Dining review: Chowing down at three food trucks
07/17/2011 12:00 AM
10/01/2014 11:08 PM
I like to think I don't succumb to gimmicks and trends. But this is different.
I just walked in the door at home and I'm sitting here at my desk after making a midday food run. I've put down my iPhone and my iPad and I've unwrapped the foil on four different sandwiches.
There is a very large Rhodesian ridgeback-mix named Oscar right behind me, and when I turn around, he's drooling something fierce.
So am I.
The reason: The home office is alive with the aromas of grilled bread, melted cheese, pulled pork, sautéed onions, braised beef and yes, even, a spicy hot kim chi.
Where did I go? The short answer is Drewski's, an elaborately painted food truck serving some superb sandwiches. I've been following Twitter and Facebook and checking websites so I can keep up with where Sacramento's new and emerging food trucks are headed. So far, the future looks bright, even if the city's food truck regulations seem overly restrictive. Positive revision of those rules could help this new food niche grow without threatening traditional restaurants that have higher rents, greater food costs and a more extensive payroll.
I chased down Drewski's in a way that is so au courant: I followed their tweets, got on my bike and rode toward my next meal.
So far, there has been plenty of hype and lots of hope. But can these new, so-called gourmet food trucks stand up to some scrutiny?
Below, I'll focus on the big three of the new-era food truck movement. I'll look at their strengths, point out a few weaknesses and suggest where they can get better. I'll also show you how to hunt them down on Twitter, whether you're high-tech, low-tech or no-tech.
Why food trucks? They can bring new style and substance to our overall food and dining scene. They tend to attract a younger crowd and their emergence here shows that Sacramento can keep up with a trend that is sweeping the country.
Food trucks can be quick and nimble. They can fill a niche or create one. They're relatively cheap to operate. Aspiring young chefs with a good idea can start with a truck, make a name for themselves and, perhaps, make it lead to something bigger. We still need more variety, and certainly more ethnic cuisine.
Food doesn't necessarily taste better when it's made in a truck, but it can sometimes be more fun, more spontaneous, and more memorable.
Food trucks can go - and should go - to underserved areas instead of rolling up near established restaurants. They can make our streets more vibrant and, thus, safer. At night (when such trucks are currently forbidden downtown), this dynamic would only be magnified.
Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen
Overall: 3 stars (good)
You take bread and grill it. You melt cheese. By now, you're already on third base. Drewski's takes grilled cheese to the next level and hits a couple of home runs. Maybe there's a fluttering foul tip, too.
One of the issues I've witnessed in the first months of the food truck craze is the long wait for food. The last time I had Drewski's, they rang me up and handed me my food in 4 minutes and 56 seconds. Impressive. The day before, at the same downtown location, Mini Burger kept us waiting for 30 minutes and 26 seconds - way too long for a burger that doesn't have a stack of 20s inside the bun.
Drewski's has four main sandwiches. One is very good, one is excellent, one is decent and one - complete with apples, honey, smokehouse almonds and brie - you will either love for its risk-taking flavor profile or deplore for making your sandwich taste syrupy sweet.
The big and bold "Hemi" costs $7.50, and for that you get a grilled sandwich loaded with pulled pork, mac and cheese, grilled onions and cheddar cheese. The pork is tender and brimming with flavor. I wish the mac and cheese had more flavor.
My favorite is the "Mustang," also $7.50, with thick braised beef that could be sliced with a butter knife and spicy Korean-style cabbage known as kim chi. This is intense, soothing, slightly exotic, crunchy, tender, and a tad spicy on the finish. It's a great sandwich, held back only by grilled bread that could be more substantial and with a crisper crust.
The "Tricycle" is aimed at the meatless crowd or those looking for a basic grilled cheese. It's good enough, and for $4 it's a decent bargain. But it's not as interesting as it should be, and there could be more options (with additional charges) - adding more cheese, going for a double decker, adding jalapeños or heirloom tomatoes, things like that.
The current special is hardly ordinary. It's the one with the honey and almonds. Maybe it should be called the "Herb Alpert" because I can't get past the taste of honey. It's too much sweetness for me in a savory sandwich. Still, I look forward to the next creative effort.
Strengths: Creative combinations, high quality, good use of meats. Don't miss the deep-fried mac and cheese balls.
Room for improvement: Better bread, more options to tweak or upgrade the sandwiches.
