Walter Berryhill was a mobile food pioneer in Houston, walking the streets of River Oaks and selling 200 dozen tamales from his little push-cart every week along with his wife, Billie, for nearly 40 years. A lit Coleman lantern hanging from the side of the cart let people know that Berryhill's tamales were fresh and hot. In the 1960s, with Billie in failing health, Walter sold his push-cart and recipe to River Oaks resident and attorney Bob Tarrant, a fan of Berryhill's cornmeal-and-masa-laced tamales, who held fast to the recipe for two decades.
In 1993, Tarrant teamed up with Chuck Bulnes to create the very first Berryhill's Baja Grill restaurant, which still sells its popular tamales and Baja-style fish tacos (which are said to have been the first fish tacos in Texas) on Revere at Westheimer. A few years later, customer Jeff Anon purchased the restaurant (and Walter Berryhill's recipes), finding that he loved the food so much he couldn't help but want Berryhill to become bigger and better.
It's only fitting, Anon says, that after all this time, Berryhill Baja Grill is getting back into the mobile food business. A custom-built food truck was delivered to Anon from Miami, Florida back in August. And while it's been far tougher than Anon expected to get the truck on the road, he's excited about the tamales he loves coming full circle.
"I pity the poor people whose entire living is tied up in these food trucks," Anon said as he eagerly gave a guided tour of the truck despite last Friday's downpour. The truck is still waiting for a City-approved sink before it can receive its "medallion," part of the permit package which allows the Berryhill truck to start serving the public.
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The sink that Anon had originally installed wasn't quite deep enough, a niggling detail that turned out to be only one of many that vexed the Berryhill team.
"It needed to be one-and-a-half inches deeper," said Anon, shaking his head. "We also needed a bigger vent hood," he said, beginning to list off all the issues the City permitting department found in his custom-built truck. "They needed to see all of the schematics, all of the electrical plans. Are you kidding me?" he said, visibly frustrated.
"It's a group of people that do not want you to do business [as a food truck]," Anon says of the uphill battles with the City. "Those people are still afraid of 'roach coaches,'" even though big brands like Berryhill are now stepping into the game. And Anon hopes that when consumers and politicians alike see brick-and-mortar places purchasing food trucks, that will eventually change.
"They see a brand name, they're not as afraid," he comments. "Food trucks bring color to a city, vibrancy." More to the point, he says, in areas such as downtown, "there are a lot of workers who can't eat in a nice restaurant -- guys who are working construction, for example, and can't change into different clothes. Why not let give them the option of food trucks?"
Berryhill isn't the first restaurant to start its own food truck, however -- a point which City Council has so far been ignoring during its ongoing discussion on proposed loosening of certain mobile food unit regulations.
Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen has successfully run the mesquite smoker-equipped No Borders truck for nearly two years and, more recently, the owners of Bistro Provence started the city's first all-French truck, L'es-Car-Go. Shawn Bermudez owns Royal Oak, a bar and grill, as well as the upcoming Pistolero's -- but he's also a part owner in popular food trucks Golden Grill and Koagie Hots.
The relationship between restaurants and food trucks cuts both ways, too: Green Seed Vegan was finally able to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant after generating enough revenue from its Third Ward food truck, while culinary trio Ryan Soroka, Matt Marcus and Alex Vassilakidis are hard at work on opening a cafe built on the success of their food truck, Eatsie Boys.
When Anon's new food truck does finally get rolling, it'll be one of the biggest and baddest ones out there. Kevin Charif, the food truck manager, showed off the truck's toys along with Anon: a hot box to keep prepped food fresh, a flat grill, a fryer, a cool box, a sandwich station -- even a full POS to take credit cards and a surround sound system for playing music and calling out orders.
And on board, the truck will serve an assortment of Berryhill's best items: its famous tamales (the same tamales that got Mick Jagger hooked, thanks to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top) and equally famous fish tacos with spicy banana-habanero sauce; juicy hamburgers on torta buns with creamy asadero cheese and sauteed onions; Sonoran hot dogs on a light, crispy lobster roll-style bun; burritos ahogados; delicate slices of tres leches and refreshing glasses of fresh-squeezed mint-lemonade.
Almost all of the food at each Berryhill location (the five Anon-owned locations and the 10 franchise operations) is made in-house, including its flour tortillas. "We source out our corn tortillas," admits Anon. "But that's about it." This policy will remain in place aboard the food truck, where only the bare minimum will be prepped at the Berryhill location on Post Oak -- everything else on the truck will be made to order.
"If I'm going to do something," says Anon, who's been in the restaurant industry since he started washing dishes at 11 years old, "it's going to be exceptional." And his food truck -- which he hopes will concentrate on office-heavy areas like the Energy Corridor and Greenway Plaza -- looks to be no exception to his policy.
Outside, the rain had eased up a bit and Anon exited the food truck to greet a delivery driver. The new sink for the truck had finally arrived. This last puzzle piece meant that Anon could get the truck on the streets in October. From afar, Anon's face fell. He grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and began making calls.
The sink was the wrong size. Berryhill Baja Grill is still idle right now, but hopefully not for long.