’ tiny kitchen windows to our waiting hands.
And now the season of street food is ending, gone the way of warm weather, and the few vendors we have are leaving us to the cold. Well, some but not all.
Some are leaving, some are staying, some will come back and, sadly, some may not.
First, the good news.
The Magic Bus Cafe, which has occupied the Midtown Farmers Market all summer, will be around town until the beginning of November. Its last hoorah will be Art Attack, at the Northrup King Building November 6, 7, and 8.
Last time we visited, the Magic Bus folks were selling T-shirts emblazoned with Ken Kesey’s famous quote: “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus.” In this case, it’s pretty hard to resist getting on the bus: It’s a full-blown miracle of flower power.
Housed in a 31-foot converted Chevrolet school bus painted deep purple and blooming — from the hood to the wheel wells — with flowers of all sizes and shapes, the bus has a fantastic vibe. It smells like hot dogs and, with Johnny Nash wafting out of the windows, it sounds like a sunshine-y day.
The bus serves primarily hot dogs and sides, offering both Boar’s Head all-beef frankfurters with natural casings and Jumbo Smart Dogs made with tofu. In keeping with the theme, the menu features such dishes as the Grateful Dog (with psychedelic curry relish, $4.75) and the Give Beets a Chance dog (with garlic beet sauerkraut, $5). The latter was surprisingly hot, likely a side effect of the garlic. The beets, which only added a slight sweetness to the sauerkraut, rendered it appropriately bright red-purple. We thoroughly enjoyed the Meet Me in the Morning Dog ($6.50), which came with cheese, bacon, and eggs — nothing earth shattering, just solidly delicious. The frankfurters are everything we love in a dog: juicy, salty and sporting a nice pop when you bite into the casing.
“This year was more of a test,” says Cathy Lockyear, who is deli manager at the Wedge and started the Magic Bus with her husband Chris, longtime chef at D’Amico Cucina. “The response has been awesome, we’ve really had a blast. People love to come and look at the bus, and especially to eat on it.”
“People are always surprised at how clean it is — they think hippies aren’t clean! But we’ve both spent all our lives in the food industry, so a clean kitchen is very important to us!”
The bus is exceptionally tidy, especially considering the tiny space contains a kitchen, three people and a couple booths. Lockyear says they bought the bus from a friend in Stillwater. The kitchen was already built out, but it had been parked for eight years. “One day we drove by and I turned to Chris and said: ‘Oh my God, the bus is for sale!’ We’re Deadheads, so the bus is just in our blood. And we love street vendors.”
Although next year’s plans are still in development, the Lockyears are pushing for a bigger presence. They are looking at setting up at Lake Nokomis during the week and at the new Uptown Farmers Market on weekend evenings, and will venture out to local festivals, such as the Taste of Minnesota.
Also at the Midtown Farmers Market is the Taco Taxi, which operates out of a more humble rig than other food carts (see above). What it lacks in decor, however, it makes up for with flavor. The menu is simple: steak or pork tacos ($1.75 each), served on warm corn tortillas and topped with onions, cilantro, and a fiery tomato salsa.
Although the cart will be stored over the winter, the food is available year-round. Taco Taxi (the restaurant) is located on Lake Street next to El Mercado Central in a small space with a bright painted exterior — a mural of a taxi, of course. Tortas, tacos, sopas, burritos, and quesadillas make up the restaurant’s menu and the meat options range from pork, chicken, and steak to lengua (tongue), cabeza (cow’s head), and tripe (stomach).
All menu items are house-made at the Taco Taxi, including their noteworthy salsas. The aforementioned tomato salsa is a deeply flavored blend of chiles and tomatoes, which delivers a substantial heat. The restaurant also offers a salsa verde, which is more forgiving on the heat, but a nice citrus-packed complement for the chicken taco on which it was served.
At this point, you may be wondering why all of Minneapolis’ street food is happening at the farmers markets. Unfortunately, as covered in the Heavy Table earlier this year, there is a ordinance in Minneapolis banning food carts from all but private property.
