Top 10 Trucks, 2013

               The sky is grey, the weather is chilled, leaves are covering the ground and now soaked from overnight rain, and it is literally the middle of October. Sad to say, it seems the 2013 open season for Food Trucks on the streets has ended; we of course still have our various rallies and brewery-connected days, but the midday lunches of Trucks crowding the Twin Cities’ downtown area is just about over. Though this sad news brings much in lamentations of the missed bevy of our beloved street foods, it also means it’s time for the release of the 2013 Top Ten List of Minnesota Food Trucks!!

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                We’ve seen quite a few new trucks this year, and I’m happy to say that a couple were able to push themselves into the top rankings of my scoring system. And though many of the same trucks from last year still remain, that’s not to say there hasn’t been some interesting jumbling and a fun surprise abound. So let’s get to the big reveals then shall we?

 

10th Place: AZ Canteen with 46 points

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Sliding down to 46 points off of last year’s 48, AZ moves to the 10th position after a full review of their burger sadly ended up taking off points in the Holdability factor, not to mention some increased prices in a new Hot Dog. But they’re quality in food and dedication to the unique and authentic street food experiences are still top-notch, reserving their place in the top 10 for another year to come.

 

7th Place: Three-way tie at 46.5:

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            Chef Shack, MidNord Empanada, and Tot Boss

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            Same as last year but sliding down a notch, the 3 kings of Street Food, Empanadas and Fried Potato still stand as testament to what completely different kinds of cuisine focus can accomplish in the Truck world, each of these giants garnering a huge fan base in their own right.

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4th Place: ANOTHER three way tie! At 47.5:

            Eli’s Donut Burger, Paulette’s Bakery, and The Moral Omnivore

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            With an explosive start of their run and a well-placed sneak into the morning timeslot, Moral and Paulette easily insert their way into the top 10 with their first year of service, joining the rarely-seen Eli in score and bumping off both Scratch and the original 3-way tie.

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                And it’s certainly deserved. With a menu based solely on quality coffee and, more importantly, simple  and delicious hand-made croissants with various fillings, Paulette has successfully rolled out to personally kickstart the movement in the Minneapolis Food Truck breakfast scene (it may not be too present right now, but if rumors are true it’ll get there). Next to them, Moral has premiered as one of my favorite new trucks of the year, handing out successful Street-based versions of sustainable and healthy food in delicious packages (very well done sliders). They’ve even managed to make portable salad “boxes” that even I’M tempted to get.

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3rd Place: Vellee Deli with 48

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            With AZ Canteen down to 10th, the Mexican-Korean fusion trucks stands alone to occupy the 3rd place moniker, claiming its giant medal of bronze over one of the hottest styles/trends in the list of National Trucks. Though it may seem not as remarkable among many of the new and old trucks of our city, their ability to extract rich flavors and glazes in a very approachable, friendly, and simple menu, while giving a variety of options that all still tie together (among many other almost intangible factors) has kept them at the top of our line-up for so long, and will continue to do so for the years to come.

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And finally, to wrap it up nicely, still holding the top two spots with 49 and 50.5 accumulated points respectively are:

2nd Place: NateDogs and

1st Place: Potter’s Pasties

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            Is there anything else I can say about these two that I haven’t already? When it comes to the scoring criteria I base the truck idealistic by, these guys simply dominate; it’s no wonder Potter’s has been able to not only get a second truck for their lineup AND set up their own shop (I’d say restaurant, but it’s so not even close, and so perfect to their style). And though I’ve found many an amazing and perfectly-garnished hot dog in various trucks (Racer and Emconada have given us something nice), Nate still stands as the Ruler in the rich, encased sausages and their classic toppings.

 

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                Well, that’s it for this season, back to trying to dredge through the cold months of reduced Truck traffic. Whether any other entrepreneurs decide to open in the coming months or wait it out until spring is still up to see, but for now I’d say it’s been quite the eventful and successful season. I can’t wait until next year, not to mention the various little events that are sure to happen until then. But as always, until that all rolls around, I’ll be here reviewing and reporting on the various Truck-related happening in our northerly state. For the rest of you, Good Luck and Good Eating!

 

*Note: all lists, both now and future, are purely based off the cumulative score garnered in my Ratings System. It is not based off of only one aspect at a time, though if there is interest in that I can always form a Top Ten based purely from “Best Food,” “Speed,” or others.

