Rave & Rant
Food trucks are the hottest trend on the streets of America’s big cities. LA has got ‘em, NYC and Philly, too. Hell, even the teeny remote West Texas town of Marfa has one called the Food Shark that offers tasty Middle Eastern influenced fare.
While Houston may be full of taco mobiles, the hip food truck trend has been slow rolling. Now we've got one. And it is delicious.
Enter Oh My! Pocket Pies, a food truck that brings fast, slow food every Monday through Friday (weather permitting) to the parking lot of Kim Hung Market in old Chinatown, 1005 Saint Emanuel St., just east of the George R. Brown Convention Center.
For proprietor Joe Phillips and partner Joann Torok, the learning curve has been steep. First the concept had to be conceived. For Phillips, pies reminiscent of the comfort food he shared with his dad as a boy every Saturday afternoon – frozen meat pies – came to mind. As a young man, he had worked at the Empanada Parlor in Austin. He and Turok, life partners for the past 10 years and pie-making partners (for their personal pleasure) for the past eight, figured that pocket pies were the solution.
Of the pies Phillips says, “They are a cross between comfort food and a quick food, meant to be eaten out of hand and on the go.”
He developed his own delicious, fresh variation with a tender crust and scrumptious sauce and added a few burgers and a salad to the menu. After the concept was conceived, health code regulations and safety issues with the fire marshall had to be hammered out.
OMPP is more than a mobile food unit. For proprietor Phillips and Torok, the business is the embodiment of their small community/support local/recycling beliefs.
Phillips, who got thrust into the food business as a college student in need of cash, soon realized there were two paths available: The corporate food world governed by profitability or the smaller artisan route of quality ingredients, caring customer service and environmentally friendly practices. He chose the latter.
In the pristine stainless steel interior of "Big Red," the nickname for the unit, Phillips and Torok work their philosophy. Ingredients are locally resourced. The ground beef for the fantastic, juicy burgers comes from Law Ranch Cattle Co., a mere 20 miles away from downtown; most days the salad greens and veggies needed for the succulent pies are acquired from Stacey Roussel’s All We Need Farm in Needville; the scrumptious burger buns from Slow Dough Bread Co.; the coffee from Katz Coffee. Phillips chooses to serve only Katz’s Bayou Blend because a portion of the sales is donated to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.
All packing is biodegradable and compostable. “It costs more money,” says Phillips, referring to the cornstarch salad bowls, “but we decided this was our shot to put all our beliefs together.” Outside the truck is a trashcan for the compostable waste. Phillips makes sure it gets to his farmer for soil enhancement.
Last fall, when it came time to paint the truck, Phillips and Torok held a competition open to local graffiti artists. Droid won.
Daily Phillips is in the truck, cooking to order, chatting to customers. Torok, operations manager for Houston Grand Opera, scoots over during her lunchtime to help out with the rush. “I like process planning. I handle the business end. Joe is the creative one. He drives me crazy sometimes,” Turok says with a laugh.
In the truck everything has a place and purpose. And everything is easily accessible for speed serving. Though when it comes to the food, Phillips practices some small but meaningful habits — little things that make a big flavor difference.
Burgers are hand formed, delightfully irregular. A limited number of the pies – empanada-shaped but filled with the flavors of a country grandma’s chicken pot pie – are prepped every day. Phillips chops the garden fresh cucumbers and currently hot house-grown tomatoes for the salad to order. The grass-fed beef burger’s accompanying onion and tomato slices get the same on-the-spot treatment. He offers a custom-made ranch dressing as a salad option and, with perhaps a nod to the neighborhood, sriracha is always a burger or pie sauce option. Iced tea and coffee cups are refillable.
And Phillips is always up for a chat. “We are all about service. People will open up to you if you are interested.”
A customer orders a pie and engages Phillips in a conversation.
“Hey man, you need to check out The Last Organic Outpost. They got a garden close by on Emile Street. It’s just a few blocks from here.”
“Cool,” says Phillips, making a mental note to drive "Big Red" by one afternoon.
Another customer explains he’s got a solar powered sound system on his pedi cab. “I’ll ride it over some day and you can check it out.”
“Do that man, I would love to see it,” Phillips says with a grin.
And yet another mentions he is organizing a catering company of sorts made from food trucks and mobile food units.
“Count me in,” says Phillips.
The pies cost $3; the burgers $6. Phillips tells me on a good day he gets about 15 to 20 customers.
“Ya know, we are not going to get rich doing this. But we are about happiness. We are happy and we want to share our happiness.”
I buy a burger to go. It is wonderful. I text Phillips and tell him so.
He responds: “Thank you. It's people and comments like this that make it all worthwhile.”