I find a lot of food television ridiculous. I’d guess most of the reason people go to drive-throughs is because, in fact, when they turn on the front burner of the stove they suddenly find they don’t have six finely sliced ramekins of vegetables conveniently positioned to the left of their cutting board. But I watch some of it, and have some favorite moments, like the time Gordon Ramsey led a parade of semi-failed restaurateurs down a British village street, marching as a “Campaign for Real Gravy,” that is, gravy made from meat and onions and flour and water, and not industrial goo, which is what they had been serving. I loved the show because the people in the parade looked completely uncomfortable, even while they smiled for the cameras; it was a gloriously Orwellian moment for consumer-capitalism. People who have dedicated their lives to the dire opposite of what they’ve been suddenly summoned by a celebrity to support, smiling along and hoping for economic salvation. And I know why they don’t make gravy, no one does anymore, it takes time, and who has time? Name one person who has any time—I dare you. See, you can’t do it. Unless you’ve named a small child and then, aha! You lose anyway because they’re not allowed to use the stove.
Anyhoo, this is why the real-gravy-rich traditional beef pastie from food truck Potter’s Pasties completely floored me. Potter’s, the product of local chef Alec Duncan, debuted last summer in St. Paul, and I missed it completely. I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of pasties from up north, from spots like the pastie stand at the state fair, and they’re never delicious. They’re merely authentic. Surely you know what I mean? Tight meat and veg in a hot pocket can be a gruesome way to keep alive, and little more. Or it can be glorious: Pastry that’s light and tender, but glossy and crisp, fillings that might have come straight off a fancy restaurant’s line. Which, of course, it turns out is where Alec Duncan was raised up. He’s a Minnesota native who apprenticed as a teenager with Charlie Johnson (of cult favorite Q-Fanatic, who himself learned at the side of Frédy Girardet, one of the greatest chefs of the 20th century). Duncan went on to work at St. Paul’s 128 Café, Minneapolis’s Café Barbette, was head chef at Stillwater’s Cesaré’s (the briefly fantastic wine bar), worked at high end Italian restaurant I Nonni—and then fled the country, for some back-packing, English teaching, and falling in love with a girl from Manchester. During their honeymoon the two conceived of a smash-up of Manchester and Minnesota, and Duncan then labored many months in Vietnam, of all places, perfecting his pastie dough.
“There was a big bunch of expats there, Aussies and Brits mainly, and every night I’d make pasties for them. The only comment I wanted was: Is this dough up to the standards of the Aussie or Brit? It took six months till one night they were like: ‘Dude, this is it, write it down!’ I wrote it down and left.”
Good news for Minnesota, we’ve never had a pastie this good. A pastie (pronounced, of course, pass-tee) is, needless to say, dough wrapped around a filling. Legend holds that mine workers in England used to carry them down in their lunch pails as a filling lunch, and they’ve taken on a second life in northern Minnesota, after they were first brought north by miners. At the risk of getting a lump of taconite forced into my gas tank, I have to say I’ve never had an Iron Range pastie as good as one of Potter’s Pasties. The basic beef one is the pastie I’m over the moon about—beef stewed with carrots, celery, onions, and vegetables for half a day at low heat, combined with roast potatoes cooked with rosemary, all of it combined with a traditional roux gravy made with the fond from the beef stew. It’s just elementally good, gravy home cooking just like no one makes. I’ve liked other pasties I’ve tried from Potter’s, a Thai vegetarian one was particularly good and surprising, kale and potatoes and carrots on fire with a good spicy curry, the filling moist, but not wet. A pork and apple one, with fresh chunks of green apple, was pretty and tasty, and very fine dining in its way. Speaking of fine dining, please know that the St. Paul Potter’s cooks out of the kitchen at Osteria I Nonni, which allows him to work his fine-dining-on-the-street magic. If you really want to know what he’s capable of, watch for a Potter’s special like duck confit pasties with sweet potatoes, coriander, an espresso demiglaze, and candied pecans. (“It got really tough saying that to people over and over,” notes Duncan.) And Minneapolis, a second Potter’s Pasties truck is coming to town, probably, if all goes well, this month! All in all, I’m putting Potter’s definitely and distinctly in the pack of local street food superstars like Hola Arepa, Chef Shack, Smack Shack, and the World Street Kitchen. If you’re a street food fanatic and you haven’t tried Potter’s, you need to—this is a genuine, skilled, and homegrown campaign for real gravy, taken to the streets.