At 8:25 on a Wednesday morning in late February, the only thing grayer than the sky is the back of the food truck. Nearly every inch is covered in stainless steel.
A large plastic cooler functions as a seat in an aisle about the width of a doorway. On the driver’s side, a 36-by-22-inch griddle, a three-compartment sink, and assorted kitchen appliances acquired on eBay and Craigslist. On the passenger side, a three-door fridge stocked with about 15 pounds of beef and 20 pounds of pork. Overhead, a bungee cord spares the truck’s three rear passengers from a downpour of napkins and to-go cartons.
It’s cold, curl-your-toes-for-warmth cold. And loud—what is that rattling?—but not so loud that the chatter about the day ahead can’t break through noise. Chef Donovan MacInnis stands where the passenger’s seat would normally be, while Mark McConnell, who launched Off the Rez with his girlfriend, Cecilia Rikard, captains the 1992 Chevy Grumman Kurbmaster from a tattered blue seat.
As it barrels past a stretch of restrained one-story buildings in SoDo, the truck, named Big Chief by its owners, provides a splash of color. “Nice bus!” bellows a driver at a stoplight. They get that a lot. Emblazoned on one side is the turquoise profile of an Indian chief in a war bonnet. On the other is a man (he’s purple) taking a hit off a peace pipe.
It is Rez’s third week in business, though the truck had been buzzed about for months. Partially because of those murals—commenters on online forums had complained of unflattering stereotypes—and partly because of the Native American classics on the menu, mainly frybread. The fried dough plays an important role in Native American culture but has been all too rare in Seattle.
McConnell stops at a gas station to pick up a Red Bull and a Frappuccino for two crew members, then rolls up to a curb between Boren and Harrison in South Lake Union at 9:06. It’s a spot in Seattle secured by Amy Novak, an admin of Buns food truck, for her four-wheeling friends. The owner of the lot charges the trucks $60 a day. By contrast, a city-designated slot, handed out in four-hour increments and good for one year, costs about $470 annually. The spot has been a good one for Off the Rez, drawing as many as 120 customers per day. The drawback is the sloping pavement, which elevates one side of the trailer to an awkward angle. “That’s the only thing I don’t like about this one,” MacInnis says as water from the full sink spills onto the floor.
Within 20 minutes, though, the griddle cackles as MacInnis flips a mound of beef then places it in a warmer. MacInnis had done all the prep at Rez’s commissary on South Brandon Street, both for convenience—last night he made 120 pounds of chicken chili verde, which should last two weeks—and for regulatory reasons. Raw meat, for example, can be cooked, but not cut, on the road. Tomatoes and lettuce must be washed and chopped beforehand.
Outside the truck McConnell’s cousin, Kigali Davis, hangs up the day’s menu, piquing the interest of a passerby. “I’m from South Dakota,” he says, contemplating the offerings. “I wanted to make sure it’s the right stuff.”
He means the frybread. Crispy outside, feather-light inside, and laced with a hint of honey, frybread is a novelty in the tortilla- and bun-heavy street scene. McConnell grew up in Ballard eating frybread made by his mother, a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana. She counseled MacInnis, McConnell’s friend from Ballard High School, as he spent half a year perfecting his recipe for the pillowy pucks—now the crux of Rez’s menu. That frybread is now readily available has been heralded by local Native Americans—“Yes!! Yes!! Yes!! I am so excited about this, it’s long overdue,” posted one fan online. At its best, street food stretches our palates by introducing us to flavors and cultures underrepresented elsewhere. And for that our flourishing culinary scene is expanding—kind of like the frybread.
A little after 10am MacInnis’s brother, Kelly, unloads 300 or so dough rounds, one-fifth the number they sell each week. He starts the fryer, his forearm branded with a wicked burn from a recent shift. “He’s got the touch,” coos McConnell as Kelly drops the dollops, just under two ounces, into the oil. They triple in size. Kelly gives each side a 30-second dip then pulls one out to reveal a puffy disc with slight air bubbles—perfect.
The foot traffic that trucks generate can bring vital street life to a neighborhood. That’s certainly the case today. At 10:45 the first customer arrives and orders one frybread with honey. By 11:30 the hungry tech workers from Amazon’s South Lake Union home have begun to fill the streets. “Put your smiley faces on,” cracks one of the guys in the truck.
The Amazonians like their food neatly packaged for easy transport. They tip minimally, maybe because they’re in such a rush. On Rez’s first day here in early February, the flurry of activity sent order sheets flying, causing a considerable slowdown in operations. McConnell laughs about it now but knows he lost a customer or two. “People were pissed.”
By 12:30 a crowd of 20 has coalesced. “Everything is, uh, shifting downhill,” chuckles MacInnis before diving into the biggest single order of the day: 15 Indian tacos and three orders of dessert frybread. The tilt of the truck causes stray bits of lettuce to muck up his corner at the front of the bus. Here MacInnis tops tacos with homemade bourbon barbecue sauce and sliders with shavings of Velveeta (he used to use gruyere but it didn’t jibe with a menu inspired by reservation life).
McConnell, meanwhile, is in the back by the griddle. Davis takes orders, swiping credit cards with an iPad, and Kelly holds the frybread station. Nearly half the fifteen-by-seven foot space is occupied by kitchenware. On average a transaction takes 45 seconds. At 12:45 the window in back is propped open to relieve the building heat.
The truck quakes with any big movements, and, thanks to that incline, gravity is not in their favor. A tube MacInnis tries to refill with sauce slowly slips out of reach. A cover on the meat warmer slides free and falls to the ground. More overflow from the sink.
By 1:30 the crowd thins; MacInnis estimates they’ve sold 250 orders of frybread. Fifteen minutes later McConnell calls it quits, though the day is far from over. After every outing McConnell and company take the truck back to the commissary, where they prep food for the next outing—some days accounting for an additional five hours of work—and the kitchen is taken apart, then washed and reassembled.
Working from a fixed location would be easier logistically, and maybe more profitable. “A food truck is not the way to get rich,” McConnell offers, cracking a Coors to toast the end of the day. He doesn’t dwell on the thought. Rather, the man who first tiptoed into business at age 16 building docks on Lake Washington beams anytime he talks about his truck. Rez is the real deal—he’s arrived.