“How spicy, sir?” Kevin Martinez asks the guy standing in line in front of me. “Sniffles? Crying? Or ‘I don’t like you’?”
The customer opts for “sniffles.” And Martinez gets cooking. As sole owner/operator of Yatai Food Kart, a two-year-old food truck regulary parked outside Avoca Coffee on the Near Southside, Martinez is changing the way people eat (and think) about ramen.
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and the red-and-white truck has a steady line of customers, but there’s no menu on the blackboard. That’s because today there are only two choices: ramen ($9) or yakisoba ($8), ramen with a mushroom base. So maybe there’s really only one choice. Hey, it is a ramen food truck. “But it’s not your father’s ramen,” the guy in front of me said, as he carried his hot bowl to a picnic bench in the parking lot.
Normally, when I think of ramen, I have queasy flashbacks to my drunken college days, when even the brokest of broke kiddos could spring for the incredibly salty packaged noodles.
But Martinez makes ramen look like it came off the catwalk in Tokyo, cooked with eggs, seaweed, garlic, and chile oil. Pork is an optional addition. And I’m glad I ordered it with my completely spice-free (I’m a wimp) ramen. Without the heat, the salt hit my tastebuds first but didn’t overpower the Japanese miso broth that surrounded the tender pieces of pork and noodles.
Yatai Food Kart is unpredictable in its menu and hours. So when you see it, go get a bowl. You never know when it might reappear — kind of a like unicorn that breathes fire. Martinez, a 30-year-old Fort Worth chef who used to operate Tokyo Café on Camp Bowie Boulevard, says he’s parked at Avoca three to five times a week. And sometimes, on weekends, he’ll park behind The Usual cocktail lounge a few blocks down on West Magnolia Avenue. (I’d like to try this new ramen with an Old Fashioned.)
The only way to track down this mysterious food truck is @yatai_food_kart or @YataiFoodKart. Typically, Martinez lets followers know where he’s going to be parked and when, and posts mouthwatering ramen concoctions to tease and tantalize.
I’d say the best way to experience Yatai this summer is when the sun is setting. Head inside Avoca for a cold drink first and then order up whatever Martinez has selected for the day. He buys his food fresh each week based on seasonal availability. Shrimp. Oysters. Pork. Anything’s possible, because everything goes with ramen when Martinez is in the kitchen.
Grab a friend or a first date and cozy up on a wooden picnic bench surrounded by shirtless hipsters with parrots perched on their fingers. (Yes, that happened.) Then walk down to Stir Crazy Baked Goods and finish your carb-loading session with a piece of chocolate cake. Might as well go all the way — that bathing suit diet can wait another day.
Currently, Martinez is remodeling Tokyo Café. After burning down in 2014, the Japanese restaurant at 5121 Pershing Ave. will reopen later this summer. Until then, find this unicorn food truck and challenge yourself to eat those savory noodles with chopsticks instead of a fork. — Sarah Angle
Your regular Chow, Baby columnist will return soon.