The Bison Butler

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https://www.facebook.com/thebisonbutler/
https://twitter.com/thebisonbutler
Main Location: St Paul

Those who’ve read a few of my reviews are probably used to me starting off now and then with an exasperated, apologetic, and overall depressed statement on my inability to get to certain trucks as fast as I would enjoy. Often the issue is pure circumstance; knowing they’re out, but never having that perfect day or chance to visit. Other instances I run across a truck that I simply haven’t heard of, or only saw twitter of it one or two months after opening. But the worst feeling has been revisited this recent week, ambling out to find a truck that not only do I have little to no recollection of, but that’s apparently been in business for multiple seasons. Perhaps the name and paint looked familiar, that I may have seen once before, but truly was this vehicle alien to me, and thus I had to amble up and find out more about it.

This big yellow truck with the buffalo and grass painted on either side is The Bison Butler, a business that finds two particular impressive points to it. Firstly, and most expected, is their exclusive use of Fresh, Local, and Hormone-free product, including their Produce, Pork, and especially the Bison meat. Secondly, the goateed gentleman behind the operation painted the truck himself! Doesn’t his bison and signage look awesome? I’ve always found it sketchy doing non-professional wraps and paintings on trucks, you can always tell and it’s not always the best, but ya gotta love the simply well done, sort of native hulking figure standing there, waiting to be gazed on as you eat one of its brothers (Maybe this part would have fit my TOE section better? Oh well, come back and pretend this is the intro or finale to it later).

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When asked, they SAID they’ve been on the streets for 4 years, of course making myself feel really bad for not getting out to them sooner, I’m sorry!! Though as I write this I actually researched their timeline and found that opening happened in June of last year (perhaps he HIMSELF had 4 years experience on the streets, who knows), so I don’t need to feel SO bad now. Still need to get out to more of these guy, gosh darnit…

That aside, the truck itself really focuses on simple, classic Street Food bison and pork items. The American mammal comes in Burger, Steak Taco, and Sausage versions (I’m assuming the last is like a link sausage for bratwurst lovers, but don’t hold me on that; could be patty sandwich). Pork is often Pulled and placed in a Taco, Sandwich, or their Cuban Wrap alongside ham, pickles, pepperjack, and their creamy House Slaw. They also have a Bison Hot Dog and Rib Tips.

OH! And it’s not a local meat business without some Beef Sticks for sale on the side! In hindsight, I really should have bit the bullet and tried one, or at least asked if they make it themselves or get it elsewhere (I’m heavily guessing elsewhere). Maybe on my next trip to St Paul, they seem to be in Mears Park quite often nowadays; I’ll try and report if it’s particularly impressive!

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Food: 6.5

                Starting off with the Burger; which is offered in Mushroom+Swiss, Cajun, California (American Cheese, Lettuce+Tomato+Onion), Cheeseburger and Plain; I felt like trying the Cajun to see how they did it, as the others seemed easier to guess. Sadly, like all ‘cajun-spiced’ burgers I’ve had, you barely taste those spices, and the single thin slice of mass-produced pepperjack doesn’t actually help it; so note to all, IF going for a burger, some other option. The patty itself is of the thin and flat style and well-done; not my favorite, but considering it’s working with a very lean meat, it’s a smart choice. Any thicker and it would likely run the risk of drying out when fully cooked (and I guess there’s some reason you don’t do lean burgers medium rare? No clue what it is). Now, as a Bison Burger, this is done very well; it’s not dry or chewy, still tender, has that great little edge of gamey/earthy flavor we look for with alternative meats, and the bun is grilled. I can’t stress how much I appreciate the proper creation of this item. That said, as a burger overall, it doesn’t thrill me much; I actually read some other post on them, with a guy mentioning how juicy it is, and I’m sorry man, it’s not juicy. It’s tender, there’s a touch of moisture that leaves it enjoyable with no real complaints, but it’s not juicy. A burger should be an experience, a meal, a handful of thick meat and flavor that makes our eyes clothes and throat work happily as it’s shoved down our gullet as the juices drip down our chin or onto a plate; I still think the best ones are medium-rare or medium. And this okay-sized, thin-pattied slab of ground meat just doesn’t do that. If this was cut in half and made into sliders, it’d probably do much better; but on its own, it simply doesn’t hold up that well.

