Salt Lake's newest food sensation, the Chow Truck. Photo: Adam Dorobiala
The standard protocol when I do a restaurant review is to stop in a handful of times and order more food than I could ever eat in one sitting—sample a little of everything. This works fairly well, but the task of tackling a menu is sometimes too daunting. If the mission is to familiarize oneself with all of the food choices, then the result is almost always complete failure. I am rarely able to put a dent in the many culinary offerings, and I’m sure there have been dishes that I’ve missed that would have changed my entire outlook on the restaurant. Sadly, it’s an uncommon event when I’m able to master a menu and study a place comprehensively—that is, unless I’m stalking one of the servers.
Speaking of stalking, I’ve been stalking the Chow Truck for the past few months. The Chow Truck is a little bit like a bright yellow, wheeled version of the island on the show LOST—it’s considered sacred by some, and it has the ability to move around at will. I stared seeing the massive catering truck long before I had the courage to approach it and prior to understanding that there was a website (chowtruck.com) detailing where it would be and when it would be there. The mobile restaurant is the brainchild of seasoned Salt Lake restauranteuse SuAn Chow (formerly of Charlie Chow and ChowMeinia) and local bad-ass chef Rosanne Ruiz (chef/owner of Sage Grill, executive chef at the now-closed Capitol Café and the gal who designed the menu at Vinto Pizzeria). Having embraced the itinerant nature of a vagabond food truck, this superhero restaurant team opens shop at a couple of different locations daily. And while they tend to mostly center their efforts downtown (Trolley Square and the Gallivan Center), they’ve recently added an avenues location and make regular stops near the university and along the east bench. Wherever they are, if you can get to the right parking lot, you will be rewarded with some of Salt Lake’s best street cuisine.
And cuisine is the right term. The slogan painted on the truck is “Haute Asian Cuisine on the Go,” and the accuracy of that statement cannot be overstated. The menu is comprised of inexpensive-yet-highbrow takes on Asian dishes, filtered through the Southern California style of a catering truck. Since kitchen and storage space is at a premium, several of the items available share many of the same ingredients. This simple fact underscores the genius of Chow and Ruiz—not only are they able to make a wide variety of dishes available with a limited amount of ingredients, the mix-and-match nature of the menu makes it possible for customers to know what almost everything will taste like without having to sample everything they offer. The restaurant-goer can get a comprehensive feel for the menu after only a few visits.
Your experience at the Chow Truck starts with deciding which marinated meat (or non-meat) options you want as the base of your meal. They offer coconut-lemon grass chicken, pineapple-ginger pork, spicy beef with a cilantro-chile pesto, panko-fried tofu and flash-fried calamari. You can get them served as a street-style taco, topped with crisp Asian coleslaw and fried wonton strips. Another option is a similar meat and slaw construction served on a toasted slider bun (think of a Korean-style White Castle burger). The third variation is forgoing the corn tortilla or slider bun altogether and getting it served over salad greens instead. You can also order the fried calamari on its own, dusted with Asian spices and served with tangy fried lemon slices and a chipotle aioli dip. And if crunchy chips are your thing, you cannot go wrong ordering the root chips. Fried to a crisp perfection, they are spiked with the truck’s special blend of spices and feature thin slices of Yukon gold and purple potatoes, carrots, yams, beets and lotus root. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get there just as they come out of the fryer. The resulting experience is almost religious.
With nothing over six dollars, customers can get a hearty sampling of the Chow Truck’s offerings without breaking the bank. It should be noted that at this point they are strictly a cash-and-carry establishment, but not to worry—a little cash goes a long way. In addition to the options I already mentioned, they offer a daily soup choice, an array of candy, teas and soda, and even their own special blend of coffee. There are also daily specials that can be even more daring than their regular fare. The panko-fried shrimp cake slider is a personal favorite.You should try it when they have it. In fact, you would do well to just go ahead and order a little of everything.