Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mess Hall out, street food in: New casual eatery from True Blue brand to open in Cargo District

Steam buns will be offered at Beat Street, slated to open this December. (Courtesy Beat Street)

WILMINGTON — Over the last few years, local chef Bobby Zimmerman and his culinary crew from the We Are True Blue brand and restaurants have been culling a list of 3,000 food items from around the world. The goal: to build a catalog of “street food” that will be featured at the newest concept, Beat Street, soon to launch in The Cargo District.

Before the end of the year, the fast casual eatery will open in the former Mess Hall location, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night (Mess Hall moved out at the beginning of October to relocate to a Wrightsville Avenue brick-and-mortar). Beat Street will have a menu of 30-plus items, changing every four to six weeks, while static specialties representing different countries around the world will be offered off-menu daily.

READ MORE: True Blue expands into Hampstead with bakery

For instance, every Friday will be empanada day — essentially pocket pies prepared the Venezuelaean way: deep fried, crispy and stuffed with beef, chicken, or potato and cheese.

“We will make around 200 or 300 to serve on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Zimmerman said Tuesday morning while sitting in one of the many communal dining spaces in the Alcove Beer Garden. 

Beat Street shares space with Alcove, operating counter service on the 16th Street-facing side. As well, a walk-up window is located in the back, which soon enough will include a kiosk for customers to place their own orders. 

“We will have a bell to ring every time an order is ready,” Zimmerman said. “I do love a bell. The goal is to be engaging, people sitting around, talking, sharing food. That’s what I love about dining.”

Beat Street will be the fifth restaurant Zimmerman has launched in four years. In December 2020, he had one LLC and around 20 team members working for True Blue Butcher and Table in the Forum. Today, he employs roughly 240 people and now has nine local LLCs — Mariposa, True Blue Butcher and Barrel, True Blue Butcher and Bakery, True Blue Butcher Events, Home Love, Be Brave Creative, and We Are True Blue. 

“The growth has been fast,” Zimmerman admitted. “Some may say reckless — but we are staying true to Wilmington and our commitment to quality through the We Are True Blue brand. Beat Street will be more loose, fun and energetic.”

The concept blossomed out of the pandemic — specifically the way it forced Zimmerman to shift operations during Covid-19 shutdowns. He went to curbside service for True Blue Table, still offering butcher meats for customers to cook at home, yet shifted away from its normal fine-dining fare. His crew began hosting nights dedicated to global cuisines.

“We were pivoting every way that we possibly could,” he said.

The international “pop-ups,” so to speak, featured Spanish cuisine one night and set the foundation for Mariposa’s opening in the South Front District in summer of 2021. “Takeout Tuesday” honed in on Chinese cuisine, while “Red Sauce” featured all Italian, and “Oaxaca” was tacos.

“Oaxaca was the founding father, if you will, of Beat Street,” Zimmerman said.

The menu has a section dedicated to tacos, queso and salsas, as well as ssam — leafy wraps traditional to Korean cuisine — and kai yang (Laos kabobs marinated in coriander, cilantro and chilies). Snacks include a Middle Eastern tabbouleh bowl, as well as cold ramen. 

Beat Street will open in the former Mess Hall location in The Cargo District. (Courtesy Beat Street)

“This is the style of eating I enjoy the most,” Zimmerman said, “a big platter of lots of food that we can just all explore together. No etiquette; we can be loud and enjoy each other’s company.”

There will be numerous vegan and vegetarian options. Various handhelds will come in a bevy of flavors, from pork-belly steam buns to lobster rolls to True Blue’s classic burger. Like all of Zimmerman’s restaurants, the burger will be $5 on Wednesdays.

A torta is also added, a classic Mexican sandwich stacked with roasted pork, onions, cilantro, lettuce, cotija, and mayo between two slices of bolillo.

“It’s all about the bread,” Zimmerman said. “Being somewhat clumsy in the beginning, the roll was a little too dense, and then the way that we were warming the roll on the griddle was drying it out. We finally listened to a team member who told us to steam the bread and add three times the amount of mayonnaise. Otherwise, it’s just a roasted pork sandwich.”

As with all We Are True Blue restaurants, the bakery that opened in Hampstead over the summer is churning out the bread for Beat Street. The 3,200-square-foot operation is mighty for its six-person team. Bakers are making 2,500 burger buns a week, 400 miscellaneous loaves, 200 sourdough focaccias, not including specialty orders they take on in pies, breads and other sweets. 

“If we want Portuguese milk bread for something, they will research it,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, it’s a luxury that, quite frankly, many restaurants don’t have — their own baking operation.”

It will especially be utilized at breakfast as Beat Street will have homemade biscuit sandwiches, featuring typical breakfast fare of fried eggs, sausage, bacon, fried chicken. Yet, there will be flavors that can be added in, such as charred shishitos and aioli. Lighter options will be available in bowls and burritos.

Breakfast will begin at 8 a.m., and the restaurant will stay open late, especially on weekends, “as long as there are customers to feed,” Zimmerman said.

The Cargo District, bustling with over 50 entrepreneurs in two blocks, is driving the energy of the space. 

“It’s the mecca of small businesses,” he said. “The culture over here is so cool — so much fun.”

With a name inspired from the streets of New York —  and a breakdancing movie popular in the ‘80s — Beat Street’s decor will be just as convivial, featuring street art and neon lights.

The menu’s price points start at $5 and go up to $16, intentionally set to be affordable as if ordering from a street food vendor.

Traditionally, street food was founded by families looking to make ends meet; Zimmerman said his team of chefs will continue to honor this foundation.

“It’s taking grandma’s recipe — different from the other grandma’s recipe across the street in her own booth, for competing empanadas — and selling it to the masses,” Zimmerman said. “Beat Street will pay tribute to that: multi-generational cooks and authentic recipes.”

American classics also will be featured — specifically, the hot dog. Originally from Chicago, Zimmerman said there will be a Chicago dog day, prepared with traditional Vienna beef sausage and “dragged through the garden” (a phrase indicative of its many toppings). 

As well, a cooler stocked with hundreds of sodas from around the world will be available.

“We determined that this is going to be a constant state of evolution,” Zimmerman said, agreeing it’s like a mini food hall in one eatery. “Our intention is to dial in and get ultra authentic to very specific regions and subcultures. It’s going to be a completely exploratory experience for us and for whoever dines with us.”

Empanada day will be a specialty every Friday at Beat Street. (Courtesy photo)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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