Feeding the Craving: Lansing’s New Food Trucks
You've probably heard rumors of a new kind of truck in town. But it's not a new design from one of the big three. These are big, roomy trucks with additions like blenders, stoves, and refrigerators. These are our newest food trucks, and they have arrived in Lansing just in time for a lovely summer. But they aren't the first food trucks in Lansing - not by a long shot.
One brightly wrapped truck, the Purple Carrot, is the brainchild of Nina Santucci and her partner, Anthony (Tony) Maiale. Nina grew up in Lansing. She attended East Lansing High School, but since high school she has traveled around the country working in some very well known—and some very forward-thinking—restaurants. Her partner, Tony, has had prestigious kitchen assignments in places like D.C.'s Citronelle, Chicago's Alinea and the longest running restaurant in Philadelphia, Marigold Kitchen. At Marigold Kitchen, Nina says, it was both fun and challenging to present diners with an entire experience - up to 20 small plates chosen by the chefs, served in sequence, surprising combinations of textures, ingredients and ideas. From those and other restaurants, the two developed a love of quality ingredients and creating an adventure for diners.
So why did these two gourmet entrepreneurs choose Lansing to try their hand at their own business? Nina's family is established here, and, she says, "There is an abundance of produce coming out of Michigan. Many things are grown here, then leave the state." In Austin, Nina and Tony got connected to the local movement. There, though the nation's economy was tanking, the local buying mentality meant that Austin continued to thrive through difficult economic times. Lansing could do the same, Nina thinks.
From Farm To Truck
The Purple Carrot's website describes itself as Michigan's first Farm to Truck food stand. Their produce comes from Ten Hens farm in Bath, and Elder Flower Farms. Nina's father has teamed up with graduates of the Michigan State University Organic Farm program, and she would like to continue to source beef and pork to the Purple Carrot from his farm. She also gets piedmontese beef from Chapman Farms in Eagle, Michigan, and buys Mangalitza pork imported from Austria and raised in Michigan, which is bred especially for its fat.
For Nina and Toni, the Purple Carrot is a step on their path to establish a brick and mortar store here in Lansing. They will continue to offer options to a wide variety of dining preferences--vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free are just a few of the diets that can be satisfied by menu items at the Purple Carrot. The day I visited they offered a vegan beet borscht, tofu and pork banh mi sandwiches, their now-famous cake pops and they had already run out of their Oberon cheese soup. You might consider visiting the Purple Carrot during the week, as they ran out of food on a recent Friday when they set up shop at a local event.
The other new food truck in town, Trailer Park'd, has a smokier, more down home flavor. When you drive up, you might notice the wood bar and bar stools attached to the side of the truck. Or you might, like me, first smell the incense of woodsmoke combining with pork oozing from the smoker. I have measured out my life in pulled pork sandwiches, so I asked the guys that run Trailer Park'd, Chef Jesse Allen Hahn (Holt High School '01) and Sous Chef Ben Ackerman where the best barbecue in town was.
I already had my answer - my consort and I prefer Curtis Famous BBQ, a north-carolina style barbecue truck that can usually be found at the corner of Saginaw and Cawood in Lansing. When I'm missing the south, I go by there to get a generous pulled pork sandwich wrapped in foil, a few ribs, or a jar of Curtis's homemade North Carolina style (vinegar based) barbecue sauce to bring home. You know he's open when you see -or smell -his smoker there on the corner. His sides, too, like red beans and rice and his greens - are as southern (and as tasty) as can be. Like El Oasis, Curtis is open even during some of the icy late-spring weather we have here--and that just might be when it tastes best.
But my question to the Trailer Park'd folks was asked before I tried their pork belly sandwich. On the days when it's available, that well may be the best barbecue in town. The pork belly is crispy on the outside and sweet and fall-apart tender on the inside. The sandwich is topped with a fresh slaw of cabbage, carrots, scapes and snow peas. I meant to eat only half, but before I knew it my plate was clean. In response to my inquiry, Jesse and Ben said they hoped that theirs was the best barbecue in town, and fretted that they were going to have to create a ribs by request list.
Because they buy the whole hog (or cow, or chicken, for that matter) there are only so many ribs that can be cooked at a time. The guys are committed to using every part of the animal that they can. "We use bones for sauces.. we'd like to get to [cooking] jowls and [making] head cheese, but we're not there yet" says Hahn. Trailer Park'd gets a majority of its produce from Owosso Organics, all of its bread from Stone Circle Bakerhouse in Holt, and meat from Clear Creek Farms in Eaton Rapids. The best cheese in Michigan, says Hahn, comes from EverGreen Farm and Creamery in Fennville; the day I visited they had Pyramid Point Chevre from there.
It's risky for Trailer Park'd to try tacos; if you've been around Lansing long you know that the king of tacos on the run is El Oasis, the two-truck operation that sells food on Michigan Ave., just west of Foster Avenue, and at Cedar and Miller. The new food trucks may use local and fresh ingredients, and try to use all of the animals, but none of them yet offers the variety of meat that you can find at El Oasis: Asada (steak), pastor (slow cooked pork), desebrada (shredded beef), chorizo (sausage), barbacoa, lengua (tongue), tripa (tripe), and milanesa (breaded steak) just to name a few.
Carlos Gutierrez, who has worked at El Oasis for about three years, notes that when El Oasis started selling food in Lansing, a majority of their customers were Latin and/or Spanish speaking. Now, he says, they have more American customers. The result? You can have your tacos American style - lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream - or Mexican style (my preference) with cilantro and onions. That might be why some customers, according to Gutierrez, have come from the new food trucks back to their old favorite, El Oasis. "They say our food is more authentic," he says. And El Oasis doesn't close in winter. "We're not scared" laughs Gutierrez.
And Trailer Park'd tacos do rival those at El Oasis, though the two are quite different. The tacos have full slices of lime along with cilantro and slow cooked pork. That's intentional. Jesse says his goal with Trailer Park'd was to give an alternative to fast food, and the best alternative he knew of was street food. "We'd love to do noodles, the ultimate street food, but... we have to grow with our clientele," says Hahn. He also had some trouble imagining people in suits and work clothes slurping noodles, though that won't be a problem any time soon.
The Lansing Principal Shopping District has had a ban on food trucks since 1996. Great options like Purple Carrot, Trailer Park'd and even El Oasis won't be available downtown as long as that ban stays in place. I asked Jesse and Ben if they'd like to see that change. "It needs to change if we want to have a downtown that is alive after 5 p.m." says Hahn, "and I think it will, eventually."