Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Matt Pak of Koagie Hots and The Golden Grill, on Life as a Food Truck Owner

This is the second part of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday we chatted with Matt Pak, the chef and co-owner of Koagie Hots and The Golden Grill food trucks, about how he got started in the food world. He also told us about his Korean heritage and the restaurant he wanted to open. Today we talk about food truck life.

EOW: So instead of your restaurant plan, you decided to go the food truck route. Tell me how that came about.

MP: We came up with three concepts for the trucks to start. So we were like: "Okay, which one should we open first?" And obviously we started with Koagie first, and then two months later we opened Golden Grill. It was a little too fast for me. I was stressed out. It was really hard, and I was struggling in the beginning, but it's okay now. I would say, to be safe, six months apart would be ideal. Especially because it's two different concepts. If it's the same concept, it's probably easier, because you just replicate the truck, and maybe prep more. But this was like opening two different restaurants.

EOW: You did the menus for both trucks. For the third truck, can you tell us what the concept is going to be?

MP: For the third truck, I can tell you the concept is going to be...Mexican. But it's still up in the air. I don't know when it's going to be. For The Golden Grill, we do a lot of catering. We only do a couple of regular services a week. If I can get that truck up and get that catered 90 percent of the time, then it will give me time to work on the third truck. The third truck, I kind of want to do like I'm doing with Koagie: Just one spot, and build it up, so it's almost like a restaurant, so people know where we are all the time. It helped us out a lot.

EOW: I'm happy with it. That's my big gripe with food trucks. Me personally, I don't like chasing them down.

MP: I would say most food trucks -- especially fancy food trucks -- move around like crazy.

EOW: They do! And it makes it hard to find them. If I'm in the neighborhood, and it's the right time, and I know you're here and you're open, I'll swing by.

MP: A lot of them try to build up a spot. I think it's hard, because you'd think there's a lot of locations, but there's not. Also, people don't put enough time into a specific location. It's frustrating; there's a couple of spots I've done and stuck 'em out for several months, but it never took off, never got busy. Like I was at Aqua Car Wash at West Dallas and Montrose -- maybe it was the heat, maybe it's because we were there for lunch in the summer -- a lot of people go there, a ton of people go through there, but it never really built up to where we'd like it to be. This [Boondocks location] is the only spot that's continuously just getting better, because people know where we are, and we just have more and more people following us. Golden Grill has 500 more Twitter followers than Koagie, and I opened it later -- but I think it's because we do larger catering events.

EOW: How difficult is it dealing with the city? I always hear the food truck people griping about going to the commissary or this and that.

MP: I guess I don't really complain because I've never had a food truck in another city, where supposedly it's a lot easier than here. The main restrictions are: You have to check in and clean the truck up, dump wastewater and fill it up at the commissary. The commissaries are all on the outside of Houston -- none of them are in the Loop, so they're all pretty far. I go to the one on Tidwell and 45. I park both my trucks there. I just do a shift, go back to the commissary. Then there are property agreement letters, restroom agreement letters...

EOW: What are these agreement letters?

MP: A week before, you have to get a property agreement letter, and have it signed and notarized by the property owner, and you have to display that on your truck in public view. That, and the restroom agreement, saying a restaurant within a certain amount of feet from the truck, a customer is allowed to use the restroom. For every property that you park at, you need one. So in Houston, you can't just pull up on the street and serve. We can't serve downtown with propane. That's huge for a lot of food truck owners.

EOW: Comparing and contrasting working in a restaurant versus working in a truck, what's it like?

MP: The truck is pretty much just a moving kitchen. It's the stuff that comes along with the truck, like maintenance, the comfortability, the heat, the cleaning. The cleaning -- it's so much more to keep up with. We park at these commissaries -- most are pretty clean, but at some commissaries, there's a grease trap that attracts flies and roaches and in the summer in Houston, it's inevitable. It's a constant struggle to keep the truck clean. We have a four-foot flat-top grill. In the restaurant, at least there's a/c. We have a/c units on the truck, but it doesn't do anything, because it's so hot. For instance, last summer, I lost 30-something pounds within three months. It was so hot, you're just soaked in sweat constantly.

