TACOS ON TRIAL: ‘Soft’ opening of new truck with soft ‘authentic’ street tacos draws large crowd during wee hours

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A few hours earlier things definitely weren’t so hot, with Andreas Styrsell worrying about certain essentials such as electricity for the “soft opening” of his new taco truck. But a few hours later at 11 p.m. Friday things were (mostly) sizzling along at the world’s northernmost food truck – by a mere few meters of his “competition” – with Styrsell reassuring some in the cluster of customers the fare wasn’t too hot for those whose taste buds were as low on the Scoville scale as the mercury in the thermometer in the chilly Arctic midnight twilight.

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Andreas Styrsell garnishes tacos in the tiny kitchen of his new taco truck during its soft opening Friday night. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“I’m planning to be here until 4 a.m. (Saturday), but we’ll see,” he said while dashing between a deep fryer with oil “barely” hot enough for the proteins dropped into it and the tiny counter of condiments. “Hopefully I’ll run out of food.”

The official opening of the truck – hopefully with a full menu – is scheduled at 5 p.m. Saturday. Normal hours are scheduled to be 5-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Friday/Saturday and Saturday/Sunday, and 3-8 p.m. Sunday – unless he sells out and closes early on any of those days.

The crowd at the soft opening was a mixture of folks spontaneously stopping after being surprised by the neon-lit truck outside Karlsberger Pub, and those who’ve been following the blow-by-blow account of the custom-designed vehicle’s journey from Sweden to Svalbard along with Styrsell teasing out details of his planned menu.

“He made the tacos as UNIS, so the bar is set high,” said Sarah Strand, a student at the university who’s among the “followers” and was eager to get away with her companion somewhere warm and indoors while their covered containers of tacos were still warm.

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Ulf Kjelleberg, who set up the first current-day taco truck last year outside Svalbardbutikken, watches the taco takeaway crowd at the nearby newcomer Friday night. Some fans who stopped by his truck said they think it will retain a more consistent crowd of longer-term residents favoring the traditional meat and potatoes approach. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Styrsell, who was head chef at the university while working at Widerøe Ground Handling at Svalbard Airport, said he will continue the latter job full time while operating the truck evenings Wednesday through Sunday.

“We are used to (working two jobs) in the food business,” he quipped.

The truck has generated a spicy amount of buzz on social media since Styrsell announced it a couple of months ago, with countless (OK, they can be counted, but we’re not taking the trouble) suggestions and hopes by local masa maestros. Styrsell said his goal is to serve traditional style tacos with traditional fillings ranging from carne to cod, along with Svalbard specific stuffings such as whale and reindeer.

The prices – 160 kroner for three fish or five chicken/pork/vegetarian tacos equate to about $18 Saturday’s official exchange rate (closer to $23 locally after transaction fees), which will buy roughly 12 tacos at a typical Los Angeles truck and eight at one in New York City (maybe half that many at a munchies mobile for millennials – but then again maybe at least double that in non-touristy parts of Mexico).

In any event, Styrsell is remarkably open about specific expenses while explaining “the price is according to food cost, transport, and all other expenses.”

Cargo on flights from the mainland is 72 kroner a kilogram, for example, cod is 177 kr./kilo, pork 154 kr./kilo and avocados 134 kr./kilo.

“So if we want to compare that tacos or other food costs three times more here, it’s because everything else costs four to five times more here, so our profit is still lower than in New York or Los Angeles,” he said.

(By comparison, a late-night burger and fries at the takeout/fast food Mix kiosk inside the shopping center is about 150 kroner, and the same at the sit-down Stationen restaurant 180 kroner. But prices for fare beyond such familiarities can quickly go northward – sometimes far northward – of the 200 kroner mark.)

Styrsell also encountered the seemingly inevitable-in-Svalbard delays in getting everything from equipment to permits, adding exasperating and expenses to the experience.

“(City officials) took forever to decide,” on allowing the setup of the truck at its current location, he said. And while “I told (them) that I hoped for a ‘food court’ in town, they were not so happy about that. They want to have dinosaur statues.” (A somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference to some of the decor planned by the city for a revamped pedestrian walkway in the town center).

But there is one other truck who established the “trend” – to the considerable relish of the late-night crowd and the local fire department (which has been responding to too many kitchen fires set by intoxicated folks trying to cook for themselves – with Ulf Kjelleberg opening a truck outside Svalbardbutikken that sells loaded baked potatos and sausages. He spent Friday night watching the cluster of people from about 20 meters to the south, often by himself.

But some of Kjelleberg’s fervent supporters stopped by who say the longer-lived locals will keep favoring the more traditional fare over the south-of-several-borders newcomer. Kjelleberg said he doesn’t mind the competion and isn’t sure how it might impact his businesses – but he doesn’t see a day when a “food court” of trucks might appear to diversify a local dining some say is too similar.

“Maybe Longyearbyen can make two different trucks work,” he said. “Not four or five, it’s too small. There’s 2,000 people and maybe half of them are out at night,” with most headed for pubs and other destinations indoors rather than making quick bite at the trucks their primary destination.

 

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