Sausage

Sausage

If you've seen the movie Chef, you might think you just go get a truck, max out some credit cards, and have a kid run your social media then you'll be good. Well, the movie glossed over a lot of the nitty gritty (and for good reason). What follows is as complete an account of what to do when starting a food truck in this fair city.

All of this information was painstakingly gathered by combing through regulations, making far too many calls to City of Houston employees, multiple visits to the City of Houston Health and Human Services Department, and other encounters with helpful albeit shady characters along the way. 

By sheer knowledge of best business practices, common sense, and sifting through the utter shit storm of the City of Houston's collection of codes and outdated pages, I was able to piece together what it would take to start this business. Here's what it takes outside obtaining your physical food truck:

  • Start your business (we went with an LLC; $300 filing fee) and obtain an Employer Identification Number and Sales Tax Number. (2-3 weeks)
  • Get the proper documents in order to get your food truck permitted (in Houston, this is called a medallion). This webpage was helpful, but it takes a ton of time to put together what you actually need to do. This is it in human format:
  • Once you have your documents in order, you're ready for inspection
    • Get your LP system tagged or inspected. You can usually get this done at the commissary you use.
    • Get your LP system permitted at 1002 Washington ($175; bring property letter/commissary letter). You must do this after you have your unit tagged/inspected.
    • Make sure you have a type K fire extinguisher in addition to the general type ABC. The fire extinguishers need to be tagged, which we were only able to find at AAA Fire Equipment Co. on Bissonet. 
    • Get your food truck inspected and hopefully permitted at 7411 Park Place ($583.42 Medallion, $240.86 Electronic Monitoring, Pre-opening inspection $117.75, $16.50 Water Sampling Fee) on either Tuesday or Thursday. Get there early, seriously. They open at 7am, but people show up at 4am to start waiting in line.
  • This is some weird stuff that the City of Houston requires from food trucks:
    • All of your electrical must be enclosed (not in conduit, but behind an enclosure). This is a serious pain in the ass of any food truck builder and has zero bearing on safety. 
    • If you have a 2 compartment sink, you must have a very particular type of combination detergent sanitizer on the truck. We only found that this was available at a particularly off-putting food truck builder's place of business and that it costs $100 a bottle.
    • There are multiple crazy regulations about propane system plumbing that we have not yet gotten to the bottom of. We passed our inspection, but have heard conflicting opinions on the state of its compliance by (thankfully) people that don't have a say in us passing inspection.
    • The afore-mentioned fire extinguishers. Seriously, we only found that one store that sold them.

If you're starting a food truck and need some help or some straight talk on any of this, reach out to us. We'd love to help.



Test Dinner

Test Dinner

On Saturday, we prepared 6 courses for a group of 12 as a way to test a few of the dishes we'd been imagining. We drew inspiration from regions across Mexico and beyond, as well as the fresh and beautiful ingredients that were available at the farmer's market. 

First Course 

Deconstructed Breakfast Taco: house-made pork cheek bacon, Meyer lemon, torn tortilla, ancho hollandaise, micro cilantro, sous vide egg and torn chilaquiles-style hand-made tortilla seared in our own house lard.

We served the "breakfast taco" with our truck blend Cafe de Olla and a side of scratch-made Eagle Rare bourbon Cajeta.

We loved the idea of doing a deconstruction for the test dinner as a way to let the different flavors of the dish really shine. We cured the pork cheek a week ahead of time and smoked it with some chiles and natural hardwood chips. We found some micro cilantro at the farmer's market and used it here to add complexity. 

Second Course

This salad drew inspiration from the Yucatan. Mikey calls it a "Yucatan Chopped Salad." We peeled and blanched fresh chickpeas and shelling peas from the farmers market in a simple court-bouillon, we dressed them in lime and chilled. They were mixed with black cherry tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, dark roasted pumpkin seeds, raw jicama, chayote and apple. All of this was tossed in lime and olive oil with sea salt. The avocado and coconut cream for garnish was a true show stopper.

