Main Location: St. Paul
It’s been a couple years in the making, but finally I am capable of writing a complete review on the St. Paul Restaurant-turned-Truck, 128 Café.
My first visit to the Café was during the first few weeks of “Lunch by the River;” you know, when it was always on Kellog and Wabasha, and each lunch was basically crammed with Food Truck Fair-reminiscent crowds. Oh, I wish I had been blogging then… the sort of post I would have created after those events, meeting the Mom and Sis (who worked downtown) to be able to try multiple trucks, then ultimately giving up after only a couple and going to Potter’s in the park. Where of course we would grab 2-3 whole pasties anyway and eat until inebriation-by-pastry-crust.
But I digress. The point I was trying to make (despite my other personality’s successful attempts at interrupting) was that, sadly, my visit was so long ago and filled with so much other stimulation that, by the time I’ve started my foray into writing, I completely forgot what I even ate, let alone how it tasted. And with a slow return to the 2013 season, I’ve only just received my 2nd chance to explore this white behemoth.
128 is certainly… “different” than other trucks in the face that there’s not much underlying theme behind its menu items. All items are based simply along things they do, or would, serve in the sorta-seasonal, variant-menu café. The main feature, as is seemingly the case in the restaurant as well, is of course their Ribs. This is usually followed by a couple sandwiches, Grilled Salmon and a Portobello when I was there, BLT also featured at times, along with a few others I’m sure. These are then followed by some form of Salad (ugh… just not gonna talk about it), and the 2nd menu staple, Ginger-Soy Sirloin Skewers. Lemonade, Iced Tea, and a mix of the two form a drinking backbone.
So, is it more worth it to go here, or the restaurant?
Yet another Truck this season where I had to grab two items to feel at ease in judgement.
First up are, of course, the BBQ Baby Back Ribs. Covered in a sticky, molasses-based (I’m sure) sauce, these fellas are hot and pull from the bone with the smallest movements… in a particularly familiar fashion. I am actually pretty certain in how they make this; considering the color of the meat, the complete tenderness, and the absolute lackness in any real smoke flavor, I am 100% sure that these are what I call “Restaurant” or “At Home” Style Ribs. Basically meaning that, instead of a smoker, the chefs just cook the ribs in an oven (with some water) or a steamer; if they DO smoke it, it’s for minimal time. Overall, done right like they do, it leads to a very good and very tasty product; however don’t expect it to be the same flavors and experience at a proper BBQ/Smoke House.
I very much enjoyed the Grilled Salmon Sandwich as well; the fish was moist, wasn’t too “fishy” in flavor (something to consider with salmon and other fatty fish), and the veggie topping plus béarnaise had a nice texture and flavor to go with it. Light toasting on the very simple Ciabatta roll, leading to a soft bun that holds the ingredients very well; there isn’t much texture in the final result, but I can’t find myself to dislike how it eats at all. Ummm… you remember my complains about Tiki’s Pulled Pork Bun? This is the same kind of bread, but due to its reduced size and some further treatment, it’s put in much better use.
A couple other shout outs food wise. First, I have to say I really enjoy their slaws, veggies toppings, etc; they’re smooth, bright, and nicely simple in their preparation and use. They’re actually one of my highlights. Secondly, it’s very weird to say this, but I also really liked the kettle chips… which I’m sure they don’t make themselves (or maybe they do, the texture seems a touch different…), but I think they toss them with something else before using in service. Sort of a nice, extra little flavorful spice; at the end it reminded me of Sambal… but then again there’s the chance that some sauce might have just fallen on and confused me, haha.
Though I found myself sitting down to enjoy both of my options, I would have to say they’re overall not too bad, individually, for walking and eating. In a basket requires the use of both hands, but the sandwiches hold together well, the Sirloin skewers are easy to hold, and the sides of slaw and such at least seem easy to eat with a fork. With the Ribs being the mainstay, I was originally contemplating on notching this score back a few more, but as I mentioned they ARE quite pull-from-the-bone tender, so it’s easy to eat with your hands. Though, as one would imagine, it’s quite sticky and messy; and it doesn’t help that they don’t give you wet naps to clean up with.
Hidden behind a poorly-located planter box, it took a while to see the menu in full on my visit! Haha.
Noticeably shifted towards the higher end, with items mainly staying in the $9-$12 range, with only one $8 being relegated to a simple salad. As far as things are concerned, each item seems pretty obviously overpriced. One of the $9 was for a cheaper, vegetarian Portobello Sandwich… a big mushroom and some bread; while the other was for this:
You can make the argument that it’s Sirloin, but the fact is that is NOT a lot of food right there; what’s the justification, $5-6 for the meat and the rest to cover for the sides?
Then we get to the Ribs. Before getting the order, I was planning to ask if they offered a half order; I mean $12 for a basket of ribs, I’m sure there’re those who would appreciate a nice deal like that. Then I get it, and realize that IS the half-order… actually, it was only 5 bones, so even less. And as I’ve explained, though these ribs are good, they’re a simple “Restaurant-style” oven preparation; there’s no long, special, quality technique-filled smoking. Again, there’s no real justification for this price; I mean, at the Restaurant sure, but not out on the streets like this.
Ultimately, it seems they haven’t quite separated themselves from thinking along the lines of a restaurant.
Not too bad, especially with a good-sized line.
The TOE: 6
Their prices betray the underlying thought process that, despite attempts to transform to a fully-integrated Food Truck, they’re still just a Restaurant serving out of a mobile operation. I certainly applaud the use of skewers and sandwiches, but these forms are simply the easy way out to making Street Food. Okay, it’s probably not really as bad as it sounds like I’m saying, but nonetheless I don’t feel that great “sense” of a Truck when I visit; maybe it has something to do with the overly simple, though sharp and clean, van design…
Probably a better, cheaper option than going to the Restaurant, though I’m thinking there’s better overall deals throughout our Truck scene. If you do end up going, the Sandwiches seem the only way to go; from what I can tell, they seem to be the only items somewhat close to the Price-Percieved Quality line; and hey they do taste pretty good. Avoid everything else: the skewers are barely anything, and the Ribs just don’t seem worth it at all, not for 5 small bones that don’t even compete with the quality Smoke-House Ribs.