Wheel-y tasty tacos: Gourmet food truck rolls into Phnom Penh

Slow-cooked shredded pork with avocado and coriander wrapped in a corn tortilla.
Slow-cooked shredded pork with avocado and coriander wrapped in a corn tortilla. Charlotte Pert

Wheel-y tasty tacos: Gourmet food truck rolls into Phnom Penh

The owner of Annabella’s Hot Tacos is upping the ante with high quality Mexican street food dished out from a converted Korean ambulance

The wheels of a Phnom Penh “gourmet food truck revolution” are turning, according to the owner of an upmarket Mexican venture which hit the roads this month.

Justin Landis, the 36-year-old owner of Annabella’s Hot Tacos, hopes to usher in a new era of street food with his New Mexico-style eats and frozen margaritas.

“We’re doing a gourmet food product; it’s homemade, slow-roasted chicken and pork, and everyday fresh-from-the-market vegetables – with a street food price,” he said.

The tacos have been well-received so far. Parked in Street 282 near Wat Lanka around lunchtime on Tuesday this week the truck sold out within a couple of hours as a crowds of hungry workers devoured the corn-tortilla wrapped treats that cost $3.50 for two or $5 for three.

Annabella’s Hot Tacos owner Justin Landis serves a hungry customer.
Annabella’s Hot Tacos owner Justin Landis serves a hungry customer. Charlotte Pert

Gourmet food trucks became popular in the US after the economic crash of the late 2000s. Traditional greasy-burger and sandwich food trucks were snapped up by out-of-work chefs who turned them into mobile bistros – a cheaper alternative to setting up bricks-and-mortar restaurants. The advent of social media allowed customers to keep track of their locations.

Landis, who originally hails from Long Beach, California, and has a day job as a construction project manager, said his favourite variety of tacos came from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived when he was a student.

It was the memory of those corn-tortilla tacos – with their simple but complimentary ingredients – and his frustration at not being able to find similar in Phnom Penh that led him to set up his food truck, Annabella’s.

“In search of what I believe is the ultimate taco experience, I just decided to do it myself,” he said. “I wanted to do them the way I know they should be done, my way, in hopes that it’s well received.”

For maximum authenticity, Landis gets his chillies from Albuquerque.

“It’s a big cost for us,” he said. “But it’s important to me to bring that very regional flavour and to get it right.”

The truck is a former ambulance imported from South Korea and modified to include a three-burner grill, toaster oven, LED disco lights, a sound system and a frozen-margarita machine.

After the mechanics were done, Landis gave it to street artists Peap Tarr and Lisa Mam who spent around 20 hours painting it with intricate designs in primarily black, white and red.

“We tried to do something that was traditional Khmer design with a Mexican-American flavour,” said Tarr.

Artist Lisa Mam with her painting of a ‘Mexican Mariah Carey’.
Artist Lisa Mam with her painting of a ‘Mexican Mariah Carey’. Charlotte Pert

The result was a funky kitchen on wheels that will serve hungry workers during the day and become something more like a mobile party when parked around Phnom Penh’s nightlife districts.

“We want to make it a good experience,” Landis said. “Taco trucks are supposed to be a fun, and nighttime is really fun for us with the disco lights and margaritas. For $3 a pop, they’re the best value in town.”

The truck will do a range of dishes – from seasoned shredded pork tacos with fresh avocado, pickled red onion, cilantro, chipotle and lime to quesadilla tortilla toasties with shredded cheese, meat, onion and jalepenos – with the menu changing each day.

A constant will be the big 12-inch scrambled egg and hash brown burritos served with optional bacon, chorizo mash and New Mexico chilli sauce, which cost $5 for one with the lot.

“They’re called breakfast burritos, but they’re really good at any time of day,” Landis said. “There’s nothing better than stuffing your face with an eggy burrito with chorizo after stumbling out of a bar at 1 or 2am.”

Landis said the obvious advantage of food trucks over traditional restaurants is that they don’t have to pay rent, but he found getting permission from local authorities and business owners to set up shop was proving a challenge.

He said he suspected a permit to set up shop in Street 51 at night fell through because of pressure from other street food vendors.

“We have genuine permission from a couple of places,” he said. “But other vendors are too scared of competition.”

However, he said he wanted to cooperate, not compete, with existing operators.

“We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes; we want to work with these people. So, for example, we’ll ask one of the mobile coffee shop to park next to us.

So you can get a latte or coffee with your burrito.

“We want to encourage competition and other people to follow what we’re doing.

“The gourmet food truck revolution starts here.”

To discover the truck’s location find Annabella’s Hot Tacos on Facebook.

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