By Jeff Yang | WSJ.com
On a startlingly sunny winter day in the Flatiron District, the walking traffic along lower Park Ave. has slowed to a crawl. The culprit: A knot of hungry folks on lunch break who’ve congregated around a bright yellow-green van parked in a choice slot between 23rd and 24th. Some pedestrians grumble as they’re forced to go around — but every so often, one takes a peek at the menu and joins the throng. Domo Taco, the newest new kid on New York’s burgeoning street-eats scene, has reeled in another midday customer.
“Yeah, the first time I came here, I was like, ‘That’s totally nuts,’” says one burly Domo devotee to his dubious coworker, pointing to the menu — a simple affair with just a dozen offerings, decorated with a cartoon of a moustachioed shrimp-tempura taco. “Lemongrass chicken tacos with Monterey Jack cheese? Japanese nacho tater tots? Sounds gross, right? But all I can say is, try it. Just try it.”
I’m not the target of his exhortations, but I can’t resist. And I’m glad I didn’t: The Kare Beef Bowl, a heaping plastic tub full of fluffy jasmine rice, loaded with strips of grilled sirloin in rich Japanese curry sauce, and dressed with “Asian black beans,” guacamole, steamed edamame, pico de gallo, fresh cream, and pickled ginger, is crazy delicious. It’s like a bucket of internet acronyms: LOL, WTF?, and then OMG! And the nacho tater tots — crisp and light under criss-crossed drizzles of sweet mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce and a blanket of sharp cheese, savory seaweed flakes and paper-thin dried bonito — are almost indescribable, a hot mess of bizarrely contradictory-yet-complementary flavors and textures that leave you looking down dazedly at an empty container just minutes after you’ve popped the first one into your mouth.
Domo’s menu is a mélange you can’t quite imagine finding in a restaurant, but when served through the window of a big green vehicle, it feels almost par for the course. That’s because, ever since the wheeled wonder known as the Kogi Korean BBQ truck hit the streets of L.A. in 2009, mealmobiles have become the front line of culinary cross-pollination. Just a few short years later, fusion-food four-on-the-floors have spread across the nation like kudzu, and many of them, in a hat-tip to Kogi, blend south-of-the-border fare with ingredients from exotic. Korean combos are a tried-and-true standard; in New York alone, Korilla, Krave, and Kimchi Taco hold down the Seoul food / Mexi-mashup front.
But in Miami, GastroPod offers Vietnamese banh mi pork tacos; in Los Angeles, Komodo dishes Jakartan food by way of Jalisco, while Don Chow serves up Chino-Chicano; NOLA’s Taceaux Loceaux sells Cajun-style soft shells; and in the Bay Area, Curry Up Now does a Latindian take on traditional Chandni Chowk sidewalk snacks. (Ever tried a burr-roti wrap? I assure you, it’s Delhicious.)
All of which means that Domo, which in mid-October 2011 became the latest addition to the city’s rolling restaurant fleet, has plenty of company…and competition. That doesn’t worry Nelson Mui, Domo Taco’s proprietor, chef and driver. For Mui, a 33-year-old Chinese Canadian who graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in mathematics, just having his truck on the road means he’s living the dream.
“I got a job out of school working in IT because I had nothing else to do,” he says. “I wasn’t going to become math teacher, and I wasn’t going on to my doctorate. I had a degree, and I needed to make some money. So I ended up doing it for over ten years. But I don’t love tech. I mean, I like it, but I’m not in love with it. This is what I love. I love food. I love eating. I love cooking — I love even just talking about it.”
Like many second-generation Asian North Americans, Mui grew up in a household where food wasn’t just a passion, it was a way of life. Mui’s father owned and cooked for restaurants his whole adult life. When Mui and his brothers were still young, they moved south from the suburbs of Montreal to Messina, N.Y., where the elder Mui opened a restaurant named China Doll.
“We grew up with our playpens and cribs literally in the restaurant’s kitchen,” says Mui. “I started washing dishes for my parents at age ten, then moved on to prep, learned my knife skills, and started working the woks and fryers. By the time I was a teen, I’d been trained in a lot of the stuff I take for granted right now.”