Third Course

Taco Al Pastor: house-made adobo, pork shoulder, roasted salsa verde, house-made pickled red onion, avocado, honey bacon fat tortilla, lime

Fourth Course

Ceviche Taco: Thai chili, garlic, shallot, house tiger's milk, wild-caught halibut, tempura avocado, squid ink tortilla

Good fish tacos are few and far between in my experience. We had some beautiful, meaty halibut and I thought that it would make a great ceviche. Mikey pushed for the squid ink tortilla and added the thai chiles to the tiger's milk. Kale got a little obsessed with the tempura avocado and I'm glad she did. It added a necessary levity to the taco and also encouraged many in attendance to ask for just a plate of tempura avocados by themselves.

Fifth Course

Taco Vegetal: butternut squash, purple & red potatoes, poblano, chèvre, scallions, pomegranate, micro greens, beet tops tortilla

Mikey is the Vegetarian Liason and rightfully so. This veggie taco has plantains, potatoes, pomegranate, radish and scallions in a hard-cooked sauté meant to mimic the texture and flavor of a picodillo without the beef. The bright green tortilla was made with the beet tops which just quickly blanched and then blended into the masa.

Sixth Course

The Topopilla: house-made pastry, manzanilla-infused honey meringue, key lime curd, your new favorite thing, let alone dessert.

Mexican Drinking Chocolate served with Mescal 

ALL HAIL THE TOPOPILLA

It was a beautiful experience seeing dishes that we'd talked about for over a month and watching them incept, cook and plate to be enjoyed by all who attended.

Salud!

Kismet

A month ago I cooked a meal with my wife for some family that was coming over. My 5 month old son, Ezra, watched her whipping olive oil into mayo for potato salad as I tended some pork tenderloins on the grill. We drank a bottle of wine and laughed at Ezra's curled-toe fascination. 

After dinner, my wife's aunt Ellen pulled me aside. She has the presence of a horse whisperer. When she trains her blue eyes on you, it's like a force-choke from Vader. "I think you should start a food truck." 

I smiled my polite smile. Having cooked at restaurants in college and then for friends and family since then, I've heard that my food is good. This is by no means some kind of self deprecating thing. I love to cook and I love to eat. I think my food tastes great and I've worked hard (though it hasn't been work) over the years to learn to do it right. It's just that starting a foodtruck is a lifestyle change and I was comfortable.

Again with the Vader stare. My polite smile didn't fly with her; I was reminded yet again that Ellen and my wife share more than a few genetic traits. "I think you should think about it. Really. Making food makes you happy."

That was it. Everybody packed up their respective cars and we put Ezra to bed. 

Less than a month later, I was looking for a new job.  My wife and I sat on adirondack chairs in our front yard passing a Topo Chico back and forth and talking about what to do next. We conferenced Ezra in via baby monitor, but he didn't contribute much. "What would you cook if you had a food truck?" she started.

A beat passed in which I explored the idea of the food truck, the feasibility of it. I ran through my list of friends and acquaintances, reaching out to anyone that might be in a place to help, let alone have the passion for it. Some said they might be able to help, some loved the idea, but weren't in a place to pack up and move for something just this crazy.

Even though I'm an eternal optimist, I have my limits. That limit in this situation was about two weeks. Finally, I asked for a sign. Something, anything to encourage me before I gave it up and went back to job applications. That morning, I made an attempt to contact my long-lost friend Mike who hasn't been on social media nor has had a cell phone since I've known him and currently resided in Marfa. If you're thinking he's that kind of guy, he is and so much more. 

 The only picture I was able to find of Mike when looking for him online.

The only picture I was able to find of Mike when looking for him online.

I picked up the phone and dialed Maiya's, the restaurant I had tracked him to online. I knew his voice right away though I hadn't heard it in over five years. He was moving to Houston. And had already been putting together a menu for a restaurant with the same theme I had for the truck. I wired the money for the downpayment on the truck the next Friday.

Years before, when I was in film school, Mike had told me about something he'd heard about Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. He told me that they rarely spoke to one another because they were always afraid they'd be working on the same idea.