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Why food trucks are vessels for cross-cultural invention



Food trucks have come a long way in the mind of the foodie. Once, they were seen as ‘roach coaches’ that lurked in back alleys and sold questionable tacos. Today, they have a strong foothold in Willamette Valley culture.

“It’s been a lot of work to convince people that food trucks are a legitimate business model that can be successful,” said Caitiln Vargas, coordinator for Saturday’s first annual Eugene Food Truck Fest. “But these trucks are esteemed. It’s some seriously delicious cuisine.”

Eugene’s first annual Food Truck Festival showcased some of Willamette Valley’s finest at the Valley River Center on Saturday, June 18, from vegan Philly cheesesteaks supplied by Viva! Vegetarian Grill to sustainably sourced burgers from CRUSH Burger.

More than 13,000 people turned up for the fest, a fundraiser for the homeless and wellness center Eugene Mission, with 10 percent of all sales going to the shelter. Two days prior to the event, a fire broke out in the Mission’s kitchen, which is used to make more than 750 meals a day for its 350-400 occupants.

A customer grabs food from the window of the KunFusion truck. Eugene's first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Oregon on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

A customer grabs food from the window of the KunFusion truck. Eugene’s first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Oregon on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

Food trucks are usually a peripheral component of a larger event parked outside a brewery or a pub, noted Vargas, the Eugene Mission’s development director and the Food Truck Fest’s coordinator. So when trucks are the focus of the event, it’s a different dynamic.

But above all, the event highlighted cross-cultural food inventions: noodles wrapped in burritos, a Filipino spring roll filled with carne asada, onion and cilantro and even Currywurst and bratwurst kimchi.

UO graduate Shantel Sederia has found her niche within the local food truck culture with her Salem-based truck Nanay’s Ba-Hi, which combines Mexican and Filipino cuisine.

Last year, Sederia and her friend Antonio opened the food cart El Taco. The cart offered traditional Mexican cuisine – tacos, burritos and quesadillas. But the pair had aspirations of including more Filipino influences into the menu, and she eventually sold the cart and opened Nanay’s.

Eugene's first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

“The Piglet” at Eugene’s first annual Food Truck Fest, held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

The name “Nanay” (Filipino for “mother”) is the name Sederia called her Filipino grandmother when she was growing up, and “bahay” means “home.”

“I’m in the kitchen now because of her influence. I was the only granddaughter, so I felt that it was my place to learn those recipes and contribute to the family and pass down those generational recipes.”

Part of the reason food trucks do so well with the food fusion enterprise is because they’re selling themselves, Vargas said.

“When you go to a truck and interface with an owner, you’re tasting the love that they put into the dish and hearing about the history behind it from the owner,” Vargas said. “You’re meeting these eclectic individuals. It’s the benefit of the food truck: there’s the owner. It makes the food that much better.”

Food trucks are giving people a new way to eat, Kun FusionGrill owner Shawn Werner claims.

“This is America,” Werner said. “If it weren’t for different cultures migrating to your country, we wouldn’t know about Thai food or Mexican food. We’d be eating cheeseburgers and apple pie every day.”

The food truck community is composed of an array of personalities, from recent UO graduates to former executive chefs of local restaurants. Here are some of the people behind Eugene’s food fusion trucks.

 

Kun FusionGrill

Eugene's first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

Eugene’s first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

Style: Mexican and Korean.

What the menu looks like: The menu is based on its protein choices, including chicken, tofu, pork tacos ($3 or 2 for $5), burritos ($8), quesadillas ($7), burrito bowls, the Kyro — a Korean take on a gyro — ($7) or a Grown Up Grilled Cheese with sriracha, aioli and Kunfusion sauce on grilled Texas toast ($6).

The backstory: Owner-operator Shawn Werner hails from Los Angeles.

“We wanted to bring something amazing to Eugene,” said Werner. “We were going to bring our fusion done our way.”

For Werner, fusion means blending the traditional dishes of both cultures – and incorporating some curveballs, like the Kyro.

“People are beginning to try things they never could [in Lane County],” said Werner.

Kun FusionGrill was named Eugene’s Best Food Truck of 2016 during Saturday’s fest.

Where to find it: Look up Kun FusionGrill on the Street Food Eugene app, or call the truck at (541) 232-9733.

 

Kalani’s Curbside Island Style Grinds

An employee at the Kalani Curbside Island Style Grinds truck prepares free samples. Eugene's first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

An employee at the Kalani Curbside Island Style Grinds truck prepares free samples. Eugene’s first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

Style: Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese and Portuguese.

The backstory: On the Big Island in Hawaii, where Dale Kalani San Jose grew up, “grinds” is slang for grub. He’s been in Eugene for 21 years, but Hawaii hasn’t left him. He learned a breadth of his culinary disciplines from his mixed-heritage family of Hawaiian, Filipino and Chinese.

“This is basically home-style cooking,” he said. “To set something up in a brick-and-mortar type situation, you need to be brave enough to either make a lot of money or lose a lot of money. People know what a steakhouse is, what a hamburger joint is, what a Chinese restaurant is, but you have to try to educate people. That’s what I had to do in the beginning.”

What the menu looks like: Teriyaki chicken, Hawaiian pineapple chicken, Kalua pork, sweet and sour pork, jerk chicken, all with a side of macaroni and potato salad or yakisoba noodles. (Prices from $7-$11.50).

Where to find it: Corner of 6th and Garfield. Open Monday through Friday, 11-3. Give the truck a call at (541) 870-5278.

 

Afghani Cuisine and German Sausage

Visitors wait in line to order at the Afghani Cuisine and German Sausage truck. Eugene's first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

Visitors wait in line to order at the Afghani Cuisine and German Sausage truck. Eugene’s first annual Food Truck Fest is held at the Valley River Center in Eugene, Ore. on June 18, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

Style: Afghani and German.

The backstory: Abdul-Waheed Wahed grew up in Kabul, where he played on the Afghanistan national soccer team. He left in 1979 to live in Frankfurt, Germany.

“If you go back to history, you’ll see Afghanistan and Germany were always best friends since the Second World War,” Wahed said.

He signed up for the team once again, but a bad car accident left him unable to play. He’s been in Eugene since 2009, cooking up bratwurst and bolanis (Afghani flatbread with a vegetable filling) downtown.

“Now I am the king of Kesey Square!” Wahed says.

What the menu looks like: Bratwurst kimchi ($7), Rindswurst ($5), Thüringer ($6), and Currywurst ($6).

Where to find the truck: Typically parked in downtown Eugene at Kesey Square.

Nanay’s Ba-Hi

Style: Filipino and Mexican.

What the menu looks like: Pancit (thin rice noodles) with celery, carrots, cabbage, chicken, pork, beef and fried rice ($7.50), Adobo burritos ($6.00), Lumpia (a Filipino spring roll, similar to an egg roll) prepared like a taco with carne asada, onion and cilantro (four for $1.00).

The backstory: Shantel Sederia’s grandfather, a sailor in the Navy, met her grandmother in the Philippines during the ’60s. The two got married and had two children in the Philippines before moving back and eventually settling in Salem, Oregon.

Sederia, who’s of Mexican and Filipino descent, said that her grandmother would only make Filipino food on special occasions.

“It’s my favorite, but not a lot of folks had tried it,” she said. “You’re really getting the best of both worlds.”

Where to find it: Based outside Willamette University in Salem at 1390 Mill Street, Sederia hopes to bring Nanay’s to Eugene on the weekends. Nanay’s is open Monday – Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed on Sunday. Call the truck at (541) 870-2156.


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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone

Podcast producer with The Daily Emerald and student research fellow with the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute.