On the food chain, somewhere in the no-man's-land between street meat and the proper restaurant world is where food shacks have carved out a respectable existence.
Generally speaking, diners who are less attuned to the caste system by which eateries are sorted, mistakenly lump the modest food shack in with its kissing cousins in the street vending business.
No doubt the sometimes-mobile nature of the food shack combined with the absence of waitstaff and dining room produces such gaffes. Mobility, however, isn't an absolute when determining whether the Philly sandwich you just ate was the product of a street vendor or a food shack. Certainly the ability to pick up and move at will distinguishes a shack from a restaurant. But not all shacks are immediately mobile, and even those that are may prefer not to move at all. Waitstaff? Meh, who needs 'em screwing up your order, anyway. Table and chairs? Make like a kid and stake out a piece of grass, we say.
As for what separates the shack from the street, it ain't the street. Most food shacks have claimed a piece of pavement—either on the street or in a parking lot—as home. The difference comes down to walls. Whereas the street meat vendor is exposed to the elements, procuring cooked and uncooked vittles from various drawers and doors within a cart, the food shack is a step up, literally. The cooks peer down from their elevated, self-contained kitchen (in which they can stand up, walk around or sit down) to take and deliver up your order.
In Boise, we thought the food shack was a culinary anomaly. Aside from the taco truck, for which valley SoBo-cuisine lovers have shown solid support, the only food shacks Boiseans tend to frequent regularly are at festivals, fairs and outdoor fetes throughout the summer. But once we started paying attention, we realized we drive by a food shack or two just about every day. So we found ourselves a food shack, ate outside and repeated. A few times. Here's what we found.
The Kilted Kod
It's all the cod's fault. A BW staffer returned from a jaunt downtown with wild stories about the traveling fish salesmen. But because she failed to stop for a sample and because no one else could find the phantom red trailer, the staffer's co-workers whispered that the fish truck was nothing more than a tall fish tale. And then one day, the staffer spied the truck again, only this time she had a witness. So excited were they, the two gathered a small army a few days later and traipsed off into downtown Boise with their lunch money. But the Kilted Kod was nowhere to be found.
At the risk of being filleted and fried for lunch by their hungry co-workers, the two staffers made a quick couple of calls and discovered that the fish trailer gets around. Two days later, the foursome piled into a car and drove across town, where they found the bright red fish shack in a business park.
Menu: If you're afraid of the "F" word—fried—the Kilted Kod's menu will terrify you. We say overcome your fear you yellow-bellied health nut. Some things are worth the calories. The menu is short, savory and to the point: hand-battered cod, chicken strips, fried potatoes.
Location: Get a mate and get in your car because she blows all over town, captain. But gas isn't cheap, so rather than troll the asphalt seas aimlessly searching for the Kodsmen, cheat by logging onto kiltedcod.com for a list of locations.
Our Opinion: Kilted Kod broke a BW record. We tried almost everything on the menu without uttering a single complaint. Not one. It was unprecedented, for sure. The fresh, flaky hand-battered cod was the superstar of our meal, and we had to divvy up the last chicken strip equally so as to avoid an arm-wrestle over it. Next time we spy the Kodsmen, we'll order the tartan taters, "criss cut fries."
Native Taters Cafe
We heard about this one through the grapevine, and truth be told, we weren't expecting much from a food joint that replaced a pair of gas pumps in the parking lot of a Tobacco Connection. After all, the words cigarettes and gas don't typically induce hunger pangs. When we got there the owner was so nice we figured even if the food was bad, at least we'd have something positive to write about. And then the food was fantastic—like eating at grandma's house for lunch-fantastique. Henceforth, all gas and cigarette stops without a Native Taters Cafe in the parking lot shall be deemed inferior to that which claims the corner of Protest and Boise avenues.
