When GR8 Plate Hospitality, the group behind the Union Kitchen and Jax Grill, launched its food truck, Rollin' Kitchen, last fall, it was with a menu of Cajun and Creole food. But according to owner Paul Miller, the choice of po'boys and étouffés just was never quite the "food truck food" he was hoping for. When Miller converted restaurant Paul's Kitchen to event venue the Merrill House, the restaurant's sous-chef Cesar Alvarez was nearly left without a job. Lucky for him, original Rollin' Kitchen chef Mike McElroy decamped to the Heights' Durham House right around the same time. And clearly, Alvarez was born to run a food truck.
More specifically, the Houston native was born to run a Salvadoran food truck, serving his family's native cuisine. "I gave Cesar a couple of cookbooks with recipes from food trucks that are popular in LA and New York," recalls Miller. "We talked about trying to keep it Cajun." But ultimately, they arrived at a Latin-leaning mix of dishes. Magic happens, Miller agrees, "when a chef is doing what he wants instead of what he's told to do."
Alvarez proudly points out that while El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, its cuisine is one of the best known. He says using family recipes is unnecessary, because "All recipes are the same, even through El Salvador." Don't tell that to his pupusas. They taste fresher than most because they are: Like the rest of Rollin' Kitchen's food, they're prepped each day from scratch in the Merrill House kitchen, often using ingredients grown in the adjacent garden. His cheese-filled version of the corn patties is topped in a pickled curtido that gets some of its tangy spice from kimchi juice.
The cilantro on the Dirty Fries above is among the garden-fresh ingredients that make their way onto the truck. The juicy, griddle-crusted hot links served over chile-spiked fries are also made from scratch in-house. Oaxaca cheese sauce and chipotle mayo complete the picture with a friendly nudge of spice.
The cemitas sandwich is one of the few items on the menu with little heat, but its carefully combined ingredients make it a marvel of delectable complexity. Alvarez starts by brining chicken in a bath spiked with jalapeño and oregano before breading it in mashed corn tortillas and frying it to a crisp brown. On a fluffy homemade roll that he grills on the truck, he piles creamy mashed black beans, avocado, Oaxaca cheese, lettuce and pico de gallo. The chicken is also available un-fried and served in a wrap with a similar roster of ingredients, but go for the sandwich: You're unlikely to find a fresher take on the torta anywhere in town.
And Cajun-inflected grub isn't all gone. Alvarez tops coarsely ground grits with shrimp and chorizo or brisket that he braises to ropa vieja-like tenderness for 24 hours before dressing it in sweet-and-tangy barbecue sauce and cilantro and pickled onions.
Currently, the Rollin' Kitchen parks most days at Johnny's Gold Brick in the Heights, replacing Pi Pizza Truck, which will soon open its bricks-and-mortar on Heights Boulevard. This week, look for it from 5 p.m. every day through Sunday.