I first tried the Chairman Bao food truck outside Bloodhound last fall. I fondly remember tumbling out of the bar to find a glowing red food truck emblazoned with a Panda dressed as an iconic Chinese revolutionary. I won’t get into politics here, but I distinctly remember thinking that if SF foodies have taught me anything, it’s that a long line usually means there’s something worth waiting for at the end of it. So when it was finally my turn to receive a bun, I pounced on the perfectly flavored and complex pocket of steamed deliciousness.
Since then it has almost become a competitive sport to spot the newest food truck in SF, but Chairman Bao remains a leader out of the arsenal of urban mobile dining options. When its red food truck approaches, it’s best to sprint over to the anticipated stopping point and elbow your way to the front of the line before the wheels even stop rolling. I’m determined to find out the secret to its success and experience what it’s like aboard one of the city’s most popular food trucks.
After much emailing and reassurance that I won’t give away any confidential info, I’m ushered to an unmarked ex-sandwich joint in Little Saigon where Chairman Bao has taken over the commercial kitchen and adjoining storefront. For now, the Bao crew is remaining hush-hush as to whether they will become a brick and mortar operation, and none of my interrogative techniques or sweet talking will eek out more information. I will say that the new headquarters is conveniently nestled down the block from Saigon’s bahn mi lunch spot and central to the truck's forays into FiDi, South Park, the Marina, and surrounding SF neighborhoods.
I finally meet up with the head chef Curtis who has been up since 7:30 a.m. (after a few hours of sleep) hunting down bun ingredients. Curtis almost single-handedly prepares all the proteins for the operation – the busy Bao truck goes through more than 1,500 pounds of poultry, pork, and tofu A WEEK. The crew laughingly agrees that "truck life" means you're not allowed to complain about feeling tired. My romantic visions of food trucking as the perfect low responsibility alternative to running a full-time restaurant fly out the window.
Despite the grueling seven-days-a-week work schedule, Curtis is quick to flash a toothy grin and tell me all about his own path into food-truck chefdom. A second generation Chinese and native SFer, Curtis’ parents met at his uncle’s restaurant (Clement Restaurant in the Inner Richmond) where Chairman Bao sources the freshly steamed buns today. The buns are baked from a family recipe that includes a batch of yeast that his uncle snuck back from China 30 years ago and has kept alive ever since.
As Curtis begins the arduous process of preparing pork belly, I wander through the kitchen sneaking glimpses at spice bins and pantry shelves. I've been made abundantly aware that the truck's recipes are highly guarded – I've got a better chance of meeting the chairman himself than infiltrating the pages of the house cookbook. I do know that the chef roasts and blends all his own spices and makes almost everything else from scratch. With a self-proclaimed motto of “Don’t be afraid of flavor,” recipes can contain as many as a dozen traditional ingredients, ranging from dried orange peel to Japanese hot chili pepper and pink peppercorns.
I suddenly catch a peek of Guittard milk chocolate disks and triumphantly ask what recipe they are used in. The crew laughs: “That's for stress relief; it doesn't end up going into any of our products.” Mission recipe reconnaissance: thwarted.
I take a break from the cramped and humid kitchen barracks to dig into my veggie bun. The softly steamed bun envelopes a hearty miso-buttermilk marinated tofu slice that is then lightly fried with a panko crust. Topped with crunchy choy sum and slathered with a creamy homemade herb mayo; I am confident that this little pocket would make some of my pork-loving friends question their loyalties. Of course if you’re of the persuasion that unless it oinks it’s only a side dish, the braised pork with a tart cabbage slaw is a clever version of Southern pulled pork and the rich pork belly topped with a bbq-like miso glaze, pickled daikon, and freshly chopped shallots is another local favorite.
Curtis offers me a taste of the freshly made sesame butter, and I find a sweet and earthy nuttiness that harkens to tahini but with a distinctly Chinese-spiced flair that I could eat by the spoonful. This is where Chairman Bao’s offerings shine: each slow marinated protein is carefully selected to coordinate with a unique contrasting topping, a sprinkle of fresh herbs, and accentuated by a savory sauce all wrapped into a street-food friendly package.
Now that I've got an idea of the hard work happening in the kitchen, I hop aboard the truck for an afternoon slinging buns in a dim tunnel under the Chronicle Building. Before the truck gets slammed with hungry journalists (and man, can we throw down), the Chairman crew allows me to put together my own bun. It's not difficult to assemble the already prepped ingredients – I'm ridiculously slow, especially compared to the 90 seconds that it takes the veteran truckers. To quickly serve 250 people for six hours straight, the crew crams at least six workers into the truck and shoots out hot buns quicker than it takes to throw live grenades.
As I dodge piping hot buns, freshly grilled pork belly, and bright pickled daikon disks while snapping photos, I find myself constantly worrying about bumping into the whirling team members with my cumbersome camera. "It's all about communication on the line," Curtis explains. I watch in true admiration as everyone keeps tempo with the mad rush, and with grace adeptly anticipates each other’s movements. When a kitchen works together cohesively, it truly does resemble a small military operation. In the four other lunch and evening stops I witness, I never catch the crew falling into the weeds.
A few days later I stop by the kitchen again to hang out with Curtis while he prepares my favorite green tofu mayo sauce. As the crew swarms the crowded kitchen to collect provisions for the day's lunch run, I quiz the team on what it takes to run a successful food truck in SF. Aside from the city’s red tape, be prepared for pissed-off local business owners who may just call the cops to get you out of their lunch territory. And for all of you fellow foodies dreaming of leaving the 9-to-5 world to run your own successful food truck operation, the chef laughingly coaches not to “quit your day job.” To be successful, Curtis explains that you and your coworkers “have to be passionate. We look after each other. If it wasn’t for my team, I don’t know where I’d be.” And perhaps that’s the secret ingredient to Chairman Bao’s sauce.
Care to try these buns yourself? Follow Chairman Bao on Twitter at @chairmantruck.
I did manage to squeeze a renegade recipe out of the chef that’s not currently used at Chairman Bao’s. Try this easy version of a sweet and spicy mayo as a dipping sauce for wonton chips, alongside tuna and avocado slices, or slathered on a sandwich.
Chairman Bao's Sweet and Spicy Mayo Recipe
In a medium bowl, stir well until completely mixed:
½ cup kimchi base (found at Asian food grocers)
¼ cup honey
1 cup prepared mayo (or, with a little more time and muscle power, make your own)
2 TB sesame oil
1 TB soy sauce
Squeeze of lemon
2 TB finely chopped shallots
After enjoying, refrigerate the leftovers.