Street Grindz: Not just @food!
We visit 10 food trucks and, between bites, reflect on the phenomena of mobile food and Twitter.
My month of lunch trucks. Hold onto your hats. We're not starting at the beginning here, but smack in the middle.
We’re not even going to start with comprehensible prose. Here goes:
@johnheckathorn At #EatTheStreet Hawaii’s 1st Food Truck Rally! 2 Fr*kin much! 13 Food Trucks in 1 parking lot! crowds, mega long lines!
That’s only 120 characters, in case you want to RT it.
However, in case you’re averse to ReTweeting anything, let’s start again, in English this time:
Hawaii has always had lunch trucks, but this is a phenomenon of a different scale and character.
The parking lot next to Aaxtion Adult Video on Kapiolani Boulevard is packed—perhaps super packed!!! as people say in Twitterese.
As many as 1,000 people have shown up for the first EatTheStreet food-truck rally, standing in lines that stretch 30, 40, 50 minutes long. Why? To eat from food trucks—buttermilk fried chicken, hot dogs with bulgogi, cheese and egg, and tacos of all varieties, Baja fish, Greek gyros, Korean spicy pork.
All the food trucks have Twitter handles: @MeltHNL, @EatGogi, @PacificSoul. As does almost everyone in the young crowd—not 18-years-old young, but 34-years-old young, the prime demographic for Twitter users.
Two trends have converged here, forcefully.
The first: After 40 years, American foodie culture has filtered down from the Alice Waters, Thomas Kellers and Alan Wongs of the world to people eating street food. As my 23-year-old daughter puts it, “Dad, people will eat everything now.”
No more mixed plates and beef stew. These trucks scramble cultures (kalbi quesadilla, anyone?) and high and low cuisine (foie gras soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches with duck confit).
But it’s not just about food. Jubilation seems to be running high, as if this is a huge success, though, from a foodie standpoint, EatTheStreet is a disaster. Too many people, punitively long lines, truck crews overwhelmed, food running out, limited seating, loud DJ, no wine, no restrooms.
No matter, this event is, to cobble together a term, technotribal. You can almost hear the crowd thinking, “Look how many of us there are! This is TOTALLY AWESOME!”
EatTheStreet was organized by Poni Askew (@streetgrindz). Askew wanted her own food truck. Since she couldn’t afford one, she became, instead, Hawaii food trucks’ unpaid online evangelist.
She organized and publicized EatTheStreet via Twitter and, she says, “It just sort of spiraled out from there.”
These new trucks are nomadic. To find one, you need Twitter. When you do find one, you can’t just eat, you have to tweet.
At EatTheStreet, the trucks are tweeting, the crowd is tweeting, people in the crowd are tweeting each other: I’m eating this with @soandso; The lines are long; This is off the hook; Here’s a cell phone pix of my plate.
If it’s not tweeted, it’s like it didn’t happen. A gentleman named Augusto DeCastro (who I know only as @augusto_photo) had by the next morning posted a web scrapbook composed entirely of Tweets and Twitpics from the event, including one of mine.
Yes, when the guy in front of me in line at Soul Patrol got the last piece of buttermilk fried chicken, I could do nothing with my disappointment but tweet it out to the universe.
Locations and hours vary, (808) 542-8749, (808) 735-SOUL, www.pacificsoulhawaii.com
I wasn’t surprised Soul Patrol ran out of chicken. I was surprised that Sean Priester’s food truck was at EatTheStreet at all. Not long ago, Priester had told me that, despite the romance associated with lunch trucks, Soul Patrol would never roll again, now that he had a fixed location for his restaurant, Soul.
Reluctantly, he gave in to fan clamor and showed up. “Great reluctance,” he said. “My first concern was to protect the food, so we could use it at the restaurant if it didn’t sell.”
Priester all but sold out, despite selling plates at very unplate-lunch prices, $11, $12 and $13. He talked me into ordering shrimp and grits.
