The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the roof-top ice dams are melting. In some places, this is called spring. But in Alaska, we have our own seasons: Break-up, Construction, Fishing and Hunting seasons come to mind. Me? I’m more of a gatherer than a hunter, so my favorite season has just begun: Food Truck Season.
There is something so Alaskan about The Spenard Food Truck Carnival. MacGyver-style kitchens-on-wheels turning out top-notch eats while stubborn diners, in ice cleats and mittens, dine al fresco under the famous Koots windmill. In another month, we’ll trade the cleats in for sandals or Xtratufs but right now, with piles of snow as the backdrop, the Spenard Food Truck Carnival is a happy display of Alaskan grit and optimism.
So, it’s no surprise that my daughter and I were there on opening day with proverbial forks in hand. You don’t need a team to enjoy the food trucks, but I recommend back-up. To me, the best food truck meal is a kind of Franken-lunch — a bit of this, a bite of that — shared with a friend or two. And if you think of the carnival not as an excursion, but a siege, you’re going to need a second-in-command to manage beepers, stake out picnic tables, take turns in line, and fetch ketchup packets. It’s a whole thing.
We began with the Smokehouse BBQ for an order of cowboy fries because we know from experience that they get this dish out quickly. Strategically, this serves as the meal’s amuse bouche — a little something to take the edge off our hunger while we planned our next steps. The fries are hot and salty, blanketed in pulled pork, cheese and barbecue sauce. Sweet, smoky, sticky, and savory, this is a meal in itself and easy to share. We considered adding a smoked turkey leg to the order after seeing one walk by — attached to a diner, not a turkey — but ruled it out as too hard to share. Next time.
Next we hit up the ubiquitous Yeti Dogs truck, helmed by Erica Stimaker, patron saint of the Alaska food truck scene. And her creative flavor combinations, like her silver “Yeti Containment Vehicle” never lose their shine. I opted for the “Big Yeti” special, which is basically a reindeer dog impersonating a burger. Topped with lettuce, onions, pickles, special sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, this creation is uncannily both novel and nostalgic. My daughter built her own custom dog beginning with a delicious smoky brat and loading it up from the well-stocked fixings table. Look for more exotic offerings throughout the summer — a week after my visit, their special was a rattlesnake sausage topped with cactus relish.
Tacos El Primo, whose motto translates to “Without love there is no flavor,” had the enviable opening day problem of too many sales. By the time we made it to the front of the line, their menu had been whittled down to one item — birria tacos. Not exactly a tragedy. I loved the rich savory stew made even more decadent by being fried up in the taco shell. And the bright colors of the fresh, crisp radishes and tangy lime wedges easily made this dish the prettiest of the day.
Dessert was a no-brainer. Babycakes Cupcakes, etc., was serving up Girl Scout cookie-themed cupcakes and I was ready to earn my badge. We opted for the Thin Mint, Tagalong, S’more, and Lemon-up varieties. There was a sophisticated twist on each that kept them from being cloying. The Tagalong frosting has a slightly salty nuttiness, the Thin Mint has an assertive hint of mint, and the Lemon-up cupcake sparkled with bright, sunny citrus. These beautiful little creations are luscious without being overly-sweet.
As the weather warms up more trucks will be joining the carnival, including some beloved favorites and a few new kids on the block.
Look for “Big Blue,” the Salmon HookUp truck. Owned and operated by commercial fishermen, these guys are dishing up the freshest possible salmon in fun and creative ways. My favorite is the flaky, crispy coho and chips but keep your eyes peeled for their salmon chowder, not always on the menu.
Papaya Tree offers a simple menu of Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese classics and is one of my favorite roving kitchens. I love the smoky, savory fried rice dishes and the magical papaya salad — spicy, crunchy, silky, salty, sweet, and spicy, it’s a master class in balance.
BruceSkis specializes in Turkish-inspired cuisine like “Turkish fries” seasoned with Mediterranean spices and garlic tahini, though I’m partial to their cumin-forward beef and lamb Adana kebab. Also, keep your eyes open for Russian Eats, which serves up homemade piroshki, borscht, and my favorite, pelmeni, silky pasta pockets filled with a savory, herbaceous meatball of beef and cabbage. A drizzle of soy sauce and a dollop of sour cream complete this plate of pure comfort.
I love Tiki Pete’s decadent dogs, sandwiches, and “more is more” philosophy. Their Mac and Cheese dog which, you’ll be shocked to learn, is a hot dog heaped with mac and cheese, is served up up with just an extra bit of love as they skillet-fry the cheesy noodles before serving to achieve maximum gooeyness and extra crispy bits — I love crispy bits. I also love the Alaska Reindeer Philly which is a reindeer dog topped with a Philly cheesesteak filling because Tiki Pete’s is all about truth in advertising.
Other trucks in the expected rotation for the summer include El Senor Moose, which specializes in Mexican tortas, carne asada, and fish tacos. Crepes de Paris offers a wide range of crepes from the traditional French lemon and butter to Alaskan smoked salmon and dill, to more playful versions like the pizza crepe made with pepperoni and mozzarella. Nonkie Be’s Cajun Faves has a fiery menu of New Orleans favorites including gumbo, po boys, boudin balls, and pork butt nuggets. And when I last caught up with Da Poke Man Express, they were serving up generous portions of glistening, watermelon-pink tuna with a perfectly balanced sweet-spicy marinade.
Gaetano’s Brick Oven is a snazzy truck with an oven that cranks up to 700 degrees, making authentic pies on the go a reality. Thin, crisp, and light with elegant, innovative flavor combinations, these are grown-up pies. My favorite is the Funguy pizza which features earthy, smoky, buttery mushrooms bedded down with a white sauce, three-cheese blend, charred Brussels sprouts, and Italian sausage. I also love the pared-down margarita pie with its bright and acidic sauce, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and a generous sprinkling of fresh basil. This light fresh pie tastes like spring on a crust.
The Hungry Deckhand boasting “Massive Sandwiches. Monster Appetites” will be selling inventive and decadent sandwiches like its namesake, a composition of gruyere, provolone, green pepper, mushroom, onion, garlic aioli, arugula, caramelized onion jam, and steak on sourdough bread. To quote the menu, “The hangry stops here.” Or try “The River,” the wildly decadent and just plain wild combination of sausage, egg, cheese, truffle mayo, and arugula, sandwiched between cinnamon French toast, English muffin and a blizzard of powdered sugar. This is some next-level sandwich wizardry and I’m here for it.
And, of course, make sure to save room for dessert like a quake shake from The Frost Boss — one part shake, one part ice cream cone, one part cookies and milk, these concoctions look like something dreamed up by a four-year-old and her pet unicorn. Or, for something a little more mobile, grab a couple of whoopie pies from Slice of Heaven. Of course, nothing goes better with a sweet treat then a specialty coffee like the kinds being brewed at Kape Espresso Tayo, which translates, in Tagalog, to “Let’s Have Coffee!”
So, if you see me this month with a song in my heart and a mustard stain on my coat, you’ll know why. It’s spring. Or as I call it, Food Truck Season.
If you go:
Spenard Food Truck Carnival
2435 Spenard Road
Saturdays: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Thursdays: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. (beginning April 13)
Follow Spenard Food Truck Carnival on social media for updates about this event and others.