When I previously wrote for OC Weekly, I conducted weekly “On the Line” interviews for five years. Readers became more familiar with local chefs and restaurateurs beyond what they witnessed in their respective dining rooms. I still want to interview the people that represent Orange County’s culinary backbone, but in a different format. Below is the first in an occasional series where I explore both up-and-coming as well as established industry professionals.
Vagabond Food Truck: Victor Arellano and Daniel Whetstine
Vagabond Food Truck hits the streets for the first time this holiday weekend. Its co-founders possess a passion for providing authentic cuisine that they grew up with. As you’ll soon find out, Victor and Daniel are as relatable as friends from college, and that’s what drew me to their story.
Please discuss your concept.
VICTOR ARELLANO: Our concept is quite simply quality food on the go. We both share an affinity for protein bowls with white rice. You can never go wrong with protein on top of good white rice with some good sauce. We wanted to give our community something that it is lacking, which is quality, authentic, yet unique Asian food on wheels. Our name “Vagabond” stems from the very nature that we are a restaurant that travels, always going from place to place.
Regarding the concept of our menu, one-half of the menu is sushi bowls, and the other half are chicken bowls (with vegan options available for the chicken bowls). There are three signature sushi bowls and three signature “Dynamite” bowls. The price range is from $9-$12. Our drinks will also be Asian-inspired, giving you options you could only find in an Asian supermarket.
Distinguishing yourself from other trucks plays a key role. What can customers look forward to?
V.A.: We’ve seen other Asian food trucks out there, and we purposely crafted the style of our menu and food concept based off of things we did and didn’t like about other trucks. For starters, our menu is pretty limited (which we feel is a plus). There are a total of six items that are completely customizable which we feel alleviates consumer stress when it comes to picking what you want. I know personally I can be extremely indecisive when there is so much on one menu. With that being said, we wanted to only offer a handful of signature bowls and perfect each bowl so that no matter what option you get, you are completely satisfied. We also plan on having weekly specials that will be announced on our social media the week they are served.
How did the two of you meet?
V.A.: We met through a mutual friend at The Continental Room in downtown Fullerton. I had a monthly residency there, where I would DJ and book local bands. Dan happened to be there one of my nights with our mutual friend Xavier. We hit it off, and here we are a year-and-a-half later.
Do you have prior industry experience?
DANIEL WHETSTINE: Most of my experiences come from cooking at home with my family. Growing up, my mom would always make delicious food incorporating Norwegian fish dishes she grew up with. She’d also make plenty of Mexican plates, and of course Italian. There is a lot of soul in my mother’s cooking, and I feel like that got me interested in learning more about food.
V.A.: If we’re talking about culinary experience on paper, my first two jobs were technically working in a kitchen, but neither job really inspired me in my love for food. My story with food isn’t one of scholarly technicalities, nor one of a competitive nature. Good food is just something natural for me. I am technically a first generation American whose parents migrated from Mexico. I was raised by a single mother who, by the time I was born, was very integrated into American culture. For some reason, my mother always cooked with white rice, specifically jasmine. Most of my sibling’s and my favorite dishes from our mother usually incorporated white rice with some type of meat on top and a healthy drizzle of sriracha.
Unfortunately, my mother passed away from breast cancer about five years ago. With that being said, there was a lot of time being spent at home with my siblings and other family members taking care of my ill mother. During that time is when I started experimenting with my own food. I never really looked up recipes when I cooked. I would just add things that I thought would taste good. And that playfulness of things coming together on just a whim and by chance really gave me a sense of exhilaration. It was also a way for me to escape from the world around us. I feel like I am working towards something that people are going to enjoy.
Have you defined a long-term business plan?
V.A.: Ideally we’d like to open a few more food trucks and be all over California. We’re one of the top places in the U.S. for food trucks since our weather is pretty nice year around, so we feel like setting bigger goals in this industry is definitely attainable.
When you go out to dine, where are some of the places you frequent?
V.A.: We are really all over the place with what we eat. If we’re doing a concert in LA we’ll usually stop by Au Lac Restaurant, which is a fabulous Asian Vegan Restaurant in DTLA [Editor’s Note: Their original location is in Fountain Valley.]. We also really love Elephant Cafe in Mission Viejo. To be honest though, we’ll even get down on some Beyond Burgers from Carl’s Jr or some 2 for $5 burritos at Del Taco and we’re just as happy.
Explain an undervalued ingredient.
V.A.: I feel like the use of vinegar added a lot of dynamic in the kitchen for me. I used to not really cook too much with it, but now I put it in everything!
In addition to cooking, where else do your talents lie?
V.A.: I am also a DJ with a few residencies across Orange County and have played at big festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Countdown NYE. Dan is a black belt in karate and also does fire spinning with a collective.
