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Food Truck Road Trip: A Cookbook will be out Nov. 4, 2014.

Smothered Fries | San Francisco Food Truck

Whether you’re chowing them down in a roadside diner or enjoying them drizzled in truffle oil alongside a medium-rare steak, the humble French fry is one of the most perfect snack foods. Hot, salty, and fresh from the fryer, they perfectly fill some sort of deep-seated craving endemic to the human race. Chef AJ Sioson of the Smothered food truck manages to take an already addictive food and turn its appeal up to 11 by smothering a basket of french fries in a variety of sauces and toppings.

Trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Chef AJ spent nine years in several fine dining kitchens—including the Four Seasons Hotel and Restaurant Gary Danko—before taking a short break from cooking. “I told myself I wouldn’t get back in a kitchen unless I owned the place,” he says. A food truck seemed the most cost effective option, the only decision left was figuring out what to serve.

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AJ found his inspiration in poutine, a traditional Canadian dish featuring fries slathered in brown gravy and cheese curds. It took Chef AJ about a year (and a lot of constructive Canadian criticism) to perfect his poutine and develop ten additional fry dishes, but he doesn’t think he’s done. Not by a long shot, “It’s a continuous process of trying to perfect it, trying to make it better than yesterday.”

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“You’re not looking for traditional food when you come to our truck.”

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You can taste his commitment to perfection in the many smothered dishes AJ and his team serve up. Along with classic poutine—in which AJ spends 48 hours roasting bones and making stock from scratch just for the gravy—Smothered has something for everyone. “The Veggie Beast” has sautéed asparagus, mushrooms, and melted cheddar for hungry vegetarians, and for the carnivores the hilariously named “Too Many Dudes” offers up three different kinds of sausage (bratwurst, andouille, and Polish) sauerkraut,  jack, and cheddar. The most popular is “The Southern”: fries covered in popcorn fried chicken and country gravy. 

Regardless of what you order, you’ll know your fries will come topped with high-quality ingredients and expertly prepared sauces. It’s creativity and a fine dining mentality brought to a humble dish. “You’re not looking for traditional food when you come to our truck,” says AJ. “We cook good food, as fresh as possible. And it’s a fun truck. It’s lighthearted, and just a fun place to eat.”

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Smothered Fries - San Francisco, CA
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Conversation with James Cunningham | Host of Eat St.

If you’ve been following Behind the Food Carts for very long, you know that street food, and the wonderful people that cook and serve it, is kind of our obsession. So you can imagine the decibel level of fangirl squealing when Eat St. approached us to interview their host James Cunningham to promote Season 5 of their show (starting Thursday, July 3rd). Phil squealed the loudest.

imagePhoto courtesy of Eat St.

Below James talks about his experiences traveling the U.S. visiting some of the top food trucks in the nation:

 

We’re such huge fans of Eat St. We feel like you guys have always been way ahead of the curve.

You know what, the timing was so good. I remember when I first got the call three years ago about a show on food trucks. I was like, “You mean hamburger trucks and hot dogs?” And he said, “No, no, there’s this whole movement happening.” So I looked into it and thought it was just so cool. 

It was such a strange concept three years ago, and now food trucks are everywhere. I think we’ve done about 98 episodes, so hundreds of trucks by now. We’ve been to Austin, Portland, Boston, New York, all the major metropolitan areas. In season five, we’re doing 104 trucks in 26 episodes, and we’re going to places like Columbus, Ohio; Lafayette, Louisiana; Nashville, and Portland, Maine. All these smaller areas where you wouldn’t think food trucks are, but there’s a booming food truck scene. It’s literally everywhere. We could have done 160 trucks, no problem. And these are standout trucks. They look great, they’ve got great owners, the food was amazing. I mean it just keeps going on and on and on. It’s not slowing down at all. 

 

imageJason King of Frencheeze in New Orleans, LA

 

What’s it like seeing all the different cities and different food truck scenes? Do you see any similarities or differences as you go city to city?

