It's A Me And You Thing
Step inside the nomadic kitchen of the Me.n.u. Food Truck and experience the culture of Asian street food, re-imagined.
It’s summer in the 6ix. The portable speaker is blasting sounds of old school hip hop and overall feel-good jams. The floor is rocking from side to side as they vibe out to the beat, tossing buttery rotis onto a sizzling grill. Everyone’s laughing and having a great time. This isn’t the beginning of a backyard barbecue; it’s the beginning of service.
We climb aboard the small and narrow galley kitchen of the Me.n.u. Food Truck, to be greeted by co-owner, Joe Tillo. “Who the hell are you?”, he asks with a frown that lasts exactly 3 seconds before he bursts into boisterous laughter. Meanwhile, chef Hiram Sales, also known as Juicy Filipino, is dancing up a storm, bouncing and gliding effortlessly between stations as he preps for service.
With six of us now on board, it’s a tight fit. But no one cares; they’re too busy having fun. Life on a food truck isn’t easy with the long, grueling hours and the city-induced turf wars. But Me.n.u. Food Truck haven’t just figured out how to make it work and succeed; they’ve made it enjoyable.
Travel, Eat, Share
Me.n.u. Food Truck is the brainchild of co-founders Bryan Siu-Chong and Allen Tan. Best friends since the fourth grade, the two have gone to the same elementary school, same highschool, and same university. After graduating from McMaster in 2011 - Bryan with a Business degree, and Allen in Economics - together, they backpacked across Asia.
Those who have experienced the post-grad, one-pack pilgrimage to the East, will fondly recall the devastating impact such a journey can inflict on so-called predetermined paths. ‘Life-altering’ seems almost inadequate a word. For Bryan and Allen, eating their way through Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore was the tipping point.
In Asia, street food culture makes every day a celebration of authentic and vibrant flavours, where everyone - from anywhere in the world, from all walks of life - is invited to gather and indulge. There, in the Asian night markets - amidst the abundance of all things fried, grilled, and served on sticks - Bryan and Allen abandoned the idea of the stable nine-to-five and chose to dedicate themselves to importing the magic of Asian street food culture into Toronto.
“Our whole motto is: travel, eat, share,” says Bryan. “That’s the rules we live by. It's kind of like our cycle of life too. So travel, eat a lot of food, and then share it. Sharing means with our customers, but also sharing on Instagram and social media and just our story. [...] Traveling allows us to discover new flavors and that's what we do, which is bring back Asian-inspired street food, and we fuse it with North American concepts.”
But not so fast. Aside from taking some cooking classes in Asia, having mostly trained at the Food Network academy of home cooks (like most of us), Bryan and Allen had a lot to learn. Back home, away from the utopian influence of a bountiful and limitless street food paradise, the pair put their degrees to the test. They embarked on months of careful planning and strategic learning.
They knew they wanted a food truck. “Food trucks were a new thing going on,” Bryan recalls. “It didn't hit Toronto yet. It was really popular in the States: LA, New York, Boston. So, the idea of being part of that food truck movement in Toronto was pretty cool, because it's a new trend and just that opportunity to move around.”
At the time, and arguably still today, Toronto was mired in food truck legislation and bureaucracy. This presented a serious barrier, but talk of change was in the air, and when that change would come, Bryan and Allen would be ready.
Between fulfilling his filial duty working for his family’s business and a six-month snowboarding excursion in Whistler, Bryan took on the business planning for their venture.
Meanwhile, Allen sought out the best in the business to learn the operational intricacies of the industry. He emailed ten of the city’s best food trucks, offering to volunteer in exchange for mentorship. Three responded, among them Fidel Gastro. And when he learned as much as he could, Allen continued his apprenticeship in the food truck mecca of America: Los Angeles. Allen saw that Asian fusion was all the rage in Los Angeles and this helped set the direction for their concept.
When the two reunited in Toronto they booked a stall at the TO Food Fest. They decided to try selling their deep fried rice balls, stuffed with cheese and various combinations of fusion flavours; now their signature dish. Me.n.u. Riceballs sold out in two hours at their first event.
In 2014, a year later, Bryan and Allen started Me.n.u. Food Truck and the timing couldn’t be better. That year, food trucks were granted permission to park on the street and 16 food trucks, including Me.n.u., were given mobile vending permits. By April 2015, Joe joined the team as part owner.
True to their motto, Bryan and Allen worked hard in the summer and traveled in the winter in search of more inspiration. They traveled to Japan and Indonesia after their first year, and then to the Philippines after another. Their trips, as promised, grew their menu to include Roti Tacos and Asian Poutines. Each topped with a variety of cleverly composed and well-balanced flavour profiles merging foreign favourites with local comforts. As the ideas kept coming, it wouldn’t be long until they outgrew the confines of their food truck.
