Story by Haisten Willis. Photos by Jenni Girtman
Compared to the costs of establishing a brick-and-mortar restaurant, food trucks have a relatively low bar to entry. Thus, rolling restaurateurs — particularly immigrants — can showcase how different countries put their distinct spin on familiar forms of street food.
For instance, the banh mi sandwich, one of Vietnam’s most popular menu items, consists of some combination of pork, beef or chicken, carrots, jalapeno, white onion, cilantro, lime, cucumber, mayonnaise and rice vinegar, all on a French-style baguette.
And if Nam Nguyen has his way, more Atlantans will become fans. Nguynen, who grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, left his day job at QuikTrip last year to start 6 Pack Subs (6PackSubs.com) a food truck offering Vietnamese cuisine.
“The banh mi sandwich should be just as popular as tacos, pizza or hamburgers,” says Nguyen, who moved to Georgia at age 12.
Banh mi are common at Atlanta’s Vietnamese restaurants along Buford Highway and are making inroads at trendy sandwich shops. But despite the sandwich’s recent rise in popularity, Nguyen estimates that seven of every 10 of his first-time customers have never heard of it.
6 Pack Subs’ menu is somewhat Americanized by including more chicken in lieu of traditional pork. According to Nguyen, the emphasis on veggies make banh mi considerably less heavy and greasy than a typical hamburger. The truck also offers spring rolls, egg rolls and noodle bowls.
Nguyen remembers eating Vietnamese dishes with his family as a child, and got the notion to strike out on his own when QuikTrip began upgrading its food offerings. He cashed out a good bit of his savings to follow the food truck dream.
“Everything I have is in this truck,” he says.
A common street food across the Mediterranean, the gyro typically features garlic, rosemary, onion, black pepper, lamb and tzatziki sauce over a folded pita. Ali Moradi, the owner of the Gyro Chef food truck (GyroChef.com), cooks in the style of his native Iran but uses the more familiar Greek name instead of Iran’s “kebab torki.” Moradi emigrated in 2003, but still fondly remembers cooking gyros with his grandmother as a young child.
Moradi came to America with the goal of becoming an architect but got hooked on the restaurant industry through a job at Chuck E. Cheese’s, working his way up from an entry-level position to general manager. Realizing that he enjoyed designing menus more than buildings, he opened his own restaurant, Alpharetta’s Seven Seas Mediterranean Café, which he sold in 2015 to launch Gyro Chef.
Gyro Chef’s sandwiches include the traditional gyro, falafel, beef kebab and chicken shawarma. Moradi says the spices, specifically mint, oregano and dill, make his cooking stand out.
“We buy the herbs fresh and dry them ourselves,” Moradi says. “I’ve never believed in manufactured herbs. My grandmother always bought herbs fresh. She believed it preserved their essence and gave the meal more flavor.”
Moradi also cites the advice of his father-in-law in making exemplary food. “My father-in-law always said that the recipe can be found in any book store cookbook,” Moradi says. “It’s the passion and love of the chef that makes the food different.”
A fleet of food trucks meet weekly at the intersection of 12th and Peachtree Streets for Street Food Thursdays, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. atlantastreetfood.com
Some international street foods require an instruction manual. The namesake dish of the Cape Pies truck resembles a chicken pot pie and is ubiquitous in South Africa, but rare enough that the truck’s website, CapePies.com, includes a section titled “How to eat a Cape Pie:” Do not use a fork, hold it with both hands and eat it like a sandwich or burger.
HAISTEN WILLIS is a freelance writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SBNation.com and other publications across the metro area.