Food trucks have always offered a great way to eat outside, which a lot of people prefer right now. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the food industry hard, and food trucks are no exception.
After a delayed start, many Winnipeg standbys are back in business, but some haven’t returned for this unpredictable and difficult season.
In normal summers, Broadway becomes a cornucopia of international street eats. Without that concentration of downtown workers hoping to catch some noontime sun, however, food truck traffic, even during the late-week lunch hour, has been sparse so far. And with big communal events being shut down — arts festivals not running, live music events scrapped, late-night venues shuttered, rural fairs cancelled — another important revenue stream for food trucks is gone. The big hungry crowds of the Before Times just aren’t there.
The good news is that even in these challenging times, some trucks are up and running — and even finding new ways to connect with their fans.
There are some familiar sights on the 2020 scene. You can still find Goldie’s old-school wagon, offering fries and more, near Old Market Square in the Exchange. Sis & Me and Falafel Queen are on Broadway.
There are also COVID-driven changes, though, with new locales, different procedures and, of course, those now ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitizer where the communal condiments used to be.
A few pointers for navigating this new food truck season: The resto business is increasingly relying on technology to get through the pandemic, and now, more than ever, you’ll need social media to find and follow your favourites. And you’ll want to keep an eye out for last-minute announcements: Some of these trucks really move. In the last weeks, for example, Lord of the Pies — known for savoury meat pies and rolls, and a dab-hand with the pastry — has been really roaming, parked at unexpected places such as Vernaus Autobody on Higgins or River City Ford on Portage.
Patience always helps. The huge lineups might not be there, but everything takes a little longer these days, as food trucks attempt to set up socially-distanced ordering and pickup — and generally cash-free payment — and patrons try to avoid milling around.
Here are some of my own experiences in this transformed food truck landscape:
With the Red River Ex cancelled, you can still get your mini-doughnut fix at Mini-O’s, which is currently stationed at the Southdale Canadian Tire parking lot off Fermor (157 Vermillion Rd.) Those little rounds of just-fried dough, tossed with fragrant cinnamon sugar and puffing up a small paper bag with their warmth, are a perfect guilty pleasure.
Also at this Southdale location are BeaverTails, the classic Canadian pastry with loads of crazy toppings, and a whole truck devoted to deep-fried cheese curds. For ice-cold drinks, check out Lemon Heaven.
Parking lots are clearly kind of a thing this year, with the Churro Stop setting up shop in the big lot at Confusion Corner (230 Osborne St.). This friendly little shack offers empanadas, but it made its name with hand-cut churros, strips of tender, sugar-crisped dough stuffed with dulce de leche or Bavarian cream or served up with dipping sauces, including a rich milky chocolate. Dee-lish.
The Little Eggplant, specializing in Italian street eats, is on the move this summer, hitting some farmers markets. It was recently in the parking lot of Shelmerdine Garden Centre (7800 Roblin Blvd.).
The fresh and packed panini include a Spicy Sicilian that lives up to its name with capicollo and hot eggplant. The house salad, with its lightly dressed greens and peppers, is terrific, and the truck also slings Italian iced coffee and gelato.
The St. Norbert Farmers’ Market (3514 Pembina Hwy.) continues to be a magnet for food trucks. The Red Ember’s big bi-level truck lets you order your pie through one window and then watch it get cooked in a super-hot wood-fired oven through another. The menu (whole pizzas only — no slices) includes classics like the Caprese and a standout pepperoni and mushroom, along with rotating daily specials. All these thin-crust pies feature upgraded toppings, such as heirloom tomatoes and ethically raised meat from Zinn Farms.
Red Ember is joined this year at the market by another Zinn farm-to-table project, with hotdogs from Wienerpeg. (OK, technically this is a stand, not a truck, but it is mobile). Served on toasted milk buns, these artisanal dogs have great bite, lots of flavour and some fancy add-ons, like the grainy brown mustard and red cabbage sauerkraut on the New York.
Also spotted at the St. Norbert Market was Pacific Spring Roll, known for crispy spring rolls as well as burgers, dogs, chicken fingers and fries. And there’s Just a Little Squeeze, a real boon on a hot summer day with its fresh-pressed, no-syrup approach to lemon and lime drinks. Daily specials might include twists like fresh fruit purees or a very refreshing mojito-style limeade, absolutely packed with lime wedges and mint leaves.
Difficult as this year has been, adversity sometimes makes for ingenuity. The food-truck experience gets a substantial upgrade at the Beer Can, a pop-up venue serving up local beers and ciders and some live music beside the Fortune Building (220 Main St.). With its smart design and good food and drink, this is a great way to eat al fresco.
Kyu Grill was in residence at the Beer Can last week, and this ManyFest favourite was serving up its inspired Japanese-fusion takes on street food, like a meltingly good pork belly dog and crisped up frites topped with kewpie mayo and roasted black sesame seeds. Paired with a bottle of crisp, tart Dead Horse cider, this food truck meal wasn’t just tasty. The reminder that Winnipeg summer goes on, even with all these challenges, was even more delicious.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
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