Trucks mix tradition and invention

Vegetarian fare with fries and you can pay with plastic

By Vijaysree Venkatraman
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - The exterior looks like a dry-erase board, but it's an essential feature of the truck. On the white surface, Ayr Muir, the 31-year-old proprietor of Clover Food Lab and an MIT alum, writes out the day's menu as soon as he gets the ovens going every morning. The truck's handwritten name and matching logo, which is doodled in marker pen, don't exactly draw attention, but the food has its devotees.

Clover, which rolled in last October and reopened last month, is parked in front of 20 Carleton St. on the MIT campus, near the Kendall Square T.

Food trucks are a longstanding MIT tradition and the outfits tend to reflect the ethnic diversity of the students. Pan-Asian Poppa & Goose, Jose's Mexican, and Jerusalem Cafe are outfits that operate on this street. While these Styrofoam-warriors cater to students looking for a filling, inexpensive lunch, Clover brings another kind of bounty: local and seasonal vegetarian fare. Fresh fruit, often from nearby farms, is on the house. Another anomaly: Clover takes plastic. Muir's crew - there are two or three people during busy hours - will process a credit card and fix you an egg and eggplant sandwich or another made from chickpea fritters, all priced at $5. Soups such as lentil with kale are made from scratch and cost $3 for a medium-size container.

Clover recipes are neither complex nor labor-intensive, he says. But he starts with quality ingredients. "It is as simple as that," says Muir. One breakfast specialty is popovers, but there is also hot oatmeal, freshly baked muffins, drip coffee made individually for each customer. "Espresso machines can be such power hogs," says Muir.

Clover is a food lab for a chain of vegetarian restaurants Muir plans to open at some point. "We came up with the idea of opening the truck and changing the menu every day," he says. Much of the food is made on the truck and many of the soups are prepared at Nuestra Culinary Ventures in Jamaica Plain. Muir pays a fee to MIT for Clover's parking space.

As for the food, instant feedback is guaranteed, says Muir, who often sustained himself on food truck fare as a graduate student. He studied material science at MIT and has an MBA from Harvard. He worked at Patagonia in California and also at McKinsey & Co. for four years as a consultant. When he wondered what to do next, he says, he realized that "I care for the environment and started studying numbers and trends related to global warming," he says. Then it struck him: Food choices people make are just as significant as the type of car they drive.

Muir needed someone to develop recipes for his eco-friendly eatery. He approached Rolando Robledo, who had worked at The French Laundry and is currently at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. Robledo liked Muir's concept enough to help out. Getting him was a lucky break, says Muir.

The truck owner isn't bound by healthy alternatives. Recently, the menu board read "R.I.P Whole Wheat Popovers, All White Now." "Food can be healthy and cheap," says Muir, "but no one will eat it if it is not flavorful." He also serves french fries, which he laughingly calls Clover's "gateway drug."

No serious fast food place can afford to take its french fries lightly. At Clover, low-starch Prince Edward Island potatoes are cut carefully into long sticks, soaked in cold water, and fried in soy oil without any coating. As the spuds turn golden, the cook-on-duty slips a sprig of rosemary into the hot fat bath.

Leonard Nunes, the Lincoln Lab's shuttle driver, says he enjoys the fries neat. "No ketchup," he says, expressing surprise that fries can taste so good without the classic condiment.

When the truck closed for the winter, one student e-mailed Muir to say, "Wimped out?" Kendall Square office-goers wondered when service would resume. Muir blogs his daily experiences and offers Twitter updates. One recent afternoon, his Twitter file read: "Out of all food. Back in am with more."

Clover Food Lab, Carleton Street, opposite MIT Medical entrance, Cambridge, Open Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m.