The categories “food truck” and “fusion” are usually ones I go out of my way to avoid but I ate food from a food truck named Pinoy Fusion anyway. I heard tell of it in a brief discussion of Twin Cities Filipino restaurants on the moribund Minnesota forum on Chowhound and this past weekend we finally got around to trying it out. And the food was quite good. The caveat, of course, is that this is Filipino food, which means that most of it is rich and fatty and salty and sweet to the point of being cloying. (I don’t mean to give the impression that I know a lot about Filipino food—pretty much everything I know is drawn from Jessica Hagedorn’s excellent novel, Dogeaters, which uses food as a metaphor for the decadence of aspects of life in the Philippines in the Marcos era, and from conversations with a few friends of Filipino origin. Which is to say that I know next to nothing about it and you shouldn’t take any of this as an informed guide to the cuisine.)
Anyway, this is not subtle food and you’re going to need to lie down afterwards. This last bit is not a problem because this is not a food truck you’re probably going to eat at. It is parked right on University Avenue, a couple of blocks past Dale (in front of the Phil-oriental Foods grocery) and there’s no real setup to eat—and most of this food can’t really be eaten easily standing up anyway. Indeed, almost all of the (largely Filipino) clientele were carrying the food away to eat at home. We too ordered a bunch of things, had them put it all in a cooler and took it back for a picnic lunch in our little town. It helped that almost all the food we got was in the braise/stew family—only a couple of things suffered a little in the transport. But before I get to the food, a few bits of useful information.
First, here is their Facebook page. It details the location (789 W. University) and the hours and days that they are there. Currently, they’re only there on weekends but not always on both days. More importantly, at the beginning of each week the chef/owner usually posts the menu for the weekend which leaves you some time to look things up to figure out what they are/likely taste like. The menu changes from weekend to weekend, by the way—indeed, the menu for this weekend went up as I was typing this and there’s a lot of stuff on it that’s different. You can also place orders ahead of time (though this is not required and nor is it guaranteed that your food will be waiting when you get there). They don’t sell any beverages (or water) but you can buy some at Phil-oriental while you wait.
Luckily, it wasn’t very busy when I got there. Lucky, because I ordered rather a lot and it was all prepared more or less to order and also because I managed to chat a bit with both the young woman taking the orders—who is very good at translating and explaining the menu—and later the owner/chef, June Maniago. I was told by June that they have been around since January of this year (the young woman had said said last November), and that the previous incarnation of the establishment was a restaurant, Lutong Mekeni, which had to close down on account of June falling ill. The food truck is apparently doing roaring business and they are planning a second one that will likely be parked somewhere in Minneapolis.
So, what did we get? A lot, and a lot of it rather porky. In fact, there were only two things on offer that were not pork-based. At least on this occasion, however, the pork dishes were not very similar at all and so the meal wasn’t too samey. It did mean that it was particularly over-the-top on the fat front though—while only a couple of dishes used pork belly alone, pretty much all the others had a lot of pieces of meat with a lot of fat attached. There was a single beef dish (which we did not get) and one dish of grilled squid (which we did get); the menu on Facebook had included a fish dish that I’d been planning to get but it was crossed off the menu posted on the truck (they hadn’t run out—I got there 30 minutes after they arrived). What there wasn’t any of was vegetables. While there appear to be a fair number of vegetarian side dishes in Filipino cuisine, they weren’t selling any (at least not this weekend).
What We Ordered (descriptions follow):
- Chicken Pork Adobo. If you have Filipino friends or co-workers this is the probably the dish you’re most likely to have encountered. Pork shoulder braised with vinegar, this was very good.
Also available with chicken. By the way, does a pork-eating culture exist that does not have a single dish that features the marriage of pork and vinegar? [Update: eating the leftovers at lunch today, I realize that this contains both chicken and pork—I guess only pork fell to my portion on the first go-around.]
- Binagoongan. Chunks of pork belly, browned and then braised in a sauce heavy with shrimp paste. This dish brings the funk. If you’re not a fan of highly pungent fish or shrimp pastes/sauces you probably want to stay away from this. The vinegar cuts the funk a little bit but there’s no getting away from it. However, if you like the funk, as we do, then you will probably love it. We were eating with Canadian friends who were reminded of dishes made with anchovy paste and they claimed the leftovers.
- Inihaw na Pusit. Squid stuffed with vinegary onion, tomato and bell pepper and grilled. This was the one dish that suffered in the 45 drive—it was a bit too rubbery. The flavours were nice and bright though.
- Dinuguan. And if you have read Dogeaters this is the dish you will most remember: pork stewed in pig’s blood and vinegar. There was no offal in this version. I don’t know how you feel about eating dishes heavy in any kind of blood but you should know that the blood mostly acts as a thickener and in terms of flavour is like a very, very mild liver. You should also know that this does not make for attractive leftovers…
- Lechon Paksiw. Another dish of pork belly braised in vinegar, this was quite different from the adobo: more like a sweet and sour dish. I quite liked it and the flavours intensified as the leftovers sat in the fridge. I was told that this is usually made with leftover roasted pork (lechon) but it seemed like this was just made with regular pork belly.
- Pork BBQ: These are skewers of marinated pork (more like kababs) and they were bloody good. If you’re actually planning to eat at Pinoy Fusion on the go this is the thing to get. Six skewers to an order.
- Pancit Palabok. The Filipino version of chowmein it looked like. Rice noodles topped with a mild brown sauce with some boiled shrimp, slices of hardboiled eggs and little porky bits.
- Puto. Steamed, sweetened rice “cakes”. We dipped them in the dinuguan and binagoongan and enjoyed both dishes better that way than over rice. Very similar in concept to the Malayali puttu (steamed cylinders of rice flour for dipping into curries) and given the closeness of the name, this is probably not a coincidence.
- Sapin Sapin. A dessert also made from sweetened glutinous rice. It is topped with coconut which provides most of the flavour. Alas, this rendition had a soapy/flowery thing going on which was not at all to my taste. Another member of the group, however, first pronounced it unremarkable and then couldn’t stop eating it. It takes all kinds.
All of this came to just above $100. As you can see from the picture of the menu, most of the mains are priced at $10 or $12. For the portion size this is a pretty good deal. Eight adults could have eaten their fill of what we ordered, which would have put it at less than $13/head. I don’t know that I would ever get so much food from them again in one go—I did it on this occasion in order to have a more substantial review—but I think it is very likely that we will pick up a couple of things from them on the way back from our regular grocery shopping trips to Saint Paul and eat them over the week with sauteed greens and rice.
(And oh, I have no idea why they call themselves Pinoy Fusion: this all seems like pretty traditional Filipino food.)