Despite his early start in front of a stove, he assumed he’d never have much need or chance to use his aptitude with food as an adult.
“My parents struggled so hard to make sure we’d go to college that I don’t think I would have ever gotten into this business if they were still around,” admits Mui. “But my mom passed away when I was in my mid-20s, and my dad, a few years ago. Finally, I just decided to go for it. They would have been shocked: Why are you out here slinging tacos when you could be sitting at a desk? But the truth is, this is all I’ve thought about doing for years.”
That sense of destiny is shared by many of Mui’s fellow food-truckers. For Korean American Philip Lee, launching the Kimchi Taco truck was the culmination of (and antidote to) two decades spent learning the craft, and a lifetime of loving it.
“I was general manager at BR Guest for almost nine years” — the Steve Hanson culinary combine that runs Ruby Foo’s, Blue Fin, the Blue Water Grill and Strip House, among other top dining establishments — “and before that, I was at Q56 at the Drake Hotel and Smith & Wollensky,” he says.
But like Mui, Lee saw his time working for The Man first as a stepping stone, and ultimately, as a distraction from his real goal. “I grew up working for my uncle; he had one of the first Japanese restaurants on Long Island,” he says. “So I had a little exposure to hospitality, and learned just how difficult it is. But at the same time, that made me want to take on the challenge. The experience made me realize how wonderful it is to take care of people and bring joy to people’s faces, and the special place food has in doing that.”
At the urging of his parents, Lee went to Renssaeler Polytechnic Institute, graduating with a degree in industrial engineering. But when he went back for his MBA, he headed for Cornell, which has one of the top hospitality programs in the country, with the goal of learning what it took to open his own restaurant. Instead, he found himself toiling in the belly of the big-dining beast: “I got married, had kids, and needed the security. Boom, I looked up and two decades had gone by.”
But the dream was still there, rooted in Lee’s nostalgia for the food of his childhood. “I was born in Korea, and my dad was very traditional, so even when we came to America, we ate Korean food all the time,” he says. “Even at Thanksgiving, we’d have turkey, but we’d always have to have the kimchi. Whatever the meal, even when we were eating grilled cheese sandwiches — when my mom made grilled cheese, she’d always put kimchi inside. And when I got older and learned more about food, I realized what it is that makes kimchi such a great complement to so many things. It has an acidity to it that cuts through fat or carbohydrate-heavy dishes, and that balances protein-rich ones.”
Kimchi, in Lee’s mind, was the key to a fresh take on Asian fusion. Not just red kimchi, the kind most familiar to Western audiences, but the full range of different pickled, brined and fermented vegetables accompaniments that are as central to Korean cuisine as its entrees. Lee was in the throes of developing his kimchi-focused concept with a fellow Korean American colleague at BR Guest when the recession hit.
“All of a sudden, it just seemed too risky to open up a storefront,” he says. “The startup costs are huge, and if the concept doesn’t work, you’re left with nothing. Then we saw Kogi take off, and it hit us that that was the perfect way to launch this idea. Location is so critical: If you have a bricks and mortar business and you’re not getting traffic, you can’t just close up and move somewhere else. With a truck, you have a concept that’s too out there for somewhere with conservative tastes, and you just relocate to somewhere with more young people and more open minds. So you have lower costs of entry and you have the ability to be mobile. That all adds up to the ability to take more risks with your culinary concept.”
The result of Lee’s revelation was Kimchi Taco — inspired by Kogi, but with a focus on Korea’s unique national dish. “There’s a component of kimchi in everything we do,” he says. “What most people don’t know is that there are over 500 different types of kimchi, from spicy to light and refreshing. And we use different types in our different dishes, to ensure that there’s exactly the right balance. Our beef, it’s not grilled on a flat-top, it’s done with a real barbecue grill, so there’s that smoky flavor you don’t get even with Kogi. And so we won’t overpower that aroma, we don’t use red kimchi — we use a kimchi slaw that’s our own creation, somewhere between a red and a white.”
Kimchi Taco has been a success; open for less than a year, it’s already proved out Lee and his partner’s investment. “Even though opening a truck is a lot cheaper than a storefront, you’re still talking at least six figures,” he says. “Once we got out there, though, the demand was so overwhelming that we decided to buy another truck. Then it hit us: This isn’t the final goal. We were doing this to develop a brand.”
