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DINING OUT: Small numbers, ambitious flavors in local food trucks

A Rambler Reuben fritter. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Jana Hollingsworth / jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Chow Haul’s Thai-inspired iron bowl. Jana Hollingsworth / jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Chow Haul’s jalapeno-peanut butter wonton. Jana Hollingsworth / jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com4 / 5
The Rambler’s pulled pork teriyaki sandwich. Jana Hollingsworth / jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com5 / 5

Duluth might still be in the beginning stages of collecting food trucks —and let’s face it, our weather doesn’t give vendors an easy go of it —but the handful making regular rounds already have loyal followers.

Two trucks are the Rambler and Chow Haul, traveling the Northland for their third seasons. The pair shows up outside Bent Paddle Brewing every Thursday night during the summer months in what might be one of the most harmonious combinations invented. The brewery, which doesn’t serve food, allows you to take offerings from either of the trucks inside to pair with your Paddle Break Blonde.

One recent Thursday the Lincoln Park taproom was packed. The sun had finally emerged after a string of dark days and the scene in and out was festive. In between orders, Rambler owner Jonathan Reznick danced his way over to the guys of Chow Haul for a quick chat. Service from both trucks is friendly, conversational and quick.

Chow Haul keeps a stream-lined Asian-Mexican menu. The daily wonton ($4.50) is an unavoidable purchase. You will fight over its Minnesota-beloved cream cheese wonton. A peanut butter-jalapeno version was also a winner. The iron bowl ($5) is a spicy peanut-sauced mélange of noodles, bok choy, bell peppers, scallion, cilantro, bean sprouts and carrots. It’s sprinkled with the salty, Mexican cotija cheese, and I did fish out a lime wedge to squeeze on top. It’s sinus-clearing, and it’s excellent.

But the best thing on the Chow Haul menu is the shredded chicken taco ($3). The chicken is layered over a blue corn tortilla with a red cabbage slaw, truck-made salsa, crema, cilantro and more of that cotija cheese. The key to getting a great taco is finding a food truck that nails it. Restaurants sometimes struggle with tacos because it’s hard to keep them warm as they travel from kitchen to table without the benefit of a heat-retaining cardboard cradle. Food truck tacos go from the cook straight into your hot little hands.

This is certainly the best $3 taco in the Northland and probably one of the best tacos in the area. The cool cilantro and sour cream play nicely off the spicy salsa in an authentic, clean taste. These are the crisp, easy flavors of summer.

The Rambler does sandwiches. It’s the kind of food truck that uses arugula, goat cheese and portobello mushrooms. Reznick, who has done time at the former Nokomis on the Lake and Restaurant 301, often gets new ideas from the customers he chats with at the window.

Two sandwiches he doesn’t dare remove, he said, are the teriyaki pulled pork and the ham and cheese croissant with asparagus and hollandaise, ($7).

The pork is paired with its timeless partner — a slice of pineapple — and a healthy dose of Swiss cheese. The meat is slow-roasted for eight to 12 hours with teriyaki, and more is tossed on inside the truck when cooking to order. The sandwich comes on a Duluth Johnson’s Bakery roll. It is tangy goodness, and a reliable lunch-time staple.

The ham and cheese is a more elegant offering; almost breakfast, save for an egg. The truck does run out of favorites, so don’t be surprised if you see tape across your selection on the chalkboard menu. An appetizer of made-from-scratch fried Rueben fritters ($5) strikes the right balance between corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss and ale mustard. Must like sauerkraut.

A new ordinance approved last year in Duluth requires mobile food vendors to stay at least 200 feet away from any bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and requires operators to buy an annual license. That didn’t stop a new truck, the Happy Wanderer, from setting up shop with an egg roll menu this month.

Some larger cities are famous for their food trucks and carts. Portland, Ore., has more than 500. Minneapolis and St. Paul together have more than 70. Duluth’s street food numbers may be small, but the flavors are getting ambitious.

Where to spot local food trucks 

The Rambler can be found from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays in front of the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, (the Depot) on Michigan Street; Thursdays in front of City Hall on West First Street, and Fridays in front of the Duluth Public Library on Michigan Street. The truck is also at Bent Paddle, 1912 W. Michigan St., from 3 to 10 p.m. Thursdays, along with Chow Haul; and the end of Park Point from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays.

You can find the trucks at other weekend events by following them via Twitter and their Facebook pages. Chow Haul can also often be found on Superior Street downtown during the late-night hours on weekends.