Cuisine: Korean street food
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On the way to covering Ajumama, allow me to pose a bigger picture question: what is the point of the mobile food vendor?
At the most basic level, a mobile food vendor’s product – prepared food – is not inherently (key qualifier) different to that of a restaurant. The levels of service provided, however, are night-and-day distinct. This even extends to location, as you’ll never have to refer to Facebook or Twitter to figure out where a restaurant will be stationed at any given time. At a truck, there’s no A/C or accommodation for shelter from the elements, often no seating, no refills on drinks, no alcohol options, and you’ll likely stand to wait for the stretch between ordering and receiving your food.*
Yet stand and wait they did, during Ajumama’s debut last week, to the tune of roughly 80 people deep. Rain threatened, and finally made good as predicted, but social media drove an enviable number of paying customers to a truck that nobody had ever tried.
Clearly, despite the absence of service (and shelter!), some mobile food vendors have tremendous pull. This suggests that there are advantages inherent to the medium, and, no doubt there are. A clever young chef can get their own mobile business off of the ground for a small fraction of the cost of opening a restaurant, and the relatively low overhead can provide the leeway to be far more creative and novel in their offering. Recurring costs are also far lower, and these savings can be passed on to the consumer. When considering a strict price/quality proposition, mobile can provide the best food deals in town.
Which takes us back to those 80 hungry customers willing to spend an evening betting on a few mentions swirling around the inter-tubes about this new Korean-style street food vendor.
That’s all about the novelty, folks – I cannot emphasize this enough (especially to those looking to get in on the mobile craze). The promise of the new and the interesting has tremendous, enduring appeal that, at best, trumps all other considerations.
Or, to be bluntly personal: when I have a rare free evening to choose whatever food offering I please, providing something that is both unique and well executed is exactly what it will take to get me to forgo the many comforts of a restaurant. Full stop.
So, yeah… Korean-style street food. At Ajumama, this means several things, but first and foremost it means pajeon - a savory, thick and eggy pancake crisscrossed with strands of green onion. Four types are found on the menu, including seafood, pork, chicken, and a choose-your-own-ingredients option. We tried the chicken, and enjoyed it tremendously, though the accompanying sauce had a bit more vinegar than we’d prefer. Portions were generous, and prices ranged from $6 – $9.
We also tried the hodduk, a sweet, roughly english muffin sized hotcake filled with a gooey brown sugar, cinnamon, and nut mix. This was very easy to like, and in our explorations we’ve not found anything like it in the city. Even those with a distaste for Asian flavors will find hodduk to be unchallenging and likely downright addictive.
One of my favorite things about Ajumama is that they have daily specials, and that they actually change. On the first visit, it was kimbap – think Korean sushi roll – and on the second it was spicy squid skewers. The kimbap, served with either tuna or spam (don’t knock it, pretty good!) filling, was refreshing on an unseasonably warm spring evening, and the squid was a tasty hot sauce and hot pepper sinus clearer.
These are early days for Ajumama, so early that it’s almost unfair to review them prior to allowing for opportunity to work out the inevitable start-up kinks. But, with that said, there’s clearly so much that’s right about what they’re doing from the start, and so much promise in what they can do, that I feel compelled to answer the intro question with this:
Operations like Ajumama are the point of mobile food vending. If you’re hungry, we strongly encourage you to check them out. And, if you’re looking to start up a mobile food operation of your own, give some thought to how Ajumama have shrewdly structured just about all aspects of their business to target the advantages of the mobile food model.
* Many of these service-related concerns are being taken on by groups trying to create what are called street food ‘pods’, the most developed of which is ‘Dinin’ Hall‘. Dinin’ Hall is a slick operation that provides a gathering point for trucks, plenty of indoor seating, a central point of sale, and delivery of your order to your table. The participating trucks vary from day to day, so look here for the schedule.