Starlight Diner

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https://www.facebook.com/pages/Starlight-Diner/341864602591955?fref=ts

https://twitter.com/Starlighteats   

Main Location: Minneapolis, Events

            Nostalgia has very much proven a key factor to many of the greatest restaurants, mobile or non. Being able to take us back to that experience we could supposedly only find 20, 30, or how many years ago. Though most of our Trucks focus on Regional Styles, Diet, Specialty Items, or whatever, we are still able to see operations like Neato’s and Bloomy’s follow in the old-school and bring to us something typical of a tiny, hard-to-find corner off the highway.

             Moving onto the streets early this season, Starlight Diner continues this idea, bringing us back to the den of the “Blue Plate Special.” (one almost expects a plate of Turkey and Mashed Potatoes come November) Offering up baskets up Fries, Onion Rings, and old-fashioned Mayo-based Potato Salad, one can grab themselves a Hot Dog (topped with sauerkraut), Pulled Pork, or Italian Beef on a regular day, and items such as Tuna Sandwich turned Open Face on specials. Served in the traditional checkered-paper baskets, one almost expects to see them out with Turkey and Mashed Potatoes come November.

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             Of course, it’s not a Food Truck without offering a few plays on the expected (as seen with the open-faced tuna). Beer Battered Asparagus seem a customer favorite, paired with Rhubarb Ketchup and Bearnaise for dipping. In response to the warm summer weather, Cold Soups (like Watermelon Gazpacho) have made a come-in as replacement for the expected tomato (now if only they got a saffron-infused cheese crostini to pair with).

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            Serving underneath the classic frilled awning, their heads covered in the familiar paper hats, it’s quick to see their ties to the diners of decades past. If one has yet to find their own, special little 50’s (or 60’s, or 40’s, or whatever) based hole-in-the-wall, Starlight Diner is a great place to start!

 

Food: 8

              Pulled Pork seems to be the specialty, so I definitely had to grab that along with a nice batch of potato salad (and a side of that interesting Rhubarb-Ketchup). Let me just say, as far as Truck-based pulled pork goes, it definitely acts as a standout.

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              Serving on a longer Italian bun vs the traditional round/burger, this well-toasted (REALLY well toasted; heck, it’s actually a touch over, but with the smoked pork that’s actually good) bread is topped with a tender, flavorful smoked n shredded pig. The taste of the smoke indeed comes through slightly, with actual pork that contains some flavor in itself (much like Racer’s). Topped with a few pickled red onions, and this baby is ready for bbq sauce; which of course must be applied by ourselves. It would have been nice if they at least mixed in a LITTLE bbq sauce on their own beforehand; I definitely understand leaving it to personal taste, but though there is some nice tenderness and juiciness in the product, eating as-is without any sauce mixed in still creates a slight feeling of dry-ness and heaviness just a bit off from perfection. Suffice it to say, when loading up with the Sauce, LOAD it up; its flavor needs to come through the giant mound of pig, and it could use the extra moisture.

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              A special throw-out to that Potato Salad! One of the best joys I find is in those items that, in the everyday scenario, one just doesn’t really like (not hate, but just don’t like), and then finding someone who does it properly. This concept is so epitomized with their potato salad, based purely around that cheap, yellow-mayo based style we all see at the deli counter and only dare to get for company picnics. But made right, with the big cold chunks of boiled and roughly-broken, starchy potato, folded with the thick and creamy mustard-mayo and dotted with halves of briny-rich black olives; this is the potato salad we all wish we grew up on.

            And finally, of the things I sampled, the Rhubarb-Ketchup. I LOVE homemade ketchups, and this is no exception. Ultimately, it sort of tasted like a cross between Ketchup and a Spiced Berry Pie filling (in a good way).

              As for the sides which I was able to view: fries seem a definite improvement than when I first visited. Though not likely to be in a hall of greats, they look to be cooked well enough, and though soft are sure to have nice flavor and richness. Onion rings are in that similar mediocre category; the crust seems to have potential, but with bits of direct-contact-fried onion sticking out here and there, one certainly thinks technique needs improvement. On the contrary, the Beer-Battered Asparagus has seen, and looks fit for, much positive reception.

