The city of Los Angeles is in the midst of a street food boom, and Alex Chu, owner of The Dim Sum Truck, is one of the younger food truck owners on the scene. At just 23, the USC graduate already has a loyal following for two reasons: 1.) He left the making of his steamed and fried Chinese dumplings to the professionals, and 2.) Previously, good dim sum could only be found way out in the San Gabriel Valley, a treck most Angelenos were unwilling to make. Add to that the fact that dim sum is usually only sold during lunch hours and you've got a million dollar idea for a food truck.
As a former dim sum server at a fusion restaurant, intern for BLT Steak partner Brad Johnson, and entrepreneurship major, Chu's more of a savvy, front-of-the-house sort of guy. He markets his brand, manages the accounting, and oversees all day-to-day operations. Essentially, he does everything but make the dim sum. This is a task he leaves to proffesional chefs reccomended to him by a family friend who sells rice to Chinese restaurants in the area.
The Northern California native knows a thing or two about food; most of The Dim Sum Truck's fusion specials are his own recipes, as is the truck's signature dipping sauce (a sweet and salty blend of oyster sauce, soy sauce, chili, garlic, and other secret ingredients)—but when speaking to him you get the impression that The Dim Sum Truck is more of an interesting business venture than an outlet for his passion for food.
Whatever his reasons for starting the truck almost a year ago, one thing is clear: business is booming. Whether he's on Sunset Boulevard at noon or in Venice Beach near midnight, people are lining up to try The Dim Sum Truck's dumplings. Recently we chatted about what attracted him to the food world, his fusion specials, and the future of his business.
Growing up, were you interested in food? Not at first, but my parents were; they were adventurous eaters and they introduced me to the restaurant scene. Every Sunday my family would go to this popular Chinese restaurant for dim sum, but everyone else also went at the same time and there would be a one-hour wait. We went there so often that when the hostess would see us, she'd sneak us past everyone and give us a table.
In high school I took a restaurant job in the Bay Area just to see what it would be like. I discovered that I really liked seeing people enjoy their meal, eat good food, and have a nice time. I thought the concept of a dim sum truck was a good idea and dim sum was already a part of who I was. I've become really attached to it; it's not just a job anymore.
How would you describe dim sum to those who've never had it? I like to call it Chinese tapas because the portions are little and you pick and choose what dumplings you want. The dumplings can be steamed or fried, but dim sum also includes buns filled with meat and steamed side dishes. Traditionally, dim sum is served off a cart and usually eaten for brunch on the weekends.
Dim sum seems like a pretty sensitive and labor-intensive food for a truck. What's your process for making the dim sum? I rent out a professional kitchen and every morning my chefs come out and make the dim sum. It actually works out perfectly for the food truck because we have a bunch of steam tables so even though the dumplings are made in the morning, we cook them on the truck and they're fresh when you get them. Even though we're serving off of a food truck, I wanted restaurant quality dim sum, and I really think we've achieved that. Other things, I want to serve, but just refuse to because the quality would suffer—for example, we can't serve mochi or taro puffs, it's too complicated.
Tell me about your menu, it's sort of split between regular menu items and specials. I wanted a best of dim sum menu that kept things traditional; I wanted people to feel like they were getting restaurant-quality dumplings without having to go to the San Gabriel Valley. The specials are my recipes and they're my way of taking a traditionally-made dumpling and filling it with untraditional ingredients.
It seems like fusion's really big on L.A. food trucks. I heard you have a cheeseburger dumpling with thousand island dipping sauce. A lot of Chinese people who grew up eating dim sum were coming to our truck and asking for something different and new. The cheeseburger dumpling is really popular, it tastes just like an In-N-Out burger and it's filled with ground beef, pickles, ketchup, and American cheese. It just seems natural to blend your food with L.A.'s taco truck culture, which is where the idea for our Peking Duck Taco came from. Peking wraps are pretty traditional, but our duck is served on corn tortillas and topped with pickled green and red onions and hoisin plum sauce. We actually crisp the skin on the truck with a torch.
What are your most popular traditional dumplings? Without a doubt it's our Pork and Shrimp Shu Mai dumplings—seasoned ground pork, shrimp, water chestnuts, and crab roe. I've noticed that our traditional dumplings are more popular during the day, but at night people go crazy for the specials, especially the Peking Duck Tacos.
When making good dim sum, how important are the ingredients and how important is the technique? Technique is the main thing. Individually, the ingredients aren't that special; they're pretty typical of most Chinese kitchens. When I tried to learn how to make our Shrimp Har Gow dumplings it was really difficult because of all the intricate folds. It's a tough thing to master; it takes years to make dumplings as quickly as our chefs do.
Where do you see all of this going?
I'm still figuring out what I want to do. Food trucks are getting big in other cities, so I'm thinking of expanding to Chicago or New York. Running the truck has been challenging, but it's made me confident that I could run a restaurant. I don't think a brick and mortar is out of the question. I know that I want that eventually; this is just a stepping stone.