He had plenty, because nobody much in Hawaii eats grits, but this was shrimp in a bacon pan sauce, dotted with toasted garlic and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Startling flavor accents, crunchy shrimp, soft yet toothsome white grits enriched with cheese. You might stand in line yourself for something this good.
You can, of course, have chicken or shrimp and grits, six days a week at Priester’s Waialae Avenue eatery. But I guess that’s not the same as buying it from a beat-up truck. Emboldened by EatTheStreet, Soul Patrol is once again rolling. “Having fun now,” says Priester.
Locations and hours vary, (808) 599-0597, www.xtremetacos.com
Soul Patrol was my second truck at EatTheStreet. That I made it to two was a testament to my perseverance and patience. On my arrival, some friends were standing at the edge, appalled by the crowd. They suggested I join them for dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Couldn’t. I was on a mission. What I needed were younger, less sensible friends—and, luckily, I found a pair who let me slip into line with them at Xtreme Tacos. Xtreme Tacos, to its credit, seemed on top of things.
After only 20 or so minutes, we ordered every kind of tacos they had left. Tacos were $2.50 each, but they weren’t exactly Xtreme. More like bland, the chicken tasting like the carnitas tasting like the sweet pork. You needed to grab squirt bottles of salsa to make them come alive.
We were still hungry, hence another half hour in line for Soul Patrol. By then, most of the trucks were running out of food.
Fortunately, I wasn’t relying on this food-truck rally for my street-food adventure. I’d armed myself with my own Twitter account.
Parking lot behind 1346 Kapiolani Blvd., enter from Makaloa St., Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
OnoToGo has a Twitter account, but, mercifully, also a fixed parking-lot location near the back of Wal-Mart.
In the lot, owner Wedge Lee (@WedgeLee) fires up a black Weber Grill, just like in your neighbors’ backyard. That’s what the food reminded me of, too—if your neighbor could pull off highly competent pulehu-rubbed chicken and short ribs and make sure his teriyaki steak was incredibly tender to the bite. Add rice and a macaroni salad better seasoned than most, and the cuisine at OnoToGo was 100-percent Hawaii comfort food.
GoGi Korean Taco
Location and hours variable, (702) 808-7044, www.eatgogi.com
If OnoToGo seems essentially Hawaii, GoGi is all Los Angeles.
GoGi is a tribute to—that sounds better than a copy of—Los Angeles’s Kogi Korean BBQ, which set off the food-truck craze nationwide. Founded by a Filipino-American who’d married into a Korean family, Kogi came up with fusion Korean tacos. And, finding it hard to gain a following, finally hit upon the notion of tweeting its whereabouts.
In 2009, Bon Appetit put Kogi on its “Hot 10” restaurant list. In 2010, Food+Wine gave its chef, Roy Choi, “Best New Chef” accolades. Newsweek called Kogi “America’s First Viral Restaurant.”
Must be viral, it’s spread to Honolulu. GoGi’s Jim Wilson ate Kogi tacos in Los Angeles, then discovered a friend in Las Vegas with a lunch truck he wasn’t using. A fancy mobile kitchen like GoGi’s costs about $100,000 new, $50,000 used. Says Wilson, “Fortunately, my friend gave me a good price.”
Fusion food: A kalbi quesadilla with kim chee mayo and a GoGi Dog, because a hot dog always needs bulgogi, cheese and fried egg.
Wilson, who learned to cook on Matson container ships, intuited that Honolulu was hungry for Korean tacos. He struggles to keep up with the demand. “I hate seeing long lines. EatTheStreet, that was crazy.”
I finally found him via Twitter on Kapiolani, on a normal weekday, with a normal three or four people in line in front of us.
On the way there, @thedailydish (who, IRL, that is, in real life, is blogger, Facebooker and incessant Twitterer Cat Toth) asked her 3,515 followers what we should order.
That’s how we ended up with the pork belly on steamed buns, which was not on the menu, but fabulous, a thickish slab of pork belly, soft bun, a little crunch supplied by a slice of cucumber and perhaps a little too much of a sweet jolt from hoisin.
