Under Pressure: Inventive panini that totally rock

Off the eatin' path

In 1981, iconic stadium rock staples Queen and David Bowie collaborated on a song about the hardship of modern life called “Under Pressure”. That tugging bassline has been used in so many ways, especially by a Miami-based rapper 10 years later who gave no credit to either Bowie or Queen.

Just over 30 years after that song was released and became a certified hit, Keith Powell decided to take his love for not just the song, but for Queen and Bowie as well, to inspire a sandwich-centered food truck that totally rules.

Panini at Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Panini at Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It was a few months ago when I stumbled on the green and blue painted truck parked in front of a popular midtown pub. The handwritten menu looked promising; grilled cheese sandwiches with fillings such as marinated jackfruit, grilled sirloin, a chicken option paired with a carrot and kale salad, and a nearly traditional Cubano with pibil-style pulled pork (pibil being an old traditional recipe originating from the Yucatan).

The day was hot and I was hungry, so I ordered the Cubano, dubbed Mayan Love, and retreated inside to the dark coolness of the bar as I waited for my late afternoon treat.

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

After a few minutes, Powell walked in with a sizable container and handed me my order. My arm buckled a little from the weight of it all. Once I opened the white clamshell carton I was immediately stricken by the proportion of both the sandwich and the lake of fries it floated on. This guy isn’t fooling around.

Biting into the panini behemoth meant that I was met with a sudden taste of rich, but not too rich, pibil pork — very juicy and tasty. The added elements of marinated red onions, cilantro, cabbage, bell peppers, Jack cheese, and a house cumin lime vinaigrette tied the story together in a really auspicious way.

Now, fries in one’s life come and go. You either love them as a side or you kind of hate them because they are soggy, overdone, or because of the seasoning (or lack thereof)o. Or you have a fry experience that slaps so good you hallucinate just enough to see your ancestors off in the distance giving you the thumbs up.

Under Pressure’s fries are the last installment of that equation. Fresh-cut fries with each order. Potato goes into the smashy, cutting machine, dunked in oil, and seasoned perfectly.

Keith Powell and Brandon Cornwell of Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Keith Powell and Brandon Cornwell of Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Powell informed me that he attended culinary school up in Scottsdale but dropped out. He is not a “tweezer food” kind of guy. It was then that he knew he wanted to go into business for himself and make completely unpretentious food. To uncomplicate things even more, he knew that he wanted to make big boy panini.

It took him several years of searching and even cooking in various kitchens across town, a long time gig being the Surly Wench, until one day a beam of light from the food truck gods led him to the rig that he operates out of today.

Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

In fact, it was a little over a year ago that Powell, along with business and cooking partner Brandon Cornwell, signed away and got to work on a truck that would be later dubbed Under Pressure.

Now, here is a funny thing — Powell just happens to be a huge Queen fan. Huge. When he quit culinary school he knew that he wanted to make panini. In order for a panini to become a panini, you have to press it in a panini press, or at least on a hot griddle with a flat weight on top. “Under Pressure” was one of Queen’s biggest hits, with the help of David Bowie, of course, another big-time favorite of his.

That’s when I noticed that all of their sandwiches were named, or at least inspired by, Queen songs.

There’s the one with bulgogi-style marinated sirloin equipped with kimchi: Bulgogi Rhapsody. How about the vegetarian (vegan if you omit the cheese) option with jackfruit pibil? I Want It Meat Free. The straight-up griller with gouda, Jack, and Manchego cheeses? Fat Bottom Grilled.

Oh yeah, there is definitely a theme going on here.

Powell, being the smart and decent man he is, wouldn’t just have a grilled cheese/panini truck without the inclusion of a well-balanced if not beautifully simple tomato soup. In this current wintry mix of weather, are you kidding me? There’s rain, a chill in the air, and it gets dark rather quickly, all making you feel sluggish and feeling like you need a comforting food hug — get the grilled cheese and a cup of tomato soup.

Those two combined, for me personally, is a tastebud memory merriment that is without contest. Under Pressure’s version of the adored combo will keep the little kid inside of you happy and warm.

The tomato soup is great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s all about the Freddy’s Perfect Hominy that makes my mouth and knees buckle. It is a spicy, Sonoran-inspired, hearty, flavorful, unique, and near-addictive wizard’s cauldron of deliciousness. Trust me here, this is holiday magic in a bowl.

Pies at Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Dessert empanadas at Under Pressure (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

On top of all of the frivolity, Under Pressure serves dessert empanadas. The last time I hung out with Powell he was serving apple, strawberry, and pumpkin-filled pillowy options. All of which are light yet filling and somehow indicative of the ensuing holiday season. Little wisps of white dusted confections.

Cookies are old news. Give Santa Claus one of these fruity puffs of love this Christmas.

At first, Powell and Cornwell wanted to be a brick-and-mortar but the way they operate and serve our community, being mobile just feels right. Sort of like chasing down the ice cream truck in your youth. With the inclusion of food based on the greatness of Queen and David Bowie, it’s as if you’ve stepped into a sold-out concert starring a talented chef with amazing sandwiches and fries backing him up.

Speaking of which, Keith always wears the most outrageous chef pants. Loud, you can see them from the back row. It’s that rock and roll whimsy that makes his food beautifully playful, yummy, and for all ages.

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It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.

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