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Holdability: 8.5

                Offering various basket-based items which invariably require two hands, their sauerkraut-topped bratwurst even spilling off the side a bit. Pulled Pork is somewhat on the edge between walkable and “ehhhh, might enjoy it some more sitting down,” but not too much so. One thing of note that I VERY much like, when ordering just a sandwich or just a side, one receives in their own small basket to walk around with. If one orders TWO things, however, they are invariably placed within a larger blue-checkered basket to enjoy at one’s pleasure. Of course, many “styrafoam-box” places do this automatically, but that’s mainly cuz they’re already using a giant box anyways, even for smaller things. Basket-based trucks are rarely seen with separate combos and singles, nor having variously sized containers depending.

Price: 6.5

             A wide range settling from $3-$7 (w/ $8 “entrée-size” Salad and certain $1-2 options), this menu offers a seeming dream for the price-conscious customer. $7 stays the main for sandwich items, while (currently) offering some cold soup/s at $3 (and $2 possibly… still unsure if Chili Mango is a soup or a sauce…). With a menu range like this, one might expect a score of 9 or, even more likely, 10 out of my general ratings scale; even I want to give them that! However, what stands out to me more than the lower prices are certain “annoyances” and “inconsistancies” I found in comparison to their food.

             When looking at fries and onion rings, $3 and $4 don’t seem like too outrageous of costs, even with Rings that look like this:

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             I’ve seen other places charge around this much, so it’s only a minor thing. However, the potato salad, that glob consisting of only cold potato, mayonnaise, and black olives, of which I was only given a couple SPOONFULS… that is NOT proper $4 menu pricing. And now we look a little higher, at the $6 cost of Beer Battered Asparagus: that’s a basket of ASPARAGUS, fried, for the cost of an lower Food Truck entrée. Oh, but of course, it DOES come with two little sides of special sauce… that must be the extra $2 from its proper cost. Which seems to make the most sense, as they decided to charge me an extra $1 when I asked for the Rhubarb-Ketchup; that’s right, a whole dollar for that dinky little paper thumbnail. Anchor Fish and Chips charges half that for 3-4X the amount of Tartar sauce, and THAT is unacceptable. This is a condiment, people, not a side; on that note, similarly charging $1 for Pickles? Now, if it’s a pickle “Plate,” I can see; but so many other trucks offer their homemade pickles on the side for ready use and enjoyment by us customers. With that clearly leading example, we should not be having any Truck that performs anything of the contrary nowadays.

             On a final note, in Menu terms, I’m also very glad they started labeling their Dog as “German” as opposed to the “Handmade” they displayed in the opening week/s. If not, I would have definitely taken points off for the obvious mis-appropriation for a dog that was supplied by someone else (even if it’s of high quality).

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Speed: 7.5

              Average wait.

The TOE: 7

               Nostalgic nature says for a lot, its definitely hard not to think of the old-school sandwich-slinging, potato salad bucket diners when one visits. However, I feel this may be the only thing they have going for them when it comes to the “experience” aspect. For instance, though I highly dislike using this as a negative aspect, I can’t help but feel the plain and boring color design immediately sets one’s idea a little lower (like walking into a bad bathroom). The menu, though good, is still somewhat plain and unexciting in its actual items (before ordering). Ultimately, I think one could equate that, though the nostalgia is there, the actual personality required to back it up still needs work. 

Service: -1

             Yeah, remember the whole Condiment and Pickles thing? I’m still annoyed about that. This is a very basic, very fundamental Service Concept, seen very much so in restaurants and ESPECIALLY in Food Trucks. If there were other trucks doing this, that would be one thing; but simply put, there aren’t. Both Housemade Pickles and Sauces are on display and made available to squirt and top as we please, with no cost seen besides what we’ve already paid for our food.