Plus a vividly flavored kalbi quesadilla, and even more vivid french fries with kim chee mayo, Parmesan, green onions and pickled garlic. Whoo hoo!
We also ordered a spicy pork taco, which, perhaps only in this context, seemed bland. Outside of that disappointment, this was, for $25, a thoroughly flavorful and pleasurable lunch for three—even though we had to eat it off the trunk of my car in a hot parking lot.
Location and hours variable, www.melthonolulu.com
Food trucks seem taco-centric. I’ve eaten more tacos this month than in the previous year. But, mercifully, there are more than tacos out there.
Case in point: Melt, which does grilled cheese. [Editor’s note: One of Melt’s owners, Martha Cheng, contributes food articles to HONOLULU.] Melt doesn’t mix cultures like a taco truck, it scrambles comfort and gourmet food. When I finally caught up with the nomadic eatery, I figured out why. Cooking at the truck grill was Lindsey Ozawa.
The last place I’d seen Ozawa cook? Nobu Waikiki. Ozawa said he’d left his job as Nobu’s executive chef when the company asked him to move to the Bahamas.
“How did you end up with a lunch truck?”
“We all got drunk one night, and it sounded like a good idea.”
Ozawa created a huge buzz at EatTheStreet with his duck confit sandwich, which sounded great, but not so great that I was willing to wait in line 40 minutes to order, then another half hour to get a text message that it was ready.
However, Melt’s regular menu, eaten on a Wednesday on Ward Avenue, no line, offered much to be enjoyed.
The regular grilled cheese ($6) comes with three cheeses—Gruyere, gouda and cheddar—on sourdough. For $2, you can dip it in a little cup of Ozawa’s perfectly textured San Marzano tomato soup.
There’s also a bacon melt ($8), with the sharp tang of cheddar and marinated tomatoes. But save room for the $11 Melt of Shame. A grass-fed beef burger between two whole grilled-cheese sandwiches, with grilled onions and Melt of Shame sauce, a lot like McDonald’s secret sauce, except it tastes good: mayo, tomato paste, shallots, brandy.
Have a Melt of Shame. Tweet me if you can finish it.
Inferno’s Wood-Fire Pizza
New address: 951 N. King St., (808) 375-1200, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, 12 noon to 9 p.m.
Inferno’s Wood-Fire (no d, apparently) isn’t a truck. It’s a wood-fired brick oven on a trailer. But since its two young owners break down their encampment every day and bring it back the next, it counts.
John Wong and Kyle Okumoto were installing air conditioning at Hawaii Hardwood Flooring, talking about their passion—wood-fired pizza, a passion that ran so deep they had a mobile oven.
Hardwood’s owner suggested they set up in his lot, just to see what happened. Business exploded. At press time, Inferno’s had just moved to a North King Street location with a larger parking lot.
Inferno turns out excellent made-to-order pizza, classics such as fresh tomato and mozzarella, or fusion pizzas such as a smoked beef brisket with barbecue sauce. All on crispy, slightly charred crusts redolent of kiawe smoke.
It’s the best pizza you’ll ever eat in a parking lot, at about $12 each. “We wanted to be reasonable, because this is fun,” says Wong. “We started out making pizza for friends—and now pizza has made us a whole lot of new friends.”
Sheridan Street between Liona, and S. King Streets 497-7991, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Yajima Ya has a tent that you enter through blue noren. It seems just like a Japanese eatery, if Japanese eateries were open air and had a truck.
When Tomo, who was manning the lunch truck, turned around, emblazoned on the back of his T-shirt were the car wash and detailing prices, available at the Cosmo Yajima Service Station, right around the corner on South King.
“Advertising,” he said. “They own the lunch truck.”
I have no standard of comparison for lunch-truck Japanese eateries, but the food Tomo assembled for us in his truck kitchen tasted like the real deal.
A donburi topped with tempura shrimp and vegetables, and a sweetened ginger pork sliced thin as bacon, called buta syougayaki.
