Friday, 14 December 2012

A Practical (and Tasty) Solution to the Food Truck Logistical Challenge

Dinin' Hall on Urbanspoon

Not knowing quite what to expect, I drove up to an industrial warehouse-type structure situated on West Rich St in the Columbus community of Franklinton. It was only a bit past 6pm but the crisp fall into winter air paired with the quickly darkening skies. I knew I had arrived to my destination as I saw three lit trucks parked alongside the building; having parked within easy walking distance, I made my way into the parking lot where one of the first images to greet me was a huge painted slice of bacon. This growing evening crowd of foodies was clearly in the know that Dinin' Hall was open for business.

A few weeks ago, I had learned via Facebook that ColumbusUnderground.com would be holding its holiday party at Dinin' Hall; the part that stuck out to me was that there would be food trucks present for dinner. After working out my schedule (thanks, Molly!) I was excited to check out this culinary corner of Columbus particularly as this would be my first (and hopefully not my last) food truck experience. Even that I suppose is arguable, depending on what you think of when you hear "food truck" and I'll preface this experience by stating that my knowledge of the recent trend in food trucks had been limited to Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race. Sure, I've had street and fair food before--food which for better or for worse appeared from or was made in part or whole from within a cart or truck--and my first notion of the mobility of food for sale was probably in the form of the ice cream truck. Times have certainly changed since then and cognisant of the ugly sides to the food truck narrative, the story is finding its niche among this generation of foodies. From the first food trucks of Los Angeles to the streets of New York to the innovation and support of food trucks in New Orleans to here in central Ohio (even my downtown staple of Da Levee has its own "express" cart) and even in metro Detroit, it is clear that today's mobile food stations are here to stay, that is if they can figure out the politics of the business (especially in relation to traditional restaurants), continue to hold their ground against national chains and find a parking spot (which is arguably the most difficult of the three). Cue the entrance music for Dinin' Hall.

Known as "Columbus' first street food hub," Dinin' Hall welcomes a rotating, diverse crowd of food trucks to its parking lot from Monday thru Saturday, 11am-2pm with occasional evening events such as yesterday's holiday party. After ordering your meal from your food truck menu of choice (or if you're like me components of your meal from more than one menu), you receive a number and ticket for each order and then head inside to get a drink (should you want one) and then you pay for your meal. Next, you find a seat and within about 10 minutes your food is delivered to you. There's so much win in this contemporary restaurant concept, no?

Having said all that, let me walk you through my solo dining experience: After checking out all three menus (1, 2, 3), I settled on ordering from That Food Truck and Swoop! Frankly, I would have also ordered from Street Thyme if I hadn't been so full / didn't want dessert (as if that would ever be the case). Though I'm not one for beer, I did grab some Barley's Christmas Ale (crisp start, smooth finish) and then headed inside. As the clamor of the central Ohio foodies surrounded me, the background noise of holiday chair amplified the tasting experience. And within seconds of sitting down, it was unquestionable that everyone within Dinin' Hall was a member of the community, a community that celebrated and appreciated food with local (and in some cases, glocal) entrepreneurial flair.

Despite the apparent crowd, the three food trucks were quickly churning out hot, quality and aesthetically-pleasing food. Due to their portion sizes, I began with the mix-and-match sliders I chose from Swoop. It's been said less is more, but these sliders prove that constrained can mean impact. My first bites were of the Jerk Fried Chicken, a personal favourite of one of the food truck employees. Tender and moist, the chicken was cooked perfectly, with the slightly spicy but not overpowering flavours layered in such a way that the heat finished the bite as opposed to destroying the taste buds and preventing anything else from being enjoyed. Next up was Swoop's award-winning LJ Had a Little Lamb (and Then We Ate It) burger that features lamb bacon, tomato jam and smoked gouda, ingredients of which in some form or another are among my favourites. Along with the fact that the burger patty is hand-formed, Swoop's slow food style influences are very much apparent and further justify it's Columbus' Best Burger 2012 award. As an aside: extra points go to the soft rolls they use which are much preferred in my book to regular hamburger buns.