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A La Plancha

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https://www.facebook.com/alaplanchatc  

https://twitter.com/aLaPlanchaMPLS  

Main Location: Minneapolis, Etc

            Spanish cuisine isn’t something our Trucks have hit on too much; general Latin certainly, and an obvious influence of Mexican flavors and wrappings through the street-food regular tacos. True, traditional Spanish cuisine, on the other hand, is still rarely ever touched on this sense, despite the obviously popular Tapas trend in various restaurants.

            A La Plancha hopes to fix that; starting out in Catering, Plancha has opened this year as our first Tapa-based Food Truck. Big and red, with a Mexican Wrestler (or “Luchador”) Poster festooned on just about every side, along with a whole line of “tapas.”

            Though the actual options are highly seasonal, there ARE many solid standbys to be seen. They hold two large sandwiches, a Cecina (seared beef and pimento) and Cubano, the latter also coming in Slider form at times. A set Gazpacho is often seen, along with Guacamole and tortillas of course. Various other tapas can and often include Croquettes, some form/s of Salad, Potatoes Brava (fried/sautéed with paprika), Empanadas, and some sort of “Tortilla,” which is actually very much like a very fluffy, thick omelette or frittata (traditionally with potatoes).  All of these being very traditional or close to traditional style and options, giving customers a comfortable way to ease into the new Truck cuisine.

            Hard to figure out where to start with all of this, but I think my first trip went well enough.

 

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Food: 8

             A Cubano marked my first meal at this Truck of Tiny Tapas (alliterations galore, yay!), yielding and interesting exploration to this pressed pickle, pork, and swiss delight.

             Placing between a Ciabatta (or ciabatta-like) bun, no toasting is done on the inside, I mean it’s a cubano, there shouldn’t be; instead pressing  to crisp the outside, bringing a nice, complete texture out of the bread (as opposed to the underbaked doughy flavors of certain other Trucks). However, they have yet to achieve anything near to the full squished, almost Panini-like press of many successful, traditional cubanos (I might actually suggest they think about getting a few machines, or change the bread to better press). Which is probably why the Swiss has only the lightest of melt on it, lacking much of that “goo” factor we look for in any griddled sandwich with cheese. As for the pork aspect; the Ham tastes nice, as does the actual Pulled Pork, but the latter is noticeably lacking in moisture and any “wow” elements.

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             The star of the show comes in the Pickles, which are of course housemade (and kept in various jars throughout the kitchen). Completely PILED onto the top bun, their tangy, sharp vinegar bouncing off the acidic and intense seeded mustard on the bottom, cutting through and lifting the meat and cheese in their crunchy texture and rich flavors. Ultimately, though it’s not too impressive compared to the “true” cubanos, as an actual sandwich it all comes together very tasty.

             This was served with a side of tortilla chips; fried themselves from Masa tortillas (I can tell). If one has the craving for this particular Truck lunch, and/or has a few extra bucks, and/or is smart, you’ll get a side of their Guacamole. I haven’t actually tried it myself, but the one behind the register (the owner?) gave me a peak at what it looked like.

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            Mmmmmm, that is some sexy, chunky guacamole. I’m not one for all the mixings of tomatoes and onions, but even that looks good to me; keeping it minimal, fresh and rich. That would be a good guac I’m sure.

            And finally, they were kind enough to be handing out little sample containers of their Gazpacho to various people who enquired about it. Tomato based, they blend theirs with Honeydew and Peppadew; the tomato brought in richness and acid, the melon gave that fun little pureed-fleshy texture, and the pepper some zing and an extra note, not to mention the other little spices and such they added. A really tasty cold soup.

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Holdability: 8

             Highly dependent on what one gets. First off, I’d say the sandwiches are actually pretty darn easy to hold in one hand (with the basket under the other); sorta like Brava’s Lamb. Soup seems pretty simple, not sure what kinda container they use for the bigger guys, but could probably just drink it down like a smoothie. Most other items are sure to be similar two-handed, though things like Potatoes Bravas and various other seasonal possibilities may lead to things which need to sit down or stand still to consume comfortably.

