The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
Keep on Truckin'!
When the Vilcek Foundation first approached me to write this introduction, I labored under the belief that it was due to my recent publication of an opinion piece in the New York Times on the uneasy relationship between traditional street-food vendors and their newer, gourmet counterparts. Or, perhaps, someone had noticed my service as a judge for last year's Vendy Awards in New York City. It turns out they were merely dazzled by the number of food carts and specials I have patronized as the founder of Midtown Lunch, a website dedicated to picking out the best of urban lunch offerings, and considered me a veritable expert on the midday meal. Expert or not, I couldn't agree more enthusiastically with the Vilcek Foundation about the vital role immigrants play in shaping our national appetites ⎯ especially when it comes to the heady, enticing meals served by street vendors ⎯ and I am thrilled to introduce this issue of the Foundation's newsletter in which are profiled some of the best immigrant and first-generation food truck operators around the United States.
For anybody who lives to eat, it is undeniable that we have entered into a golden age of street food in this country. Turn on the television, hop on the internet, pick up a newspaper or magazine, and you'll find no shortage of people falling all over themselves to declare food trucks the next big trend in dining. It may be the next big trend, but it's hardly a new one; in fact, in cities from Los Angeles to New York City, street food has been popular for decades (centuries even!). Most cities with large immigrant populations have some history with street food, for the simple reason that it is practically impossible to separate selling food on the street from the immigrant experience in the United States. True, many of the new food-truck entrepreneurs are as American as the business schools they attended, but their success did not come out of nowhere. It has its roots in a long history of immigrants selling delicious food on the sidewalks of their communities.
Until recently, street food has been a uniquely immigrant profession here. Throughout this country's history, street vending has traditionally consisted of immigrants selling a quick, inexpensive meal to other immigrants. According to research done by the Street Vendor Project, at the turn of the century there were over 25,000 vendors in Manhattan alone ⎯ and 93 percent of them were foreign born. From smoked fish on the Lower East Side to halal carts in Midtown Manhattan, almost every new population that arrives in New York City has used street vending as an entry-level stepping-stone to other occupations. In the eighties, it was the Greeks who ran most of the carts in New York City, which might be why many of them serve gyro meat covered in white sauce that bears some resemblance to tzatziki. But it was the vendors from Bangladesh and Egypt, who started taking over in the nineties, who introduced halal food (sanctioned by Islamic law) to the streets of New York. Originally, it was meant to be a late-night meal for Muslim cab drivers, but soon enough these delicious plates of chicken and lamb over rice with white sauce and hot sauce could be found on every street corner of the city, day or night.
At the same time, in Los Angeles, loncheros (Mexican lunch trucks) started appearing all over Latino neighborhoods offering a similarly low-cost food option to their communities. Tacos and burritos are plentiful, but it doesn't end there. Food trucks also sell tortas, cemitas (an Oaxacan sandwich featuring string cheese), ceviche, and even more regional specialties, some of which can't even be found in brick-and-mortar restaurants in most parts of the country.
One excellent example is the El Naranjo truck in Austin, Texas, operated by Oaxacan-born Chef Iliana de la Vega. Although parked squarely in Tex-Mex territory, Chef de la Vega relishes the opportunity to serve authentic Mexican specialties such as stuffed molotes (cigar-shaped corn masa with various fillings), and the truck's seven signature moles (spicy sauces made with chilies and, usually, chocolate).
Immigrants are not just part of the old-school history of street food; they are also helping to take it into the future. Many of the new-school trucks are run by immigrants selling popular food from their home countries, such as Tábor in Portland, Oregon, which ushered in a new wave of recognition for Czech food nationwide, as evidenced by features in the New York Times and Bon Appétit. Meanwhile, the fleet of Elena's Lunchwagons in Waipahu, Hawaii, serves the Butuyan family's take on home-style Filipino cooking ⎯ as well as a few new dishes so delicious they've been trademarked.
