Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Serving Up Tasty Double Entendre From A Trük

As a restaurant critic, I try not to get too attached to either people or places. I am not always successful and that can put me in a bind when it comes to my subjective objectivity. I'll find myself either defending an opinion I wrote and published about a restaurant visit or realizing that in order to be fair to my readers, I must say something negative about someone's work whom I hold as a friend.

Enter Jeff Winer. When I first met Jeff, he had just opened up a small deli/cafe in Montrose called The Market Gourmet. Serving soups, salads, and sandwiches, what set Jeff's cuisine apart from nearly every other place in the area wasn't that it was fancy or expensive. The difference that set Jeff's food apart was how wonderfully fresh everything tasted. He roasted his own beef and turkey and you could absolutely taste it in every sandwich. Dressings and sauces were also homemade. Most importantly, Jeff had a great palate and knew how to combine flavors to get the best out of everything. I probably ate there three times a week. And I was in culinary bliss.

And then, with only a week's notice, Jeff gave me the unfortunate news that he and his landlord were at an impasse regarding his lease and that he would be closing down the store. I was devastated. Given the plethora of food options in Montrose and Fairlawn, it seems ironic that I would kvetch over this one tiny shop, but the notion of no longer having access to this kind of freshly prepared food just bummed me out.

Fast forward several years later and Jeff is now back, this time with partner Steve Sabo, to serve food to the public in a somewhat less orthodox vessel, a food truck. Specifically, The Orange Trük. No, gentle reader, that wasn't a misspelling; it actually is 'Truk' with the little dots above the 'u'. When I inquired about the reason for the misspelling, Jeff simply laughed and said, "You won't forget the name, will you?" Fair enough.

As opposed to some of the other food trucks I've written about, The Orange Trük is actually Akron-based as both Steve and Jeff are from the Akron area. As such, they have been pushing hard to help reform Akron's rather ancient law prohibiting anything larger than hot dog carts to sell food on public property. Currently, the truck has to park on property where they have been given permission to do so or drive up to Cleveland (which has more fully embraced the food truck concept).

The first time I saw the truck was in Fairlawn at Merchant's Square:

The Orange Trük

One of the wonderful partnerships that has grown between mobile and brick and mortal businesses is the one between The Orange Trük and Regency Wine Store located on the corner at Merchant's Square. After buying food from the truck, if you take it inside the store and purchase a lovely frosty beverage, they will be more than happy to let you sit down and eat your food. This has also been very helpful for me in my picture taking as I don't have to battle the elements while trying to balance food and beverage on my knees.

While the menu has changed over their first six months of existence, there have been some standouts and consistent dishes which I will share with you now. On the menu for quite some time was the Lobster and Shrimp Macaroni and Cheese:

Lobster and Shrimp Mac and Cheese

This dish just goes to prove that pairing cheese with seafood isn't a terrible idea, but a wonderful one! I've probably had this dish at least three or four times and every time I do, they've refined it even more. A four cheese blend coats lovely pieces of sweet seafood and was generously coated with toasted breadcrumbs. A splash of color from chopped parsley and, Et Voila!, you get the dish pictured above. Sadly, pastas have been dropped from the menu during the summer months as most people find the dish to be too heavy.

Another pasta that came and went, but is worth mentioning was the Penne with Three Meat Ragu:

Penne with Three Meat Ragu

This was another home run for The Orange Trük. The penne was cooked perfectly (i.e., not mushy), the pasta was drained properly and tossed with just enough of the pork, veal, and beef ragu to coat the pasta without drowning it. The shaved cheese on top offered a nice sharp, salty contrast to the creaminess of the sauce.

About the same time the guys pulled pastas from the menu, they started adding tacos. Specifically soft flour tacos filled with various tasty ingredients. On one visit, I decided on a pair of Mahi Mahi fish tacos with cilantro, queso fresco, Trük sauce, and a bit of homemade cole slaw:

Mahi Mahi Fish Tacos

Adorned with a squeeze of fresh lime, it felt like I was sitting on a beach in California enjoying the bright, crisp flavors of the sea. Before moving on, I should explain that once Jeff and Steve latched onto the word "Trük", they began using it any place they could. Thus, "Trük Sauce" was a red pepper and mayonnaise-based sauce that was fairly mild. They also have a "Bistro Sauce" which is a touch spicier, "HMT - Holy Mother Trükker" which has a nice kick and slow burn to it and if you are really in the mood for something spicy, get the "WTF - What The Fuck" which has some of the hottest chile peppers in the world in it. HMT is about as hot as I go.