Price: 8.5

              Bigger, sandwich entrée-like items hang around the $8-9.50 range, with cheaper eats like quac and gazpacho at $3-ish. I’m unsure of the various other seasonal items, though I don’t think it’d be too much of a stretch to envision other items around the $3 with things like empanadas or tortillas between the two extremes. Dependant on when one gets there, can possibly load up with a bunch of fun little fellas.

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Speed: 8.5

             Once again, depends on the item; soup and guac are instantaneous of course, I assume fried items like croquettes are a little faster than average, and sandwiches and others come in at average waiting periods.

The TOE: 8

             Not too much I think I can say at this point; they’re definitely on their way, they have a fun little truck with a new idea in our mobile scene. When going in those times which they have a fuller tapas menu, I think one can enter into quite the interesting experience, especially during special events and Food Truck Days. And it doesn’t hurt they have a big, colorful Luchador decorating the sides.

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                           Tally: 41/50

                       

Final Thoughts

            Certainly an interesting truck compared to others. Definitely a great stop for multi-truck snackings or if one wants to grab multiple items for cheap. Though it’s not too bad a place for the larger, sandwich-based lunches.

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            If you’re a stickler for a very traditional quality Cubano, this probably isn’t the one for you; though it’s still a good sandwich item in general, especially for pickle and mustard lovers. For those who love getting the Guac and Tortilla sides and various Trucks, I think this is the place for you; get your rear out of Hola’s line and grab this nice, chunky dip of goodness.

            And of course where is a suggestion here without the various small items? Definitely go for the Croquettes once they start frying, not to mention the Tortillas. Empanadas I’m unsure of, not having tried them yet… if the price is low enough, certainly give them a shot, though if you’re craving a meal of them and Midnord is out I wouldn’t put my money and risk on a place that only makes one.

            Don’t forget the Gazpacho when the day is hot; who needs soda when one can get a good cup of cold soup?

Emconada

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https://www.facebook.com/emconada.cateringroom?fref=ts   

Main Location: Minneapolis

             One of the best things about Street Food cultures; whether it be Bazaars, Food Trucks, or the various State Fair set-ups; is innovation. Only in these situations does one see people create weird, unique, tasty little things that would probably never even be considered to grace the menu of a restaurant, purely as it has no use outside of the streets. Whether it be on a stick, in a cone, or sandwiched between two donuts, it’s hard to argue that some of the greatest, and sometimes just plain bizarre, food creations have happened on the road.

            Sad to say, though, these particular offerings don’t come out too often within the regular Food Truck lineup (though they do seem to hold 50% of the State Fair culinary backbone). But after much a wait, Emconada Catering has hit the street, filling one of the Marquette line-ups with their “Empanadas in a Cone” (as their mantra goes).

            As one can imagine, I was quite curious as to what form this might take during my original spotting of them. And I think I can safely say I find no disappointment in how they’ve chosen to transform this Latin staple. Instead of the original stuff-n-fry (ugh, sounds like a really lame sex move), the traditional dough is shaped and fried into a familiar cone. Once done, the packages are held for service, ready to be filled with either Chicken or Seafood mixes and served with a Salad and/or Spanish rice.

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             Serving out of their big orange trailer box, various pictures of menu items festooned across the menu, Em certainly makes themselves known on Marquette. Not least of all with half of their backdoor completely wide open, making for a really great and fun view of the entire kitchen as they work, and also offering a smart way to cool down on a hot day (if you haven’t guessed already, those trucks can get HOT on a good day).

            Overall, not too bad a visit for a place I was literally running down the street after a little over a week ago.

 

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Food: 7.5

              A fun surprise was found in the chicken filling for my emconada; my expectations were somewhat low on what seemed a pile of cooked and shredded meat. Happily, I was found wrong, with the chicken being of a good texture and having notable seasoning from lime and probably some other flavors. However, I still find just a pile of shredded chicken, even flavorful, feels lacking, and wish they had mixed in some extra elements, like a rich stewed vegetable mix or relish or whatever. As for the Seafood mix, which I didn’t have the chance to have, it’s a mix of Clam, Shrimp (I think), and something else I couldn’t make out; but it’s Mom’s recipe apparently, and it looks and sounds really good.

             Empanada dough is decent, not bad at all, though overall it doesn’t stand out. This is mainly due to the cooking process, where the dough is for once fried from both inside and out, so the interplay of crisp out to softer in is much lessened. This also leads to a consistency that is more likely to crumble, which is actually sort of fun at the end, cuz you get to mix the leftover meat, dough, salsa, and rice all together.