Share your earliest food memory.
D.W.: Pretty much grew up with the little kid basics: mac & cheese, grilled cheese, cereal, etc. I was a really picky eater until middle school, where my palate opened up a little bit more.
V.A.: Honestly, my earliest food memories were of my sister Monica (my oldest sibling who was probably 11 at the time) taking care of me and my brother at our old house in Santa Ana. She would feed us microwaved weenies on untoasted hot dog buns with ketchup while watching “The Price is Right” on TV. And the occasional Cup O’Noodles. Glamorous, right?
Where will you be opening week?
V.A.: We will be open Independence Day weekend starting on Friday, July 3rd. We really recommend following us on Instagram though, for real-time updates. You can find us on IG at @VagabondPokeOC. With the rocky political climate, protests, curfews, etc. we never know what can happen with our planned schedule. But we can comfortably say right now that our opening day will be Friday, July 3rd, and we’ll be open that entire weekend.
O.C. Uprising: Joshua Lozano
After a busy morning and afternoon of delivering baked goods, Joshua found the time to sit down and talk shop. I initially wrote about his savory take on cheesecake, but quickly realized there was more to his story than a self-taught baker. His thoughtful nature (and innate ability to win over employers) has led him from running a clothing line that gave back to the community to managing a tattoo parlor. Somewhere in-between he entered the foodservice industry, working the dining room side before delving into his passion for cooking.
What inspired you to get into the industry?
JOSHUA LOZANO: What inspired me to get into the industry was “serving.” I have always had a server’s heart. Before cooking, I worked at one of the best tattoo shops in the U.S. called Vatican Studios. During my time there, my boss would let me cater whatever I wanted to make to both of his businesses every Friday. During my last year working for Franco, he asked me to cater the annual Christmas dinner planned for 65 people, buffet-style, but it turned into close to 90. I cooked for two, 18-hour days straight to prepare for it. That’s when I knew I wanted to serve people.
Also, as a legacy to my kids. There are a few universal languages in this world that, if you can “speak” one of them, you can go anywhere on this planet and get along. 1) Love. And I had already fallen in love. 2) Music. As much as I enjoy it, being tone deaf, I can’t play music. 3) Food. If one really wants to learn a new culture, understand their food and you can learn everything you need to know. The thought of teaching that language to my future children was such a romantic idea.
How did the current pandemic affect your career and well-being?
J.L.: It initially left me with nowhere to go and nowhere to work. The weekend before lockdown, I was set to go back to an old job at the Mayor’s Table in Newport Beach. On my drive home from my last shift, I was called by my previous boss who said the whole hotel staff was getting furloughed the next week. Even though I had nowhere to cook, it didn’t mean the fire in me burned out. In fact, I would argue that my need to feed people grew because now I was told I couldn’t; I have always been rebellious.
My well-being was definitely being affected. Having dealt with depression in the past, mixed with insomnia and my body being on a “chef schedule,” I didn’t want to fall back down that dark road. So, staying up studying and cooking helps keep my hands and mind busy with something constructive, as opposed to something destructive like drinking. Especially when we are living in such a negative time.
Explain one misconception about the hospitality industry?
J.L.: I think the biggest misconception with the industry is most people think it’s a glamorous career choice. Part of this point-of-view is largely due to the rise of the celebrity chef ideology. Sometimes my friends and family who don’t cook think that these amazing meals just appear out of thin air like they do on TV, but they often don’t realize the grueling hours of sweat, tears, blood and time that is sacrificed for you to enjoy your food. Going from the head chef garnishing a final plate, down to the farmer planting the seed (for an ingredient on that plate) the season prior, it is an industry founded in hard work and survived only by the most determined. The kitchen will eat you alive if you’re not prepared.
Could you tell me how a cheesecake is traditionally made, and what led you to offering a burnt version?
J.L.: There are a few techniques to make a cheesecake, whether it’s New York style, Moroccan or a no-bake style, but I feel the most familiar way is to cook it in a bain-marie (i.e. heated bath) at a low temperature for a longer period of time.
Aside from a long-time love affair with fire, the attraction to [making a burnt] style of cheesecake was because the technique was the complete opposite to traditional; hot and fast. Between having such a rebellious attitude, being able to break the rules of tradition and play with fire to make something sweet and delicious, I couldn’t help myself.
Let’s talk a little more about your menu. Also, I know you participated in Bakers Against Racism recently. Could you elaborate on that?
J.L.: I do a hyper-seasonal menu depending on what fruits are good at the market that week. I release the menu in our Instagram stories on Thursday evenings.