                There’s a particular term in the Service industry; “Give them the Pickle.” It was developed from situations like this.

                         Tally: 36.5/50

                       

Final Thoughts

            For those craving a bit of nostalgic in their Trucks, or just looking for a nice pork Sammy at a good price, this is the place to go. I think I can ultimately say, too, in the question of “What Truck should I get a Pulled Pork sandwich from,” this is the one I suggest. Not necessarily because it’s the best (that’s still in debate… VERY much in debate), but because I find it one of, if not the, most “Distinctive” and interesting of the group.

            I do not see much merit in getting any of their sides; again not due to their quality, but the price charged for them. One can find similar or better fries anywhere, and $4 is too much for that small amount of Potato Salad (which really sucks, because on any given day I would be BEGGING people to get this because of how good it is). And of course, don’t ask for any of the special sauces no matter how good they are, not unless you’re willing to argue over the price (I actually would have myself if there wasn’t a line behind me and I was caught off guard with its ridiculousness).

            My 2nd and Final main suggestion, this is probably one of the better places to visit on a HOT day. Grab a bowl of cheap, cold Watermelon-Gazpacho and enjoy and refreshing lunch!

A Moment of Silence for the Departed

           No collective group of similar businesses goes through their years, early and long, without casualties. The world of Food Trucks is no different; I myself can use all the fingers on one hand to recall some of the establishments to have disappeared from our many ranks. Some cut down too early before their time, some simply fizzing out in the shadow of other blazing fires, and one which simply moved.

          Whatever the reason, I would like to take a moment of silence to honor and respect those little businesses which have come and gone from our Streets. We may not be able to samply you, but those who know shall always remember these names:

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The Brothers Deli

           A small, ubiquitous little metal cart found parked on Nicollet, Brothers served up the best Deli-style sandwiches. I loved their pastrami, not to mention the various dressings used to garnish the sourdough and rye. A side of hand-fried chips or knish, adjusted slight, would have certainly highlighted as a fantastic Toe Ring in our cities’ selection.

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Cook n Wheels

          Though technically not departed or out of business, Cook and Wheels has taken quite the departure from the street due to repair issues. I certainly wish them a speedy recovery.

Magic Bus

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          If still here, Magic Bus would have certainly vied alongside Natedogs as the top Hot Dog in the city. Big and purple, it stood out wherever it went, mostly sticking towards special fairs and events. I remember the one day I had the chane to sample them; their nice, snappy dogs loaded with hand-made, unique toppings. I wanted to try two different ones, but only one dog, so they did a half-n-half thing for me; both the beet slaw and the papaya relish. So good.

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          But alas, they have taken themselves to the Road, moving to Colorado for a different shop to set up. I truly hope and pray for the season in which they can come back to their home grounds.

Origins Coffee and Tea

          Released a couple years back, Origins sadly didn’t even make it through year’s end. Focusing purely on drinks, slinging craft coffees to the early morning and lunch crowds. Though noticing them on the street, I never got the chance to sample, food-focused as I am.

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Yummi

          Having read an article noting their recent selling of the truck, I can honestly say I am not too surprised at their passing. As this is a moment of “honoring,” I shall not go into details on my opinions. I did see so much potential though… it’s a shame they never got the chance to reach it.

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          And there may be even more that I am currently unaware of. For now, we pay homage to those who have gone, and those future trucks not destined to last. Let us hope that those owners are back on their feet, and wish them Good Luck in their future.

 

Do you have any good memories of a departed Food Truck? Any other Minnesotan businesses you would like to honor?

 

Bloomy’s Roast Beef

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bloomys.com/

https://twitter.com/BloomysRB

Main Location: St. Paul

             The first time one visits Bloomy’s, they would swear that it was based off of an actual restaurant and diner somewhere. They would be wrong, however, just as I was. Bloomy’s is a one-of-a-kind, pure Food Truck, only selling classic Roast Beef Sandwiches and other diner sides.