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            Speaking of which, the rice is a clearly better side than salad, even in their pictures it looks limp; but that doesn’t mean it’s all much to think about. Sort of sticky, not too much flavor to it, sort of the Spanish version of generic fried rice.

            A word on the Salsa/Hot Sauce – don’t be afraid to get Hot, the Medium is pretty mild even for me (believe me, that’s saying something).

Holdability: 7

              The potential that they hold in this category is extraordinary; history upon history of ice cream service has proven the wonderful abilities of the cone (not to mention Japanese Tamake… which Sushi Fix STILL hasn’t added to their menu!!! AHH!!!). However, this potential gets tossed over the shoulder as not a single one of their menu choices allows for buying the product as-is. Every single option requires at least one side of rice or salad, thus subjugating this possibly perfect and fun item into a basket.

             I don’t have too much against the basket itself, it’s not a difficult one to eat from, especially since one can eat the cone with hand. Plus, with the particular way they make the cone, one does benefit with the basket; I found a noticeable amount of my chicken ended up falling from the rim, with the shell crumbling near the end. Plus, if they sold the pair of emconadas as-is, then one would need to battle with holding two separate cones at the same time.

            So how do we solve this issue? Quite simple, both of them are a result of the size made for these cones; it’s not big enough that the filling required to make it tasty all stays in, nor for them to create a viable option of only selling one. As such, I think there’s a fantastic opportunity to create, on the side (not saying they should get rid of these smaller cones, I’m assuming they’re the easiest size for them to create), some larger sized cones which they can sell one at a time. Thus would create an easy, clean, fun (and as we’ll see below, affordable) little handheld addition to our Street Food lineup. Just need to have the hot sauce in squirt bottles next to the window for ease of addition.

           Final note, other menu options of just filling mixtures and salads are, obviously, purely basket-fork affairs, but at least not as messy as other basket-focused items which I’ve seen in other trucks.

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Price: 6.5

           Various combo dishes which range from $7.50-$9.50, ultimately staying in the sorta high area of Food Truck prices without offering any lower deal items. Much like my issue with holdability, I don’t quite understand why they don’t offer the choice to only buy the emconada. In this example, it would offer a better deal for those only looking to sample, form a more complete menu, and ultimately create a better feeling to the customers upon reading over the selection.

Speed: 9.5

            An ice-cream cone filled with meat, Em has created a fantastic product for quick-service needs in those long lines (you know, assuming there aren’t any of those inconsiderate groups of inconsiderate talking businessworkers in front who just stand there when it’s obviously their turn in line). Just requiring the action of filling the cone with pre-made mix, adding the side, it makes for a short wait.

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The TOE: 8

             There’s a REALLY great feeling that you get when going here, just centered around the fun and wonder of trying this new, mysterious little orange box. It was so refreshing being able to go somewhere that I can DISCOVER something again; not to knock Trucks that make familiar(ish) and traditional(ish) foods, they have their own amazing qualities, just on a different end of the spectrum.

              Now, all they need to do is get rid of the all-combo-basket idea and introduce options for just the cone, maybe get a couple more fillings (which I’m sure they will in time), and they can finally get RIGHT to that perfect point so many others have successfully reached.

                       Tally: 38.5/50

                       

Final Thoughts

            Definitely a truck for Foodies and those starting to explore the Food Truck scene; also a viable option for those needing their lunch quick.

            Currently not too many options to pick and choose from, making choices easier. The salads don’t even count in my opinion; I still pity those people who go all the way out to a Food Truck JUST to get a salad (I mean really, people? That’s not a Food Truck experience; if you need something healthy or vegetarian there are quite a few options that still stick to it).

            Seafood seems to be the more interesting of the two fillings so far, and is definitely what one should try first! If they still don’t adjust the menu so one can just buy the cone, which is the only option I would ever suggest for customers, then grab the Spanish Rice, the mixed greens don’t look good at all, even in their pictures.

Breweries and Empanada Update

                My Saturdays often tend to be filled with online exploits, catching up on videos, the occasional going out, and various other methods I used to avoid the Study and Homework I so desperately need to accomplish. This weekend was of course no exception, spending a few hours at a couple breweries with the Family. With the nice warm-up in temperature, the Trucks were back out in force, pairing with every local brewery that one could find.

