Burgers and poutine: The UMass babyBerk food truck keeps it simple
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 12, 2017, by Lisa Spear
For me, there is nothing better than a hot serving of fries, doused in beef gravy.
The fries, of course, must still retain their crispy integrity while simultaneously soaking up the savory gravy.
Then, there must be globs of mozzarella cheese curd perched on each fry. If you need some extra protein, don’t forget to add shreds of sirloin steak. This balances out an otherwise starchy meal.
This is how poutine is done right. It’s a straightforward, popular French Canadian fast food dish, which, in my opinion, is Canada’s best culinary import.
Most recently, the dish has found its way to babyBerk, a University of Massachusetts food establishment on wheels, which typically makes rounds on the Amherst campus. It looks like any greasy spoon food truck, but many of the ingredients used in its recipes come from local suppliers like Little Leaf Farm in Devens and Czajkowski Farm in Hadley, says truck manager Christopher Fisher. “UMass dining has a motto of healthy, sustainable and delicious.”
With its popularity on the rise, poutine seemed like a natural fit for babyBerk’s menu, says Fisher.
UMass Dining Chef de Cuisine Matthia Accurso created the recipe it began using in January.
“We were trying to get ahead of the curve,” said Fisher. “Not everybody knows what it is and it is a little crazy to me.”
The truck — named after the campus’s Berkshire Dining Common’s — has been seeing love from a large contingency of students since it was launched six years ago, so much that the dining staff decided to get a second truck in 2013, the babyBerk 2, which serves mostly quesadillas.
While the trucks’ campus hours were decreased for the summer this week, they still will make appearances over the next few months at community festivals and sporting events. babyBerk’s next stop is May 20 at a UMass lacrosse tournament. The truck also will be at the Hadley Asparagus Festival June 3 on the Hadley Town Common where its menu will feature a special item, grilled asparagus tacos (See the recipe below).
Old favorites also will make an appearance, like the Hampshire Burger, which is topped with a layer of melted cheddar cheese, a fried egg and smoked bacon. This burger also comes with house-made garlic aioli.
Since the babyBerk is always on the go, the only way to keep track of its location is to follow the truck’s Twitter handle @UMassBabyBerk, where the schedule is posted daily.
Newcomer making gains
While the truck is mostly known for its burgers, the steak poutine has been slowly stealing some of the thunder since its debut, says Fisher.
Though often considered an appetizer, the hefty poutine portion babyBerk serves is enough for a meal. A container of steaming steak poutine goes for $8, classic poutine is $5. There is also a pulled pork poutine, also for $8, made with sweet potato fries, topped with scallions and barbeque sauce.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s the best you can get around here,” said Mark Kiniry of Ware, who was at the truck the day I stopped by. “It’s spiced pretty well and it is a hearty portion for the price.”
A tech assistant at UMass, Kiniry says babyBerk is one of his favorite places to grab lunch.
“This is one of the best places to hit up,” agreed Heather Ockington, another customer who also works at UMass. During the school year, she buys lunch from the truck two to three times a week. She typically gets a burger.
“It is fast and friendly service,” she said.
babyBerk’s menu isn’t long, but that’s how customers like it, says Fisher.
“They want the portability, the simplicity, the comfort food,” he said. “We focus on doing one thing and just doing it right.”
Along with its burgers and poutine, the babyBerk offers sides like onion rings or tater tots, but every so often there are new additions to the menu.
One of those is the vegan burger made from a black bean patty topped with fresh avocado and cilantro on a whole-wheat bun.
babyBerk is easy to spot. It is a custom-made bright yellow Workhorse Chassis with an orange and green swirl on the side. Its cousin, babyBerk 2, is a bright green Freightliner.
Inside babyBerk, the fryolators never stop sizzling. The afternoon I was there, crew member David Rainville was dunking batches of fries in and out of hot oil. Not far away, patties were frying on a grill.
Inside it is like a hot, tin can in the summer and freezing in the winter, says Rainville, and it’s difficult to move from station to station without bumping into another crew member. Cardboard is scattered on the floor for insulation. The air is thick with hot grease. “You get used to it after awhile,” he said. A window was propped open in the back to let in some of the fresh breeze.
Spotting a trend
During the school year, the truck runs on weekdays from noon into the afternoon and is often parked by the Student Union. It also makes stops at the residential halls and athletic fields. On Fridays and Saturdays it runs until 4 a.m.
babyBerk was established in 2011 when the dining director Ken Toong spotted the coming trend, says Fisher. “Our executive director had his finger on the pulse of the food truck craze,” he said. “He knew it was up and coming.”
babyBerk2 was added in 2013 when one of the campus dining halls was being renovated. That same year, campus officials decided to use babyBerk late at night to lure students returning to UMass from off-campus partying away from walking through residential neighborhoods. They figured parking the vehicle on an alternative, more out of the way, route would be a draw, says Fisher.
“It gets interesting some times,” said Rainville.
In one instance, food truck supervisor Angela Charbonneau saw a streaker run by the truck. In another case, a man wearing a Captain America costume came for a visit, not to buy a burger, but just to hang around outside. Even an evangelical preacher was spotted nearby, spreading the gospel across from the truck, says Charbonneau.
babyBerk’s reputation for good food and quick service has made it a go-to lunch spot on campus and a draw at community events.
“They want that grease,” said Rainville. “…As far as burgers and fries go, it is pretty good.”
Lisa Spear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following is the recipe for Grilled Hadley Asparagus Tacos with Pinto Beans, Roasted Red Pepper Romesco and Charred Corn Salsa that will be served at the Hadley Asparagus Festival.
Grilled HadleyAsparagus Tacos
Yield: 12 Tacos
12 fresh corn tortillas
36 spears Hadley asparagus
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ cup pinto beans, soaked
1 tablespoon, vegetable oil
½ cup white onion, small dice
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon, cumin seeds
1 ancho chili, seeds and stem removed
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the Roasted Red Pepper Romesco
1 red bell pepper
1 tablespoon, almonds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the Charred Corn Salsa
2 ears of corn or 2 cups of cooked corn kernels
1 tablespoon, vegetable oil
2 tablespoons, red onion, minced
¼ cup, tomato, small dice
2 tablespoons, cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon, jalapeno, seeded and minced
Juice of 1 lime
Salt, to taste
To prepare the asparagus:
Trim the ends so that the spears are 6 inches or so in length. Toss lightly with the oil, salt and pepper.
Grill over medium high heat on a charcoal or gas grill, turning every minute or so.
Slow cook the pinto beans. Heat vegetable oil over medium heat and add the onion. Sweat the onions for several minutes until translucent and slightly caramelized. Add garlic, cumin seeds and ancho chili and continue to cook, stirring regularly for a couple more minutes. Add the beans and cover with water and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary. Once the beans are tender, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
To prepare the Roasted Red Pepper Romesco:
Lightly coat the red bell pepper with some of the oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes, until nicely blistered. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Once cool, remove skin and seeds.
Combine the red pepper, almonds, vinegar, parsley, olive oil and garlic in a food processor and puree until fine. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For the Charred Corn Salsa:
Shuck the corn and coat lightly with vegetable oil, salt and pepper. Cook on a charcoal or gas grill over medium high heat, turning every several minutes until well charred. Allow corn to cool and cut kernels from the cob.
(Or use 2 cups frozen corn kernels cooked. )
Combine in a small bowl with the onions, tomatoes, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and salt to taste.
Heat tortillas in a saute pan over medium heat or on the grill, cooking for a minute or two on each side. Assemble taco with the romesco sauce, pinto beans, asparagus, charred corn salsa and queso fresco, cilantro and/or lime juice if desired.