Every city seems to have its own food truck personality. You look at Austin, TX and all the food trucks are more or less stationary in pods. And then you go to Los Angeles where they have their routes and run around all day. And then up north in New York or even Denver, CO, it’s more seasonal. You’ve got food trucks open six months of the year. 

Everywhere in the U.S. has a different kind of food truck, so you can’t measure them all with the same sort of ruler. But the one thing we look for, the one common denominator of all the trucks we have on our show, is the passion of the people that are doing what they’re doing. No food truck owner works less than 80 hours a week It’s their life. So at some point in the interview, we want to hear something along the lines of “We’re happy making other people happy with our food.” That’s the level of passion we look for.

 

imagePhil filming a Season 5 Eat. St segment on the Cosmic American Voodoo Van

 

Speaking of food and happiness, what did you grow up eating? What’s comfort food for you personally?

Good question! My last name’s Cunningham, but I come from an Italian and Polish background. So comfort food for me was my grandma’s pierogies, kielbasa, sauerkraut, that kind of thing. And then from my other grandma, my Nona, it was spaghetti and meatballs and butter tarts. Food for me was a passion, but I wouldn’t say that I was a foodie, not at the level I am now, in terms of exposure. 

The food journey I’ve been on for the past four or five years has just been astronomical. That’s one of the things I love about food trucks; they allow you to try different things you would never normally try at an affordable price, like Indian American Comfort Food fusion. And the stuff you can get from the window of a food truck now is nothing like you could even imagine before. It has so completely changed.

 

imageErin Lang of Garden Creamery in San Francisco, CA

 

What was some of the most memorable food you were introduced to?

I’ll give you two examples from season five alone. There’s a great truck in New York called the Taïm Mobile. It’s Israeli vegan food. It was amazing. I had this thing called the Green Falafel sandwich. That was unbelievable. And then there’s this truck in Orlando called the Swede Dish. They served up this thing called the Mashed Potato and Crab Salad Hot Dog. I mean, this is season five. I thought I’d had it all by now. No way. Not even close. 

 

imageBenoit+Rachel of La Cocinita in New Orleans, LA

 

We love that you guys focus a lot on customers eating and reacting. It’s a really unique idea. Can you tell us more about that?

A lot of people love that part of the show, the fact that it’s actual people commenting on the actual food. We wanted it to be real. The only scripted part of the show is my part, because we wanted to let everything that happened on the show be organic. So we have a formula. We meet the truck owners and do a pre-interview, we show a prep phase, we show the location, then we show a lunch service.  We try not to influence anyone. Generally all the reactions that you see are on the spot. It’s real truck owners, serving real food, doing their own thing their own way, and real patrons reacting in real time. I love that about our show. We’re able to bring a true look into what goes on in these trucks. 

The food truck community is just a really beautiful place, a lot of great people doing great work and loving what they do. I’ve had a lot of fun in the past couple years, it’s the best job in the world. I get paid to fly around, eat awesome, and meet great people.

 

imageEric Silverstein of The Peached Tortilla in Austin, TX

 

A huge thank you to James Cunningham for taking the time to chat with us! Watch the Season 5 U.S. premiere of Eat St. on the Cooking Channel this Thursday, July 3rd. We’re especially excited to see some folks we’ve featured on our blog: Adam’s Grub Truck, Old World Food Truck, and Kargi Gogo. Also keep an eye out for 4 trucks on this season of Eat St. that will be in our upcoming book. You’ll find recipes from Garden Creamery, La Cocinita, Peaced Tortilla, and Frencheeze in Food Truck Road Trip: A Cookbook out Nov. 4 this year!

Bonus: See Phil in this trailer for last season’s Eat St. visit to The Dump Truck in Portland, OR.

Onda Pasta | Honolulu Food Cart

If you’ve ever had fresh pasta — the kind that’s been kneaded, rolled out, cut, and cooked moments before it’s tossed in sauce — you know what a far cry it is from the dry stuff petrifying in boxes on grocery store shelves. “It’s kind of the difference between Wonder Bread and fresh-baked bread,” says Jessica. “It just doesn’t compare.”