Then you have Kogi, the Korean taco truck headed by Seoul-born Chef Roy Choi, who many credit with launching the new-school, new-media, food-truck explosion. With tasty menu items like short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas, the influence of lonchero culture is fairly obvious. And just as the Mexican taco trucks influenced Kogi, its menu has influenced scores of even newer food trucks in Los Angeles and around the country, whose patrons have been smitten by the Korean-Mexican fusion phenomenon launched by Chef Choi.
The original relationship between street vending and immigrants is a natural one. For newcomers to this country, what more fitting occupation could there be than selling food in the neighborhoods they live in to others like themselves hungering for a taste of home? That original connection still is strong, not just in the old-school taco trucks and halal carts, but in many of the twittering trucks as well. That inspiration continues to be passed from vendor to vendor, ensuring that as food becomes more and more corporatized and homogenized, we'll still be able to get an interesting, low-cost, and ⎯ most importantly ⎯ tasty meal on the streets where we live and work.
So please join us in learning more about the immigrant chefs profiled in this newsletter. Afterwards, try your hand at preparing some of their signature dishes contained in the Vilcek Foundation's first-ever recipe collection! Included are Dessert Truck's recipe for Chocolate Bread Pudding with Bacon Crème Anglaise (which was tested in a trial by fire and emerged the victor in an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay) and Veronica Julien's Vendy Award-contending recipe for jerk chicken, straight from Veronica's Kitchen in downtown Manhattan. You may develop a newfound appreciation (and appetite!) for what these hard-working immigrants bring to our streets, whether rain or shine, snowstorm or heat wave.
It's easy to dismiss food cart dining as just another trend, one that will soon burn out on the flames of its own popularity, as trends inevitably do. But consider the fact that Kogi, the popular Los Angeles-based fleet of trucks, has more than three times more Twitter followers than the Council on Foreign Relations, and, all told, more social media supporters than some small countries have citizens. Trend or not, there is something astounding in Kogi's reach and resonance.
It's Kogi's tasty Korean-Mexican fusion fare that has its legions of fans clamoring. Using Twitter and other social media outlets to announce locations and specials, the trucks cruise the streets of Los Angeles serving up fusion dishes such as Kogi Kimchi Quesadillas, tacos stuffed with Korean barbequed short ribs and spicy pork, and their signature Kogi sliders.
Kogi is the brainchild of Seoul-born and LA-raised Chef Roy Choi and his business partners Filipino-born Mark Manguera and Korean-American Caroline Shin. Choi and Manguera met while working at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and after Choi was laid off from his position as Chef de Cuisine, the pair ran with their idea of a Korean taco truck. Since forming in late 2008, the brand's explosive popularity has led to the addition of four more trucks ⎯ a bona fide fleet. And in early 2010, the team opened Chego, a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Yet one has to wonder if there is something beyond tacos and quesadillas to inspire such a devoted following. Within a few minutes of chatting with Choi, that something becomes apparent: it's the way both Choi and Kogi speak to a populist movement, in food and in culture. There is a determination in Choi to be his own person, even if it means being an outsider, and a fierce embrace of Los Angeles's ethnic subcultures, which live largely in the shadow of the city's grandeur.
"Kogi is a very personal story," says Choi. "People think it's Korean-Mexican fusion, but it's not. It's the flavor of K-town and LA and the blocks where we're from, of how we immigrated and how we started speaking English. All of that is in the taco. It's like graffiti."
Much of Kogi is influenced by Choi's upbringing in an immigrant family, both the good and the bad. His parents were highly educated in Korea, but never found employment in the United States that made use of their degrees and doctorates. The Choi family moved often, from neighborhood to neighborhood and job to job. They opened liquor stores, convenience stores, and restaurants, determined to make their own opportunities when none were presented. "It's been a tough life, let me be real," acknowledges Choi. "You have certain realities facing you, like racism, language barriers, not being offered certain jobs even though you know you can do them." But, he says of his parents, "that was a common thread growing up, the stubbornness in the way they've held onto their lives." In time, their tenacity paid off, enabling the Choi family to move into a more affluent lifestyle as Roy and his sister grew up.