2016 brought new collaborations and new opportunities. Through pop-ups at multiple locations, and also the wholesale of their rice balls and popcorn chicken, a new partnership sprouted between Me.n.u. and international bubble tea giant, Chatime. They talked about opening a restaurant together, bouncing around multiple concepts that would still align with the Asian fusion style that formed the foundation for Me.n.u.
Poke was just beginning to gain momentum and the new business partners flew to San Diego to experience it in all its glory: the I Love Poke Festival. An annual gathering of over 30 chefs and restaurants from across the U.S. and beyond, showcasing creative variations of the Hawaiian marinated raw fish dish. They were sold. It was May, and by September 1st, Pokito opened its doors on Queen Street West.
Pokito does well, but having opened in an area that boasts 8 other poke joints within a 4km radius, competition is tough. Bryan and Allen, along with their 4 Chatime partners, are working hard to differentiate themselves. And while fresh, new opportunities may allow them to do so, it has also resulted in sacrificing others.
Now with two businesses to run, both requiring a lot of attention, the annual trips to Asia have taken a backseat. Maintaining the integrity of Travel Eat Share is clearly a concern to Bryan. But at the time of our interview, he was less than a couple of weeks away from a poke trip to Hawaii - the epitome of Asian fusion in America.
It’s a Me and You Thing
While Travel Eat Share perfectly describes what Me.n.u. Food Truck does, “it’s a me and you thing” defines who they are. Community is at the core of their values. And it’s seen and felt in everything they do.
“We actually have a whole other philosophy; so our other philosophy is: it's a me and you thing. That's part of our name; Me.N.U. food truck, Menu food truck. And we're all about collaborating and creating win-win situations. So we work with a lot of different entrepreneurs, as well. Doing their own food thing. [...] Other food people that we helped open food trucks, so that's what we like to do. We just like to collaborate.” In fact, Bryan, Allan, and Joe did a TED X Youth Toronto talk on the subject last year. And despite his dislike for public speaking, Bryan considers it one of the biggest highlights of his life.
Success can change you. It always starts with the best of intentions, but as many of these businesses grow, they shed little pieces of themselves, until they rise to the top and no longer remember what they stood for. But this isn’t that kind of story.
As they’ve grown and evolved, Bryan and Allen have held onto their identities and continued to live by their words. And the sense of community that drives their beliefs is what enables them to keep going without compromise. Above all, they endeavour to not only communicate their values to their team, but to truly empower them with the knowledge that they are part of something bigger.
“You need to cast that vision so that everybody that's working with you knows what you're working towards and they're not just working for like a paycheck,” Bryan explains. “So it's very important for us to have those team meetings with everyone to get everyone on the same page and kind of showing what our vision is.”
“I don’t even want to say join the team, more so join the family” Hiram chimes in. “It's not just talk because, things happen. You know when they say something, it gets done.”
Becoming part of the Me.n.u. family doesn’t just happen haphazardly. Bryan and Allen are meticulous with their recruiting practices. After all, it takes very special people to be willing to drink the Kool Aid. It is not just about hiring skills, but complementary personalities. Hiram recalls being given a Myers Briggs test, to which Bryan recited all the different types of personality types they have in the group that come together in harmony.
We The Fork
My first encounter with Me.n.u. was in their first year, before they had the truck. Coincidentally, I was there with Nick and Abhi before we became The 3 Spoons. They wouldn’t have remembered me, but I remembered them from then and every other time since.
It was at a small artisan food fair where they had a booth. They were selling their rice balls and when we approached their stall, they explained that they were raising money to get a food truck. We immediately bought their rice balls and wished them luck. I saw them at another festival, and another, until I finally saw them again with their truck. It made me smile; little by little, they had reached their goal.
I saw them at a festival again last year, but this time at their Pokito stall. As I watched the server make my poke bowl, he told me they were planning on opening a restaurant soon. And come Fall, they did. I made sure to pay them a visit as soon as they opened.
I remembered Me.n.u. fondly because no matter who I spoke to and no matter who was serving me, I always got a sense that even I was part of their story. Every Me.n.u. family member I had ever met carried themselves with kind of pride and passion that comes with ownership.
Me.n.u. is not a food truck. And it’s not a restaurant. It’s not even Bryan and Allen. It’s a way of life and it’s stories to be shared through the universality of and appreciation for feel-good food.
The trips may be on hold for now or the destinations may be different, but I know that soon enough the Me.n.u. Family will pack their bags and be off on another adventure. And wherever they go they’ll be sure, through their ever-evolving menu, to take us along for the ride.
Words by Kimberley Kwo, Photos by Abhishek Dekate.