At first glance, Love Park one rainy day a few weeks ago was the scene of the food-truck version of David and Goliath, or Douglas versus Tyson. There sat the Lucky Old Souls burger truck, festooned in beautifully designed graphics and wink-wink descriptors along its flank (“speakers,” “front wheel,” “menu,” each with a loosely-drawn arrow pointing at the appropriately referenced bit), blasting impeccably chosen jazz, blues and standards. It idled there regal, proud, full of visual and aromatic consequence, the warm smell of grilling grass-fed flesh surrounding it like a glorious cholesterol-packed cloud.
Off to the side, and on the complete opposite end of the truck-couture spectrum, the Mini Trini truck executed a dozen-point turn in order to back into its allotted space, caddy-corner to its more well-dressed automotive neighbor. The only music it brought to the block was the whirr of its engine, the only indication of what gems it hid inside a modest, rectangular flag bearing its name against a stylized version of the proud red-black-and-white flag of Trinidad.
But what gems they were. Even after I rudely started her day with a request for one of everything on the menu, Iman Marcano, who owns the truck and Chestnut Hill’s Calypso with her mother, Claudette Campbell, simply shrugged her shoulders and got to work.
It’s clear, from first bite, that this is a labor of love. Mini Trini delivers fabulous, compulsively delicious riffs on the flavors of what is one of the great culinary heritages of the Caribbean, its combination of Indian, African, European and countless other influences somehow both crystal-clear and well-integrated into each dish on the limited yet well-executed menu. (Most dishes are partially prepared at Calypso and finished here on the truck, which, by the time this review runs, will have been given a makeover and total body-graphics wrap.)
Harvest corn soup is an immediate surprise with its hefty disks of sliced corn on the cob. The broth itself—a beautifully house-rendered water base lovingly seasoned by Claudette with plenty of fresh thyme and the gently throat-tingling heat of a top-secret spice blend—highlights the starchier nature of the marquis ingredient. Lentil soup plays in more familiar territory, save the perfumed lift of spice (it tasted like coriander, but I was told it’s something else that I couldn’t be privy to).
Bake and saltfish is an intense, finely layered sandwich stuffed with so much of what’s good and tasty in life—sweet, soft fried plantains, razor-thin cucumbers, saltfish buljol (cod mixed with peppers, onions, olive oil and other goodies) with an intensely concentrated, tamarind-rich hot pepper sauce. Sandwiched between fried bread and squashed together till the filling starts to extrude from the sides, it’s like some sort of miraculous, soft-souled Caribbean panini.
The Indian influence on the cuisine is more clearly expressed in the curry-perfumed chicken roti. In it, generous, tender chunks of bird commingle with heady pieces of potato, both given more depth with chickpeas and cosseted in a huge, homemade roti of remarkable freshness. Wash it down with a mango lemonade: the surprising florality of the fruit is a nice counterpoint to the curry’s heat.
For $3, “doubles”—curried chick peas, Trinidadian pumpkin and cured mango are hugged by a couple of slices of bhara, the split pea-flour bread so beloved on the island—are a serious vegetarian treat that even avowed omnivores could love. Sweet potato puffs, all nutty and snappy outside, gloriously glutinous and chewy inside, are among the top fried-starch dishes I’ve tasted all year.
All of this is to say that Mini Trini is yet another winning entry into our city’s ever-swelling ranks of standout food trucks. It’s also proof, yet again, that appearances can be deceiving: The lack of visual flash here bears absolutely zero relation to the fireworks they send out.
Perhaps, though, the David and Goliath comparison is inaccurate in this case. Because on this little corner of Love Park, the real winners are the smart people who come out to take advantage of a seriously tasty and justifiably tempting little patch of our city.
Usually parked at Love Park.
Cuisine type: Trinidadian.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-3pm at Love Park; check Twitter.com/theminitrini
Price range: Under $10.
Atmosphere: It’s a truck.
Food: Well-made, tasty and evocative.
Service: Friendly and helpful ... even when you ask for everything.
Philabeverage: Veggie Pairings