St. Louis' Hot Summers Can't Stop the Cha Cha Chow Truck
Showing up in various parts of The Lou, Cha Cha Chow offers non-traditional tacos (short rib, "Baja style" roasted chicken, curried sweet potato — the latter two on flour tortillas) along with a pretty good burger and a "Cuban Crime of Passion" — pulled pork, pickles, cheese, and mustard on a double-toasted roll. Seasoned fries served with spicy ketchup are a side dish. The truck, which features the food of chefs Kandace Davis and Linda Jones, was launched in late 2010, an endeavor meant to fill the mobile taco void the chefs perceived.
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In their two years, the Cha Cha chefs and crew have delivered fresh, quality ingredients to curbside cravers, setting out every day with the goal of blowing the minds of their customers with flavors, and trying to do it faster than a Japanese bullet train. They've accrued a devoted following, amassed more than 4,500 followers on Twitter, and even landed a spot in 2012 on The Daily Meal's list of 101 Food Trucks in America. In this interview with chef Davis, discover the story behind their name, a possible new tamale menu addition, and hear about the time one of Cha Cha's employees, Tom, passed out.
When did you launch your truck?
What was the inspiration for going into this business?
St. Louis has a thriving food culture and it just seemed like something our city needed. And everybody loves tacos!
What's the story behind the origin of your truck's name?
We knew our food would be Latin-inspired, but also cross over into some Caribbean and South American cuisines. We wanted a name that expressed a style, meaning fun and fast, but didn't limit us to Mexican food. We thought Cha Cha Chow described us perfectly.
How did you come up with your truck's design? Is there a designer you'd like to give a shout-out to?
Our designers were Chad Boukidis of St Louis and Rachel Gollaher of Evansville, Ind. They did it all.
Does your truck have a vanity license plate? And if so, what does it say?
We don't, but the front of our truck has a decal that lists our web address backward so that people can read it from their rear-view mirror.
What model truck do you have?
A 2006 Grunman Step Van.
What's your signature dish? Is it also your most popular dish?
That's tough, but by far our best seller is our beef short rib taco, a combo of slowly braised beef (four to five hours) seasoned with our original mixture of spices and salt, Cha Cha sauce (which can only be described as smoky, creamy, spicy, and luscious), fresh cilantro lime slaw, and a griddled tortilla.
What's the inspiration for your cuisine and recipes?
We wanted a concept that would appeal to a wide audience and we thought tacos had that potential. We then added sandwiches because we know how much people here love their meat. So we started with that business model and then started playing with recipes — a three-month process. Each recipe was tested and tweaked, tested and tweaked, until we got to a finished product for each menu item.
What's the most challenging thing about running your food truck?
The daily wear and tear on a truck results in a lot of mechanical challenges and requires constant upkeep. This can include generator issues, weather-related equipment issues due to the extreme heat and cold of the Midwest, battery, tires, and so on. Seems like it's always something.
Would you ever go brick-and-mortar?
Well, it's tempting, but we really like the freedom that a food truck provides. If someone else wanted to run it maybe [laughs].
What one piece of advice would you give someone looking to get into the food truck?
Start with a small, experienced staff who has a family life that will allow them to put in the hours necessary to make money in the food-service business. It's not going to be a hobby like one might think, or a business that you can just hire people to run for you. It's serious, rigorous, physical labor and the owners' eyes have to be on the daily operations.
Any new upcoming dishes planned that you can tell us about?
I had a chicken tamale recently at a local restaurant that was remarkable. I'm wondering if we can work it into the menu somehow.
Lots of things happen when running a restaurant, and that probably goes double on the road. As such, be it weird, funny, good, or bad, what's one superlative or particularly outstanding moment or story that's ever occurred with your truck be it with customers, in the kitchen, or just in general?
It has all happened on the truck. Summer is brutal in St. Louis. Once, while parked on front of Barnes Jewish Hospital on a scorching day, we were in the middle of a huge lunch rush. A man in a panic flung open our back door and said, "Your boys fallen out in there!" He pointed to the hospital lobby. One of our employees had passed out from heat exhaustion while on the way to the bathroom. His mom worked there as a nurse so we got him fixed up in just a few hours. I felt terrible. Our customers were very sympathetic and understanding when we tweeted later, "TOM PASSED OUT!" It can get up to 120 degrees in the truck during the summer.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.