By Lari Robling | Philadelphia Daily News
It started in Los Angeles and tweeted itself into a late-night sport. How quickly can you find the Korean-Mexican taco truck, and how long are you willing to wait in the name of an obsession? (Reportedly more than two hours on a weekend.)
So, when it’s a tweet phenomenon in L.A. and even New Yorkers break their stride for it, no doubt it will show up in Philly.
Ladder 15 and Meritage introduced Korean-Mexican fusion to our dining scene. Still, the real-deal mash-up here is mobile – Tyson Bees, a truck traveling to various neighborhoods dispensing kimchi-laced tacos to the masses, manned by Tyson Wong Ophaso, whose culinary influences are diverse enough to give Google Maps a challenge.
Born in Laos, his family left in 1975 after the communist takeover and moved to Thailand. Later came a move to France and, eventually, he landed in San Francisco as a chef who frequented taco trucks after his shift.
Ophaso came to Philly to open Chew Man Chu, which had a very brief tenure at the Symphony House. Fortunately, he likes us and decided to stay put and give us the gift of our own Korean Taco truck, even when the licensing process caused enough delays to seem like an episode on Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race.”
Hands down the favorite dish with tasters was the Steamed Pork Bun ($3), a recipe Ophaso brings from his Chew Man Chu days.
A slice of well-prepared pork belly scented with Chinese five-spice powder stood proudly on a Peking-duck bun slathered in hoisin sauce. Some pickled jalapeño dotted the landscape, creating balance between the sweet and fatty.
Seriously, order two as you’ll want one in reserve because someone is bound to poach a taste when they see it.
There are three taco fusions well-priced at $3 each or $8 for three. All the tacos are double-wrapped in a soft corn tortilla.
My tasters and I ranked the Korean BBQ Short Rib Tacos as our favorite. Sliced cabbage and radishes offered a traditional Mexican textural contrast to the slightly sweet pork. A dollop of Ophaso’s French-inspired aioli sauce added a creamy note as well.
The Thai Basil Chicken Taco definitely showed more Thai influence than Mexican, not necessarily a bad thing, but I was looking for more fusion. It was pretty much straight-up Vietnamese despite the radish, cabbage and lime.
The only dish that didn’t seem to work at all was the Edamame Taco, which was much too bland. I was looking for more assertive flavors to enhance the edamame and perhaps some avocado to add textural contrast to the beans.
Another home run was the Korean BBQ Short Rib and Kimchi Burrito ($5). Overall, the burrito was a great mix of sweet and spicy. There was a little too much rice proportionately, but I tend to find too much rice in straight-up Mexican burritos.
The kimchi was hands down the best kimchi I’ve ever tasted. It is homemade, and Ophaso sources it from a secret location in Upper Darby. I may have to follow the truck one night.
An interesting dish that I had to reflect on was the Vietnamese Bahn Mi Sandwich ($5). My first reaction was “Ugh, Amoroso bread,” and the fact that it was overstuffed was very un-bahn mi, to me.
But it grew on me with each bite and, as another taster observed, this is Vietnamese bahn mi meets Mexican torta. The supersoft roll absorbed the juices of the lemongrass pork. Ophaso’s homemade pickles, more like half sours in a deli, were the perfect garnish.
While not technically a fusion, the rice bowls are a bargain at $6. A generous portion of topping comes with an even more generous cup of rice, and no doubt the combo fills up the hungry students in University City.
The Thai Coconut Green Curry Chicken had that wonderful addictive quality of curries that make you want just one more bite. Ophaso changes up the curries to keep the menu interesting.
It’s easy to spot the Tyson Bees truck, fancifully appointed by local artist NoseGo (Yis Goodwin). The bees are not a cultural reference, but rather the tenants of the truck before Ophaso took it over.
You’ll find him weekdays at 33rd and Spruce, late night Thursday through Saturday at 2nd and Spring Garden, or, during the day Saturdays at Broad and Bainbridge.
A little side note: Since this is takeout, your dining location might offer a little BYOB opportunity. Turns out, the Santa Barbara pinot noir we had on hand brought us full circle back to California with a lighter-body red that accommodated the predominantly Asian flavors.