It’s barely past 9 a.m. and Dan Salvesen is about an hour into preparing a steaming pot of jambalaya inside the Mile High Cajun food truck. The big blue truck is parked outside the commissary kitchen in Englewood where they prep the food and park the hulking ride over night.
As he whisks the spicy stew in a metal stock pot on one of the truck’s burners, Salvesen says he usually needs about an hour to get the cajun classic just right.
“And I like to do it right,” he says, grinning as he dips a black plastic spoon in the bubbling concoction and offers me a taste.
On this unseasonably chilly August morning, the trio behind Mile High Cajun — chef and owner Preston Yoke and his crew, Salvensen and William Huszagh — are getting their 1999 Chevy P-30 ready for the food truck rodeo at the Aurora Municipal Center. After that, it’s dinner at a Littleton brewery.
It’s gonna be a long day. And this one will feel particular long because the night before — after Yoke had to tinker with his generator about four hours longer than he expected to -— they worked a Denver jazz concert and didn’t roll in for the day until the wee hours of the morning.
Long days mired in mechanical challenges, triple-digit temperatures and lines snaking the length of the truck are the norm in the region’s booming food truck scene. With all those bumps along the way — and make no mistake, every food truck driver is almost as much a mechanic as they are a chef — it could be easy to lose sight of the best part, which at Mile High Cajun is seeing a few hundred happy customers walk away with a bellyful of po’ boys, grits and jambalaya. But Yoke says he keeps it in perspective.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says.
A few minutes later, Huszagh jumps into the truck with a silver tub full of orange-ish batter for hush puppies.
Salvesen looks up, “Stand Tall” from Dirty Heads blaring from a speaker on the counter next to a tupperware full of sweet pickles. “Far as I know we are ready to go man,” he shouts from near the oven.
Around 9:45 a.m. Yoke tosses a stack of bright orange Home Depot buckets into the back of an Oldsmobile minivan. The buckets and a couple of black card tables will serve as a makeshift seating area for customers. The beige van serves as a sort of support vehicle for the truck, following it to the event and toting some of the items that don’t have a spot in the truck.
Before he piles in and heads to the Aurora event, Yoke stops near the rear of the food truck and notes that while it’s the best part of the job, making the food is really only the easiest part.
“To be honest,” Yoke says, Salvesen strolling his way from the kitchen, “Cooking becomes a small part of what a food truck is.”
As he mentions this, Salvensen agrees and chimes in that another truck based out of the same Englewood commissary just recently busted their steering column.
Yoke shrugs. He knows how hard it is to keep a truck on the road. A few minutes later, he climbs into the truck and jabs a screwdriver into his busted ignition. The blue beast roars to life.
“You gotta stay on the road, ya know?” he says with a smirk.
After a 25-minute ride from Englewood to Aurora — the truck with Yoke at the wheel tops 70 mph with shocking ease for a rig its size — Mile High Cajun pulls up in front of city hall, just a few feet behind a brightly-colored truck slinging California-style wraps. A short time later the truck is sandwiched between that truck and a retrofitted fire truck selling crepes.
Yoke jumps out and starts monkeying with the generator. The day before a float busted so it couldn’t get the right mix of fuel and oxygen. Yoke knew the part he needed, but it was backordered so he went with what he calls a “redneck fix,” and slapped some epoxy on it.
After a few hiccups, the generator purrs and a puff of black smokes billows from under the truck. Other than a couple of hiccups throughout the day, Yoke’s fix holds up as they serve more than 100 meals in Aurora before dishing up another 70 in Littleton that night.
It’s about 20 minutes before the rodeo starts at 11 a.m. and Huszagh pulls a few paper sacks full of French fries from the truck’s freezer. The fries are one of the few items Mile High Cajun opts not to make fresh, Yoke says as he slices a few dozen tomatoes. For the most part, they do things the hard way, including going with stone-ground hominy for their grits instead of an easier but less tasty instant option. At the Aurora event that dedication pays off. The chipotle-flavored grits sell out in only about an hour.
Yoke grew up in kitchens before opting for a mobile one of his own. His parents founded Colorado breakfast staple the Egg and I, and he worked at some high-end locales _ including Old Major and the Broadmoor — before founding Mile High Cajun last year.
While the truck’s menu is certainly different from the fine-dining spots where learned, Yoke brings the same obsessive attention to detail to the truck as chefs in far-more-spacious kitchens. For three months he struggled to find the ideal bread for their po’ boys, for example. Eventually he came across a Mexican bakery in northwest Denver and to this day he makes the trek there a few times a week to get bread with just the right softness, eschewing a few dozen closer stops on the way.
With a huge pot of grits, the jambalaya and a sauce pan full of braised short ribs squeezed onto three of the four burners in the truck, Yoke and Salvensen sharpen butcher knives just a few minutes before opening. Already, the line out front is about a half dozen people deep.
Huszagh flings the windows open a little after 11 a.m. and the line quickly swells to about 10 deep. It stays at least that long for the first hour or so, by far the longest line at the rodeo.
With Huszagh taking orders at the rear of the truck, Salvesen dishing them up and Yoke working the burners near the front, the trio crank out meal after meal for about 90 minutes before there’s a lull.
Yoke piles out a few times to tinker with that generator, but other than that the operation efficiently chugs ahead.
After about an hour the grits are gone, and the short ribs soon follow. Yoke says customers are sometimes bummed when the dish they want is gone, but they’re usually understanding about the limits of a food truck. The trio tries to steer those folks toward another item, and occasionally offers a free side if they seem especially disappointed.
“It’s more just being a salesman at that point,” Yoke says.
As the day motors along, Salvesen swaps lunch with the guys at Maine St. BBQ, a truck a few down that sells lobster rolls and other New England classics.
By about 2 p.m., Huszagh jumps out and breaks down the card table and stacks the orange buckets. The windows on the door shut and Yoke soon jumps behind the wheel. From here, it’s back to the commissary to wash some dishes and reload a few items — especially those uber-popular grits — before hitting the road again.