With my appetizer course complete, I moved onto the heavier items from That Food Truck (the one with the giant bacon decal). Equally attached to slow food approach via the Farm-to-Truck concept, That Food Truck had the largest menu of the three. My eyes went straight for the evening's special--braised beef with, among others, spaetzel, glazed carrots and brown butter (an homage to Chef/Owner Dan's French training?)--while my stomach immediately went to the crispy pork belly. Admittedly, I had also contemplated the squash fritters for something healthy-esque but Owner/Operator Steve said that folks always peg the pork belly as one of their favourite menu items. In retrospect maybe because the food had sat out too long while I was savouring Swoop's sliders, but most likely because it had sat out too long at the window amidst the chilly weather, the braised beef was a touch too dry and not as melt-in-mouth as I had expected. Having said that, the beef was tender (achieved by the braising technique) and the additional components lived up to pulling the dish together and showcasing the dish's diversity of texture by way of the carrots, turnips and spaetzel that had been coated in delicious brown butter.

As for the pork belly done right: oh. my. delicious. As a whole, I can't help but wonder if the dish as had been served to me was meant to be plated as it was. The end result--intended or not--turned out to be a culinary example of the flavours of east and west meeting on the plate (or rather in this case, in the food boat). The braised red & green cabbage (entirely reminiscent of my homemade sauerkraut) had a rather sweet quality to it that complemented the fattiness of the pork belly while its underlying sharpness cut through it. And the apple & hazelnut chop with chili salt added great texture to otherwise softer components. The puzzling appearance of seasoned popcorn was great on its own and with the rest of the dish enhanced its savoury quality.

Another reason to look forward to last night's holiday party were the desserts from Columbus-based Mozart's Bakery & Piano Cafe (Clintonville), Sugardaddy's Sumptuous Sweeties (Downtown) and Cookie Cravings Bakery (Italian Village). As it turned out, the three dessert tastings I chose were from Mozart's and Sugardaddy's. I first began with the Mini Chocolate Raspberry Tart. As I bit into the shell, my tongue pushed the layer of raspberry through the chocolate, creating a smooth and consistent chocolate raspberry flavor that tasted refreshing rather than artificial.

Next up was the Mocca Petit Four which was draped in a firm coating of white chocolate lightly coated with a silver dusting powder. The bite into this one offered a similar type of pleasure akin to breaking the sugar top coat of a crème brûlée (is it just me?) which collapsed into the soft vanilla cake and rich coffee cream. A sweet, thin layer of what I'm only guessing is an apricot jam rounded the flavours nicely.

To complete my meal, I went for the Caramel Brunette brownie, despite my aversion to chopped nuts. What looked to be a dry, simple dessert turned out to be something of a a rich, fudge-like quality due in large part to the great caramel layer. That being said, I wonder if I felt a bit underwhelmed by this bite given the amount of food I had eaten or because of the high level of expectation I placed on it after reading of the company's accolades. Or maybe I'm just not a fan of pecans? I'll definitely need to get my taste testing on that in the near future.

After my quick self tour of the rest of the building (I'll more quickly note that the couple I sat next to during dessert said they really enjoyed their Thyme burgers), I introduced myself to Dinin' Hall architects and owners Tim and Eliza. A wonderfully hospitable and enthusiastic duo, they explained that they're currently renting out the space alongside the artist's in the other half of the building. Only about six months in operation, Dinin' Hall seems to have certainly been a welcomed addition not only to this part of Columbus and its immediate community but to the food truck culture of which it's playing an important part.

This was especially evident on my way back to my car as I stopped by Swoop to tell Chef Matthew and co. that I found their pair of sliders to be consistent and amazing and That Food Truck to compliment them on my favourite single component of the night: the pork belly. In my brief conversations with both food trucks (both of which have been in full operation for less time than Dinin' Hall has been open), it's clear that there's a great and growing support network for all of these folks with similar foodie dreams. As dreams continue to develop into realities for Columbus's food truck owners and chefs, I'll continue to support and wish the best for them all, for it would be a gastronomic and cultural shame to lose a part of this very promising industry in central Ohio. As for those who are buying into gourmet (defined here as attentive complex simplicity) food truck culture, we need places like Dinin' Hall around to encourage the food trucks to keep on cooking. Especially in this light, Dinin' Hall truly lives up to its tagline of "Great Food. Great Space. Great Community." And really, isn't that what food is all about? To check out these and other photos from last night, click here.

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