"It's the oldest food in Houston," Robert Stokes told me, without any hint of sarcasm in his voice.
I laughed anyway.
"She thinks I'm kidding," he said, seemingly flabbergasted. "This gumbo and red beans and rice got my people through slavery! You better believe me! It's the real deal."
Stokes, the chef and owner of Soul Cat Cuisine food truck, is more than happy to tell you about the authenticity of his food. He's proud of the recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother, and he's confident that you'll taste the history in his gumbo, croquettes and rémoulades.
"This is your ticket to flavortown," he says, handing loaded fries through the window. "You're gonna be looking for me with a flashlight in the daytime."
I first met Stokes at a food park. We got to chatting, and when he found out Soul Cat Cuisine was one of the many trucks in Houston that's still on my list to try (dude, there are a lot of them!), he berated me until I promised to stop by.
I tracked the truck down to a side street near the Medical Center (ironic, because this is not the healthiest food out there) and timidly walked up to the truck, ready to take some more heat from Stokes, who, incidentally, can take it just as well as he can dish it out.
After some playful prodding ("Well, it's about damn time!"), Stokes told me a little about these so-called "oldest dishes in Houston."
Neither his mother nor his grandmother had any formal culinary training. They just liked to cook. Though he grew up in Chicago, he made frequent trips to New Orleans to visit his grandmother and learn about traditional Cajun and Southern cooking. His mother would have him taste test all her food to make sure it was just right, and that's how his love affair with cooking began.
Stokes doesn't have any formal culinary training either. He was a coach and a teacher for 18 years before being laid off in 2011 due to budget cuts. Then one day while he was walking into a Texans game, inspiration struck, seemingly out of nowhere.
"I turned to my friend Keith and said, 'I'm gonna open a food truck.'" Just like that. In May, Stokes celebrated the two year anniversary of the truck's opening.
"I've just been cooking for years," Stokes says, explaining how natural it was for him to open a food truck. "If you do something long enough you're a professional. What is it they say, 10,000 hours? I'm a professional. My grandmother and my mom could cook blindfolded."
Though he's happy to be working on the truck, Stokes says the eventual goal is to open more trucks and perhaps someday a restaurant. A truck seemed like the logical first step, because the overhead is lower and it allows him more freedom, but Stokes says there are other things "in the works."
For now, he's focused on updating the menu for the summer come June 21 (the official first day of summer).
"My grandmother would turn over in her grave if I served gumbo in the summer," he says, so the gumbo is leaving the menu. In it's place, Stokes will add shrimp and grits and shrimp creole.
All the po'boys will stay, though, as will the crab and salmon balls, which Stokes says are based on his grandmother's recipe for salmon croquettes. The Panko-crusted balls are packed with meat--none of this breadcrumb filler stuff--and seasoned with onions and garlic then topped with a homemade rémoulade. The catfish po'boy is drizzled with more of that slightly spicy, mustard-based rémoulade, but even so, the deep fried fish filets stay crisp and fresh.
Stokes is proud of several of his own creations not based on his family's recipes, what he calls his "carnival food." The Hot Mess Fries are just that--ridiculously spicy and something that you've really got to eat with a fork, lots of napkins and ice water. The Mardi Gras fries are similar but topped with chicken instead of spicy sausage and homemade barbecue sauce instead of that crazy-ass spicy sauce that's on the Hot Mess Fries and Hot Mess "Soulwich."
As I left with my multiple to-go containers filled with half eaten bits of heavy but tasty soul food, Stokes called after me.
"You come back now, you hear!" Then he paused. "Girl, you know you'll be back."
Yeah. I totally will.