Well, moving on. I have similar opinions on the meat used in their Bison Steak Tacos, filled with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and blue cheese; feels like tenderloin, it bites easily, cooked well, a bit gamey, but it doesn’t come through in that fantastic way we hope for, sorta like those grilled asada steak tacos. Probably would be nice if it was cooked on an actual grill instead of a flat top to better get that an actual crust. What I do like about it is, for one, the inside of the taco has obviously been griddled for a bit of extra flavor, which is cool! The other fillings taste really good together, reminds me of flavors you’d expect in a basic steak restaurant, but it’s all so… dry. Not like chewy or bad dry, but they really need a sauce here, or just some pico de gallo; it’s lacking in necessary acidity, that extra element, and mouth-filling/flavor-carrying moisture, otherwise it’s just earthy, gamey, and a bit sweet from the onions.

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Just remembered, forgot to mention the fries, those aren’t all that enjoyable; in fact they’re quite weak, so one should feel no real necessity in getting them.

There is a bright spot though. I decided to bite the bullet and also grab a small, cheap Pork Taco, made from slow-cooked, local and hormone-free pigs, which first off is where I found the joy that is their Coleslaw. Purely creamy, great crunchy texture, I wouldn’t mind having this at a BBQ or at on any sandwich or burger (that’s what they should do, just top the burger and taco with THIS stuff, maybe some BBQ sauce or something else too). And that pig… oh god, this is why we need to do more proper farm-grown, local animals. It actually had flavor, was tender, moist, and it’s in two other menu items that I bet I’d enjoy VERY much. Just wish they did some more with it, everything is rather simple.

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So though executed rather well, the food I had wasn’t completely inspiring; though I hold much hope for the pork.

Holdability: 8.5

                 Since the food is rather non-juicy and devoid of much-adored sauce, it’s all actually quite compact and easy to lift and consume from its basket.

Price: 7.5

                  $8 for Bison Sausage, Rib Tips, and Cuban Wrap, $9 for the other two Bison options, and some good deals on the other pork items such as the Sandwich for $7, Hot Dog for $6, and $4 for a single taco (so a bit of nice range). They even have a combo deal of $10 Sammich/Burger with Fries and Water (which I completely forgot to grab xD darnit).
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Was thinking of scoring this a half point or so higher, but only a couple of these come with the fries (which again, not that great or numerous), and though I won’t argue the higher cost of Bison meat, the amount of meat isn’t quite that numerous, for any item I’m sure.

Speed: 8.5

I saw a Pork Taco, ordered alone, come out almost immediately, so one can assume all pork items to go out really fast, with the wrap and sammich maybe taking a touch longer (and of course enough time to deep fry that hot doggy), but the burger and steak taco needed about average amount of time, if not a bit more, to prepare. Variable, but good speed possibilities.

The TOE: 7

                  There’s the stuff I said earlier, and the fact that we get a place that deals with that classically Midwestern unique animal for meat, even if I do like the simple pig better. Sort of makes me think of the kind of place I might visit at a state/street fair; you know, during that period of life where you weren’t trying to down every completely new and weird creation out there and were drawn to those buildings displaying the fact they had Deer or Ostrich burgers. Though I do feel I’m missing that full-on feeling of place and experience looking back on it.

Tally: 38/50

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Final Thoughts

As much as I want to promote the fantastic focus on local, grass-fed Bison, I would actually implore anyone visiting to attack the other items with that slow cooked, deliciously organic and tender pork; they really do give a better lunch experience. The Cuban Wrap has that little bit of uniqueness and complete composition, while Pork Taco offers a quick, affordable grab-and-go option, both of which contain that really nice creamy-crunchy slaw. If absolutely craving that wild-roaming beast, go for the Snap Dog; hot dogs always have that perfect texture, it’s only $6, easy to grab and go, and they deep fry the bastard! What’s not to love? Though I would rather get it without the fries and have them pile on that coleslaw, maybe some nice stone ground mustard to make it perfect.

Oh, I guess I SHOULD add this in too, because I know there are those who are still planning on heading gung-ho to grab a burger, probably because they aren’t as picky (but seriously, I don’t get how people can know about inch+ thick, super juicy, medium rare and flavor-packed burgers and put something like this on the similar level of enjoyment? Again, it’s made very well for a bison burger, but if offered the choice between those two burgers then you know where I’m going), I would probably just go for a Cheeseburger, or California if you prefer the American cheese. I saw a picture of the Mushroom-Swiss once, and the fungus looked half raw. Something to consider.

Smack Shack Happy Hour

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                 Despite the many trucks I’ve been to so far and the many city restaurants I crave to visit, for research or personal reasons, I don’t actually get that many opportunities to go out, especially with my new work schedule (would think getting paid might help my cause but… not so much). Imagine my delight when, after joining multiple groups on the Meetup website (which is a great way for those house-stuck people like me to find ways and excuses to get out and socialize), my first opportunity knocked right into my ballpark: Happy Hour at the Smack Shack Restaurant.

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                Finally I can check them off my list, and soon before I’m about to hit Vellee Deli’s pop-up too! As for my little socialization thing, it was fun and eventful and a great way to spend a couple hours, but let’s get to what really matters (particularly with this blog); the Food.

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                Let me just say that walking in is the first experience in culinary delight, as the long, skinny high hallway ends right before the main bar, of which is connected to the giant Boiler Pot swimming in onions and spices (at first I wondered if it was just a big thing of popular soup or sauce or something, but nope, they use the same big thing to cook aaaaalllllll their boils. Makes me wonder of the awesomeness in flavor development as the night progresses), the aroma wafting up as one views the windowed kitchen from afar.

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                From there one can continue forward or turn into the larger bar area (not sure if Happy Hour has to be there, never asked, sorry!), lined on the left with their glass case of various kegs and bottled beer selections. I mean why store them in the back when they can all be lighted and on display?

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                After ordering a Fulton Ringer (sadly I wish they had more and interesting beers on their Happy Hour, like their drink menu, but Fulton and Summit were sorta the limit), looking very odd next to the piles of Hurricane Glasses around me (and no I’m not sure if they were better than New Orlean’s, but one can always guess; still tasty though), I placed a couple food bids from the well-priced Happy Hour selections.

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                For my first time here, I of course had to stick with some truck-reminiscent items (though I guess most of the happy hour selections were of that locale), in particular a Fried Oyster Slider. Oh, I haven’t had fried oysters in a long while, and this was a good one to come back to. Batter was good, firm and crispy, with a soft, juicy, tender inside which still contains that nice little grey-ish (I’ve discovered I like describing flavors and aromas in colors at times) briny flavor. And the mayo sauce was good too.

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                Next plate went to a couple Short Rib Tacos, made of course from Masa as it should be. Now, I love a good Short Rib, and the flavor from these were certainly proper, but it feels like they missed the mark a bit. For starters, the meat didn’t feel as tender and moist and juicy as it can be; not DRY, but like some pulled pork. I mean, if you KNOW beef short ribs, and what they can taste like after long hours of moist, rich braising…. awww man, they can just epitomize that peak of melty beefy heaven. And the texture here just seemed at a noticeably lower stepping stone than what it should be.

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                Secondly, I think the tacos needed at least one or two more elements; other ones I saw had a few toppings, while this only had pickled onions and pickled red peppers; which were good, but bare and very singular in note. Well, and a sauce too, but on bottom and very inline with the short rib flavors. Maybe just a sprinkle of queso blanco, or a little herby corn salsa mixed into the sauce, and it would have been PERFECT.

                Mind you, again, it tasted pretty darn good overall, but knowing what these guys can do I’m just surprised at what was offered over the simple possibility.

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                Of course, though this was all I ate, I had to take pictures of my colleague’s food. Both Pork and Catfish tacos were offered, and they looked GOOD (see, look at all those toppings on the fish one).

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                A Cobb Salad featuring a heaping pile of Lobster Meat, and of course some of that signature toasted Milk Bread on the side in place of croutons.

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                Someone had gotten the Blackened Catfish Slider, and god I was tempted to steal a piece of that fish; very much wish I had ordered that. It’s on the Happy Hour too, and I’m betting one of the best deals for it.

