One of the great advantages of food trucks is that owners are on the truck daily. This brings a tight bond between the owner and their hungry patrons. Since many of us only get that small time between ordering and grabbing our food, I wanted to help bring us together. That’s when I got the idea, Behind The Wheel. Gets me back to telling the story and further enjoying – being around food trucks. This week I highlight CJ’s Street Food.
As I crack open my journal to read my notes, I am reminded why I wanted to write “Behind The Wheel” posts. It was a muggy, humid day and taking notes was not resting on the front of my skull. On my mind’s dashboard: leaving out of town, work tightened the screws, but the desire to write this one kept slow, steady bursts of positive motivation to get it done. I spoke to Mark Thomas, the chef and culinary mind behind CJ’s Street Food, for a long time awhile back at Fairview Garden Center. He was such a wealth of knowledge, I thought I may have squeezed the fruit of knowledge down to just pulp for this visit. I underestimated.
Once you get Mark talking, you don’t want him to stop talking. Thanks to his desire to seek knowledge and read various books, he quickly translates those lessons back to those who want to listen. As he spoke about life experiences, his influences, and techniques, I tried to keep writing legibly and coherently. Because not only did I want to capture what he was telling me, I wanted it to marinate and stick on the brain cells eager to soak. Plus, like his cooking techniques and pairing, he speaks big. Mark knows this as he recalls a moment when another chef warned someone that watch out for Mark, because his personality is aggressive like his cooking. He’s cooking style is not rough, but as you take in the flavors, your tongue becomes overmatched trying to find those flavors and textures. So his food is not going to be bland or ho-hum, you are going to taste what he intended to put in there. Just like his cooking style, personality, he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s got this loud, sharp laugh that fills the truck. When we discovered we both watched “History of The World Part 1”, we started dropping movie quotes and the laughs reverberated around the metal interior.
Why did you start a food truck?
After a late night at the restaurant, Mark began watching the Cooking Channel show Food Truck Revolution. He was amazed at some of the cool food he was seeing on television. Then he saw someone making duck tacos. He thought, I can do that!
For those new to the scene may not have seen the first mobile concept Mark brought out, CJ’s Street Food gastro dogs food cart. Include me in that group, as I missed out on seeing some of his gastro dog creations, since I discovered food trucks in the Summer 2012. As Mark describes the food cart, nostalgia cracks in his voice. Some of the dogs he mentioned from the food cart were the kimchi dog and the buffalo dog. The kimchi is the one item you can still catch on the truck.
Though the food cart and truck weren’t his first thoughts. Like some chefs, he wanted to have his own restaurant concept. But he was discouraged with the money it would take, the roadblocks, and speed bumps to get to realize that dream. It was watching Food Truck Revolution that eased some of those frustrations to go out alone.
How did you get into the food industry?
It all started when his cousin worked a restaurant during school break in Pennsylvania. He thought it was cool what his cousin was doing, so he walked up to a Lone Star Steakhouse and started working there. It was here where he started down the path of the corporate restaurant track.
While he was doing well here, he wanted something more to challenge him. Interested in learning more about food he attended Wake Tech’s their culinary school. It was here that he learned the basics and techniques. After reading The French Laundry Cookbook, he decided classic French cuisine was where he wanted to sharpen his skills in. Then a moment that started to change his life occurred.
Mark ate at The Cosmopolitan Grill, one of John Toler’s restaurants that was in Cary. After eating a meal, he decided he wanted to learn from John Toler. So he wrote a letter to John for an opportunity to learn from him. And when Mark puts his mind to something, it’s going to happen. Though, it didn’t happen overnight, he would leave a high paying corporate chef job to plate desserts and be the back up garde manager. It was paycheck gamble he was willing to take.
Because of Mark’s hard work ethic, he would later arrive at John Toler’s first restaurant, Bloomsbury Bistro, and work his way to the Chef de Cuisine. He recalls he owes a lot of his knowledge and influences with John Toler, the chef and owner of Bloomsbury Bistro. John led Mark through the classic French techniques to managing the restaurant operations. It is because of this he claims this was the best thing he did for his career.
So how does one go from cooking classic French style to preparing kimchi?
Maybe after that late night watching duck tacos on Food Truck Revolution he decided to tackle kimchi. Mark’s bookshelves are well-stocked with various cookbooks. Though two that influenced his trucks cuisine is Mission Street Food and Momofuku. The later book is where he first got the kimchi concept.
It is here he explains that recipes are merely guides, something to start the process. It is the steps you change that makes the creation your own. There was a lot of trial by fire to find out how to make it right.
What is your most popular item?
The Fried Rice is a big seller during the week. It’s all one of the hardest to prepare. For those that might not know, fried rice has to be prepared a day in advance in order to get that desired consistency. If you try to fry it immediately after cooked it does not have that crunchy consistency. It becomes mushy and this is from my own experience.
Another popular item is the “secret menu” rice bowl, which loyal and frequent guests order. It used to be on the menu and Mark took it off. But guests continued to order it. Managing the rice bowls can be difficult, because of the time to prepare fried rice. But he appreciates and enjoys preparing the dish, because many who order have been there since the truck’s beginnings.
The Kimchi Beef Taco and Korean BBQ Pork Taco are two of my favorites. The first because it has the famous kimchi. The latter is a great representation of Mark’s cooking style. The Asian slaw is fresh with the Thai vinaigrette tossed when ordered. The slaw is then layered on the Korean BBQ and later topped with lime cream. What you get is a cement mixer of citrusy acid, fresh and cool cream, and a nice crunch at every bite.
Now that you’ve been on the streets for awhile, should we expect a restaurant?
Mark mentions there is always the possibility. As it would be nice to expand the options to noodle bowls, more rice bowls, and spring rolls. With a food truck you are limited to space, which limits the breadth of the menu.
Some really cool personal facts
Where does CJ come from in “CJ’s Street Food?”
The letters come from couple’s dogs are named Casey and Jasmine.
What are some of your likes?
80’s Hair Bands. When he first met his wife, Traci, he was obsessed with VH1 Metal Mania watching it immediately when he returned home from a long shift. He rattles of Ratt, Van Halen 5150, Metallica And Justice For All, which he bought 3 times! He recalls the first video he saw was One by Metallica and was awestruck by it.
Staying in the 80s, he also enjoys movies around this time frame. Movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mel Brooks’ Airplane and History of The World Part 1.
How to find CJ’s Street Food