St. Paul, on the other hand, allows mobile food vendors to park at meters, but the city has not embraced its sole vendor, Curbside. “If we can’t get into Minneapolis, we probably won’t come back next year — I can’t do another year like this one,” said Eric Rud, chef and owner. “St. Paul just isn’t ready. Can’t you just see it in Uptown? People would be all over it.”
Curbside is housed in a shining, classic, 1971 Airstream, emblazoned with the words, “Don’t make me pull this kitchen over!” This the summer, the moveable feast has alternated lunch hours at Mears Park and the MPR station in downtown, letting folks know its whereabouts via Twitter.
“We’ve done better over at MPR,” says Rud. “That’s more our crowd. Now those people are starting to walk down here at lunch, but it has been really discouraging to see people sitting in the park with bags of Subway, when there is local, organic, great food right here for the same price.”
The waiting list for a stall at the St. Paul Farmers Market, he says, is something like 16 years and though the food growers have been receptive and friendly, market-goers pass the Airstream without a glance and parking has been a huge issue. And the club scene hasn’t been too much better: “People come out and ask if we have anything for $3.”
Why is St. Paul so slow to accept the restaurant’s offering? “I don’t know,” says Rud, “unless it’s that the food’s not good.”
That’s not it. We scarfed down a grilled gruyere sandwich and the accompanying garlic fries, which were crisp and sublimely salty ($8). Chicken tacos ($6) featured queso fresco, lettuce, pico de gallo, and a sour cream sauce with a kick, all tucked into a grilled tortilla. We enjoyed the clean simple flavors, but would have liked a bit more of the sauce — or at least its heat. A bowl of succulent braised pork goulash ($6) in a rich tomato sauce was utterly delicious, but cried out for a flour tortilla… what a taco that would make!
Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to taste the goulash, at least not this year. Curbside serves its last lunch hour today. “We hear there’s snow coming,” said Kyle Green (pictured above), Rud’s partner, “And we’ll have a hard time pulling a 21-foot trailer through the streets if it does!”
For now, Curbside is on its way to San Francisco, CA, where the weather is warmer and, hopefully, there’s a stronger audience for street food. We hope they come back.
In the meantime, Minneapolis’ Chef Shack is going to try to fill the void. “This winter, we are going to head into St. Paul and do some street vending,” said chef Lisa Carlson.
The Chef Shack, a regular at the Kingfield and Mill City farmers markets, serves an eclectic menu, featuring everything from donuts to pulled pork quesadillas to beet salad with fried green tomatoes — with a fun assortment of pickled veggies, mustards, and shack-made ketchup on the side. “People have been amazingly open and receptive,” Carlson says. “Last weekend it was the chicken feet. We thought: ‘Oh maybe not in Minnesota,’ but people went for it; we sold out of everything.”
We tried the beet salad: The fried green tomatoes were a lovely golden brown, crispy on the outside, warm and saucy on the inside. The french toast and brat were quite tasty, and a warm treat on a chilly morning … but nothing can compare to the Indian spice doughnuts! Made to order, they came in a sack, their misshapen dough bits still hot. Bite size, tender of crumb, and covered in sugar and spice — they go down too fast.
The Chef Shack could be a case study for Curbside, a compelling reason to hang in there. Carlson and her partner, pastry chef Carrie Summer, introduced the shack in 2007, but it seems to have come into its own just this year.
“This year has been different,” says Carlson. “We’ve had a little bit more press and we’ve had folks coming in from the suburbs and even Wisconsin to check it out. Carrie is now at the Chef Shack full time, and I’m not at Spoonriver as much as I was.”
Will that success translate on the streets of St. Paul? That remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Carlson and Summer are making plans. On January 1, they’ll put the Chef Shack to bed for the winter and head to Singapore, Southern India, and Borneo. “We’re going to go research street food,” she says. “Hopefully, we’ll come back with some more fun dishes.”
Katie Cannon contributed the reporting on the Taco Taxi.