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                And it’s not a Smack Shack Dining Event without one of their Mac n Cheeses, here served into a proper soup bowl as opposed to the giant paper-made bar trays (so annoying when dealing with the leftovers). I think they got Bacon, but not too sure; and for those who still have yet to have or hear of this, it’s a must-get. Made with Taleggio cheese, it’s a much stronger and more “distinctive” flavor, but good with the bacon or lobster.

                Sadly, no one getting the traditional Roll, but I’m sure it tastes just as good as it has before. Overall I had fun, the menu was as interesting as before, a little pricey as expected though there area  few good deals here and there (especially in Happy Hour), and I was able to scratch them off my list. I do regret and wish I could have tried those Lobster Corn Dogs, but we can’t have everything I guess.

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                If you ever wanna experience Smack Shack, definitely go here; I still think that their concept is much better as a sit-down Lunch or Dinner affair than on the street, and there are a lot more various fun and interesting options. Plus, you can drink, and who doesn’t love that?

                Good Boils and Great Claw Crushing to you all, thank you to the particular social group for having me on, and I wish everyone reading luck in their street-food-related adventures!

SFC: Pork Ends and Certain Techniques

              There are so many things I’ve come to love about the world of Street Foods, Truck-based or not. But easily one of my, if not THE, favorite point comes within the use, exploration, discovery, display, and whatever other words can describe the noted exhibition of those ingredients rarely seen in our everyday American culture. I am of course talking about such thing as Offal (organs, tongue, feet, etc), Insects, and other random products which, so thankfully, have found an increase trend in the National Restaurant scene. Though of course it’s true surgance came through the streets, both international and at home, especially in the all-familiar Beef Tongue Taco (which you can find at Chef Shack and other taco trucks).

                I love being able to play around with these whenever I can get my hands on them, and lucky for me I’ve found the local Cub and other chain stores have started stocking things like Beef Tongue, Liver, Marrow Bones, Tripe, and other random items in the frozen section. Just this week, I decided to stop by once again, and happened to pick up something I hadn’t had the chance to work with yet, despite a burning interest at seeing its use in a certain episode of Triple D.

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                Oh yeah, Pig’s Feet baby. It may be split as opposed to the nice whole pieces of them, but they still feety. Memories of those weird appendages hanging suspended in a pickling jar aside, I still remember the scene of these guys coming out, fall-apart tender from a hot broth, with a spiky white-haired host describing them as “80% Fat.” And boy, was he right about that, but I’ll get to that later…

                So, what to do with this mound of bone, fat and skin? My first time working with it, having no outside knowledge concerning other ways to manipulate the pork paws (besides “pickling”… ugh), best to stick with the general Go-To for all Offal meats: Braising.

                For those who need a quick refresher course on the concept, braising is simply the employment of Two different cooking styles, most commonly a Quick, Hot Sear to the product followed by a Long, Slow Poaching (flavorful liquid preferred); in China they actually employ a reversal of this, boiling some meats for a while before finishing in a wok!

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                If following along, make sure to get a nice, wide-bottomed pan up to high heat; I just use a Dutch oven so I can do both cookings (though you can sear in one pan and poach in another if preferred). The oil really should be SMOKING when poured in; dump in the meat, leave for about a minute or more to get that hard color (w/out burning) and turn to get all sides.

                Going from here all depends on what one wants to cook it in, and what one has; the only thing I suggest is not doing just water. Since I sadly didn’t have any stock or broth around, I looked to add flavor in other ways. Luckily I had some tomato paste leftover in the fridge, so I employed a classic technique learned through school. Tossed it into the hot oil, along with some whole garlic cloves, actually letting it sorta caramelize/sear/whatever for about a minute (stirring).

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                By now, the bottom of the pan has a little bit of crusty bits from the pork, tomato paste, and who knows what else stuck to it. This we call “Fond,” and it’s the delight of all broths, stews, etc; we WANT this (so long as it’s not all black and burnt), so before adding whatever base liquid, we need to deglaze that pan. As such, I added the rest of a bottle of red wine (can also just use water) to boil and dissolve the concentrated flavors, scraping the bottom with a non-metal utensil to get it all off.