Lee’s ambitions were always to take his concept into the bricks and mortar world. He chose to sell the second truck and invest the proceeds into Kimchi Grill, a storefront located in Brooklyn’s rapidly rising Prospect Heights neighborhood instead. “We’re three-quarters finished right now, but we’re hoping to open in mid to late March,” he says. “The menu will be similar, but with a lot more items — there are a lot more things you can do when you have a full kitchen.”
That path — using the food truck as a test lab on wheels, before launching a concept as a full-fledged eatery — is increasingly looking like the smart entrepreneur’s road to restaurant success.
Kim Ima, one of the earliest pioneers on New York’s food truck landscape, is perhaps the prime example of the power of the truck-to-table model. A theatrical and film producer by trade, Ima’s memories of growing up were anchored in food. “Every time I think of my mom, the image of her is at the stove, cooking, making a big pot of soup, and always, always baking,” she says. “And it’s not just her: My grandmothers on both sides of my family, Jewish and Japanese, loved to bake. When we went to visit my dad’s mom in Seattle, she’d always look up a new recipe and have it ready for us when we arrived. We’d have our sukiyaki, and then we’d have a nice yellow cake for dessert. So long before I decided to open a business, I’d always been really passionate about baking.”
As her star rose as a producer — Ima worked regularly with Downtown’s experimental theater standout La MaMa and produced many of indie filmmaker Greg Pak’s works, including his acclaimed feature film Robot Stories — she used her spare time with her floury passion. “I’d find myself waking up in the morning and baking 10,000 types of cookies just to see what they tasted like,” she laughs. “Pretty soon, I realized I was basically doing market research.”
In 2007, a year before Kogi launched in L.A., Ima decided to take her ideas to the streets, one of the first of the upscale New York food trucks, and the first to focus on, well, food. “When I started Treats Truck, it was just us and the Mud Truck” — the orange gourmet coffee van that’s since become a Downtown landmark. “Of course, there were the old school trucks, like the Latin taco trucks on the upper west side and the ice cream guys. It was actually some of the Greek soft-serve truck guys who took me under their wing and told me how to make this business work. We’d all be in the truck garage, and I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of doing this,’ and they’d scratch their heads and say, ‘Well, that’s not a good idea.’”
Combining the wisdom of the past with innovations from the present — most notably, the use of the web as a way to get the word out — quickly proved to be a winning business model. It’s also the philosophy that powers Treats Truck’s incredible baked goods bounty: Ima’s specialty is taking classic comfort snacks and amping them up with novel new ingredient combos. Think Oreo-style peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich cookies that melt in your mouth and fill your belly like a meal. Or Rice Krispies treats with whole-grain cereal, dried cranberries and almonds. It’s fun food. And it’s a perfect fit for post-recession consumers, looking for a small indulgence that reminds them of more innocent times.
“It’s funny, because from the very beginning, I could see it all, the whole path of how this would develop,” she says. “I said, well, I really love the idea of launching this kind of new-wave lunch truck. And if that goes well, I’d love to branch out into a storefront. And maybe if I’m lucky enough, someday I’d like to do a cookbook.”
Ima’s first cookbook, “The Treats Truck Baking Book: Cookies, Brownies & Goodies Galore!,” came out in November of last year. It’s currently at #19 on the Amazon dessert cookbook charts, well ahead of standbys from the likes of Martha Stewart, Alice Waters and Julia Child.
In the next few weeks, around the same time as Philip Lee unveils his Kimchi Taco storefront spinoff, Ima will unveil The Treats Truck Stop, a kid-friendly sit-down bakery café in a lovely, up-and-coming part of Carroll Gardens. “That’s where we’ll be doing all of our baking,” she says. “And of course, there’ll be a viewing window so people can watch as they eat.”