Us food truck owners, most of us, we bust our ass. It's a 24-hour thing. My whole life is these trucks. Like, I have no life right now. I have no time for anything else. It's not just you open the truck, you serve food, and you close and you're good. There's hours before the shift, there's hours after the shift, there's hours when we're closed one day -- every day there's something. I think a lot of people don't realize, and I would say that it's more work than a small restaurant. The overhead's way lower, and the risk is way lower, but the workload day to day is a lot, and you're driving the truck. If you have a restaurant, you have plenty of storage for a food, you get deliveries twice a day, whereas we go shopping every day, prep every day; we don't have storage anywhere.

EOW: Let's talk about your actual food. Tell me why you named it Koagie Hots.

MP: So "Koagie" is a Korean hoagie. If you replace the "K" with an "H," it's "hoagie." Hoagie traditionally means individually baked hoagie rolls, which are pretty much sub sandwiches. On the East Coast, they have hoagie shops everywhere. "Kogi" also means "meat" in Korean. "Hots" came from where I grew up in upstate New York near Rochester. Late-night places where they serve hot dogs would be the name of the city and "hots." So, for instance, there was a town called Henrietta and I used to go to this place called "Henrietta Hots."

EOW: Okay, Koagie Hots -- what do you serve?

MP: We serve Korean-influenced cheesesteaks, hot dogs and fries.

EOW: What is your best seller?

MP: Biggest seller, by far, is the kimchi koagie, which is Korean barbecue rib eye in a cheesesteak. It's got kimchi in it, grilled onions, choice of provolone or whiz cheese. If you go to, say, Philly, they use Kraft Cheez Whiz, which comes from a can. It's pretty much nacho cheese. I found the best canned cheese whiz I could possibly find in Houston, and people love it. Especially people from the East Coast; they're like, "Yeah, we go whiz all the way!" EOW: The Korean barbecue rib eye is so addictive. Is the marinade your own special recipe?

MP: That was trial and error. I knew some of the ingredients from my grandma's recipe from going to her house and eating when I was younger. I faintly remembered some of the ingredients she used. There was Asian fruit she put in the marinade, and I was like, "Why, why, why?" So I did research, and it's a tenderizer. I played around with different fruits, read about the enzymes in different fruits. Played around with the sugar and different kinds of soy sauce. I use dark brown sugar; it's richer. I will tell you that my marinade's a little sweeter than traditional because people just like sweeter stuff here. I think people crave the sweetness of the meat. It's salty, too. It's sweet and salty and spicy with the kimchi, so people crave it.

EOW: So tell me about The Golden Grill.

MP: Grilled cheese. Bread from Slow Dough, sour dough and whole wheat. The menu consists of nine specialty cheeses, and a section on the menu where you can build your own with different cheeses and ingredients. You can choose from Monterey jack, smoked Gouda, sharp cheddar, American cheese, provolone, goat cheese, which you can combine with add-ons like bacon, jalapeños, bacon, avocado, etc. We also have specialty combos like the KimCheese, which is kimchi, cheddar and fried egg on whole wheat. We always have a tomato soup and specialty sides that I change up seasonally. Like right now we have a bacon feta potato salad.

EOW: And that gets catered out more. What are you catering?

MP: We've catered elementary school parties, housewarming parties, small house parties, company parties, a few weddings, we've catered faculty at a high school. We just did a convention today at a church. Doing catering helps with more catering.

EOW: So, advice for would-be food truck entrepreneurs?

MP: I would say, before you open, you need a location. You need at least one location to build up. If you build a truck and you don't have a location, you're just going to struggle. At the beginning, I was picking up shifts, covering people's shifts, trying this shift over here. It was tough.

EOW: So, you're 30 pounds lighter, still?

MP: I probably put on a couple of pounds, but summer's coming again, and I'm just going to lose it all again.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Matt Pak's food.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham