Much like a good picture, a good plate of food should tell a story. It may be something simple, about a single ingredient, a personal note about the chef, or something the dish represents historically.
In the case of the new Chilean food truck, Merken, and its 29-year-old owner Pablo Bonacic, the story should kick off with the first bite into his food, spiked by the spice blend called merkén. It takes ají cacho de cabra ("goat's horn chili"), a red, sun-dried, smoked pepper, and mixes it with toasted coriander, cumin, salt and pepper. The blend dates back to the indigenous Mapuche people, and isn't cheap for Bonacic to acquire through relatives near Santiago, where he grew up.
Merkén alone, and its unique, subtle, earthy back-spice, distinguishes Bonacic's sandwiches, which otherwise don't fall far from the hoagie or hot dog. They're perfectly pleasing alongside a pint from Great Storm Brewing, Merken's regular host, and outstanding in the case of pairing GSB's popular rum raisin stout with the Barros Jarpa ($8, as are all the sandwiches) of flattop-seared pork loin laced with merkén in both dry form and a killer merkén sauce, with melted muenster cheese and added avocado mash (75 cents extra) on a toasted baguette roll. The beer's sweetness here cuts the spiciness a bit, and also balances the salty edge from included store-bought waffle chips.
But Bonacic's story wasn't coming through clearly on my first visit, when the merkén wasn't bright enough, and our completo, aside from generous relish, was just a good, basic hot dog. The Philly-like chacarero, also remained a work-in-progress, as Bonacic wasn't happy with the too-tough beef cut he'd chosen at a local Mexican market that morning. Though his lovely and light quinoa salad ($4.50) with a vinegar and olive oil dressing, garlic and onion bite and cilantro flavor totally worked, as did his doughy cheese or beef empanadas ($4.50 to $5, hand-rolled on the truck into another very beer-friendly treat), he was disappointed, humbly seeking input.
Chef Kevin Campbell of Full Circle Cuisine happened to be my dining guest that day, and he casually advised Bonacic to employ much more merkén sauce (whose tomato and vinegar acidity spreads the heat more affordably). "Put it on everything," he said, in no uncertain terms, after we both sampled the spice dry, then with pinkies dipped in a squirt of the sauce. Bonacic would do just that, and a week later, he'd also welcome Campbell on the truck to dish a fine Cuban sandwich special.
You might expect Bonacic to be more territorial; his pedigree includes cooking with his grandmother from age 7, managing a Which Wich in Nashville, and cooking at Glen Eyrie for a couple years. But openness and humility are parts of his own personal story. Having worked with Youth With a Mission in the past, he still puts in his own time to help at-risk youth today, and feeds the homeless each Saturday in Antlers Park with The Feast community collaboration's More Than A Meal outreach.
With a few minor tweaks, Merken's mission and simple menu has gained sharper focus, and flavor. That's just one small story worth telling about it, definitely over a good pint of beer. The now-noticeable spice speaks for everything else you really need to know.