By Brad Stagers | The Tampa Tribune
As a child growing up on Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa, Reinaldo “Renny” Braga learned how to cook by helping his Chinese grandmother prepare and serve family meals. When he retired from the United States Air Force as a medical specialist, he settled in Tampa and worked as a nurse. But a hunger to open a restaurant serving Okinawan cuisine gnawed at him.
Okinawan food differs from the Japanese food that most people are familiar with, since the climate there is much more tropical than the main northern islands of Japan. Also, Okinawa did not become a part of Japan until the 19th century and is situated at a Pacific Ocean trading crossroad that brought influences from China and Southeast Asia before it became a Japanese prefecture. Pork, not fish, is the preferred meal entree.
As with many entrepreneurs, a perceived necessity provided the motivation to take the plunge. In Braga’s case, it came about when he couldn’t find Okinawan food in the Tampa Bay area that was worthy of the name.
“I like to cook and wanted people to try the soba (noodles) that I grew up with and I noticed nobody had it,” he said.
In 2012, Braga purchased a used step van outfitted with a kitchen and set out on his culinary and entrepreneurial adventure in Renny’s Oki Doki food truck. Over the past three years, his “Okinawan feel-good food” has become a popular meal-time attraction on the Tampa Bay area food truck circuit.
Besides public events like music and cultural festivals such as Tampa Bay Comic Con, Braga’s truck is a steady presence at office parks, medical centers and businesses that don’t have cafeterias or other convenient dining options for employees.
One of those regular stops is Ultimate Medical Academy at 9309 N. Florida Ave. in North Tampa, where a steady line of hungry employees recently kept Braga and his assistant, Mary Wicker, busy serving portions of ma-san soba (noodles topped with braised pork belly), katsu chicken and the spicy Seoul food bowl.
“The food is great. It’s my favorite food truck by far,” said Anthony Forde, who was dining on a teriyaki chicken bowl.
His colleague, Stephanie Barrios, likewise offered praise.
“It’s definitely authentic and has a good taste with a variety of spices,” she said.
Jose Sanabria took a moment from his Seoul food bowl to give his opinion.
“I’m pretty surprised at the quality because most vendors probably just want to make a fast buck, so it’s good to know there are chefs out there who take pride in their cuisine,” he said.
One thing that catches potential diners’ attention are the distinctive graphics of his aquamarine-colored truck. There is a caricature of Braga on the side panels and a pair of mythological Shisa dogs on the rear door. The style is distinctively Disneyesque because the artist is Ruben Aquino, an animator whose work is featured in films such as “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Little Mermaid.” He is also a childhood friend of Braga.
“He gave us the artwork and it’s been pretty successful in attracting customers,” Braga said. “People come up and say, ‘We noticed the colors and your graphics. That’s what pulled us in.’”
The design was deemed best food truck graphic for 2013 by MobileCuisine.com, an influential resource for the industry.
The food truck business has changed a lot since Braga started. There are a lot more food trucks on the road now, including many that are sponsored by chain restaurants. His business has started to become profitable, but getting to that point has not been easy.
“In the beginning, it was tough because we had a lot of problems with the truck,” the South Tampa resident said.
According to Braga, the key to success is hard work, along with the support from family and friends, such as his wife, Tracy, with whom he’s been married for 39 years, and Wicker, who is a friend he grew up with on Okinawa and reconnected with by chance in Tampa. He also credits the support independent food truck operators in the Tampa Bay area provide to each other, such as sharing tips about reliable mechanics and vendors.
“It looks easy but it’s a lot of work,” Braga said. “I know a lot of food trucks that have gone out of business because they tried to do it all themselves.”
You can find out more about Renny’s Oki Doki food truck at rennysoki doki.com, visiting the business Facebook page or calling (813) 394-6159.