Chasing vehicles is no longer just the sport of dogs: Since news broke that a couple of local chefs were launching a gourmet kitchen on wheels, area foodies have been tracking its progress like hungry hounds in hot pursuit. Now that Dim and Den Sum has officially hit the streets, the hunt has begun in earnest.
Judging by all the attention this upstart has garnered, it's clear that in the area of mobile dining, demand has thus far exceeded supply. Food trucks have become a tasty way of life in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, but Cleveland has been disappointingly bereft of them. Apart from a Polish boy rig and the usual cadre of ice cream trucks and hotdog carts, we're the pits when it comes to street food.
Probably that's because it's much easier for a chef to open a bona fide restaurant in Cleveland than it is for those working in other large (read: expensive) metropolitan areas. But the nation's prolonged economic slump appears to have a silver lining for us street food fans: More and more chefs are choosing rubber over bricks and mortar.
Launched this spring by Jeremy Esterly and Chris Hodgson, Dim and Den Sum serves midwestern and southern comfort foods from a fully equipped Chevy step van. As the name vaguely suggests, most items are small and boast Asian twists. Esterly resigned his post as chef de cuisine at Doug Katz's Fire Food and Drink to hop on this gravy train, while Hodgson decamped from New York City, where he was cooking at the lovable Spotted Pig.
Apart from taking money and serving food, Dim and Den Sum breaks nearly every tenet of restaurant law. For starters, it's a bitch to track down. Unlike restaurants, which excel at standing still, this prey is maddeningly elusive. One day it's at an office park in Mayfield, the next it's feeding a crowd way the heck out in Oberlin. Evenings are no different, when the movable feast sets up shop outside a different late-night establishment every other night of the week. Fortunately, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook make it easy to keep tabs on the truck's ever-shifting locale.
The one consistent venue so far has been Tremont's Flying Monkey Pub, in front of which you can find the boldly painted van every Friday night. What began as a one-off experiment has blossomed into a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, says Monkey owner Amy Snyder.
"We don't have a kitchen here," she explains, "so having the truck here keeps our customers from leaving to go elsewhere. But they don't serve alcohol, so their customers come inside, buy beers, and eat their food here."
Approaching the van just before midnight on a Friday, I was greeted in successive waves by diesel fumes, frying bacon, and deep-fried something or other. Despite a queue nearly 15-deep, the entire process of ordering and paying (cash only) ran smoothly. I ordered two of everything and joined my pals inside the pub. Within minutes, we were digging in to a mess of deliriously good grub. Two fun-size short rib sliders ($3 each) — small, soft buns filled with tender beef and corn salsa — were the first casualties. Gone in 60 seconds, too, were the pulled pork sliders ($3 each). We particularly enjoyed the crunch provided by the sesame-scented seaweed salad that topped the meat. But the best in the bunch, we agreed, was the PBLT ($6), a larger sandwich layered with roasted pork shoulder, bacon, greens, and spicy sriracha mayo. Worst? The brisket sandwich ($6), which was tougher than rawhide and oddly garnished with baked beans.
We never did get to sample the truffle-salted tater tots ($2.50) because the truck ran out less than an hour into service — a recurring issue, I'm told. But running out of food is a good problem to have. In fact, Esterly and Hodgson have been refilling their truck's larder twice a day to keep up with the lunch and late-night demand. Splitting their time between the West Side Market, the rig, and their Ohio City commissary, the guys have been working 19-hour days. That's just fine with Hodgson, a supercharged 24-year-old.
"I'm the baby compared to [34-year-old] Jeremy," he says. "He's the one that's always saying, 'Slow down, you're killing me.'"
But slowing down doesn't seem to be part of the plan. Hodgson says the van is just the beginning — "A way to get our name out there and make some money." In the works are a wine bar, late-night supper club, noodle bar, and a cookbook. Catch them if you can.
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