On the Line: The Men of the Burnt Truck, Part One

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Photo by Meranda Carter

When we suggested the guys behind local luxe lonchera the Burnt Truck split up the answers, it wasn't until after the fact we realized all three (Paul Cao, Phi Nguyen and Minh Pham) submitted answers to the entire questionnaire. So this week, we flex our keyboarding muscles [Editor's Note: Thank you, Mr. Cadiente and Ms. Innis for typing class!] and see what topics they're on the same wavelength with. Hint: They include Honda Ya and PB&J sandwiches.

What are six words that describe your food?
Paul: Comfort food mixed with refined techniques.
Phi: Comforting, tasty, exciting, crave-worthy, simple, Mom.
Minh: Simple, comfort, tasty, flavorful, delicious, original.

What are eight words that describe you?
Paul: Stubborn, perfectionist, efficient, math-oriented, analytical, technical.
Phi: Funny, intense, dorky, passionate, curious, lazy, organized, helpful.
Minh: Fun, intelligent, personable, caring, outgoing, thoughtful, energetic, charming.


Your best recent food find:
Paul: Arepas from Mil Jugos in Santa Ana. Oh, and don't forget about the watermelon fresco!
Phi: You can slap green Peruvian aji sauce onto almost anything, and it will taste great.
Minh: I usually don't like Greek food, but I can't get enough of Thasos Greek Cuisine. I think I could eat there every day.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Paul: Salt: Most problems can be solved with just a little more salt.
Phi: Citrus zest is a great way to pick up a dish. In the right context, of course.
Minh: Red-chile flakes: I love spicy food, so I pretty much put this on everything!

Rules of conduct in your kitchen:
Paul: 1) Check your ego at the door. 2) Treat others like you want to be treated yourself. 3) Communicate!
Phi: Cleanliness and a great attitude. Keeping the kitchen clean is obviously important, but it is also important to finesse your food when executing the pickup for your guest. Clean kitchen, great food. Disorganized kitchen/dirty kitchen . . . game over. You'll never see me without a towel in my hand. And with a good attitude in the kitchen, you can do almost anything, and it makes you evolve as a cook or chef. It's a stressful place to be, so it's important to stay level.
Minh: I think communication and cleanliness are two of the best rules of conduct for our truck. I think we communicate well. That's why we get our food out so fast. Also, you will always see everyone with a towel in their hand.

One food you detest.
Paul: I think truffle oil is overly used, and it tastes nothing like truffles.
Phi: In my opinion, white pepper has a funk to it that attacks your nostrils when you eat it and totally ruins a dish for me. I know there are culinary rules such as only white pepper when making things such as potato purée or white fishes such as halibut, but I would much rather leave out all pepper than use this stuff.
Minh: Water chestnuts -- I just can't stand the taste of them.

One food you can't live without.
Paul: Potatoes: I love fries, hash browns, mashed, scalloped . . . anything potato.
Phi: Cueing Asian stereotype . . . rice. [Laughs] I grew up eating this stuff, and it's a part of who I am. It reminds me of mom's good-ol' home cooking. Next time you're lazy but hungry, throw some soy sauce on some piping-hot rice. I dare you to tell me it's not one of the greatest things you've eaten.
Minh: For me, it would be Vietnamese food. I grew up eating it, and wherever I travel, I find myself missing it. Mexican food would be a close second.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Paul: Vietnamese food -- you can find cuisine from every region of Vietnam right here in Orange County.
Phi: Produce: Once it is in season, you can find almost anything in OC of great quality and abundance. I didn't realize how lucky we are until I started to travel a little bit and saw what other people are dealing with when it comes to produce.
Minh: Asian food in California. I think OC has such a large Asian population that you can go anywhere and find great Asian cuisine.

What fast food do you admit to eating?
Paul: Albertos. I'm a huge sucker for carne asada nachos at 1 a.m.
Phi: Let's face it: In-N-Out is delicious, and everyone loves it -- whether you want to admit it or not.
Minh: I can eat In-N-Out every day and never get sick of it. I think it's the freshest fast food you can get out there, and the service is always great as well.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Paul: Buy one sharp knife and take care of it.
Phi: Keep it simple and fresh.
Minh: Keep it simple. Great dishes can be found without overcomplication.

After-work hangout:
Paul: Honda Ya. Nothing beats meat on skewers and cold draft Kirin.
Phi: Honda Ya.
Minh: Honda Ya in Tustin. We probably eat there at least once a week, and we always over-order.

Favorite celebrity chef.
Paul: Eric Ripert: Cooking fish takes a lot of finesse, and he's made a career out of perfecting the art of cooking fish in the most simplest form.
Phi: It's a toss-up between Eric Ripert and Gordon Ramsay. They just really know their food and know they're among the best, but they don't really act like it. Humility is important. All that other stuff you see on Gordon Ramsay's shows are just for the show.
Minh: Paula Deen puts butter in everything. You can't go wrong with butter. Also, she makes food that you just want to eat.

