By Audrey Shiomi
Eric Nakata starts his day at 6 am. He cooks a bulk-load of rice, pasta, and chops enough meat and vegetables to feed an army of hungry office workers. By 11 am, he and his five-person crew drive across the 10-Freeway to a commercial neighborhood in West LA. Then they wait.
Nakata places an extraordinary amount of faith in three things to keep customers in tow: an iPhone, a Twitter account and word-of-mouth. Earlier in the morning, he sent out a ‘tweet’ to over 1,600 followers of his Japanese-Peruvian mobile eatery, Lomo Arigato: “Happy tuesday!!! West Los!!! We’ll be near the intersection of olympic and butler for lunch from 11:30-2:30!! I’ll twt for exact loc. tues.” It’s riddled with grammatical errors, but it gets the message across in just under 160 characters. Besides, it’s hard to type with just thumbs.
By 11:40 am, a handful of men in white shirts and dark slacks trickle out. They ask around – “What kind of food is this? Is it good?” – trying to decide between Nakata’s truck and the one across the street. The pan-fried aroma of shoyu-marinated beef seeps into their breathing space. The next moment, Nakata is ringing them up.
The 27-year-old Torrance-native is part of a new fleet of mobile businesses to hit city pavement. Call them ‘road warriors,’ restaurateurs bringing in customers by heading straight to them. Debuting this past October, the Lomo Arigato truck (a play on the Japanese phrase “domo arigato”) has been pulling into corporate parking lots, club venues and just about anywhere with crowd potential.
Nakata keeps his menu simple with three signature Peruvian dishes, each priced at $7: Lomo Saltado – marinated beef, stir-fried with sliced tomatoes, onions and potatoes; Chaufa – Peruvian-style chicken fried rice; and Tallarin Saltado – shoyu-sautéed vegetables, meat and spaghetti noodles. “We use a lot of Kikkoman soy sauce,” he says, describing his flavor as distinctly wa-fu-(Japanese style).
There’s also the creamy jalepeño sauce, an instant favorite. “Once they try the green sauce they have this smile on their face and they’re back in line,” he says.
“It’s a really cool feeling.”
Nakata learned to cook the dishes while working at a sushi bar in Lomita, Calif., where they often combine raw fish with lime, onions and cilantro; flavor blending made famous by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who spent time in Peru before coming to the U.S. Nakata himself has never lived in the country, but has relatives who immigrated there from Okinawa. They gave his cooking their seal of approval years ago.
By 2 p.m., Nakata and his crew are rolling out and heading back to the commissary, where they drain the sink and hose down the truck’s inside compartment, built at an angle so water could trickle out. If it’s a double-shift day and there’s a shortage of ingredients, he makes a quick run to Restaurant Depot before it closes at 4:30 pm. Then he’s back at the commissary prepping for their 7 p.m. dinner run. On weekends, he’s out until 2 a.m.
“When people party, that’s when I work,” Nakata says with a wry grin.
It’s the life he chose when he purchased his vehicle back in January. Inspired by Kogi BBQ, LA’s trendsetting fusion-taco mobile, he dropped his savings into outfitting a mobile eatery from a 1987 FedEx truck.
His truck may look like any other, but stand closer and you’ll notice a few tactical renovations. For one, the stove burners sit on the side closest to customers, offering a front-row view of Nakata and his chefs at work. Armed with stainless steel woks, they toss around thick cuts of meat and kick up a few flames to the ceiling. The truck’s air vents also intentionally face customers, making the warm, savory aroma inescapable.
Sleek as the Lomo truck may seem, it’s not without problems. With a weakening battery and an odometer reading of 350,000, there’s a lot to worry about.
“It’s the worst feeling,” Nakata says, “when I gotta get somewhere and I have perishables. So if the truck breaks down, I can’t just go to the mechanic that day. I have hundreds of dollars of food just going to waste.”
Parking can be a nightmare, too. If Nakata doesn’t take time to research his stops, he ends up losing customers for the night. One evening, he pulled up to a popular West LA lounge called Bigfoot West, not realizing the street was reserved for valet parking. So just as bar-hoppers began flagging him down, he had no choice but to drive away. (Food trucks tend to visit the same locales because, in terms of parking and crowd-flow, they know what to expect.)
For anyone thinking of starting their own food truck Nakata says, “Go for it ,” but do it in another area like Orange County or San Diego. If you insist on Los Angeles, don’t even think of trying a fusion-taco truck. They’re a dime a dozen.
Even with a truck as unique as his, it’s a daily struggle to meet his quota. He makes $7 for every plate he sells, but his truck eats up $30 in gas each day and $20 goes to propane. $200 a week is paid to the commissary where he leaves his truck at night. And of course, his workers need to be paid, too.
Nakata figures its make-or-break in the next three months. If he decides to keep going, he’ll eventually get another truck, split his crew and drive around San Diego. His dream is to help others struggling with their dream, so he’s also hoping to create a roving art installation and feature an ‘artist of the week,’ and then install speakers and play music by unsigned musicians.
“Everyone wants to try and get their name out there, and if I can help someone else then that’d be cool,” he says.
But for now, Nakata needs to keep his eyes on the road, drive around the city, and hope nothing breaks down. The two words embroidered on the side of his black cap say it all: “Don’t stop.”
Visit Lomo Arigato at www.lomoarigato.com or you can follow the mobile truck via Twitter at www.twitter.com/lomoarigato.
Audrey Shiomi is a former Rafu staff writer and can be e-mailed at [email protected]