But the launch of the Stop won’t stop Ima’s truck, which she’s nicknamed “Sugar,” from rolling. Despite the rigor of 14-hour days, waking at dawn to buy fresh supplies and prep a day’s worth of ingredients, and then driving and cooking and selling through a wild lunchtime and dinnertime crush; despite the increasing pressure being placed on the food trucks by police and the city regulatory environment; despite the crazy uncertainty of the climate in the era of global weirding — as Domo Taco’s Mui puts it, “you learn quickly in this business that weather is everything” — the owner of the viand vans have no intention of yielding.
“Look, the goal is eventually to get into a bricks and mortar business,” says Mui. “I don’t see myself driving a food truck for the next 20 years. You have to have a higher goal in mind. But there’s also a passion you have to have for this. There’s something about being able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘You know, I think I’ll try this new dish today,’ and not being afraid to mix things up.”
The Japanese nacho tater tots, for instance, are the result of a whimsical conversation between Mui and one of his snowboarding pals during a long drive up to Okemo. “I was like, I love takoyaki, those little Japanese octopus balls,” he says. “We spent five hours talking about takoyaki. And I said I wanted to introduce something like that on the truck, but I knew octopus wasn’t going to be my lunchtime bread and butter. So we ended up breaking down what makes takoyaki so good, and then coming up with something that would be easy to execute and keep that flavor. And now they’re one of the best-selling things on the menu.”
Back in front of the Domo truck, the big guy has popped the lid on his tots and offered his skeptical friend a bite. The latter pokes it gingerly with a fork and then pops a choice morsel into his mouth.
“Hey, not bad,” he says, reaching out again with his utensil.
“Get your own damn tots,” snarls his friend, pulling the box back. Chalk up another convert for Domo.
It’s not all sweet on the street for New York’s food trucks. In June of last year, a court ruled that an antiquated law designed to keep street vendors from competing with storefront retail operations applied to food trucks as well. The law bars the selling of goods from municipal parking spaces — even if the spaces are fully paid up in tolls.
“It’s a law from back in the ‘50s, but it hasn’t been enforced for years,” says Treats Truck’s Kim Ima. “Now, the police are being really tough about it. You can’t park in midtown anymore, which is where the lunchtime action really is. And that’s killing us.”
The tipping point was when bricks and mortar restaurants on Manhattan’s Upper East Side filed a series of complaints against Patty’s Taco Truck, an old-school lonchero that sold Mexican-style sandwiches and traditional tacos. Seeing the opportunity as a test case, the Urban Justice Center represented Patty’s in a pro-bono hearing before Judge Geoffrey Wright. Unfortunately, they lost, with the consequence that the precedent was set requiring food trucks to conform with the vintage law.
While the city is trying to work to find a solution for the trucks, the net effect has been that many have been exiled out of the neighborhoods that need them most — places where good, cheap, fast gourmet lunch fare is as rare as unicorns.
“The whole thing has put us in a really awkward position,” says Ima. “The city knows it needs us, but at the same time, it won’t let us be where we’re most wanted. It’s a very tricky situation.”
With spring just around the corner, let’s hope someone figures out a solution soon.
Until then, here’s a special Tao Jones Index, Meals on Wheels Edition.
The Tao Jones Index Must-click quick-hits from across Asia and Asian America
TruxMap puts all your food-truck-tracking in one place: Sure, you could follow a dozen separate Twitter feeds, but why not visit TruxMap for a Google Maps-enabled, one-stop solution to hunting down that perfect mobile bite in dozens of cities across the nation?
How America became a food truck nation: The Smithsonian’s spanking-new eats columnist Jonathan Gold talks about the truckification of America’s foodscape, with a little helping hand from our old friend, CSU-Long Beach sociology professor and veteran cultural critic Oliver Wang. Plus: Megan Gambino and Aviva Shen pick the 25 best food trucks in the U.S. Do you agree?
Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire”: No relation to Megan Gambino! Here’s the spooky vid for the first single off comedian Donald Glover’s faux-gangsta rap album “Camp”; you’ll recognize him from the on-hiatus (but returning, we hope!) NBC ‘com Community, but here he’s showing his flow with lines like “This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef.” LOL.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
“Tao Jones” is Jeff Yang’s weekly column for Speakeasy on Asian culture. Tune in Friday for the next installment. Follow him on Twitter at @originalspin.