As classics majors in the graduate school of Bryn Mawr College, Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca could have pursued careers in academia.
Instead, buoyed by their idea to cook and serve the foods of Hawaii (and after pragmatically assessing the job market), they set out on a different kind of odyssey: opening a food truck. Five years ago, they took over a cart on Temple University's campus and called it Poi Dog, after the Hawaiian Pidgin for "mutt." A year ago, they added a brick-and-mortar counter-service restaurant at 100½ S. 21st St. in Center City.
Aranita, 33, who's from Hawaii and Hong Kong, and Vacca, 36, who grew up in northern Delaware (thus making him a Homer), sat down last week to talk about bringing the 808 vibe to 215 and the current corruption of poke, the raw-fish salad.
How did you go from the classics to mochi nori fried chicken and Spam musubi?
Aranita: A friend who was working in a restaurant that I was also working in happened to have a taco cart that was set up at Temple. We had been entertaining the idea of starting a food truck after having worked on other food trucks. We thought we could have a go at it on our own, and he was selling it at the right time. It had exactly what we needed. It happened to be called Chris' Taco Stand, so we thought that was like, fate.
Vacca: We both really enjoyed food. … Maybe it became a little bit more than just your casual obsession with food. And that started to influence what we were actually doing in grad school. At one point, we partnered on a seminar paper that was essentially about representing cultural cuisine throughout history in contemporary restaurants. So we started, basically, trying to cheat what were supposed to be doing, and like try to cheat that into, how can we use class time to go out and eat and talk about it intelligently?
Aranita: Basically, we convinced our professors to let us do our class project on going out to eat.
Vacca: It was very productive, too. It was a really interesting project that ended up developing into something that I think we're both proud of, and we, in abbreviated form, we actually presented it at a food culture and literature conference.
What was the first day like on the truck?
Vacca: We just started selling stuff. We had no idea how we were going to be received. And slowly but surely on Temple's campus we started getting traction pretty quickly. After that, we started doing some events on the weekends. And things that would involve the city at large, basically, as opposed to just college communities. We were shocked at how many folks who were from Hawaii lived in Philadelphia.
Aranita: People were coming up to the truck that I had gone to middle school with in Hawaii. It happened more than once.
Why open a restaurant?
Aranita: We spent quite a long time at the truck. I think people who had the intention of going from truck to restaurant tend to make the jump too soon. We didn't until we had the truck for about four years, because opening a restaurant was never really on the horizon. Honestly, when we started the truck, we did not think it would get the response that it did. We had to turn down a lot of business because everybody wanted to book us in advance. And it really sucks, turning down business. So we knew that we had grow. We also had the smallest food truck of all time, that only fits two people on it at once. In order to grow, we knew we had to go … brick and mortar. I think the trucking scene in Philly has diminished in its fervor somewhat in the last five years.
Why do you think that is?
Vacca: There was very intense and quick ramp-up in the interest in food trucks, surely from the customers' perspectives, but also even maybe just proportionately so from people who wanted to start food trucks. That was back in 2012 or '13, when anybody who had the idea that they maybe wanted to open up a food truck seemed to be doing it, ourselves included. There was really good reception, but it ended up being that there were so many things opening, and there were very limited options for these trucks to be directly vending to the public, outside of say, large festivals that were maybe, four, five, six a year.
Aranita: And the limited public, as well. There are only so many people in Philadelphia who have time to run out to a food truck during lunch hour.
Vacca: Along with that, the Philadelphia restaurant scene has been getting better and better with higher-end dining, and it's also been getting better with folks that have done higher-end dining [who] are starting to branch out into casual lunch places. I think that there's just more options.
Why Hawaii-inspired food?
Aranita: I don't know how to make Mexican tacos. It was just really the sort of food that we thought Philly could use because we missed it a lot.
Are these family recipes?
Aranita: For the most part, it's me and Chris tinkering in the kitchen and trying to replicate, and make better, the food that we love about Hawaii.
Did anything in your academic career prepare you for this?
Aranita: There were things teaching prepared us to deal with the staff, in some ways. To teach people about food that they have never encountered. I think that takes a lot of patience. Proper explanation. I also did promotional marketing for a good chunk of my time in graduate school, so that helped.
If somebody walks in here completely clueless, what would you steer them to?
Aranita: I would ask how hungry they are. If they're just a little bit hungry, then I'd steer them toward one of our poke bowls. If they haven't tried poke before, then I'll tell them that they can do like a half spicy ahi poke and half shoyu ahi poke bowl, so that they can try a couple different things. I definitely want to encourage people to try different things. If they're on the hungrier side, I would steer them toward the plate lunch side of the menu. Plate lunches always come with two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. We didn't make that up. That's what a plate lunch is. And you can get kalua pig, mochi nori fried chicken, or pork belly adobo, which is our sort-of Filipino pork belly.
What do you think about all these poke shops opening?
Aranita: Well, we don't do California-style poke, which are sort of like salad bars, where you go and you choose a bunch of things and have somebody mix them all together for you according to your specification. Poke in Hawaii is not like that. At all. You go to a place that's generally very casual, and you choose a poke that's been premixed or preprepared for you.
Vacca: For instance, today I was taking an order and someone came in and ordered the shoyu ahi poke, and she asked, 'Does it come with avocado?' And I said, 'No.' And she said, 'That's strange. I've never had poke without avocado.' And I had to explain, 'In Hawaii, I've never had poke with avocado.' It's just not something that happens.
Aranita: A lot of people want vegetables to mix into their pokes or serve it over salad greens.
Will you do it?
What about giving the customers what they want?
Vacca: We are making sure that we represent the cuisine that we're serving. I mean, we do a little bit of tinkering here and there for some stuff, but it would be weird, like, when we have folks from Hawaii come in, if we were serving poke over salad, they would be like, 'What are you doing?' We take that into consideration. … And it has been transported from Hawaii to the mainland, and through that process, I think changed. That's fine. And people enjoy it, whatever.
Aranita: I wish they would call it something else rather than poke. Like maybe a fish salad or something.
Vacca: I think it's not talked about enough in the Philly food scene. I think it's just relatively accepted the way that the poke trend has altered the dish. Poke in Hawaii differs from how it's being served in the mainland and other places. It seems pretty straightforward, but for some reason, I think people run into this problem like, 'What's the big deal? I just want it on the thing that I want it on. I want it in a wrap.' Well, we don't have salad greens, and we don't have wraps and stuff, but some people do, and it's like, 'Why not?'
Aranita: We also see variations on poke, to accommodate people who don't eat fish. Here we have a tofu poke, and poke doesn't have to be fish. And I think that's often misunderstood. Poke just means 'to slice' or 'to cut' in Hawaii, and it can really refer to anything, sort of. You wouldn't make chicken into poke. You wouldn't mix strawberries into poke. Like, to me, that's just madness. And yet, we see that on menus of these trendy, new poke places. I'm probably just as upset by poke places that corrupt the word poke, like putting in accents. There should never be an accent over the E, ever!
Since it’s pronounced “po-kay,” I think people use the accent to distinguish it from poke.
Aranita: But that's not a good enough reason. Just teach people how to pronounce one two-syllable word.