It was that same willfulness in defining the terms of his own life that led Choi to launch Kogi. "That thing called success is very twisted ⎯ everything Kogi is, and what I am, is everything I was told not to be. Chilling on the street, talking to anybody, no matter where they came from, sharing the last cigarette, eating on the street, wasting the time, watching the streetlights come on. All of these things that we are expressing through Kogi, I was told that those same things were a waste of my life."
Despite graduating as speaker of his class from the renowned Culinary Institute of America, and holding positions in prestigious establishments such as Le Bernardin in New York City, Choi was not at home in the world of fine dining. Indeed, it was not until Kogi took off that Choi really came into his own as a chef. He was named one of Food and Wine's Best New Chefs in 2010, and Kogi has been featured in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Giant Robotmagazine, and has earned mentions on the BBC and even at a recent TED conference.
Whether cooking in a five-star kitchen or selling food out of a shopping cart, Choi believes what matters most is dedication and resourcefulness. "A lot of that comes from an immigrant background: taking what you have, making it the best you can, and living a better life. I had a truck, no job, a few thousand bucks; and we did the best we could."
Perhaps the clearest indicator of Choi's success to date is the number of trucks around the country with similar concepts. There's Chi'Lantro in Austin, Taco Chino in Chicago, West Coast Tacos in Indianapolis, and Kimchi Taco Truck in New York City. By and large, most of these purveyors of Korean tacos credit Kogi with sparking the trend, but Choi shrugs off the hype. "It would be selfish to be caught up in the movement," he says.
Despite the proliferation of such trucks, neither Choi nor Kogi show any signs of slowing down or burning out. This is, typically, what separates a trend from a revolution.
For many, the road to becoming a professional chef is a long and arduous one. For Karel and Monika Vitek, owners of the Tábor food cart in Portland, Oregon, the journey was much longer ⎯ and more unpredictable ⎯ than most.
"We would not be in the food business if we had remained in the Czech Republic," says Monika. "But being immigrants gave us an advantage."
It was not an easily earned advantage. Karel first attempted to escape from the former Czechoslovakia, then under Communist rule, in 1984, by applying for a one-day tourist visa to Turkey. He was foiled, however, by the presence of undercover police in the region, and forced to abandon his plans.
Karel made a second attempt the following year, this time by forging documents permitting him to travel to nearby Yugoslavia. On his own, he made his way to the border between Yugoslavia and Austria, where one barrier remained between him and freedom: the Mur River. Karel realized that his only chance was to swim ⎯ fast ⎯ across the expanse: "It was a short border and turned into Hungary quickly. You had to be careful, or you would drift into another Communist country."
His only hope for making it across meant leaving behind the few possessions he had taken with him when he escaped. "It was springtime, the water was gushing down from the glaciers, and it was brown and fast and furious. I couldn't take anything with me," Karel says. "But it's amazing what people will do for freedom, whatever that means for them."
Make it he did, and once in Austria, was granted asylum. "Everyone was very kind," Karel remembers. Six months later he made his way to the United States and settled in Portland, where he pursued a degree in philosophy at Portland State University. Years afterward, he met Monika, who was visiting a cousin there. "I left when [the Czech Republic] was already a free country," she says. "I didn't have to make the difficult decision of leaving and never being able to go back."
Nevertheless, leaving home created a void for both of them, one they tried to fill by cooking. "We were interested in cooking because that's what defines home, and we were very passionate about the food because we could not get it anywhere else," says Monika. The couple began by cooking socially, for both American and Czech friends in Portland. After much encouragement, they decided to open a food cart, and named it Tábor, after Monika's hometown and in tribute to their culinary heritage.
Karel, who spent many hours as a child watching his mother in the kitchen, now prepares most of the food for the cart. Czech cooking is a time-consuming process, so "it seemed to me that she cooked continuously," he says. Today Karel relies solely on those memories of taste and process ⎯ no cookbooks or formal training ⎯ to re-create the foods of his childhood. "Sometimes I am in awe," Karel says of the way he learned to cook. "My grandpa was an excellent cook as well, and even though he passed away long ago, I wonder if he was lining up behind me and giving me a hand."
Tábor serves Czech specialties, such as goulash (a meat and vegetable stew), spaetzle (soft egg noodles), schnitzel (a breaded and fried meat cutlet), and bramborak (a Czech-style potato pancake), all made from scratch. Although these dishes are common across Eastern Europe, they vary greatly from region to region. "They might use the same ingredients," says Monika, "but there are very distinct differences in the timing, temperatures, and presentation of the meals that create different outcomes specific to the various regions." The Viteks also serve a few Americanized versions of these dishes, such as the Schnitzelwich (a schnitzel cutlet sandwich with paprika and horseradish spread), as an introduction to Czech food. "Then, if our customers are feeling adventurous, we recommend something else," says Monika.
Thanks to the Viteks and Tábor, Czech food is gaining prominence in the United States and beyond ⎯ all due to word of mouth, as the couple has never paid for advertisements or promotions. Tábor has been featured in Bon Appétit, the New York Times, Details magazine, and the Toronto Sun.
The Viteks are eager to seize the opportunity their success is bringing to teach their community about Czech culture through cuisine. They offer cooking classes and visit local schools with food samplers to bring lessons about European culture to life. "We recently brought strawberry dumplings to a preschool class," says Monika. "This is not a very traditional dish; it's more like a grandmother's dish. They were very excited."
The Tábor cart, painted in cheerful red and green tones, is located in the Pod, a popular lot in Portland, at SW 5th Avenue and Stark Street, that is home to a variety of stationary, rent-paying food carts. Leading the trend toward gourmet food carts, the Pod is now a national dining destination, where the Viteks enjoy the friendly, competitive vibe among the vendors. "It's good for everybody. We watch each other and we try to better ourselves and be number one," says Karel.
For now, the Viteks are happy to be operating out of a cart. "We played around with the idea of a restaurant, but it's a huge commitment," says Monika. And after such a long journey to get to where they are, staying put may be a welcome idea.
Follow Tábor on Schnitzelwich.com
"We had a beautiful life. It was like magic," Iliana de la Vega says, remembering her family's charmed life in Oaxaca City, Mexico. There, de la Vega and her Chilean-born husband Ernesto Torrealba owned El Naranjo, a restaurant serving modern Oaxacan cuisine to an international following, carefully built over eleven years. With their two daughters, they enjoyed the cultural vibrancy of Oaxaca, until political unrest, stemming from a teacher's strike in 2006, threatened their happiness.
The strike, punctuated by violent clashes with the state militia, disrupted both their business and family life. Schools were suspended. Tourism trickled to a standstill. The local economy veered toward the edge of collapse, while the national government faced a widespread civil rebellion, which erupted after the 2006 presidential election. So when the opportunity arose, de la Vega and her family decided to leave their home and start anew in Austin, Texas, where they reopened El Naranjo ⎯ this time, in the form of a food truck parked at the site of what they hope will one day be the future home of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The truck serves Mexican dishes from across their native country (Oaxacan dishes remain El Naranjo's specialty), and de la Vega is proud of her authentic preparations. "What people know about Mexican food is still very limited, even though we are so close and share a huge border. So I chose to showcase traditional foods, and the reception has been good." The menu selection is not extensive, but changes regularly, with offerings such as Salpicón de Res Taco (a cold beef salad taco), and Swordfish Escabeche (a pickled fish popular in Veracruz). De la Vega also prepares signature moles, traditional dishes composed of complex sauces made by blending many ingredients and served over meat and rice.