On a separate visit, I went for another kind of taco, the Tequila Lime Chicken Taco:

Tequila Lime Chicken Taco

Topped with a mango pico de gallo and a homemade cole slaw, the pulled chicken was moist and juicy and the sweetness of the pico contrasted so nicely with the savoriness of the chicken. If you are worried about the tequila element of the dish, don't be. It was very subtle and greatly overpowered by the other elements in this delicious dish.

In addition to tacos being popular current menu items, sandwiches typically comprise the other fifty percent of the menu. Whereas Steve brings a lot of the Italian influence from his background, Jeff brings much of his sandwich-making skills when it comes to the building of a successful sandwich. Sadly, too many sandwich shops just don't understand that the basis of a great sandwich starts with great bread. Sourced from multiple bakeries, the one thing I have complimented The Orange Trük on again and again is their bread. The buns were always fresh, sturdy, chewy, and could stand up to very wet ingredients without sogging out and falling apart. Case in point? The Pulled Pork Sandwich with Homemade Cole Slaw:

Pulled Pork Sandwich

Topped with their homemade (are you starting to see a theme here?) BBQ sauce, this monster of a sandwich required at least three napkins and a fourth just to wipe off after hosing down. A single bite gave me creamy, crunchy, sweet, smoky, savory, and sour. Make sure to grab a fork when picking up your food ... you'll need it to eat all the filling that falls out while consuming the rest of the sandwich. Pictured above and below are the Trük Pickles. These were quick-curing cucumber pickles that Jeff and Steve invented early on that add a really wonderful brightness to heavy meat dishes. I usually chose to eat my pickle chip on the side as the sandwiches were already hard enough to get my big mouth around.

Another popular sandwich was the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich:

Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich

This sandwich was topped with HMT Sauce, homemade cole slaw, and another one of the fabulous Truk pickles. It was one of the better fried chicken sandwiches I've had in a long time. The chicken was pleasantly juicy and flavorful, the fried coating wasn't greasy and didn't flake off, and the acidity from the cole slaw helped to balance out the fattiness of the chicken. More often than not, every time I have one of The Orange Trük's newest concoctions, I am always pleasantly surprised at how many of my gastronomic pleasure points all seem to be pushed at the same time.

Another chicken variation that has proven to be popular both with diners was the Chicken Piquante Sandwich:

Chicken Piquante Sandwich

Instead of being a fried chicken sandwich, the chicken was instead freshly ground, seasoned, formed into a patty and then cooked like a hamburger on the flat top. While it is topped similarly to the fried chicken sandwich in the last picture, because of the way it is seasoned and cooked, it had a wholly different, but still delicious flavor to it.

Burgers have similarly gone through various phases. Always made with ground Angus beef, the burgers started out their life as a nod to the Jucy Lucy/Juicy Lucey popular in the Minneapolis and St. Paul region of the country, with the cheddar cheese stuffed inside the patty. Over time, the cheese migrated from the inside to the outside until you got the following, the Big Trükken Burger:

Big Trükken Burger

I have to admit, I almost preferred the Jucy Lucy-style burger because they had to be cooked medium-rare to medium to keep them moist. Some of the post-Jucy Lucy burgers have been cooked a bit more on the medium-well side and although juicy, just feel more done than I would like. It should be stated that burgers are neither ordered nor cooked to a requested temperature. They come out as is. Regardless of where the cheese is located, good luck wrapping your mouth around this burger because it is big!

The last sandwich I would like to mention is the Scandanavian Shrimp Salad Sandwich:

Scandinavian Shrimp Salad Sandwich

Knowing that neither Steve nor Jeff had a Scandinavian background, I asked about the origin of the shrimp salad. Apparently, it was something that Steve's wife brought to the table ... well, at least her side of the family. Freshly cooked shrimp were lightly tossed in a mayonnaise-based dressing with fresh dill and celery and served with fresh greens on a toasted roll. Other than having carnage fall out of the bun with every bite, this was an unusual and satisfying sandwich on a hot day. This would be another example where having a fork to clean up the aftermath was a good thing.