Celebrity chef who should shut up.
Paul: Anne Burrell is a female, know-it-all version of Guy Fieri.
Phi: Rachael Ray: I don't know what it is, but watching her cook makes me itchy.
Minh: Rachael Ray just annoys me for some reason. If my wife is watching her on TV, I find myself wanting to snatch the remote from her and change the channel to anything else.

Favorite music to cook by:
Paul: I never listened to music while working in a kitchen before the Burnt Truck, but we listen to a lot of John Legend.
Phi: I like '90s R&B or just some soothing stuff like Bob Marley and ClaraC. Acoustic stuff is the best.
Minh: Anything with Akon in it. [Laughs] The guys always give me a hard time because I like his music.

Best food city in America:
Paul: New York has the widest range of cuisines in such a small area. From food courts to three-star Michelin restaurants, you can find the best of anything in that city.
Phi: I guess you could say New York. However, there are a lot of young chefs in OC just waiting to break through. Give us about five to 10 years, and we will put OC on the culinary map. Just watch.
Minh: I know most people would say New York City, but for me, it's San Francisco. My wife and I go every year to eat, shop and hang out. My favorite steak restaurant, Boboquivari's, is up there. We are also huge sushi and seafood fans, and there is definitely an abundance of that in San Francisco.

What you'd like to see more of in Orange County from a culinary standpoint:
Paul: Small restaurants highlighting all the young talent we have in Orange County. We're starting to see that the young chefs in Orange County are just as creative and innovative as those in any other city in the United States.
Phi: More variety, more independent entrepreneurs rather than a slew of restaurant chains. The choices for dining are starting to look the same in every city.
Minh: I would like to see more soul-food restaurants in OC. I'm a huge fan of comfort food, and Southern cooking is something I love.

What you'd like to see less of in Orange County from a culinary standpoint:
Paul: No more chain restaurants, PLEASE!
Phi: Restaurant chains are important, and I eat at them all the time, but maybe a few less.
Minh: I'm not sure that I'd like to see less of anything. I think the cool thing about OC is that you can find a huge variety of cuisines.

Favorite cookbooks:
Paul: The French Laundry. Every time I read it, I learn something new. It really doesn't matter where you're at in your career, you'll find something new each time you read it.
Phi: The French Laundry, On the Line, Momofuku.
Minh: I think Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain is a fun read. It's not a cookbook, but it gives you insight to the restaurant world.

When you're not in the kitchen cooking, what are you doing?
Paul: Hanging out with my girlfriend or my buddies . . . or just catching up with my DVR.
Phi: Researching food, preparing the kitchen for tomorrow or catching up on my DVR. Golf is frustrating, but fun sometimes, too.
Minh: I would probably be spending time with my wife and family. We both have huge families, and there is always a family event going on every weekend.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Paul: Balut . . . but most Asian cultures eat it, so it's not that weird to me.
Phi: A Szechuan peppercorn. When I was a kid, my brother dared me to put my tongue on the "+" and "-" of a 9-Volt battery. That's what it felt like after eating a Szechuan peppercorn, but it lasted for about 10 minutes.
Minh: I would have to say taking a shot of snake's blood in Taiwan. That was a very strange experience.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Paul: Corned-beef hash and a fried egg.
Phi: Soft scrambled eggs with Maggi [noodles] and Chinese sausage in a toasty, tender baguette.
Minh: That's easy. Corned-beef hash -- the canned kind that looks like cat food -- with two over-easy eggs, hash browns and sourdough toast.

You're at the market. What do you buy two of?
Paul: The Trader Joe's-brand roasted-garlic hummus. Actually, I buy four of them a week along with four bags of pita chips. I can eat it any time, any day.
Phi: Ice-cream cones: One for now, and one for later.
Minh: I go through a bottle of Tabasco sauce a week.

Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
Paul: A customer came and wanted us to put our PBJ slider on top of our cheeseburger slider . . . TOGETHER. I thought it was weird, but apparently Slaters 50/50 has been doing it. Since then, two other customers have come and ordered that.
Phi: On our truck, two of our best-sellers are the PBJ slider and the cheeseburger slider. The PBJ has our homemade peanut butter with crushed pretzels, jam and sliced bananas. Our cheeseburger has an avocado spread, Angus patty and American cheese. This one guest liked the two so much he wondered if it would be great together. He asked us to put both in one slider, and so we reluctantly did. We thought we had just lost a guest forever. Next week, he came back twice and ordered the same thing.
Minh: One customer asked us to combine a cheeseburger with our pretzel-peanut butter-and-jelly-with-banana slider. He's come back quite a few times for it, so I guess it's good. However, I've not worked up the courage to try it yet.


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