            Using locally and quality sourced sirloin, Bloomy’s cooks it slow with handmade rub, slices, and uses it in a few simple and traditional sandwiches. Everything on the menu is made in house; they even smoke cheddar for their Longhorn and Jessica. The sides include Mashed Red Potatoes with Homemade Gravy (pure pan juices from the
steak), Mac n Cheese, and Purple Coleslaw.

             It’s all pretty simple and old-school, but that’s just their style.

Food: 8

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             The Beef is very good, exactly that nice, meaty-garlicky flavor one expect in a properly made roast beef. Buns are soft, coming from a good local purveyor to wrap the sandwiches in a nice way. Gravy and Au Jus are made directly from the sirloin’s cooking juices, just how they should be, and come out rich and delicious. Smoking your own cheddar just creates this… oooohhh so good result.

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            Mac and Cheese did not impress me that much; tasted very much like a regular side you would find in a KFC or other fast food place, maybe a little better. Makes me wonder how their other sides are. I’m guessing the mashed potatoes are still just as good as they sound.

Holdability: 4.5

             Individually speaking, sandwiches are a pretty good option for walking and eating. However, these are always served in a paper bag, so one has to try and dig in, get to the sandwich, still hold the bag while eating… Then, one has to deal with the fact the roast beef has a lot of residual heat to it, so it can be a bit tricky to hold. Then we have the sandwiches with peppers and dripping cheese on top, and that’s without getting to the French Dip, which should always be dipped in the au jus (thus, should be eaten sitting down).

            This is all before considering that the usual order is probably going to involve getting one of their sides in addition. This leaves to a result that can’t really be eaten on the street, unless one purely focuses on a “one at a time” strategy, which can still be difficult since you still have to hold the bag in one hand.

Price: 7.5

             Small, plain 1/4lb sandwiches are $5, with cheese or bacon costing $1 extra each. The larger, 1/3lb sandwiches with toppings are either $8 or $9. Sides are $2 each.

            All in all it’s a good range of prices as-is, but it can easily add up when purchasing toppings, sides, dessert, etc. Which, let’s face it, is hard not to do.

Speed: 9

           Everything being premade, sandwiches mainly just need compiling, maybe some melting of the cheese, and wrapping. Sides are all simple to place, as are desserts.

The TOE: 8.5

           I’m not actually sure how exactly I feel on this Truck. That traditional, homemade, quality feel of an old Roast Beef Diner really bring a lot of those qualities that one usually finds in a good Food Truck. Yet I feel that overwhelming Diner-ness also brings the Food Truck experience back a little bit. Think it’s safe to say that, currently, one should probably ignore this Truck’s rating and figure it out yourself. At the least, it has enough TOE to keep it in the proper, top end.

                       Tally: 37.5/50

Final Thoughts

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            Your first visit should stay simple; sample the plain 1/4lb sandwich to see how you feel about the Roast Beef. Grab a side while you do; ignore the Mac and Cheese, go straight for the Potatoes with Gravy.

            If you find you like the beef, go back later and get one of the bigger sandwiches. Any of them look good, so go with whatever style you prefer (still need suggestion? French Dip, have it with that beautiful Au Jus). When a dessert is sought, I doubt theirs would not be satisfying, so go for it.

            Ultimately a good experience for a quick-grab, slightly-looser with the wallet lunch that will probably be brought back to an office or similar.

Neato’s Burgers

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www.neatosburgers.com

https://twitter.com/NeatosBurgers

Main Location: St. Paul

             My second stop on what I’m thinking of calling “The Storming River Lunch,” (see Home Street Home)Neato’s is one of a pair of Burger-focused Trucks. The beef is ground by Stasny’s, using locally-sourced meat, then pattied by hand to be grilled for you.

            These fellas are then topped with a variety of fun, unique, pre-designed garnishes by the working chefs. Besides a clichéd deluxe, one can find a jalapeno-popper style with raspberry jam, a peanut butter-pickle with mayo, and a Mexican corn with lime mayo and cotija cheese.