                First, and originally planned for only, stop of the day was Indeed; my first time visiting, and my Mom’s first time eating MidNord Empanada (how I hooked her in). Crowded and fun, I’ll leave any fine-detailed reviews to Alcohol By Volume; she does a much better at the Beer stuff than I do.

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                I will certainly say how much I loved my glass of HotPot: a nice, roasty black Porter flavored with Smoked Peppers. This is one of the perfect Foodie Beers, totally unique and perfect in combination with the natural Porter flavors. Despite its obvious brilliance, the flavor combination is not what one would immediately think of when making Beer, so it creates this factor which exponentially increases one’s enjoyment of the dark, smokey, slightly-spicy drink.

                Drinks ordered, it was time to get the grub. For this visit, we grabbed an order of Cubano, Mac n Cheese, and Bacon Cheeseburger Empanadas. I was very excited upon getting the food, because now I can OFFICIALLY confirm that they have switched their Dough for every Empanada to a different one from their original release, as opposed to my theory they just used a different dough for certain empanadas than the Tucaman-style. I shall of course update my review on them post-haste, along with a couple other things to be mentioned.

                I was also quite thrilled to see that they now include a Tostone in each basket as an extra treat, which has also gone over a little change since my first try. Pressed into a flat poker-chip, the crispy factor comes out a little more, turning it into a nice little snack food. Flavor is still meh, I don’t see a reason to buy a separate basket, but they’re certainly better than before.

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                For the Empanadas: Cuban was just okay, no real intense flavors. Certainly NEEDS the Mojo sauce, as otherwise just feels a little dry (shredded pork of any kind really needs dressing). If looking for traditional-flavored empanada on your trip, stick with the Tucaman, and if they don’t have (like on this trip) try the Chicken.

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                I was a little sad to find out that the Mac and Cheese was different than when I had it before; this one was Cheddar-based, as opposed to the nice Creamy White and Herb I had in the Fall. Guess this simply means that they change flavor base seasonally; a good idea, and nice to see the consideration of weather, but I still prefer the other one, haha.

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                Bacon Cheeseburger… so good, so gooey… that was the perfect quality translation of that fast-food guilty pleasure we all have. And they had the Fancy Sauce!! Tasted exactly like a McDonald’s, but better in every way.

                A little sad they didn’t have any Dessert Empanadas, we were hoping to try the Pumpkin. Oh well, next visit.

                Since it was close by, we thought we’d try out the new 612 Brewery after our little lunch, being conveniently a few blocks away. A pint of Winter for me, some Rated R for the rest of the family, and a little while standing and checking out the various tanks and roped-off equipment. As a fun surprise, we happened to see Simply Steve’s parked outside; as I said, they’re out in force.

                As a not-so-fun surprise, I got to see their menu… and I am very, very disappointed. One of my favorite Trucks, who started out with a menu filled of only Burgers and Burritos, has gotten rid of their original focus to offer a variety of un-connected products. Only two burgers offered (one being vegetarian), Philly Cheesesteak, Pork Sliders, Tacos, Brat, Quesadilla, and a Pita Pizza. There’s a bit of commonality in some of the Foods, but it’s turned to the generic style of the local Bar.

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                I’ll have to see how much of this is just due to them parking outside of a Brewery, where that kind of food would work well, and how much is more permanent. As such, updating shall wait until next they’re on the Street solo in Spring.

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                All in all, a little bit of sadness with a few Food Truck discoveries that is easily overshadowed by some new surprises and great beer. A fun way to procrastinate on a Saturdy.

                Do you have any good or bad memories of a Brewery-Food Truck experience? What kind of Truck, existing or not, do you think is the perfect combo?

Midnord Empanada Truck

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http://midnord.com/ 

https://twitter.com/MidNordTrucks

Main Location: St. Paul

             Started by Minnesotan Phil Gaffney, a 4-year veteran in of NY food trucks, MidNord serves traditional Empanadas. Various offerings changing daily, Phil offers both traditional Ecuadorian and Minnesotan fillings. On any given visit, one can find Tucuman Beef, Cuban Pork, Juicy Luicy, or Mac and Cheese, and that’s not even half of it. They also offer Tostones, a Central/South American side involving smashing pieces of Plantains (really savory, starchy bananas) and frying them.