So, at this point in the review, I have demonstrated that not only did Steve and Jeff purposely misspell the word "truck", but they decided to use that word in many of the menu items. Apparently, that wasn't enough. They've decided that they are Beavis and Butthead, too. Complete with all the "huh huh ... huh huh ..." and the use of body part names.

On the menu since the very beginning were the Arancini (as they were originally called) and at some point renamed to "Trük Balls":

Trük Balls / Arancini

Generally speaking, arancini are fried risotto balls. Usually they are made from risotto that has been cooled, formed into a ball, floured and then deep fried until golden brown. This makes them crunchy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. Topped with Trük Sauce, The Orange Trük's version were quite delicious. Originally, Steve was going to rotate the ingredients in the risotto so that they'd be different every time. Eventually they settled on the multi-cheese blend that currently inhabit these fried balls of gooeyness.

Another of the fried sides that was on the menu for quite a while were the Onion Petals (aka "Trük Petals"):

Trük Petals / Onion Petals

Anyone who has ever had a Bloomin' Onion from Outback Steakhouse should be familiar with the concept. These weren't bad, but I prefer a proper fried onion ring. You can top them with any of the Trük sauces or ketchup that was available on a small table next to the order/pick-up window of the truck. During this visit, mine was topped with HMT sauce.

The last side dish to discuss were the French Fries:

French Fries

The fries have gone from the skinny cut you see above to a more naturally cut fry that was meatier and less crispy. They've always been seasoned well and never greasy. Of course, you can leave your fries as is or top with one of several truck-made sauces or truck-provided condiments.

Moving on to the sweeter side of things, we start out with another item that has been on the menu from the beginning, in one form or another, the Bomboloni or as the boys have named them, "Trük Nuts."

Bomboloni / Trük Nuts

I was unfamiliar with the word "bomboloni" and more familiar with "zeppole" to describe these small Italian donuts. I've looked up recipes for each and while there are similarities and differences, the terms apparently can be used somewhat interchangeably. What started out as basically fried dough tossed in cinnamon sugar has morphed over time into the rainbow jimmy, nut, and chocolate sauce-laden concoction pictured above. While I think the original version featured at The Orange Trük was probably a tad more authentic to the Italian tradition, I do have to admit that I do love me a sauce-covered Trük Nut now and again. Be careful as they are addictive.

While Trük Nuts have been on the menu for some time, an attempt to add more balls, this time sweet rather than savory, was made with the addition of the Sweet Apple Pie Balls:

Sweet Apple Pie Balls

Essentially risotto made with apple pie filling and cinnamon, these were sweet without being overly so and a pretty tasty way to end a meal. I will warn you that because they are essentially two large rice balls, they are REALLY filling.

A second variation on the sweet ball concept was the Sweet Blue Balls (yes, yes, gentle reader, I'm shaking my head back in forth in my hand as I type the very phrase):

Sweet Blue Balls

Instead of apple pie filling in the risotto, this time around it was blueberries. Topped with blue crystal sugar and a white chocolate sauce, this wasn't quite the success that the Sweet Apple Pie Balls were. They were a bit too sweet and to be honest, a bit too "blue". Like, food coloring blue. I have no worries, however. I know that Steve and Jeff are always thinking of new ways to flavor their balls.

So what, pray tell, were the downsides to the food truck? Well, the biggest one was finding a place where you can sit and enjoy your meal. Fortunately, many of the places where The Orange Trük sold food also had picnic tables nearby. As I mentioned earlier, if you caught them while they were at Merchant's Square, for the price of a frosty beverage, Regency Wine Store would allow you to either eat inside or on their patio. The other downside to a food truck was that when they were slammed with orders, it took a bit of time for your food to be ready. The lack of space inside the truck limited how many people could work the line at any given time. In general, expect to spend about $10-$15 to get a full meal: sandwich, side, and a drink. It wasn't as inexpensive as fast food, but it was FAR more tasty.

Many people still might have an antiquated view of what a modern food truck represents. I highly recommend you set those reservations aside, check The Orange Trük's menu and location on their Facebook or Twitter page, and discover some of the best and creative eats in Akron.

[Ed. note: If you are in the Norton area on Friday, July 5, 2013 from 4 pm until 8 pm, The Orange Trük along with six other food trucks will be gathered together at 4070 Columbia Woods. This is the second time the food trucks have participated in an Akron-based round up and promises to be a fun time with food for everyone's taste.]

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