It's hard to escape the growing fleet of street-food trucks wending their way onto the parking lots of central Seattle—or the press surrounding the national craze for chichi street food (see sidebar, next page). Credit the recession with quashing young cooks' grander ambitions, the DIY movement for privileging the small and the hard-to-find, and American cities' gift for throwing people from so many backgrounds together.This week I made the rounds of Seattle's four newest street-food vendors. Don't call them taco trucks, even if they sell tacos. Double-don't call them roach coaches. MAXIMUS MINIMUS
Street Food Timeline: From hunter/gatherers to the Seattle Street Food Fair.
Concept: Pig-shaped Airstream, founded by Kurt Dammeier (Beecher's, Pasta & Co.), serving a small menu of pulled-pork and barley sandwiches, slaws and chips on the side, and drinks. All come in either mild (minimus) or spicy (maximus) versions.Locations: Monday through Saturday lunch at the corner of Second Avenue and Pike Street, late-night food on Pike between 10th and 11th Avenues, outside sporting and other events.Web site: www.maximus-minimus.comTwitter: @somepigseattleTweets: Functional. "We're going to the Sounders game! We'll be at Safeco Saturday from 11am to 8pm, staying for both the Sounders and Mariners."Highlights: Besides the ominous/cute appeal of the truck, which I've spotted tourists waving at guardedly as it drove through Pioneer Square as if it were a possibly malevolent version of the Duck, Dammeier's small, focused menu works. The pork sandwiches, served on a whole-wheat bun, spill over with meat that has almost been braised long enough to shred up on its own and thickly coated in a sweet-tangy barbecue sauce. There's a hint of smokiness in the minimus, coming from lapsang souchong tea, and the maximus sauce is spiked with enough chile to hurt in all the right ways.Lowlights: Sugary barbecue sauce plus sweet cabbage-apple slaw plus sugary hibiscus and ginger-lemonade drinks equals suh-weeet! The slaw, whether mini or maxi, should skew more acidic so that it contrasts with the pork sauces. The veggie sandwiches, with caramelized onions and chewy barley coated in the same sauces, make sloppy Joes look like they have OCD. They also taste like a forced concession to the meatless.Bonus: Maximus Minimus takes plastic payment, and the staff moves the line along quickly. PALADAR CUBANO
Concept: Straight-up taco truck, except for the food. Owned by local musician Pedrito Vargas, serving traditional Cuban sandwiches, fried tostones and yuca, and entrées.Locations: Just one for now—a parking lot on the corner of Aurora Avenue and North 90th Street, open 11 a.m.–8 p.m. (Imagine, regular hours!)Web site: www.pedritovargas.com/paladarcubano.htmlTwitter: None.Highlights: Those of you addicted to Paseo's midnight Cuban need to pay your respects to the original: Paladar's Cubano sandwich. No mess, just slabs of roasted pork, ham, Swiss, pickles, and lots of mustard pressed between a baguette. Straightforward, meaty, good. (A second version is offered on homemade, sweet "medianoche" bread, but it's not as good.) Vargas' cooks know how to work the fryer, producing crunchy golden tostones, starchy plantain chips, and crackly skinned wedges of yuca root served with a mojo sauce so garlicky that it makes aïoli look like a copout. On the platter side of the menu, the ropa vieja, shredded beef, is braised with a rich sofrito of onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes, sucked into the bare threads of beef as if the meat had vampirically absorbed their life essence.Lowlights: The quality varies—one night the moros y cristianos, or white rice cooked with black beans, was deeply flavorful, the next night oily and bland. The roast pork (lechón), rubbed in a cumin-orange marinade, also varied from spectacularly tender to unremarkable.Bonus: Buy six sandwiches (all $6.50 or less) and earn a free one. MARINATION MOBILE
Concept: Shiny blue-and-silver truck with windows along the full length, as close to an open kitchen as these carts get, serving Korean-Hawaiian tacos, quesadillas, sliders, and a laid-back vibe, even at 1 a.m.Locations: All over the place—for example, Belltown for lunch on Tuesday, Fremont lunch on Wednesday, at Pike and Broadway Thursday through Saturday nights (for now); more locations to come.Web site: www.marinationmobile.comTwitter: @curb_cuisineTweets: Chipper and conversational. "Oh my gawd, you guys, we have a CRAZY TASTY treat surprise for SoDo today! 11am–2pm - 1701 First Ave. South - behind Seattle Design Build."Highlights: Marination's clearly trying to reproduce the success of Kogi's Korean BBQ tacos in L.A. (see sidebar), but there are enough novel twists that it's not strictly a copycat. The kalbi (beef shortrib) and pork tacos—soft corn tortillas loaded up with tender grilled meat soaked in classic Korean marinades, frilly cabbage-carrot-sesame-cilantro slaw, and a smear of sriracha mayonnaise—are far better than the phrase "Korean taco" would lead you to expect. In fact, this may be the best street-food treat to hit Seattle since taco trucks arrived, dispensing carnitas and salsa roja. Not far behind the tacos is the Aloha slider, a tiny sweet-roll bun with smoky, oven-roasted kalua pork and the bright crunch of the slaw. The tacos and sliders all cost $2; consider ordering five. Apiece.Lowlights: The fiery, crimson kimchi fried rice, topped with a fried egg whose yolk melts into the rice as you stir it, would be great if it weren't quite so salty and mushy. Also, if you're going to order the spam musubis (a block of pressed sushi rice beneath teriyaki-brushed Spam), do it early in the night, because by the end of the shift the refrigerated rice gets tough.Bonus: For its late-night Capitol Hill customers, Marination makes a Spam slider, which is even more satisfying after four or five beers. So I hear. TAKO TRUCK
Concept: Cormac Mahoney, a former Sitka & Spruce chef de cuisine, and a partner take over the kitchen at a breakfast-lunch restaurant on weekend nights. They hang a shingle from the entryway when they're open, set up a podium in front of the door, and serve up tacos for customers to take away or eat on the sidewalk.Location: Thursday through Saturday nights, 14 Carrot Cafe, 2305 Eastlake Ave. E.Web site: www.takotruk.comTwitter: @takotrukTweets: Teen texts. "wassup seatown? wassup? wassup? cocopiggy&fries. brisket papayajicama. takotaco. caulicurrycabbage. lentils&mint&pita. sopa borracho..."Highlights: The cooks change the lineup nightly and charge $5 an order—and just two months after taping posters around the neighborhood, the sidewalk around the cafe is already packed with neighborhood regulars. On the night I visited, the cocopiggy—coconut-braised pork covered in shoestring fries with a smattering of chopped cilantro underneath—had all the deeply wrong and irresistible appeal of throwing a handful of BBQ potato chips in a ham-and-cheese sandwich. TT's brisket taco pairs long-braised beef with sharp, chile-marinated jicama threads, and the signature takotaco combines tender purple tentacles with sour cream and caramelized red onions.Lowlights: The vegetarian option—eggplant and potatoes in a Thai-style curry, topped with pickled vegetables and Thai basil leaves—came off as a resounding meh. These cooks seem to reserve their passion for full-fat meats.Bonus: If you're looking to have some beers with your meal, Eastlake Zoo will welcome you, and your tacos, firstname.lastname@example.org