            Here’s the thing: that’s not the draw.

            All these burgers are juicy and tasty, but customers both new and old come around for a whole different reason. This is one of the few places in both cities (restaurants included) that makes fries cooked in rendered duck fat. Served with homemade garlic aioli (fancy word for any flavored mayonnaise), these babies have recently made quite a few local Top Ten Fry lists. They even put them on one of their burgers (along with duck-fried onion).

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            Did I mention you have to order these separately? Not automatic; and allows you to just get fries, yum.

            You combine the fries, burgers, and milkshakes made with small-batch ice cream, and you get that nostalgic, 1950’s diner food; kicked right up to 11 (that’s one higher than 10 you know). It’s even served in the red and white checkerboard paper.

Food: 6.5

Note: changed from a previous score of 8.5

             The burger itself is easily better than the average, though I can’t rightly place it in the top list as a standalone. However, they have an amazing series of burgers with interesting and delicious toppings, which are sure to elevate it to a pretty decent level. I haven’t had a milkshake (No longer true, see my thoughts on it Here), but come on… it’s a milkshake, when have they ever been bad? Or neutral even?

             Now, the duck fat fries… they’ve had some issues with them in the past, but those have been resolved and now yielding to a more consistent deliciousness. They lack complete crispyness (still have a bit with the skins, which is sorta nice), but it’s a good kind of soft, and the fat comes through in a properly subtle way (only a bit, but you don’t actually have to search for it). The aioli they serve with it is absolutely perfect combo, really strong, fresh garlic flavor to stand up and highlight that duck fat cooking.

Holdability: 6.5

             Getting things individually holds less issues, but you don’t order a burger without the fries… fries without the burger maybe. The problem with this, sometimes fry and burger come in separate baskets, as opposed to basket + fry baggy (what I got). Burger itself is the traditional slightly-messy pile, not the most compact eatable item.

Price: 8

              Prices are controlled around the concept that burgers and fries are ordered separately. As such, all burgers are only around $6, with $4 for the simple cheeseburger ($3 for hamburger), while fries cost a few dollars as-is. This makes great cost control for those only going for one or the other, and an affordable-on-the-higher-end when doing the “combo.”

Speed: 8

             As a burger place, can take a bit to cook properly. From the sound of it, potatoes are single-fried as opposed to double (first fry done much earlier at low temp for tenderness, second fry done to order at higher for crisp), which usually takes a little longer to cook through, though I could be wrong here.

The TOE: 10

            Once again, we find a truck that goes nostalgic, this time with pure burger diner, while kicking multiple qualities up to a delicious notch. Not to mention duck fat fries is always a sign of putting in the extra effort to make something fantastic. It’s also a prime example of those small, simple items with just that “something” added to them that magically lifts the entire truck in our minds (I’ve alluded to this idea before, see R.A. Mac Sammy’s)

            Hmmm, I’ve mentioned this twice already, but still don’t know how to describe it simpler. I think I’m going to make up a word for it. Since both times have been in this particular section, think from now on I’ll call them… “Toe Rings.”

                        Tally: 41/50

Final Thoughts

            Unless you’re able and planning to come back one or two more times, go for one of the special burgers. Any of them are good, dependent on taste. HOWEVER, the Mustard Tiger uses Duck Fat Fries as a topping, so you can try both without having to order a whole basket separately.

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           If you’re going to be coming back, then I would start simply with the deluxe; two slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion. Burgers like this are always a great way to get a full view on a kitchen; how thick is the burger, how juicy, what ratios of bun-topping-cheese-meat do they use? All this and more can be learned by such burgers (for some reason I imagined old Obi-wan Kenobi’s voice when I read this in my head).

          The duck fat fries are a must get for yourself. Whether you are or aren’t hungry for a burger, when you go by Neato’s for the first time order some fries to snack on. Don’t always get the chance for duck fat fries, so take them while you can and determine your level of love.

         Do I even have to do a shpeal about milkshakes?