De la Vega kept the name El Naranjo, but its incarnation in Austin is a marked transformation from the original establishment. And despite the restaurant's acclaim, its contemporary interpretations of customary dishes met with resistance from native Oaxacans when it first opened. "The perception was that I was from out of town, a Mexico City girl, not an Oaxacan. How dare I cook Oaxacan food?" De la Vega was, in fact, born and raised in Mexico City, but she grew up learning to cook with her family, who are from Oaxaca.
Also meeting with resistance was de la Vega's decision, for both culinary and health reasons, to prepare the traditional moles of the region without lard ⎯ a decision regarded as "almost sacrilegious," says de la Vega. In the early days, prominent members of the community would return dish after dish to the kitchen, without even a taste. It almost ruined the restaurant; but eventually de la Vega carved out a reputation for herself, and these days, she is amused to see many cooks of the region following in her footsteps.
Her radical reputation in Mexico notwithstanding, de la Vega now holds the position of Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, and is an acknowledged authority on Mexican and Latin American cuisine. True to her upstart past, however, she confides that she doesn't believe culinary training makes a chef: "Going to culinary school does not make you a chef; it will give you the tools to become one. The title of chef you have to earn in real life, from spending hours in the kitchen, and gaining respect for your work and knowledge. You will learn a lot of techniques and methods, but the taste comes from the extra passion, not from school. It's in you or it's not."
It's clear that de la Vega's passion springs from her homeland. "Oaxacan cuisine is very creative and very unique ⎯ it's a blend of native ingredients and techniques with those from other cultures. With just a few ingredients, you can have a lot of flavors." This is aided in part by the fact that Oaxaca is the most biodiverse region in the world for chilies ⎯ the quintessential Mexican ingredient. There are over 150 known species of chile plants, with a wide range of flavors beyond mere hotness; most, in fact, are not particularly spicy, but instead produce earthy, smoky notes. The chiles also take on different characteristics depending on whether they are used fresh or dry, making the art of mastering chiles an ongoing one. "I am still learning," says de la Vega. "Every time I go back, I find something new. There is always something I have never heard of before."
When pressed, de la Vega admits that if she could choose, she'd rather be working in a brick-and-mortar restaurant instead of a truck, where space is limited and the temperature can quickly rise to 120 degrees. However, at the end of the day, both restaurants and food carts aim for the same goal ⎯ "empty plates," she says. "That is the best thing."
And she's certainly proud to join the ranks of street vendors, a celebrated position in Mexico: "There's a wide variety of street food in Mexico, from tacos to empanadas to tortas," she says. "It's more than food; it's a cultural expression. One person makes one thing, and he or she is the master of making that one thing." If de la Vega's rapidly rising street cred is to be believed, she has undeniably achieved the status as a master of Mexican cooking.
America is a country of pioneers, and Jerome Chang, born to Taiwanese immigrants, can justifiably be considered one of them. In 2007, Chang became one of a handful of trailblazers forging the way for a new class of gourmet food carts, with Dessert Truck. The now-iconic vehicle, painted with the brand's whimsical logo, serves delicious, epicurean sweets of a caliber typically found only in top-tier restaurants.
A mouth-watering sampling of the sophisticated desserts offered on the truck includes Warm Molten Chocolate Cake with an olive oil ganache center, roasted pistachios, and vanilla ice cream; Goat Cheese Cheesecake with rosemary caramel and quince; and Espresso Panna Cotta with coffee-lavender ice cream, Nutella, and caramelized almonds. The crowning achievement, though, is the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Bacon Crème Anglaise, recently featured on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Dessert Truck's version was declared the winner in a blind taste-test by the public.
