By Heather Hoch | Tucson Weekly
When done well, fusion has to be subtle. While chasing the latest fusion trends like sushi burritos and ramen burgers might be initially eye catching for guests, the novelty and kitsch factor of those dishes do tend to wear out quickly—it’s not necessarily the key to a sustainable business. Although the Bam Bam food truck was the first to bring the ramen burger to Tucson, chef-owner Fernando Sanchez says he’s edited his menu down to a place where he feels they’re offering a solid line-up of fan favorites gleaned from their first year and a half in business.
Bam Bam’s menu is relatively straightforward, offering tacos, burritos, quesadillas and noodle bowls ($6 to $8). From there, you can add in expertly marinated proteins such as chicken teriyaki, Vietnamese-style glazed pork, Korean barbecue ribeye or tofu. The trick here, though, is that incorporating Mexican chiles and other ingredients into those Asian marinades helps tie in the flavors of both cuisines more cohesively. However, Sanchez says the flavors are already complementary without too much tweaking.
“They are similar. Mexican food uses many spicy ingredients and the same with Asian food,” he says, “so they mix well.”
Common threads like the use of cilantro and lime as ubiquitous toppings also tie them together, but hammering down the all-from-scratch recipes did take some work. While Sanchez says he learned Mexican cooking while growing up around Sonora, Guadalajara and Mexico City and watching his grandmother cook, he sought the help of a Korean chef from Mexico named Jorge Nakata to perfect the marinades and kimchi recipes.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done without him,” Sanchez says. “He helped us form our recipes a lot.”
Before Bam Bam, Sanchez worked in restaurants in Mexico and even ran the Red Pepper food truck in Tucson for a while, though he originally had a degree in marketing and worked with social media promotions.
Now his wife, Gabby Sanchez, has taken over most of the truck’s social media outreach, as well as booking events, bookkeeping and ordering, while Fernando Sanchez and his friend and fellow truck chef Luis Celis run the show on the truck, experimenting with specials and more.
“I love the culture of both dishes so it’s easy for me to play around and create,” Sanchez says.
Such past specials have included ramen and pho soup bowls, Korean-Sonoran dogs and a Banh Mi dog with Vietnamese pork, pickled carrot and daikon, jalapenos and cilantro, served on a bolillo. While a passion for both cuisines is what’s driving Sanchez, he does admit that he was originally inspired by Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck in Los Angeles, which is credited with popularizing the Korean barbecue taco. “I’m happy I get to be the one to bring this different and unique flavor to Tucson,” he says.
Since working on the Red Pepper truck, Sanchez says he’s seen awareness, patronage and appreciation for food trucks increase in Tucson.
“I started my first project four years ago and it was hard. There were really only like five places to work for a food truck,” he says.
Now with food truck round-ups and other events, Sanchez says business is increasing for local food trucks.
“Everyone loves food trucks now. Sometimes you find better food and quality on a truck than in a restaurant,” he says.
While Sanchez’s ultimate goal is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar restaurant near downtown, he says he is still working on educating customers—especially those inebriated late-night customers—on just what Mexican-Asian fusion is. Recently, the truck’s Facebook blasted, “Make Korean BBQ not Sonoran dogs.” While Sanchez says he loves the popular Tucson street food, he hopes customers will be open to trying new things too.
“It was a joke from some guys who would come here and ask, ‘Why you don’t sell Sonoran dogs?’” he says, laughing. “[Sonoran dogs are] a specialty here and it’s a part of life in downtown, but I just tell them they can try my food and, if they don’t like it, then they don’t have to pay.” While the Herbert Alley east of Rialto Theatre is a prime location to be Thursday through Saturday nights, Sanchez says odd requests, including “a quesadilla without cheese,” can be challenging to navigate.
You can try the Bam Bam food truck’s intensely flavorful fusion fare, including the Vietnamese pork tacos and kimchi quesadillas, Thursday through Sunday from 8 p.m. until about 2 a.m., or whenever the crowds die down.