Cheerful Caribbean Flavors Prevail at Grumpy Claude’s

The Grumpy Claude food truck on John Ireland Boulevard near the Minnesota State Capitol // Photo by Aaron Job

The Grumpy Claude food truck on John Ireland Boulevard near the Minnesota State Capitol // Photo by Aaron Job

The black food truck trailer of Grumpy Claude’s, with little more adornment than a hand-painted plastic sign, is the mobile equivalent of a hole-in-the-wall on Eat Street. It might not look like the obvious choice in a row of food trucks, but step up and you’ll be rewarded with delicious, scratch-cooked Caribbean food.

As for the eponymous Grumpy, you’d be hard pressed to imagine a happier face peering out from the window than that of Claude Alkins. The name is an ironic nod to his time working as a chef at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where pressure and turnover rates are high. “Here comes Grumpy Claude,” they used to say.

Claude Alkins smiles out of the ordering window of his food truck, which he mans alone // Photo by Aaron Job

Claude Alkins smiles out of the ordering window of his food truck, which he mans alone // Photo by Aaron Job

Alkins, a native of Trinidad, moved with his family to New York at the age of five. Naturally, he grew up eating Caribbean food at home and he learned a few tricks from mom and dad. He’s been working in Twin Cities kitchens for 20 years and cut his teeth at the St. Paul Hotel. For years he has dreamed of working for himself—of owning this very truck—and you can taste the heart and soul he’s poured into the recipes.

The menu is simple: jerk (choose chicken or pork) with rice and beans, roti with curry stew (choose veggie or chicken), Caribbean spiced wings, blackened angus burger, and Philly cheesesteak. Grumpy Claude wanted to showcase his Caribbean recipes but also add a couple of American classics to appeal to a wider audience.

Clockwise from left: the jerk chicken, Carribean spiced wings, and chicken roti with curry stew—all with orange hot sauce // Photo by Aaron Job

Caribbean food is still a rarity in the Twin Cities, so we were drawn to the jerk and the roti. Both are excellent. The jerk chicken and pork ($10) are finely shredded, smoked, and deeply spiced (though not overly spicy—that’s what the orange hot sauce is for). Both are toothsome in a barbecue sort of way: neither dry nor juicy, but profoundly tender. The meat is mixed with plump red beans and perfectly cooked rice, and rolled in a tortilla.

Grumpy Claude's jerk chicken // Photo by Aaron Job

Grumpy Claude’s jerk chicken // Photo by Aaron Job

The roti with curry stew ($10) is another home run. Claude hand-rolls his own roti using ground up garbanzo beans (in other versions, dal is used) and there are little tiny bits of beans in the layers of the dough. The roti is flecked with beautiful brown charred blisters and it has a wonderful flavor—nutty and buttery. Wrapped around the chicken curry stew, this is apex comfort food. The stew itself is mostly large chunks of chicken and potato, all fall-apart tender and swimming in yellow curry sauce with an occasional carrot. The stew is not unlike an Indian curry, but made with Caribbean spices rather than the coriander-heavy Indian spice profile. This dish exemplifies the fascinating Indian cultural influence on the Caribbean, where indentured Indian servants were brought to work on the islands after the former British colonies banned slavery.

The chicken roti with curry stew // Photo by Aaron Job

The chicken roti with curry stew // Photo by Aaron Job

The roti and jerk are served with a small cup of orange hot sauce. As crowded as the hot sauce aisle is at the grocery store, we’d definitely pony up for a bottle of this stuff. The sauce is hot, but more like a steady buzz than a wildfire. It seems like it’s going to keep building but plateaus at a very comfortable elevation, allowing the flavor of habanero peppers to come through. It makes a solid addition to both the roti and the jerk.

Although we’ve certainly never been hungry after eating Grumpy Claude’s, we’d love to see what he could do with plantains or some kind of vegetables. The deep spice profiles and sometimes fiery heat of Caribbean cuisine can be easily applied to dishes that aren’t meat-focused.

Alkins pouring his hot sauce on dishes // Photo by Aaron Job

Alkins pouring his hot sauce on dishes // Photo by Aaron Job

Grumpy Claude’s can be found around downtown St. Paul for lunch. We’ve spotted him with regularity at the Capitol, and he told us he frequents Mears Park and Rice Park. He also makes the brewery circuit in the evening. He has a Twitter account but hasn’t used it yet, and he only occasionally updates his Facebook page with his location. So if you like Caribbean food, keep an eye out for this not-so-grumpy guy and his nonchalant black trailer.

Grumpy Claude’s on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GrumpyClaudes/