Like all pioneers, Chang faced many difficulties and challenges. Street food of the day was limited largely to hot dogs, pretzels, and halal food; there was no model for vendors serving high-end food on the street. "I basically set up a business model by myself," he says. Everything, from the concept to the permits to the food preparations, was new territory to be mapped out. "Even finding the right packaging was hard, because no one thought of gourmet desserts in an ice cream context, where you could walk down the street and grab something you could enjoy on a nice day," explains Chang. And despite its overwhelmingly popular reception on the streets, the truck weathered many setbacks, including a shutdown ordered by the New York City government in 2009, until the team worked out the kinks.
And while New York City still wrestles with establishing a system capable of accommodating the growing number of, and increasing demand for, food carts, street cuisine continues to evolve dramatically from its humble beginnings. High-quality food on the streets of Manhattan today is commonplace. For his part, Chang will accept only partial credit for the transformation⎯he believes it was inevitable. "There was a desperate need for good food to be affordable and accessible to people. If Dessert Truck hadn't come along, something else would have."
Chang's drive to democratize desserts in this country was influenced by his ties to Asia. On trips to his family's native Taiwan, he was inspired by the abundance of fantastic food available outdoors. "In Taiwan," he says, "the best food is on the streets and in the night markets. In New York, the best food is expensive, and it requires you to get dressed up and make reservations. That's why I wanted to start Dessert Truck."
As a chef, Chang is excited about the growing culinary movement that places emphasis, first and foremost, on the food. "All around the world, especially in East Asia and Taiwan," he says, "people don't care where their food comes from as long as it's properly prepared in a clean setting and it tastes great. Here, we have been focusing too much on the superficial elements of dining out. That's changing with the way we are paying more attention to how we source ingredients and how [dishes are] made, and food trucks are just a part of that movement."
Looking back, Chang recognizes that growing up as a first-generation American has always had an effect on his career. Raised in an affluent suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, by East Asian immigrant professionals, expectations were high in his family. His parents would have liked him to attend medical school; he went to law school instead. "Law school was a compromise," he says, and in accordance with the agreement, he earned a law degree and became an insurance defense lawyer.
But Chang was never satisfied with the life of a lawyer. "I always knew I needed to do something creative," he says. So in 2004, after one year of practicing law, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute's pastry program. After graduation, he worked his way up to the position of pastry sous chef at New York City's famed Le Cirque restaurant. Even with that success it was not easy for his parents to come to terms with their son's career choice. "It was the most shameful [profession] they could think of, and they come from a shame-based society," Chang says.
Even in the face of his parents' resistance, Chang attributes much of his success with Dessert Truck to qualities instilled in him by his parents. "Their work ethic and high standards helped a lot. I didn't expect anything but to work like crazy," he says. "It sounds simple, and maybe I am playing into stereotypes, but it's true. I've seen it in a lot of other Asian pastry chefs in New York as well."
These days, Dessert Truck is running reduced hours of operation, with the team⎯which includes Chang's wife, Spanish-born Susanna Garcia, and French-born Vincent Joura⎯ working mostly out of their brick-and-mortar café, DessertTruck Works, on New York City's Lower East Side. And while Chang doesn't miss the headaches that come with operating solely out of a vehicle⎯legal, mechanical, and otherwise⎯he does miss the closer customer contact he has when "on the road." "People are more excited; it's dressed down and friendly. Working in a truck is just more fun."
Beautiful, lush Hawaii is a siren call heard around the world, one Theo and Elena Butuyan found impossible to ignore. In 1969, they left behind the comfortable life they had built for themselves and their two children in Dagupan City, of the Pangasinan Province in the Philippines, where Elena was a teacher and Theo an accountant. "We had read in the newspapers and heard from other people who left that Hawaii was the paradise island of the United States of America," Theo Butuyan says dreamily. "So we left the Philippines for greener pastures."
The Butuyans settled in Waipahu, Oahu, where they opened Elena's Home of Finest Filipino Food, a small lunch counter with six seats, and served home-style Filipino cooking. "You want to know why we named it after Elena?" Theo jokes. "So she would work hard."