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                Once done, I filled it to the top with water (wish I had stock… sigh) and added in some stalks of celery and carrots to help provide that aromatic background the broth would have had, along with herb stalks (had some cilantro handy) and a little something else.

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                Yeah, pre-packaged spice mix. Don’t normally use things like it, but the folks used this dressing in a tasty dish a while back, we had some left, and again I needed something to fill in for depth and complexity. Remember this, following a set recipe is all well and good, but we don’t always have the needed materials on hand; that doesn’t mean we have to drive all the way to the store to buy something JUST for a one-time use. Learning to use random things we have in place of what we don’t not only allows us flexibility in cooking, but a great way to use up leftovers!

                All that’s left to cook it fully is to cover and simmer for at least 2-3 hours. Once done you’ll have pieces of pork feet that’ll pull right from their bones with just a tug of the fork.

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                While this is cooking, there IS something that needs contemplation; a sauce. Even with its flavor absorption and moist texture, I’ve found many braised meat meals just aren’t complete without some sort of sauce to raise them up, preferably one made with the same cooking liquid. My personal favorite thing to do is simply turn it into a gravy, or just reduce the liquid down until saucy, though not all cooking broths will do this properly (depends on what’s in their).

                Goin’ with the gravy, then, we start, of course, with a Roux: a 50-50 (ish) mix of butter, melted in a pan, and flour, added to it. A very classic ingredient to many French sauces, this allows a sauce to actually thicken while also providing a little flavor if handled right, depending on how long it’s cooked after combining the two ingredients. It’s said that classic French “Roux Masters” can identify 15 (or more) different stages of roux as well as know each of their proper uses. The rest of us mortals, on the other hand, happen to stick with 3: Blanc (white), Blonde(… blonde), and Brun (Brown).

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                Cooked very briefly, the little paste (pictured) will actually lighten a bit in color, which is blanc; left to start darkening a bit, without actually browning, and it has reached the blonde stage. These are well known for their use in cream-based (blanc) and light-stock or other liquid based gravies. I, on the other hand, am going for a darker gravy, so I cooked it even further, to a nutty-smelling, coppery brown color. After which I added some of the liquid from the braise (after it had enough flavor from reducing and the meat) until it was thin, whisking constantly until it boiled to a good, sauce-like consistency. (on a personal note, I also decided to add a bit of brown sugar and bbq sauce to adjust my flavors)

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                I know I didn’t really say TOO much to explain the idea of roux and its use, but all you need to know is this; the more/darker you cook a roux, the more flavor it provides, but inversely the less it’ll actually thicken. And Traditionally, one tries to match the color of the roux with the color of the sauce used.

                My sauce ready and on the side, I can return to the pork, gingerly separating it from the rest of the hot liquid.

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                With all the little knuckles and joints and whatever, takes a bit of time to remove the hot flesh from the bones.

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                And now, one can make the choice to eat them in these big, rich chunks, or chop them up fine to use in your own little street food mementos. I of course chose the latter (though I did munch on some bigger pieces beforehand…).

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                Once prepared, its uses are various, whether it be serving over a warm polenta with roasted tomatoes and sauce…

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                Or mixing with the gravy itself, as such:

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                And placing in a little taco like so. Maybe a little pico de gallo and slaw, or in my case some leftover cooked kale, shaved baby fennel, and cilantro.

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                Oh, and how does it taste? If you’ve ever had chicken’s feet, it’ll provide you with an idea, only even more of that tender Fatty, Cartilage-y type substance, a little bit of meat here and there, mmmmm. It may not sound good to some people, but this is tasty stuff, especially paired with the right things (was great with that polenta). Lot of that good meaty “gelatin” inside; it’s actually sorta funny, the leftover in the fridge have actually turned back into a sort of jelly themselves.

                Well, a little long for a post about just braising pig’s feet, but any good talk of Offal needs to be. And whether it be at home, restaurant, or Truck, cooking Offal or just a tough piece of shoulder, everything here works. Hopefully you were able to find at least some enjoyment in this discussion of the off-used products, I know I did.

                Until my next long-winded dialog, Good Luck and Good Eating to all!