Chef Joe Youkhan's Tasting Spoon
Stories of Joe Youkhan's arancini reached my ears long before his truck of many colors hit the road. I was invited to a couple of pre-launch events, but it was during a really busy period at work and I had my head buried in software design rather than in luxe lonchera launches
The truck doesn't keep a regular schedule; one gets the impression that Tasting Spoon is principally a catering business and the truck only goes out on dates when there's no competition for the commissary space.
The upshot of all this is that it took me almost four months to eat at the truck three times.
I almost didn't go back after the first time.
The truck landed, serendipitously, at the business park where I work, on a day when I had time to go downstairs and eat. The truck parked from 11 to 2, and by noon they had sold out of the burger and the calamari tacos. The sliders that everyone raves about were not on the menu; neither were the arancini. They were typing credit card numbers, expiration dates, the numbers from home addresses, and amounts into a BlackBerry by hand, which took 3-5 minutes per person--and corporate drones pay for EVERYTHING with credit. (This has since changed, and they have an iPhone adjunct to swipe the physical card now.)
Undaunted, we ordered a promising-looking pizza ("Fall Harvest", $11) with butternut squash, roasted vegetables, pancetta, and charred brussels sprouts. The individual vegetables were excellent; the problem was that they were drowned out by so much squash purée that the center of the pizza disintegrated.
Cold quinoa salad with vegetable fonduta--mostly eggplant and peppers--came out of its container in one wet block. I put it in a disposable bowl and fluffed it as best I could, but when I took a bite, it had so much feta in it and had sat "marrying" for so long that the salt had permeated every bite. Had this been tossed fresh, it would have been excellent.
Molten chocolate cake with crème Chantilly and caramel was quite good. Sadly, it had been pulled too soon, and the promise of gooey chocolate was replaced with what was essentially a chocolate truffle. It was, to be fair, a very good truffle, but it was not a moelleux au chocolat.
I was disappointed. I confided my disappointment--something I never do with anyone except my fellow Forkers--to someone who'd been a couple of times. He encouraged me to go back. I kept hearing such glowing reviews from everyone--including food critics whose taste I trust--that I went back twice, determined to order from the standard menu.
The pizza margherita essentially exists to showcase the truck's excellent tomato sauce. While margherita is classically just salted tomatoes with basil and fresh mozzarella, the sauce (a marinara using San Marzano tomatoes) works well here. The first time I ordered it, it was a great lunch on a day when I was rushed for time, but the second time, the cheese was strangely rubbery and there was Thai basil on it instead of sweet Italian basil. Use some well-drained fresh mozzarella instead of the aged stuff, and it'd be far better.
Having been introduced, then, to the amazing sauce, I ordered spaghetti and meatballs.
Well, this is not 1985, and we are not in some community untouched by the Food Network. There is no reason to serve a bowl of semi-drained spaghetti with marinara sauce slopped across the top. The idea that pasta needs to be cooked al dente and then finished in the sauce--where the starchy water helps tighten up the dish--is not news. Even my four-year-old daughter asked why the spaghetti was pink and wet. For $10, I expected better.
At long last, on my third visit, I finally had the arancini, stuffed with ragù and a little nugget of fontina that melted and held all the assorted pieces together. It was dusted with grated cheese and served with a deep cup of that excellent red sauce. This was worth every other dish I'd had and rejected; these arancini are as good as any you'll find in Italy. If the Tasting Spoon pulled up to a brewery where I was drinking, I'd order up the bitterest IPA the brewery had, eat two orders of those arancini, and call it dinner.
For all the issues I had, it's obvious they're good at putting flavors together. They're just not good lonchera cooks, and the truck is too expensive for what comes out of it. At its core, the problem is that the food they serve needs to be cooked à la minute, which is hard to do on a truck. If Youkhan opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant with enough prep space to do it right, I bet he'd make a killing.
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