Work hard they both did, quickly building a steady and loyal stream of customers – the majority of which were not, as might be expected, from the Philippines. Theo explains: "Filipino immigrants like to cook their own food at home [so] we cooked for the local people⎯Japanese, Chinese, Tongans, Americans, Samoans, and Filipinos born in Hawaii."
The café's early success with the local population of all stripes led the Butuyans to expand. The following year, the couple moved to a larger space, doubling the capacity to 12 seats and featuring a small bakery. Open long hours, from 5AM to 10PM, Theo and Elena struggled to manage the business, Theo's full-time job as an insurance salesman, and their growing family, now numbering three young children.
In the beginning, Elena did most of the cooking, showing off the expert skills she had honed in her former role as a home economics teacher. Customers were hooked, prompting Theo to take lessons from Elena in the kitchen, in order to help keep up with customer demand. Cooking as a team, the Butuyans offered traditional dishes such as Chicken Adobo (chicken marinated in vinegar and soy sauce), Lechon Kawali (crispy roasted suckling pig), Pinakbet (pork sautéed with bitter melon, eggplant, and other vegetables) and Pansit (Filipino stir-fried noodles).
Ongoing success had them on the move again a year later, to a space in a shopping center with seating for 80, which they renamed Elena's Restaurant. The Butuyans continued working hard, bringing in staff, and, in time, their three children. At the height of their careers, a total of four more restaurants opened up in Honolulu, Aiea, Wahiawa and Kahului in Maui.
Even with multiple restaurants, the public still wasn't satiated. This time, the Butuyans decided to open three food carts. Known fondly as Elena's Lunchwagons, the carts make stops along a set route around the island of Oahu each day, serving favorites from the main restaurants.
"We started [the carts] about 20 years ago, long before everyone else," Theo says. It's been really good for the restaurant," noting that it brings their food to customers who can't make it to the brick-and-mortar location during the day. So popular are the trucks, in fact, that all bear a caveat that in the case the food runs out, the trucks reserve the right to go home early.
The Butuyans have never needed proof of their success beyond their popularity with customers, but they have received it⎯in spades. Elena's Restaurant has won the Ilima Award, a mark of distinction for Hawaiian dining, five times and in two categories: for Best Filipino Restaurant and Favorite Filipino Restaurant.
More significant, perhaps, is that Theo and Elena were convinced by their fan base to come out of retirement, which had expanded far beyond the shores of Hawaii. As the couple grew older, Theo gradually sold each restaurant one by one to their employees, and downsized their 80-seat restaurant to a 36-seat restaurant, a size their children could handle. In 2003, the couple left the restaurant and lunch trucks in the hands of their children, and retired to Las Vegas. But there, as Theo explains, "There are roughly 100,000 Hawaiians in Las Vegas. When we went to the casinos, we kept seeing all our former customers. They said, 'Theo and Elena, we miss your food; we want you to open up a restaurant.' So when our three children came for our yearly Christmas anniversary, our daughter brought up an idea to open an Elena's in Las Vegas with the understanding we would look over the business. Hence, we gladly came out of retirement."
No doubt these customers were especially hankering after Theo and Elena's four trademark dishes, variations of Filipino fried rice wrapped inside an omelet and smothered in a special sauce. So delectable are these creations that the Butuyans patented and trademarked them, in Hawaii and Nevada. That did not stop the many Filipino restaurants that have sprung up since Elena's Restaurant opened from serving very similar dishes. "We are the original," says Theo proudly. "When we first started, there were hardly any Filipino restaurants in Waipahu. Now there are so many." As to the patent/trademark infringements, Theo dismisses them: "Even though the omelets are trademarked, I said, 'Never mind; let them live, too.'"
Their largesse is understandable, given the Butuyans can barely keep pace with the demand for their unmatchable Filipino fare. The question remains, will Theo and Elena ever be able to come out from behind their aprons and enjoy their golden years in Las Vegas?
