The New Dog in Town

The rising popularity of Asian fusion cuisine within the food truck phenomenon 

by laurie song

Upper Sproul is a UC Berkeley landmark usually packed with various student groups and students trying to avoid their flyers. Though the students are a permanent fixture, the food trucks dotting the entrance to our campus seem to be ever-changing. This year, one of the notable additions is Dojo Dog, a small Asian fusion food truck with big ambitions.

Food trucks serving specialty foods are a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. Though food trucks and street vendors existed well before the 21st century, entrepreneurial food trucks with an emphasis on creative, gourmet foods have experienced a resurgence in popularity since 2008, with the economic downturn and the advent of social media. For aspiring restaurateurs, food trucks are a relatively inexpensive way to sell food and bring it to the people. The medium also allows chefs to take greater creative risks. Menus are often not only fun and inventive but fluid, taking into account customers’ feedback and suggestions. Once established, food trucks rely on word-of-mouth and social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp to maintain the truck’s fan base while expanding the brand to new customers.

Perhaps the most well-known food truck on the West Coast is Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles, which serves Korean Mexican fare such as spicy pork tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Kogi, which took off in 2008, now has almost 98,000 followers on Twitter keeping up with its ever-changing locations and menu, and has become something of a traveling landmark. Their success has been so great that they have now expanded to five trucks and one sit-down bar. In the wake of its success, many Asian American entrepreneurs have followed in Kogi’s tire tracks and started their own Asian fusion food trucks.

Asian fusion cuisine has roots in Asian colonial history when Western imperialism initiated the diffusion of different food culture elements across Western and Asian boundaries. Some foods we consider to be familiar today—chicken tikka masala, pearl milk tea, halo halo—incorporate both sides of that colonial history. Later, with the increase of globalization and transnationalism around the 19th century, Asian immigrants came to the United States, bringing their cuisines and food traditions with them. Though some settled in ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns, assimilation and acculturation were inevitable, resulting in distinctively Asian American foods such as Chinese chicken salad, spam musubi, egg rolls, California rolls, and fortune cookies.

Today, Asian foods and their Americanized fusion counterparts are relatively established in the American mainstream food culture. A century ago, raw fish on vinegared rice would probably have been met with disgust and a lot of questions. Trying a new food, while potentially eye-opening, can also be seen as an accessible and safe way to demonstrate one’s cultural curiosity and open-mindedness.

Today’s new generation of Asian Americans is creating a different and deliberate form of Asian fusion cuisine, and the mobile food truck is quickly becoming their investment of choice. Though they all share the same passion for delicious food, regardless of origin, each proprietor has a different story to tell.

Michael Koh, a 3rd year Environmental Economics undergraduate student at UC Berkeley who emigrated from Taiwan at the age of 16, is the owner of Dojo Dog, which opened for business in January 2012. Dojo Dog “combine[s] the classic American hot dog with the unique flavors of Asia,” with hot dog toppings ranging from seaweed and Japanese mayonnaise to teriyaki sauce and pork sung.

The story behind Dojo Dog starts out as perhaps many a Berkeley student’s Friday night does: after a night of inebriated revelry, Koh and his friends decided to go to Top Dog. However, upon their return, they realized they had forgotten to add any condiments to their hot dogs. With no ketchup or mustard at home, they grabbed the closest thing, a bottle of teriyaki sauce, which yielded surprisingly tasty results. After the first inspired creation, Koh began to experiment with different flavor combinations, and eventually his friends suggested that he take the concept a step further. He researched different mobile food regulations and finally settled on a bright blue food truck branded with a cartoon image of his own Shiba Inu in Taiwan—creating Dojo Dog.

When asked how he balances school and his new business, Koh is nonchalant. “To me, school is a good place, but I want to do more while I’m still a student,” he says.

“Being a student allows me to fund the business because I’m using my living expenses and tuition money my parents gave me to do this. My parents still don’t know anything about this to this day. My dream is: when they come here to visit me from Taiwan for my graduation, I’m going to take them to the truck and I’m going to be like, ‘Hey, let me show you this great place, it’s very delicious,’ and after they’ve tried it I’m going to be like, ‘That’s mine.’”

Despite the fact that Koh’s father and sister are both entrepreneurs, he doubts that his parents would be supportive of his venture, which is why he’s keeping his business a secret until the big surprise.

“Though my parents are adventurous themselves, they don’t want their kids to take risks,” says Koh. “They’re very, very strict, and they’ll call me every week to ask me how school is, how my grades are, how I did on the midterm. That’s all they ask, and I just hated it. I wanted to do my own thing.”

Koh credits Taiwan’s diverse food culture as part of the reason he is so passionate about food, though his current menu is still mainly Japanese-inspired because Americans are more familiar with Japanese ingredients.

“You can have the greatest food in the world, but if people don’t want to try it and are scared of it, then it’s not going to work,” he states. However, after he establishes a strong brand image and customer base, he looks forward to expanding the menu and introducing Asian ingredients that are less familiar to the American palate.

A self-professed “foodie,” Koh looks forward to one day expanding Dojo Dog as part of the food truck trend, possibly into San Francisco or as a part of Off the Grid, an organized group of mobile food vendors that travels across the Bay Area (including a stop in North Berkeley) as a weekly “market.” He sees potential for his business not just as another quick bite on Upper Sproul, but as the newest Asian fusion addition to the ranks of other like-minded entrepreneurial food trucks before him.

Ultimately, the driving force behind the current food truck phenomenon isn’t simply that people are looking to satisfy their hunger—it’s that they’re looking for a new experience, for an affordable adventure, for food that challenges all of their senses in the most deliciously unexpected way. Dojo Dog and other Asian fusion food trucks aim to do just that.