I joined in on a form of protest called Bakers Against Racism with thousands of other bakers and home cooks worldwide. We all created our choice of baked treat to sell, where proceeds went to a Black charity of our choice. I decided to make a rendition of Edna Lewis purple plum tart from her “Emancipation Day” dinner menu. Thanks to our dedicated customers, we were able to make a $350 donation to Brothers Empowered to Teach, based in New Orleans.
Creating food, in my opinion, is the core of what humanity is, and I have been given this skill set. Therefore, it is my responsibility to feed and take care of those around me. I will always be looking for a way to give back to my community. If it’s not clothing the homeless in Santa Ana (which I used to do), or making sure underprivileged families have a Thanksgiving meal (a yearly event I take part in with a former boss), or helping the progression of solid education in the Black community, it will be something. It’s the foundation of hospitality to take care of those around us. I was recently talking with the team from The Tehachapi Project, and will definitely be joining the next event they are in talks about.
Are there similarities between the tattoo and foodservice industries?
J.L.: I would say that my path in baking and cooking is similar to that of a lot of the tattoo artists I know who found their style by breaking the rules and forging their own path. They both require a lot of discipline and accuracy to achieve the desired effect and outcome. This is very unlike savory cooking, where it is much more forgiving. Cooking is more like art and baking is more like science. Tattoo artists and pastry chefs must be precise in their execution, or it just doesn’t work.
Why make the transition from cooking to baking?
J.L.: To be honest, I never had any intention of getting into baking and the sweet side of things, and I have never been officially trained in it. [It was] no more than my general curiosity about it in all the kitchens I worked in. The decision to head in this direction stemmed from lack of knowledge in this part of the kitchen. I wanted to fill that void with knowledge. Thanks to the lockdown, I now had the time to pursue such knowledge.
You recently took a staycation. What spots did you dine at?
J.L.: We recently had a staycation for our anniversary, and we stayed at a tiny house in Costa Mesa called the Nugget. Our first time eating out since February, we went to some nostalgic eateries such as Sancho’s Tacos, Sidecar Doughnuts and Kean Coffee. But we did try some new spots as well. We found this small coffee shop called Herst Coffee Roasters, which is near one of my favorite places to get cookbooks, Lido Village Books.
Our big dinner was spent at Bello by Sandro Nardone. It was obscure to go out and eat in the “new normal” of dining out, but the staff at Bello was very accommodating in the most social distancing of ways, of course. Chef Sandro is killing the Italian game. My favorite thing I ate was his cacio e pepe pasta. It was so aggressively black peppery and mouthwatering I loved every bite of it [and] it brought me right back to the first time I had it in Rome.
In Other News …
Now Open: Shorebird Restaurant, Newport Beach
For Wild Thyme Restaurant Group, Shorebird is their first foray into the county. I discovered them a year ago when I struck up a conversation with their marketing contact while covering the opening of LBX’s food hall, The Hangar. Located in a build-out behind Crab Cooker, I dined with a friend on a condensed version of their dinner menu during a Locals Only tasting.
The restaurant is led by director of culinary Jay Bogsinske, executive chef Chris Badilla and sushi chef Tin Nguyen. If last week was any indicator of future visits, OC gained another noteworthy destination. Crispy cauliflower lettuce cups possessed the meatiness jackfruit typically contributes in vegan menus. Overstuffed bacon and eggs (a.k.a. deviled eggs) leveled up, thanks to their smoker on property imparting the flavor associated with barbeque. An almond wood-fired rotisserie chicken that shares its name with the establishment reads straightforward in description, but should be considered due to limited availability. It was equally as succulent over the Meyer lemon and asparagus risotto for the following day’s leftovers.
Japanese Hokkaido scallops made two appearances: melt-in-your-mouth nigiri and a butter basted seafood entree. Kudos to chef Nguyen for plating sushi with fresh wasabi without needing to request any. Black mussels joined the scallops for what my friend likened to deconstructed, New England-inspired chowder. For dessert, key lime pie had an airy mouthfeel, thanks to a cheesecake consistency. Accompanied by strawberry gelato, neither treat was overly sweet – a quality often overlooked when menu planning a final course. The Valrhona chocolate brownie a la mode, on the other hand, was a satisfying hot mess of indulgence. Open daily for dinner and for brunch on weekends, guests can book at table at resy.com.
SoCal Restaurant Show Appearance
On June 20, I had the pleasure of being interviewed live from Angel Stadium by Andy Harris of The SoCal Restaurant Show regarding my recent articles on in-person dining and Bosscat Kitchen & Libations. We covered enough ground that our chat took up two on-air segments. Check out what we discussed by following the embedded links to parts one and two. And be sure to listen to AM 830 KLAA on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon for comprehensive restaurant news.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at [email protected].