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Dealing with this aspiring food truck prompted me to ask a philosophical question: How long was I willing to stand on a downtown sidewalk, arms folded, with nothing to do but wait? Answer: substantially less than the 30 minutes and 26 seconds it took from the time I got in line to when I got my food. The best restaurants in town, serving a rack of lamb with a wine reduction sauce and grilled asparagus, get the food to the table faster than that.
Food trucks can be cool and creative, but they also have to hustle. Timing is crucial in any kitchen. But it's mandatory for burgers.
That said, Mini Burger pretty much rocks when it comes to the actual food.
The burgers are small and cute and mostly delicious, made with black Angus beef from Five Dot Ranch. You can have two burgers for $6 or three for $8.
There are four kinds. The "Ninja" is fantastic. Made with Asian-style slaw, pea shoots, lotus chips and Sriracha aioli, this burger is bright and lively up front with a wonderful hot, spicy finish from the aioli. A great burger that brings in multiple textures and flavors and makes it all work together in a compact package. "Da' Philly" is also a first-rate burger, with onions, grilled mushrooms, provolone and red pepper aioli. Again, the flavors were rockin' and the variety of textures gave the burger a special heft.
The other two burgers, however, were less impressive, though they may appeal to fussier eaters. They're mainstream and a tad bland. The "Cowbell" has bacon, pepperjack cheese, grilled onion and barbecue sauce. The sauce was just too dull to be worthwhile and there was so much of it that I couldn't taste the cheese. The "OG" was hardly gangsta. American cheese (whatever that means) with lettuce, tomato and onion, is appropriately mainstream for the less adventurous eater, but foodies needn't waste time on this one.
The little sweet potato tots are excellent - fun and tasty. The standard French fries are above average.
I hope Mini Burger doesn't get hemmed in by its name. I'd really like to see it offer more than kiddie-sized burgers. Once in awhile, I'd like a great, big juicy burger, or a jacked and stacked burger of some kind. It would be nice to see more options, more sizes and a little more creativity.
During one visit downtown, the buns were slightly dry. When it's such an important part of the smallish burger, that can't happen. Otherwise, the fresh buns are quite nice.
Strengths: Quality product, two great burgers, excellent sweet potato tots.
Room for improvement: More size options, more daring flavor combinations, better BBQ sauce (I'm thinking of the recipe in "Joy of Cooking"). It also needs to speed up or hire clowns to entertain us with balloon sculptures while we wait.
Mama Kim On The Go
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The first time I tried this truck was at a recent mobile food gathering on a Thursday at Tognotti's, the popular auto parts emporium at the corner of Fulton and El Camino avenues. The crowds were large but not massive the way they were at the Sacto MoFo (Sacramento Mobile Food Festival) on April 30 at Fremont Park. This weekly gathering is a great way to give these trucks a good look.
The food from Mama Kim took 20 minutes. The shrimp salad was a healthy option, with hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomato, cucumber and excellent jalapeño vinaigrette dressing. The shrimp tasted fresh and bright. But salads generally don't make foodies drool.
The sandwiches were a hit. The chicken bahn mi ($7) was very good, though not quite as exotic as the Vietnamese offerings you might find on Stockton Boulevard. This one featured a tender and nicely seasoned piece of chicken, crunchy shredded carrots and enough cilantro to make it sing. The French roll needed a crispier crust to give it more substance and a heartier bite.
My favorite is the tri-tip sandwich - thick, tender beef with creamy cole slaw on a ciabatta-type roll. It was big and tasty, just the way a food truck should serve it.
Mama Kim also offers an vegetarian Asian noodle salad ($3.50), along with a sushi roll with cucumber, avocado and spicy tuna.
Strengths: Nice simple menu, a touch of exotic, good quality products and gentle flavors.
Room for improvement: Better French roll for the bahn mi, better packaging for the food than the clear plastic to-go boxes.
If you're on the prowl for any of these three trucks, tap into their websites, follow them on Twitter and check their Facebook pages. If that's too daunting, seek them out on Thursdays outside Tognotti's from 5-8 p.m.
About This BlogBlair Anthony Robertson is The Sacramento Bees restaurant critic. He also writes the column Beer Run. In addition to visiting the areas breweries, restaurants and coffee shops, he enjoys riding his road bike, playing golf and hiking with his dogs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 916-321-1099. Twitter: @Blarob
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