Menu: Native Taters Cafe speaks the language of sandwiches. Hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, deli style, diner style, specialty hot sandwiches, specialty cold sandwiches, grilled, barbecued ... how many ways can they spell delicious? And there's something to be said for the shack's proximity to the city's less financially viable college population—cheap. Most of the menu is under $5.
Location: Despite being on the corner of a very busy intersection, we're a little sheepish to admit we'd never noticed the place. It's semi-permanent, so take a good look next time you're at the stop light. The parking lot may not be the most aesthetic location, but under the shade of an awning and with a few chairs outside, it's not a half-bad spot.
Our Opinion: Three little words sum up the source of our newfound love for this university-area food shack. Beef. Ortega. Melt. Paired with the loaded baked potato soup—an opaque cream-based potato soup topped with sour cream, bacon, green onions and cheese—it makes for one nagging obsession. We also had a go at the Reuben, the homemade coleslaw and Anita's potato salad. (Anita is the owner's mother-in-law and we'd like to make a motion to nominate her to the potato salad hall of fame.) Chili spaghetti, which had sold out for the day by the time we got there, is most definitely on top of the list for our next visit.
Wild Woody's Smokehouse
Once upon a time, a tiny little rib shack sprouted in the empty parking lot adjacent to The Torch. Unlike other rib shacks, which are certainly shack-like when consulting their number of indoor square footage, the rib shack was a bona fide food shack. One Saturday afternoon, we sent out an exploratory mission that ended when its explorers found the shack closed. Several days later, patrolling sentinels discovered the shack open for business in the middle of the day and reported back to base camp. Upon further investigation, it was determined that we were simply showing up at the wrong end of chow time. Wild Woody's Smokehouse was more of a nighttime kind of joint on Saturday.
They do lunch weekdays, but they're also open until the wee hours of the morning, proving that Wild Woody is definitely not afraid of the bar crowd spilling from the doors of its neighbors. And what better way to sate a beer-soaked appetite than to slather it with barbecue sauce?
Menu: Awarded most extensive selection, the menu at Wild Woody's goes above and beyond the basics. If you're on your way home alone, spice up your night with the Howlin' Coyote, a spicy beef or pork sand with cheddar, onions and jalapenos. Maybe breakfast is more in order? The Dusk-2-Dawn-Wich with scrambled eggs, cheese and meat'll do it. Burgers, dogs, salads, wraps, nachos, pasta salad, baked beans ... blah, blah, blah. Let's skip to the meat already. We want our baby back ribs, baby.
Location: No grassy knolls to cozy up on here. Wild Woody's is permanently fixed in the parking lot of a former car dealership, so you'll have to copasquat on a gravelly pavement. Ouch.
Our Opinion: A half rack of ribs got a thumbs up from the whole panel, but the beans didn't fare so well with a sticky-sweet aftertaste that wasn't a crowd pleaser. Next time, we're taking on the Woody Wolf, a dog with barbecue sauce, tomatoes, grilled onions, jalapenos, bacon, cheddar and mustard.
Low overhead and portability may be enticing aspects of the food shack business, but Chris Olson says the biz isn't without its disadvantages. Olson runs Chris the Saladman, the one food shack with which we had experience prior to this story. In fact, Olson's crab Louie with shrimp had BW A&E Editor Amy Atkins doing regular drive-bys at River and 13th streets, where Olson often parked.
After a recent attempt to visit Chris the Saladman ended fruitlessly—or, veggielessly, as might be more fitting—we called Olson to find out where he was hiding.
"Trucks are just a no-go in Boise," said Olson. "There's just no market for them. People don't want to get out of their cars." Olson has been the saladman for nine years, offering healthier alternatives, as well as burgers and wraps. He said taco trucks are successful in Boise because they tend to have well-established clientele. But for him, the numbers were just too inconsistent. At the mercy of the weather and increasing gas prices, Olson decided to grow his salad business in other ways.
He's in negotiations with a chain of stores to sell his private-label packaged salads. That would put him in more than 300 stores in seven Western states.