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But if you’re in Hawaii, where European influences have yet to leave much of a mark on the Eastern-inspired local cuisine, the fresh stuff may be hard to find outside of a few expensively-priced Italian restaurants. That’s where Chef Andrea and Jessica Onetti of Onda Pasta come in. The pair can be found at various farmers’ markets, like the Honolulu Farmers’ Market at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, around Oahu where they serve up authentic Italian pasta made with flour imported directly from Italy and the freshest, most local ingredients possible.

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“We like to play, have fun with whatever we can get our hands on.”

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While Andrea and Jessica may not be Hawaiian natives—Jessica grew up in Seattle, and Andrea hails from Rome where Jessica had met him on a trip abroad to reconnect with her mother’s family—they fit in quickly. “One thing that’s nice about living and working in a relatively small community is making those great connections,” says Jessica. “You meet the farmers, and they tell you to come out because they have some really nice arugula. And so today, you have arugula pesto. You can’t really go wrong. We like to play, have fun with whatever we can get our hands on.”

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Their playfulness is evident in the sauces they pair with their pastas. There’s the Corn Pesto, which perfectly balances bacon with Oahu-grown sweet corn, pine nuts, parmesan, and olive oil, or the White Wine Mushroom Sauce made with sauteed garlic, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and white wine. And don’t worry. The farmer’s market may be a weekly affair, but you can pick up Onda’s packaged pastas and sauces to make at home until your next fix.

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Do either of them miss the city life? Not to hear them tell it, especially as they just welcomed the newest Onetti family member into the world, baby Alba. “We used to go to the same grocery store in Seattle and see the same people for three years in a row,” recalls Andrea. “No one even says hello! It’s like, really? Come on. I’ve seen you 375 times in my life, more than even my mom lately.” Jessica is quick to agree: “Here you walk into a place, and people talk to you like they’ve known you your whole life. Our firstborn has already been claimed by some of the market vendors.”

Onda Pasta - Honolulu, HI
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Melts My Heart + (RED) | Eat RED

When (RED) reached out to us about helping with their EAT (RED) campaign, we immediately wanted to contribute a story on one of our local food truck participants. After all, we’ve been huge fans of (RED) for a long time now and always buy (RED) variants of products when available. We were thrilled to see they wanted to pair up with food trucks for this campaign.

“Mario [Batali] made a fantastic statement; that anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen knows that the sum of our efforts always far exceeds what we can do individually. And I whole-heartedly agree. It was even more so evidenced in the success of our first EAT (RED). DRINK (RED). SAVE LIVES campaign largely due to the support of over 175 food trucks across the globe. Coordinating actions is integral to the fight against AIDS and when met with something as powerful as culinary enthusiasts, and as passionate as the food truck community, we are able to see huge results.”

- Nadia Nascimento, Digital Marketing Specialist for (RED)

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We enlisted Brian of Melts My Heart to help the cause of stamping out AIDS by making one of his dishes a (RED) dish and donating proceeds from that dish from June 1-10. Brian aptly chose his Pizza My Melt dish with its red marinara dipping sauce. Watch the video to see all the action and find out more about this worthy cause at RED.org And in case you missed grabbing one of MMH’s delicious melts, we’ve shared the recipe on our blog. It was also awesome seeing some of our other book contributors participate as well across the country: Chili Philosopher, El Fuego DC, Tokyo Doggie Style, and La Cocinita.

imageOwner Brian Aflague of Melts My Heart

Pizza My Melt Recipe

As you may have heard, we are publishing a cookbook with Page Street Publishing distributed by Macmillan. We worked with 63 amazing food carts in 12 cities across the country to bring you some delicious recipes. We are excited to show you a sneak peek of the cover. The book will be released Nov. 4, 2014. Stay tuned as we give you more peaks into the book.
Amazon Pre-Order

As you may have heard, we are publishing a cookbook with Page Street Publishing distributed by Macmillan. We worked with 63 amazing food carts in 12 cities across the country to bring you some delicious recipes. We are excited to show you a sneak peek of the cover. The book will be released Nov. 4, 2014. Stay tuned as we give you more peaks into the book.

Amazon Pre-Order