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            MidNord doesn’t just stop at savory though, the menu also contains a seasonal dessert-filled empanada. Examples of these include Apple Pie, Pumpkin, and Nutella-Banana. All served, much like the savory, with their own accompanying dipping sauce.

            My first experience of MidNord luckily happened to be on their debut day during the 2012 Canterbury Food Truck Event. Since then they have settled their days of business with St. Paul’s Downtown, adding themselves to the already impressive lineup.

Food: 10

            Okay, they are REALLY good. Fried to order, Tucuman-style Empanadas are rich, flavorful, a little complex with the spices, and just plain juicy. The Mac and Cheese is HOMEMADE, and not just generic “Cheese+Noodles=It’ll work.” This is a creamy white cheese mac, mixed with chives, perfectly cooked noodles… you want to have it as is, and they shoved it inside a dough of deep fried, savory goodness. I do believe they change the mix seasonally, though, so you make get a richer Cheddar-based one in the Winter. They then served both of them with respectful sauces; a flavorful chile broth for the beef… I forgot what for the Mac, but it was good.

           Apple pie made sense to me, but then I got it, and saw that “Hey, this is made in the same really savory dough as the others… it’s not even rolled in cinnamon-sugar or anything…” I was put back quite a bit, it didn’t seem like it would work.

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           Then I had it.

           It worked. Don’t ask me how, but it worked. It was delicious, the filling wasn’t the gooey apple, just tender and spicy and rich. Dipped in the spiced caramel, it was the perfect self-indulgent, guilty street food dessert.

           Nice and crunchy, the empanada has that nice fried-dough crust, a little thin and soft on the inside to perfectly hold the insides. The little pressed edge is nice and big, too, giving you that extra piece of crispy dough with the rich filling.

           As for the Tostones, they’re flat and crispy, but sort of just taste like regular potatoes; used to be a worse. I like the fact that they now include one with each Empanada order. I guess I like a different kind of plantain though, for having as-is.

Holdability: 7

           A little surprising, not to mention disappointing, considering the traditional hand-held design of a proper Empanada. However, they end up served two in a basket, very hot inside from the friar, on the side of which is a little plastic cup with the dipping sauce. The lid is already snapped on tight, and you have to maneuver to take it off, keep it steady, try to dip and eat it without spilling any. Considering they use very flavorful broths for many “dips,” it can be quite tricky.

           At the least, the empanadas themselves hold up very well when basket-separated.

Price: 9

           The empanadas are very well priced at a good deal, offering two each with an order. Though it is very tempting to grab a Mac and Cheese and/or a Dessert along with your main choice, which will easily add to costs.

Speed: 8.5

           Have to wait for them to fry, but that doesn’t take too long.

The TOE: 10

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           Empanadas are a great focus for a Food Truck. Phil really takes the chance and potential to stuff them with a good variety of very creative, flavorful fillings. It succeeds in so many of the same ways that Potter’s does, besides their smaller size and basket serving. My favorite aspect of this truck is that the Mac and Cheese and Dessert-based options BOTH act as individual Toe Rings. They give that experience of going up to the menu, taking a quick look and stopping as you see them, your thoughts filled with nothing but “Ohhhhhh I have GOT to try those.”

            I am very happy and thrilled to have these guys as a part of our Food Truck family, and hope you get the chance to experience them soon.

Service: +2

            Normally baskets come with two empanadas. On my second visit, though, I wanted to try both Mac and Apple, but didn’t want to buy 4 whole empanadas, not to mention pay for all of that. Considering that, the Chef gladly made me a basket (well, two separate to help me tell) of one each, and priced it for a regular basket cost. It’s a great Service quality, and I think they deserve an extra couple points because.

                      Tally: 46.5/50

Final Thoughts

            Can still be used on the go if only grabbing one item (orders of more can be wrapped individually and put in a bag), they’re really great when you can stop and sit on a bench, rest on a post, etc.

            Though I love the Mac and Cheese, I would suggest starting with a different item, probably one of the Tucuman’s. If you can and want to, grab an Apple Pie or whatever dessert they have at the time to. Save the Mac for its own special showcase later.

            Skip the Tostones, they’re not really good enough to buy a whole basket on their own.