Duluth's food trucks mix nostalgia with innovation
There really hasn't been a time when people didn't eat food from street vendors. There's little difference except economics between the days when ancient Greeks sold fried fish on the street or when people ate food from street vendors because their tenements didn't have stoves or hearths. We're busy and need something to eat fast on the city street. We're curious about new cuisines. We're looking for some nostalgia. Or, we want that urban experience street vendors reliably provide for us outside of our ordinary days.
The food is simple. It's fast. It's good — even when it's not so good. It's the great culinary equalizer. I spent a couple of Fridays on the plaza at the Duluth Public Library down on Michigan Street to take it all in. For Duluth, I discovered that the renaissance and growth of our restaurant culture is spilling out onto the streets in our food trucks. Sure, you can find hot dogs and burgers, but you'll also be pulled in by Mexican street food and fusion food.
The King of Creams truck brings us as close to that traditional fair and carnival food tradition as you'll find in the Zenith City. The comfort and nostalgia of my cheeseburger and fries was not surprising to my palate, but it made me feel good. It's not innovative or even extraordinary, but that's the point. The allure of eating an all-American burger and fries on a beautiful summer day is a balm before one heads back to their cubicle. Bonus points for the hand-cut fries.
What I did find time to linger over were the beer-battered cheese curds. The savory cheese coupled with that hint of sweetness from the batter reminded me of funnel cake. Don't miss out on them.
Mexican street food is perhaps my favorite, and it's prolific all over the country. El Oasis Del Norte's food truck menu didn't disappoint, and I finally settled on something familiar and also something new. The walking taco, a traditional Mexican-American taco, was fresh and delicious. It's the perfect street food taco, especially if you're a tourist to the area. It's not elegant or attractive — served with crushed nacho cheese tortilla chips and right in the bag — but it's got all the elements you want. On the other hand, Del Norte's authentic taco with cactus was a little more artful. My two tacos were served with fresh, colorful cilantro, lime and onions in a flavorful corn tortilla. The cactus? Reminiscent of green beans. Would I buy it again? Maybe not, but I will be lured back to the inelegant but satisfying walking taco any time.
The Rambler takes us a step above the others. The truck just got a new wrap and design from Sek Design, and it definitely stands out on the street. The food stands out even more, especially the amazing mahi mahi tacos — fresh, crisp and colorful jicama slaw and chipotle tartar sauce with battered and deep-fried fish served in flour tortillas. The fish was done perfectly, without any greasy taste or feel. I want it every day of the week. The black bean burger is a good vegetarian burger option, and it's served with arugula. It could use more of the Neufchatel cheese. The Rambler's Reuben fritters — corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss formed into a ball and deep fried with a side of Thousand Island, is something that will make your primary care doctor scold you. It's an interesting concept but too heavy for my liking. Points for creativity, nonetheless.
If we were ranking, The Rambler would come out on top. It's the one food truck I'll make a point of tracking down again. I've got my eye on the Chicken Curry Bombshells.
What I loved — along with all the food — was the culture of it all. Food is social. Food is about communities. On the library plaza, people of all kinds sat with each other at tables, on the concrete, or stood together, laughing, eating, catching up and sharing a food experience before heading off back to their regular lives. I sat next to a mother and her two young kids, a boy and a girl. I watched the little boy wrestle with a giant hot dog and noted the joy in his face. This is the same street food joy chased after by generations of kids. And that's the nostalgia that keeps us coming back even though trucks like The Rambler take it up a notch for the grown-ups.
Food-truck schedules can be found online:
King of Creams, www.thekingofcreams.com/mobile
El Oasis Del Norte, www.facebook.com/delnortemn
The Rambler, www.theramblermn.com
Dennis Kempton is a Duluth freelance culture and food writer.
CORRECTION: A previously published report referred to The King of Creams' beer-battered cheese curds as "bacon cheese curds." They do not contain bacon.