Like many women of her generation in her native Trinidad, Veronica Julien grew up learning how to cook under the watchful instruction of her parents and grandmother. "This was something every girl learned," she remembers, "but in my household, everyone had to learn how to cook and clean and keep a house, not just the girls." Julien, now a grandmother herself, credits her childhood training for the award-winning fare she serves from Veronica's Kitchen, as she calls her stainless-steel cart. Found on the streets of New York's Financial District, the cart is a popular mainstay among the lunch crowd for its Trinidadian dishes and punches.
Like the various forms of Caribbean cooking, a tasty, colorful hybrid of the many cuisines and cultures that left their imprint on Caribbean history, Julien is from a multinational household (her grandmother and mother were "born and raised Trini"; her father was an Englishman originally from Grenada). "Trinidadian [cuisine]," she explains, "is a little of everything— African American, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese. And a lot of Trinidadian dishes are Eastern Indian staples, like roti, curry, and pilau."
The verdant landscape of the Caribbean is another source for the richness of Trinidadian cuisine. "Growing up on the islands," Julien says, "we ate what we bred—cows, chickens, ducks, goats, vegetables, and fruits. My father fished, and would bring us fresh fish, too. A lot of city kids these days, they don't have what we had."
That bountiful childhood would serve Julien well later in her life in the United States. She had made a trip here in 1983, to visit a brother and sister who had immigrated, and loved the country immediately. However, she was hesitant about uprooting her family, which included two small children, and leaving her haberdashery business behind. After a divorce though, she felt she needed a change, and knew that she wanted to remake her life in a new country. "It was not easy," she says. "I knew it was going to be hard, but I did not know it would be that hard."
Julien returned to the States in 1985 and worked various restaurant jobs until she found employment as a consultant at a microfiche firm. She stayed there for seventeen years until the firm downsized and eliminated her job in 2003. "I thought, 'What am I going to do?' My sister said, 'You make great cakes. You could start there.' So that's what I did." Julien began selling her cakes to family and friends, and as word of mouth spread, was soon conducting brisk business supplying cakes for birthday parties and other celebrations. Gradually, she expanded her selection until she had a full menu.
By 2005, Julien had built a steady clientele and was ready to open her own establishment; a food cart seemed like the right step. "It was very slow when I first started," she says. "For three months, I would only make about $40, $50 [per day]. I didn't know how long I would last."
Soon, however, the tantalizing aromas from Veronica's Kitchen began attracting crowds. "I remember the first day that I made more than $50—I made $130, and it was a big day!" With the encouragement of her customers, and with family members cooking in the cart under her tutelage, Julien became a permanent fixture at her Financial District location, where she served up steaming lunches of such Trini specialties as Stewed Oxtail, Jerk Chicken, Curry Shrimp, Fried Plantain, and various styles of roti.
Her reputation grew steadily, so much so that fan nominations and widespread acclaim, online and otherwise, boosted Veronica's Kitchen into contender status at the 2007 Vendy Awards. Five years later, she remains content with her success in the cart, but admits she has considered expanding her enterprise into a full-sized kitchen. "It is not easy. I'm from the islands, I like the heat," she says, "but it gets so hot [in the cart], you wouldn't believe it!"
And if she won the lottery, would she still be cooking? "Oh yes, I would!" she's quick to say. "But I always tell myself, if I came into money, I would do some volunteer work and teach preteens how to cook. In my family, the preteens are always curious, always asking, 'how do you do this, how do you do that?' Once they turn seventeen, though, they don't want to learn anymore. You have to start early." If her charges learn how to cook Julien's specialties the old-fashioned way, just as she did, it would truly be a public service.
Download the recipe collection featured in our Fall 2011 Newsletter: Keep on Truckin'! Immigrants Keep Food Trucks in High Gear.