What kicked off the local food truck revolution, which has veritably transformed Minnesota food the last few years? A good argument could be made that it was the Indian-spiced mini-donut, which Carrie Summer debuted at the Mill City Farmers Market in the summer of 2007.
By that year, Summer already had an illustrious cooking background: She had been the Nicollet Island Inn’s pastry chef for a year, maestro of the avalanche of tiny precise sweets that fuel that particular icon. She had been the opening pastry chef at a series of high-profile fine dining restaurants, including Lenny Russo’s Cue and Brenda Langton’s Spoonriver. Importantly, she also had helped open Café Barbette, not just cooking, but actually tiling the floors before the doors were open. That’s where she met Barbette’s head chef, Lisa Carlson. “She showed up in her coveralls and that was it for me,” remembers Carlson. The two fell in love plating the frites and crepes for which Barbette is still famous—they just celebrated their 13th anniversary.
In any event, Summer had a starry resume for someone slinging donuts on a table at the farmers’ market. But at the next table over, selling gazpacho, Carlson had an even starrier one. She had cooked for a year at Campton Place under Daniel Humm (he is currently considered one of the best chefs in the world for his work at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park). Before that she worked at Lespinasse in New York under Gray Kunz, which in food circles is a little like being on the 1927 Yankees. Carlson also held a host of local top chef positions, including running the restaurant at the Whitney hotel and helping open Spoonriver. But love brought donuts into the mix. “Carrie said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do donuts, so I had to buy this donut machine,’” explains Carlson. “All I could think was, ‘This better work . . .’ We were set up in the train shed of the farmers’ market, on tables. She had her donut machine, and next to her I was doing a tomato watermelon gazpacho. Carrie was always slamming busy, and I’d just be standing there, calling out, ‘There’s no line for gazpacho!’”
It was by the undeniable success of her mini-donuts that Summer convinced her high-octane partner to use her world-class skills to start slinging hot dogs and burgers, and the rest is history. They bought a trailer the next summer, and the big-news-of-the-decade Minnesota food truck scene was born.
“All of our chef friends were nervous for us,” remembers Carlson. “Our colleagues were all saying, ‘First you’re doing this really elaborate food; now you’re selling hot dogs and donuts. What are you doing?’ But Carrie was saying, ‘I’m going to make you famous for your hot dog.’ I had to get over myself. I just thought, ‘Whatever you do, you have to do it well.’”
And so the grass-fed hot dogs with their crowning graces of different market pickles were joined by bison burgers blanketed with soft egg, soft-shell crab po’boys, goat’s milk ice cream, diverse curries, and a nod from Bon Appétit as one of the top 10 food trucks in the country. Then last year Summer and Carlson bought their first restaurant without an odometer—Chef Shack Bay City is a summer-only spot in Wisconsin. Then in August they leased a rundown spot on Franklin, not far from the Mississippi, and started going in on days off in unmarked cars to cover the walls with their many antiques.
So how is this new Chef Shack Ranch? It’s fantastic! Basically, it’s the truck—with a roof! I mean it. It’s exactly like going to the truck, only there’s a roof over your head and you have the option to sit at a table that’s little better than a picnic table, but the prices stayed truck prices, so that seems fair. There is a little more than the truck had: There’s also the option to buy good, inexpensive beer or wine, for instance. But the rest is very truck-like. You walk into the spot, you stand in line—there’s nearly always a line, as it’s only open for dinner Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and on Sunday for brunch—you order from a menu board tacked with various pieces of paper advising what the kitchen has that minute (the options number between a handful and a dozen). After you order, you get a number and someone runs the food to you at one of the 20-odd tables (different from the truck!). But even with that it can still feel like you’re dealing with the chaos of the truck, because smart visitors will quickly realize that there are sometimes more people with numbers awaiting food than there are actual tables, so people do things like grab a table first and leave one of their party to hold it, while someone else braves the line and maybe orders four drinks for two people, because it’s too horrible to have to go wait in line again for that second drink. So that’s gonna drive some people crazy. They won’t come back—but a million more will fill their unclaimed tables, because the food remains fantastic.
Chef Shack’s grub remains, as far as a truck by the side of the road with a roof goes, spectacular. I swooned over the fried chicken wings: The skin is a few microns thin, crisp as spun sugar, potently spicy, richly meaty. They leap to the heights of the best chicken wings in town, instantly. The now-classic Chef Shack fries are here, crisp and potatoey, and the mini-donuts, of course—sweet and light and fresh as ever.
There are two big pieces of new business at Chef Shack Ranch. One is the brunch: eggy plump French toast with an appealingly intense blueberry compote, hangover hash with potatoes, some meat or other, and a fried egg, like the truck stop hash of your dreams.
The other big news is the arrival of the meat plate, a $25 tray of buttery and tender biscuits, baked beans, a bacon bratwurst, fresh cucumber pickles, perky red cabbage, and some combination of pulled pork, barbecued chicken, and brisket. Hope for the brisket. It’s that perfect union of absolutely tender, meaty, and substantial beefiness echoing with layers of smoke and umami flavors, head and shoulders above any barbecued brisket we’ve ever had in Minneapolis. But don’t call it barbecued brisket—Summer and Carlson are leery of the cult of barbecue and pit masters. “It’s just truck food at truck prices,” explains Carlson. Except that this brisket derives from a 12-hour braise with collagen-rich classic stock made from chicken feet, such as Gray Kunz or Daniel Humm might make but most pit masters wouldn’t.
Which is to say that the most surprising thing about the new Chef Shack Ranch is not how good this truck-food spot with a roof is, but how good it has always been, and how it got to be that way. It’s a very Minnesotan story: A lot of joy can follow when you fall for a girl who loves mini-donuts. 3025 Franklin Ave. E., Mpls., 612-354-2575, chefshack.org