A little bit of Havana is just around the corner. Plantain District – a new Cuban food truck – began rolling in October.
“We thought the city needed it and we saw an opportunity to do something really cool,” says chef and operator Jakob Polaco.
Polaco, a former chef at The American Restaurant, his girlfriend Lauren Robertson – the woman taking your order and collaborating on the desserts – and a pair of silent investors have partnered on the truck that debuted at Meyer Fest.
“I lived in Portland and my brother lives in Austin and there are these amazing Cuban food trucks. There was nothing like that here,” Polaco, 25, says. “We just wanted to deliver a true Cuban sandwich.”
The Cubano is made with brined ham (salt, sugar and toasted pickling spices) from Barnham Farms. The ham is then glazed and baked in the oven before being thinly sliced. There’s also roasted pork (pork shoulder sourced from Dodge City Beef) in a mojo sauce with a tart, citrus punch, Swiss Cheese from Whole Foods, garlic dill pickles (a house quick pickle) and the Plantain District Sauce (a sherry vinegar aioli in lieu of mustard – the one break from tradition).
“We reduce the braising liquid by half so you get those briny, citrus notes with the roast pork,” Polaco says. “The braise is everything because of that mojo flavor.”
In order to get the bread right for the sandwich, Polaco has the San Luis Bakery in Olathe use his recipe and bake it to his specifications.
“It has to be made with lard. There needs to be a little bit of sweetness, but not as much as a medianoche [a cousin to the Cuban sandwich made with a sweet, egg dough]. It needs to be a little undercooked so that it goes on the plancha [sandwich press] and gets pressed and finished off,” Polaco says. “It’s got this paper thin crust and almost donut interior. It smells so good. I’m trying to get them to make an air freshener out of it.”
Polaco grew up in Joplin, Missouri. After graduating from the Oregon Culinary Institute, he came back to his hometown and spent a little over two years immersed in Thai food at Kinnaree Thai Cuisine.
“It’s this hidden gem in Joplin,” Polaco says of the restaurant. “It was scratch, family-style cooking, all this really spicy stuff.”
In 2012, Polaco wanted to get back into fine dining and caught on at The American Restaurant. He worked as the chef de partie, manning the fish station, under executive chefs Debbie Gold and Josh Eans.
“It was an amusement park if you’re into cooking,” Polaco says. “It was about really refining things and getting to really hone in on a recipe.”
Polaco found a use for that technique as a personal chef with Friend That Cooks – meal planning and cooking for 11 families around Kansas City for the past 18 months.
“It was a good chance for people to be really honest and these were foodie families, so I was glad to be held up to a really high standard,” Polaco says.
When he started thinking about a food truck, the idea of sourcing local ingredients and using them to make scratch Cuban food felt like a fit in Kansas City.
“A plantain is an exotic thing for a lot of people. And the district is about making something exotic have its own neighborhood and standing,” Polaco says.
The namesake of the truck is also one of the menu constants.
“Plantains will always be on the menu in one form or another. It might be a plantain rum reduction on the bread pudding or tostones – twice-fried, pressed plantains, or plantain chips,” Polaco says.
With the changing of the seasons, the truck has recently launched a winter menu. Polaco immediately points to two items – the Calabaza soup and Papas Rellenas as something the truck is doing differently.
“We have a Calabaza soup that is a Cuban pumpkin soup,” Polaco says. “I really wanted the pumpkin to shine. It’s pumpkin, not pumpkin spice. There’s just cream, carmelized onions and garlic. It’s this velvety, stick-to-your-ribs soup.”
The papas rellenas are made with beef picadillo – ground beef mixed with olives and raisins — and cream cheese mashed potatoes.
“It’s about flavors and textures. It’s so crispy and fluffy and then there’s this tender meat inside,” Polaco says.
The beef and potato mixture is dipped in an egg wash and rolled in flour and bread crumbs. For seasoning, Polaco uses the orange and lime zest from the citrus in the mojo sauce and dehydrates garlic and onion that he purchases at farmers markets.
“You just can’t touch the flavor of it. There’s this incredible umami flavor in the powder,” Polaco says of his decision to make his own garlic and onion powder.
For dessert, there’s a rotating cast: guava pastelitos, coconut macaroons and guava and rum chocolate chip cookies have all been featured. The truck also serves Cafecito, Cuban coffee made with Café La Llave espresso and turbinado sugar.
Plantain District has been serving lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays at 24th and Holmes, but Polaco says they are still working on establishing regular routes. They update Facebook regularly with where the truck is heading for the day.
“We’re looking for places to introduce people to our food,” Polaco says.[Images via Plantain District]