The stretch of North Broadway south of Olive Street is an acutely bland corridor of downtown, fifty shades of gray and then some. There looms the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in all of its technocratic majesty and not much else. So when the food truck Go! Gyro! Go! parked here on a recent Monday, its bright blue lettering was distinctive by default. What struck me, though, wasn't the truck itself — St. Louis' food-truck boom is almost two years old now: it's no longer a trend; it's a fact of life — but the two small gyro spits slowly turning inside of it.
I've already reviewed several food trucks in this column. My approach has been, or has evolved to be, to highlight vendors where the fare transcends the medium. Or, as I wrote about Guerrilla Street Food, that it happens to be a food truck is the least interesting thing about it. But now I fear I've missed something essential about food trucks — something that didn't click until I saw the inverted cones of beef and lamb roasting inside Go! Gyro! Go!
Owner Nick Cowlen grew up in the restaurant business, working for his father at Clayton's Top of the Sevens restaurant. After a spell in real estate, he along with his wife, Laura, launched Go! Gyro! Go! this past fall. The truck's signature gyro follows the classic template: thin, tender strips of seasoned beef and lamb folded into pita with tomato, red onion, parsley, feta cheese and tzatziki sauce. The meat is excellent, the seasoning adding a lightly spicy punch to its natural flavors (to me, at least, tasting of lamb more than beef), while the toppings — especially bright red slices of tomato that actually tasted like, you know, tomato and the thick, tangy tzatziki — provide a cool, crisp counterpoint. A small, but welcome touch: Your pita is lightly toasted on the grill.
Go! Gyro! Go! also grills skewers of marinated white-meat chicken, which it serves as a straight-up shish kebab or removed from the skewer in a pita with the same toppings as the gyro. The chicken has a good balance of grill char, its own essence and a bright, simple marinade (I tasted a hint of citrus and a dash of herbs). A vegetarian gyro swaps out the meat for cucumber, green pepper and kalamata olives. The online menu lists a "Bifteki Gyro," featuring Greek meatballs, but this wasn't available on any of my visits.
Aside from its being mobile, Go! Gyro! Go! doesn't break new ground in a town that has more than a few gyro joints. (From my RFT desk, I can walk to three places — four if you also count shawarma.) This would seem not to meet my criterion for highlighting food trucks. Yet seeing the splash of color and spice that it brought to an otherwise dead block, actual people cooking actual food for actual customers, I finally understood why, besides the more prosaic reasons of convenience and curiosity, food trucks have exploded across this and numerous other cities.
Keeping this in mind, I turned my attention to Feed Me Banh Mi, which hit the streets of St. Louis in March. As with gyros, St. Louis has several Vietnamese restaurants that serve this great sandwich of meat — often several kinds of pork, including pâté and even, occasionally, headcheese — and pickled vegetables tucked inside a crusty baguette. (Technically, bánh mì refers to the bread alone, but the term has become shorthand for the sandwich.)
Owners Duke Nguyen and Andrew Fallert, both of whom graduated last year from the MBA program at Missouri State, distinguish Feed Me's bánh mì as "New York City-style." A more cynical sort than yours truly might scoff that these bánh mì are certainly priced as if this were Manhattan at $7 or $7.50 each, almost twice what they cost at most Vietnamese restaurants. In truth, though, Feed Me's bánh mì offer considerably more (and more strongly flavored) meat than those restaurants' examples.
The "#1 Banh Mi Special," or bánh mì dac biet, is as overstuffed as a Chipotle burrito, with slices of Vietnamese-style ham and barbecue-seasoned pork belly, sweet and piquant ground pork and a pâté-mayonnaise spread. This also comes with cilantro, sliced cucumber and slivers of pickled carrot and daikon radish, but these are mere dings of the triangle in this symphony of pig.
The "#2 Pork Ball Banh Mi" replaces all that pork with very tender and moderately spicy pork meatballs. The menu promises a "special" tomato sauce along with the cilantro, cucumber and pickled carrot and daikon radish, but I detected very little of this and much too much mayo. A third variation ditches the pork entirely for stir-fried steak and onions. A starter of two plump, sticky summer rolls stuffed with shrimp, lettuce, cilantro and rice noodles, served with peanut sauce for dipping, rounds out the brief menu.
If, like me, you love bánh mì in part because the meat is a component, rather than the feature, Feed Me's take on the sandwich will require some recalibration of your expectations. Get past that, though, and Feed Me is another fun addition to the food truck fleet that St. Louis not only has but now, I truly believe, also needs.
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