(article) Central Texas: Austin Food Trailers by Fieldworker Anne Gesler

Little Thai Food

by Ann Gessler

Much has changed for Little Thai Food trailer owner Aw Jenkins since she left Thailand thirty-seven years ago.  Growing up in the small village of Mahasarakham, she and her family worked in the rice paddies, raised water buffalo, and grew papayas and coconuts.  Looking back after years of working for Travis County and then in the restaurant industry, Jenkins can barely believe how much her life and her town have changed.  “At home we used to eat sticky rice with egg custard and mango, but now when I go back to Mahasarakham they sell hot dogs!”  

Jenkins learned to cook traditional foods in her family’s restaurant in Thailand and eventually parlayed her skills into running her own restaurant in Austin.  After seven months, “it was too big for me to run,” says Jenkins.  She decided to open a food trailer instead.  From its spot on 1207 South 1st Street, the brightly colored Little Thai Food trailer wafts smells of fresh pad thai and savory curries to hungry passersby.  “We do fresh,” Jenkins says proudly.  “Nothing is from microwaves or cans.  It’s not convenience [food], so it’s going to take longer…I want to make sure the food cooks right so the customer is happy.”  Jenkins claims that her customers enjoy her dishes so much because she combines the high standards of restaurant cookery with the authentic food traditions of Mahasarakham.  “My customers say, ‘Your food tastes exactly like they do in Thailand; I was just there!’  It’s the way I used to eat back home.”  Her menu features basil fried rice, pad thai, pad kee mow, and pineapple fried rice, as well as red, panang, and green curries.


The freshness of Little Thai Food’s dishes depend on daily food prepping, a source of both pride and frustration.  Jenkins describes a typical day at the trailer:  She is legally required to have a commissary for food storage and preparation.  Every day, she must go to her commissary to pick up ice and ingredients that must last all day.  She can prep some food at her trailer, but the crowded space militates against large storage areas.  Consequently, she can be overwhelmed by too many patrons: “If I have a lot of customers, I’m not going to make it; I have too much to do.”  She must use all her free moments to organize and prep her remaining ingredients.  “You have to have patience,” Jenkins advises.



However, Jenkins noticed an immediate, positive change in operating her trailer as compared to running her restaurant.  Most importantly, “I don’t spend too much money [on rent].”  Further, it only takes two people to man the trailer with one or two woks.  While she learned many aspects of the restaurant business from her former employers, Jenkins relishes the opportunity to work for herself.  The customers are also a source of pleasure.  Most of her patrons are Americans, many of whom are students from the University of Texas at Austin.  They compliment her on her food personally and in online reviews and have been responsible for greatly increasing the number of new patrons.  “Thank you to all of them,” Jenkins says.  For now, Jenkins is enjoying Little Thai Food’s popularity.  “I’m waiting to see how long it’s going to last. It’s not going to make me rich, but that’s ok,” she laughs.  You can find Little Thai Food at 1207 South 1st Street.




THE FLYING CARPET
STORY BY ANNE GESSLER

“In every culture, we create food.  It’s an art form and language we all speak.”

When Abderrahim Souktouri moved from Morocco to Austin he could not bear to part with his country’s rich food traditions and hoped to one day open his own Moroccan restaurant.  In the middle of an economic downturn that threatened their family’s security, Abderrahim and his wife Maria Souktouris spent their last savings on opening The Flying Carpet.  After a hot, chaotic summer that Maria Souktouri describes as “a beautiful nightmare,” the trailer now has a steady stream of customers and is preparing for a busy spring season. The trailer sits beneath a large oak tree amidst small tents selling jewelry and preserves on Gibson Street and Congress Avenue.  “Morocco has souks like this,” says Maria Souktouri.  “You can find anything from expensive gold to sandwiches.  People just pull them out of a cooler.  It’s a feast for eyes and nose.”  Indeed, the food in the Moroccan souks inspired The Flying Carpet’s menu, which includes Moroccan burgers served on flatbread, smothered with a tomato reduction sauce flavored with a spice combination courtesy of Abderrahim’s grandmother, and topped with a fried egg.  Yet Maria’s Mexican American heritage has also left its mark on the Flying Carpet’s repertoire.  Their Afrique and citrus sauces includes chili pepper, not found in traditional Moroccan dishes.  Indeed, Maria’s philosophy on food reflects the importance of intercultural dialogue through food.  “In every culture, we create food.  It’s an art form and language we all speak.  If you are fearful of a person or culture, go sit down and have meal with them.  In those moments you might see that you are more alike than different.”

You can find The Flying Carpet and all its tasty treats at 1318 S. Congress Avenue in Austin, TX.

 



DOGELLOS CHILI DOGS
PHOTOS AND STORY BY ANNE GESSLER

Sitting in his stainless steel trailer, chili heating on a gas burner, Joe Holland says that he had worked in marketing in Los Angeles and Austin before deciding to open his chili dog trailer, Dogellos, in January 2011.  Inspired by the famous Los Angeles chili dog parlor, Cupids, that served chili dogs with a side of potato chips and soda, Holland focuses on doing one thing well: making his own chili that highlights the complex, spicy, “kind of enchilada sauce” typical of his hometown.  

Located on 24th Street and San Gabriel Street, on the sidewalk of Freewheeling Bicycles, Dogellos gets a mix of cyclists, University of Texas students, commuters, and customers specifically seeking out chili dogs reminiscent of those of their childhood.  Holland has quickly established Dogellos as a neighborhood business; he promotes his trailer by frequenting local restaurants and bars dressed up in a hot dog suit.  Holland explains to curious passersby that when he isn’t working at the stand he enjoys drinking a beer and wearing his hot dog suit.  If “they take a photo and bring it back to the stand, they get a free chili dog…People quickly realized I’m not an ordinary owner of a business—I have no shame.”  The area reminds him of the small neighborhoods in L.A. that supported local businesses people could walk to.  Similarly, he hopes that Dogellos will remain central to the University of Austin community and that “seventy years from now there’s a Dogellos at this spot, serving the kids of the people I served this year.”

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CE QUEENS

BY ANNE GESSLER, 2011

From the time Amy Hutchins was a small girl growing up in North Texas she had wanted to open a snow ball stand.  She was a “snow cone connoisseur” and “went to every [snow cone] stand in my hometown…for my seasonal ice and sugar addiction.”  In 2009, in the midst of the recession, Hutchins was laid off from her graphic design job, and decided to open a snow cone trailer to make ends meet.  She learned the basics of the mobile vending industry from aHouston-based fireworks businessman who sold her his brand new snow cone trailer.  Ice Queens is a New Orleans-style snow ball trailer that features creamy flavors like King Cake, Wurthers Candy, and praline.  Hutchins and her partner Tre make the snow balls with a shaved ice machine that features the same kind of pulleys and wheels and extremely sharp blades invented in 1920s New Orleans.  While New Orleans culture, food, and people inspire Hutchin’s business, Ice Queens’ customers influence its menu, as well.  Hutchins describes a favorite with customers from Mexican and South Texas border towns: the Dill Pickle.  At Ice Queens, “we stick a large pickle down the center and use the pickle juice, so it’s not a sweet snow ball.”  Some customers will even order a flavored cone like a strawberry snow ball with a dill pickle.  Ice Queens’ staunchest supporters are the teammates of the Texas Roller Girls, of which both Tre and Amy are members.  Hutchins structures her life around roller derby, and Ice Queens is a sponsor for the team, serving up dill pickle cones for pre-practice energy boosts.  You can try the Dill Pickle and a host of other flavored ices at 1210 Rosewood Avenue.