By Josh Marcus | Monterey County Weekly
Kuki’s Gourmet Food Truck, the latest food truck to hit Monterey County’s streets, started with an idea: Kelli and Teri Takikawa wanted to capture the welcoming spirit of Teri’s mother Kuki’s kitchen table.
Kuki grew up in a family of farmers in the Fresno area, with seven siblings. She learned to cook Japanese country-style cuisine, often with all the ingredients hailing from the farm.
The magic of her own table was the creations she conjured with simple ingredients purchased on her husband’s humble teaching salary: lots of soy sauce, chicken and vegetables, with lots of inventiveness to keep it interesting.
Kuki then passed down this simple deliciousness to her son each night.
“My mom got creative with sauces and ingredients, usually over rice,” Teri says. “My brothers and I never seemed to dislike anything she ever made.”
They weren’t alone. All their buddies started showing up more and more.
“It became clear all of our friends really liked the food too,” Teri says. “They all congregated at the house.”
The welcoming vibe and accessible flavors from that kitchen table are equally present with the truck, which rolled out in May.
Diners track the truck via Kuki’s Facebook page, or line up at their regular lunch visits to Marina’s Wellness Center near REI on Mondays, the Ryan Ranch stop Tuesday through Thursday and MPC Farmers Market on Fridays.
Kitchen table approachability permeates the menu, starting with the centerpiece: completely customizable noodle bowls. For $8, diners have their choice of the daily noodle or rice (brown or white); braised chicken, beef, pork or tofu; and sesame teriyaki sauce, ponzu citrus sauce, peanut sauce or coconut red curry sauce.
No matter what combo appeals to them most, eaters can expect a winning, greasy, oh-dear-lord-I’m-so-full-but-can’t-stop bowl of comfort food.
One combo recommended by server Denis Wagner is the pork – braised and pulled barbecue-joint style – paired with the curry sauce.
Wait: pulled pork, fried rice and spicy Thai curry?
That’s right. This unlikely combo forms a fridge-raider’s delight that’s equally appealing to a foodie at lunch or a college kid at 2am. The anchor is the pork, oven-braised for four hours in its own juices, sourced responsibly from the folks at Niman Ranch. On top of that, fresh shallots, peppers, cucumbers and shaved carrots add texture and keep the bowl from being too rich. Then comes the homemade sauce, either the mouth-filling spice of the coconut milk curry Wagner advises, or perhaps the ponzu citrus, a biting, sweet/sour garnish. With an extra runny fried egg ($1) to crown the teetering pile, this bowl is beautiful.
Other bestsellers include the chicken rice bowl with teriyaki sauce, the beef rice bowl with peanut sauce, and the tofu rice bowl with teriyaki.
But bowls aren’t the only thing on this multi-faceted menu, one deeper than most mobile munch houses. A solid roster of soups, salads, sides and wacky specials like Japanese tacos round out the selection, including miso soup ($4), somen noodle salad ($7), bok choy salad ($7) and the unique sauteed carrot and burdock root salad ($3).
The extras I sampled were inoffensive but unexciting, perhaps suffering in comparison to the bombastic bowls. The miso sesame vegetables ($3), though fresh, were like the ones every sushi bar seems to serve, and the daily special honey ginger iced tea ($2) was too sweet.
More disappointing was the chilled sesame tofu with shoyu prosciutto ($3). This palate cleanser could’ve been another unexpected but harmonious combo, but instead it was a plain hunk of tofu covered in over-salted soy sauce-prosciutto pebbles. Another letdown also featured tofu, a bland bowl of underseasoned rice, stingy asparagus bites and snap peas with not nearly enough ponzu sauce. Not worth $8.
But Kuki’s signature baked bonsai chicken thighs – a steal at $3 a piece – more than make up for these shortcomings, filling a niche between fried chicken and Asian food I didn’t know existed.
Glazed in the Takikawa family’s sweet sesame teriyaki sauce, a secret recipe, the thighs are floured and baked, skin on, then sauced once ordered, so they’re crunchy and satisfying, not overly greasy or saturated. The mix of unique preparation and gooey, not-too-sweet, not-too-sour sauce makes them supremely satisfying. You’ll want some extra napkins, because eating it cleanly – like having only one – is truly a challenge.
Extremely friendly service to go with it from Teri and company means they’re having little trouble living up to their mission statement, which is to make friends and family through food. The chefs and wait staff already know customers – who range from construction workers to doctors to servicemen and women – on a first-name basis.
Seems there’s always room at Kuki’s table, wherever it drives next.
KUKI’S GOURMET FOOD TRUCK is usually at the Wellness Center in Marina Mon 11am-2pm, Harris Court in Ryan Ranch Tues-Thur 11am-2pm and MPC Farmers Market 10am-2pm Fri. 521-0744, http://kukisbowl.com