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Banh Mi For You? Getting to Know Know the Nom Nom Truck

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Say what you will about fusion food (and you will, we know) but Banh Mi happens to be one of the oldest forms of cultural collision cuisine on the books. These east-meets-west eats are now roaming the streets of Los Angeles in a rubber-meets-the road kind of way, thanks to the folks behind the Nom Nom Truck, who launched their mobile eatery this summer to fill the void of Banh Mi on the Westside.

On a recent sunny afternoon we headed over to Brentwood where the Nom Nom Truck had hooked up with Compartes Chocolatier for a lunchtime pairing. The sun was pretty brutal, and the line a little slow-going, and unfortunately they'd run out of the char siu pork we'd been hungering for by the time we made it up to the window. We ended up ordering one of the three combos offered on their menu, opting to pair a 6" grilled pork sandwich with two Lemongrass Chicken tacos and a soda for $7. This lunch marked our first venture into Banh Mi territory, actually, and it turned out to be a pleasant one. The meat was tender and flavorful, and played nicely into the melange of chewy, crusty bread and crisp, cool accoutrement like the slivers of carrot and tangy cilantro. The taco was comprised of a tortilla a little more like one of those low-carb herb-flavored tortillas that you get at the store or in a "wrap" style sandwich, which brought a surprising texture to the table; the chicken, however, had the perfect texture and flavor, and made a light but satisfying bite.

After our Banh Mi initiation, LAist got the chance to toss a few questions in the direction of David Stankunas, a UCLA grad and one of Nom Nom's three very busy entrepreneurial minds. See what he has to say about their food, their fans, the learning curve, and the whole food truck craze.

How have things been since the launch? Is it what you imagined the food truck life would be?

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Since our launch, things have remained very hectic! However, as we head into our fourth week of operation, we're beginning to get the hang of what to expect and how much food to bring out. As we get to know our locations better, and we visit certain areas for the second or third time, I think everyone is much better prepared physically and mentally to handle a shift.

Running a popular food truck has definitely been an interesting experience. It has definitely been more stressful than I expected, but I think a lot of that stems from being new to the whole food truck game. I imagine a lot of the things that cause a fair bit of stress now will be easily handled as if it were second nature a few more weeks down the line. New locations are always a point of concern the night before, since we don't really know what the turnout will be like, whether we'll have trouble finding parking, or if local businesses or police may not take kindly to us setting up shop. The nights before we head to a new area are always pretty sleepless.

Tough stuff aside, having a popular food truck definitely has its upside! It's fun visiting certain areas and seeing a large turnout of hungry fans who have been following you for weeks or even months! Any time a happy customer praises us on our banh mi or thanks us for finally bringing banh mi to their area, it always brings a smile to our faces. Booking catering gigs in Los Angeles can also be a lot of fun, since there are bound to be some celebrities in attendance.

What adjustments, if any, are you making or planning to make to what you do?

We're constantly adjusting our operations, menu, marketing, scheduling...everything really! We receive a lot of feedback via Twitter, Facebook and various reviews on Web sites such as Yelp. We read absolutely everything and consider all comments, both good and bad, about our food, truck, locations, etc... It's very important for us to be close with our customers and do our best to connect directly with them. Our goal is to provide our customers with the best banh mi experience possible, and there's no better way to find out how to do that than by listening to what our customers are saying!

We've already made several adjustments to our menu based on feedback from our customers. For example, we now offer Maggi, a popular seasoning sauce, outside on our truck. We also allow pate to be included on all our sandwiches (not just the Deli Special) upon request. We've also added jalapenos to all our sandwiches by default, but will take them out if requested. We actually had all these things readily available from the start, but we didn't do a good job of promoting what options our customers had. After a few weeks of feedback and comments, we quickly learned how to improve our offering.

Another thing we've learned and adjusted to is the number of people needed on our truck for a lunch shift vs. an evening shift. When we first started, we were running around the truck, bumping into each other...just looking a little lost in general. We didn't have a good system for quickly making sandwiches and tacos and getting them out to our customers. While we still bump into each other quite a bit (the truck is pretty cramped), we definitely have improved our prep time and can fill orders much more quickly than before. Since we're working faster, we've lowered the number of people working on the truck slightly, which has actually made us more productive because we have a little more space to work. I think in another 2 weeks, we'll be even faster than we are now and really get our lines moving quickly!

As for scheduling, we're still trying to work out what to do on with our evenings and nights. Lunch has been great for us so far, but evenings and nights are still a bit of a mystery. We've had some good nights, and some very bad ones. We're re-evaluating how to go about finding locations for evening/night shifts and will probably try to focus on partnering with established locations such as bars and lounges vs. just parking on a random street and relying on foot traffic and Twitter.

All in all, everything is still very much a work in progress. We've still only been around for less than a month, and as a team with no food industry background, we have a whole lot to learn. That being said, I think we've made some really good progress in our operations, and we're feeling a lot better about our scheduling. Hopefully we'll nail everything down well enough to a point where we can stop stressing about the operations and locations, and start looking at some fun marketing and promotional efforts!

What's your most popular item? What should everyone not miss out on?

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Our most popular item right now is probably the Grilled Pork (Thit Nuoung) Banh Mi. That particular banh mi is also my favorite, and definitely should not be missed! Add a lemongrass chicken taco and a drink to that and you've got yourself a great meal for only $7!

How would you describe your food to someone who's never heard of Banh Mi?

Banh Mi is basically classic fusion. You've got a French baguette (slightly altered to use rice flour, making it more airy, yet remaining crunchy on the outside) mixed with Vietnamese meats and veggies. In the end, banh mi is still just a sandwich, so for the uninitiated, it really isn't too imposing. The different components of a banh mi (baguette, pork or chicken, cucumber, jalapeno, mayo, pickled carrot and daikon, cilantro, pate, etc...) really aren't anything that would scare people away. Thankfully we don't have to convince people to eat raw fish and seaweed for the first time like sushi pioneers had to 25 years ago. ;)

What's your take on the food truck phenom?

I think the whole food truck phenomenon is great! People are getting to experience all new types of food in a fun, unique atmosphere, in a convenient location!

Los Angeles is probably one of the best places in the country to nurture this food truck craze. There are highly dense pockets of people all over LA that can support business, yet we're spread out just enough to accommodate a lot of trucks AND restaurants/businesses. Hopefully the trend of food truck popularity continues and food trucks become a viable food option, and not just a trendy fad. The introduction of these new "alternative" food trucks simply offers Los Angeles more food options, both in type of cuisine and location, so I don't see why the city won't continue to embrace us.

How do you make use of social networking and blogging?

We think it's very important to be closely connected with our customers. We love getting feedback and rely on it to improve our business. Social networking sites allow us to quickly and easily interact directly with our customers. By interacting with our customers, it also allows them to better know us and what we're all about. Blogging, updating Facebook, and Twittering allows our customers to see that we're more than just a business; we're real people that will listen to their suggestions.

Yes it's nice to use Twitter and Facebook to update people on where we're parking our truck, but the real power of those tools comes from the ability to form a relationship with our customers. We want Nom Nom to represent something more than just a place to get a quick bite to eat. We hope that the Nom Nom brand will come to represent great food, great people, and a fun time! We're not going to get that by just telling people where we're going to park for the day, we're only going to get that by interacting with our customers, listening to what they want, and sharing our experiences with them. We want to do as much as we can to bring our fans into the Nom Nom family!

You'll find the Nom Nom Truck all over town...use their website or Twitter to track them down.