Also, cold udon in broth came topped with what the Japanese call “mountain vegetables,” sansai: various ferns and young bamboo shoots, little mushrooms. Plus more buta syougayaki.
The food wasn’t Nobu, but it was as good as anything I’ve ever had in a white paper bowl. It felt, well, really Japanese, at $20 for lunch for two, including a couple of Diet Cokes.
2012 S. Beretania St., 429-0818, Daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
So there’s pizza, grilled cheese, donburi and udon. But the main thrust of the new street-food movement is tacos. Why? You can put anything on a taco.
T.A.S.T.E., a trailer permanently parked in front of a Beretania sports bar, was a forerunner of fusion tacos in Honolulu. T.A.S.T.E.
stands for Tasty Asian-Style Taco Eatery.
All tacos here: rib-eye, chicken breast, char siu, mahi or shrimp. With a chopped cabbage salad and housemade dressings.
To me, the problem with T.A.S.T.E.’s tacos—if you can even rightly complain about $2.75 freshly made tacos—is that the meat is barely seasoned. The flavor gets obliterated by the dressings, especially the wasabi dressing on the beef and the honey wasabi cream on the otherwise good shrimp.
The exception: The housemade char siu is tender and redolent with five spice, so good it shines through the shoyu aioli and hoisin vinaigrette.
Next time I sit on a stool at its little metal table in the parking lot, I am ordering three or four char siu.
One more good thing about T.A.S.T.E. It doesn’t have a Twitter account. You can find it by driving down Beretania.
Camille’s on Wheels
Location and hours variable, (808) 282-1740
If you really want a great fusion taco, it’s not at T.A.S.T.E. or GoGi or Xtreme Tacos. You need to find a light blue truck called Camille’s on Wheels.
Not that Camille’s is particularly easy to find. Only my friend Marianne Schulz could have gotten me to drive to remotest Kailua to have a #tweetlunch in an industrial park on Kapaa Quarry Place, sitting at a card table on an inverted Hardware Hawaii bucket.
After a career in restaurant design, Camille Komine has put herself on wheels, selling fusion tacos and homemade desserts. Schulz claimed Komine’s food was worth the drive. An understatement.
Camille’s tacos are amazing: shoyu chicken, kalbi and, her crowning achievement, spicy Thai pork. Everything tastes different. In every case, you can taste the seasonings on the meat, through the stack of cabbage, tomatoes and fresh cilantro. Tacos come with a side of tasty black beans and rice cooked with kaffir lime leaves. You can add a side of her curried quinoa salad, as packed with flavor as her tacos.
Which brings us to the Bl-uuu-e Velvet cupcake. I have been thoroughly immune to the cupcake craze. I wouldn’t have eaten Komine’s blue velvet cupcake, except she was standing right in front of me, singing its name like she was Bobby Vinton.
Not bad, freshly topped with cream-cheese frosting. Lunch trucks sometimes have off-the-menu desserts; always ask.
And look for Camille. “I’m starting to go to town some days,” she says. “I need to find my tribe.”
3121 Mokihana St., Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday until 9 p.m., Saturday until pau
Of course, dare I mention, tacos are Mexican food. Mexican tacos are what Paul Zarate serves out of his reconverted Roberts Hawaii tour bus, which used to roam but now is permanently parked in a small lot off Kapahulu Avenue.
You step out of your car, breathe in the aroma and know you’ve hit the flavor jackpot. For $2.50 each, Zaratez does tacos with carne asada, pollo, carnitas and chorizo, all seasoned so the meat shines through. Then he piles on the onion and cilantro, and finally, salsa, roasted dark in a cast-iron pan to mellow and deepen the flavors.
The chorizo dances across your tongue with pepper, spice and everything nice. May I suggest a $3 mullita—a grilled tortilla sandwich with layers of cheese and meat. Order half chorizo, half pollo asada, which is deeply flavored but a little less forward.
Wonderful food, and unlike most food trucks, open for dinner. We left, tweeting our thanks for fortifying us for a night on the town. Zarate tweeted us back. Tribal custom.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.