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Food truck craze hits Anchorage as chefs deliver fine dining on the streets

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

With an innovative concept and top-caliber chefs, one of Anchorage's newest food trucks, Urban Bamboo, is going places.

Literally. It's only been three weeks, but in that time John D'Elia and his partners Jake Baniky and Sinh Koy have been spotted around Anchorage in their bright green food truck, serving up Asian-inspired “international epicurean” cuisine.

The food "is something a little more underground that's as good or better than what you'll get in a restaurant,” D'Elia said.

All three chefs boast impressive resumes and a collective 40 years in the restaurant industry. The three have all done time at top Anchorage restaurants, including Ginger, Sack's Cafe and Hott Stixx. D'Elia just finished three years at the Marx Bros. Cafe, two of which he served as executive chef.

Asian food with a twist

The truck serves a variety of skewers, soups, salads and sandwiches all at around $10 or less. D'Elia said the menu could be labeled as Asian, which is accurate, but doesn’t include everything Urban Bamboo serves.

“The food can be anything,” D'Elia said. “We use more Asian technique, but using local ingredients and cultural flavors.”

For D'Elia, it was time to get out of the “dungeons of the kitchen” and onto the street. The truck stays mostly in the Spenard area, setting up shop in the Northern Lights Blockbuster parking lot during weekday lunch hours and the Buckaroo Club bar for late-night weekends.

At least for now. D'Elia said the truck is still figuring out which locations work best. Last weekend, Urban Bamboo parked at the Arctic Thunder Air Show. D'Elia said the chefs prepared 2,000 skewers for the event.

D'Elia came to Alaska six years ago from San Diego, just as the food truck trend began to trickle north. Since then, food truck culture has exploded. Foodies flock to San Francisco and Portland where carts and trucks have formed mini-neighborhoods. The Food Network now has a reality show based on food trucks. Numerous blogs, websites and Twitter feeds have been created that focus solely on mobile food.

Anchorage hosts 172 mobile food units

Anchorage has a thriving if unheralded mobile food scene. Roadside coffee carts are seemingly everywhere. Downtown, hot dog vendors line Fourth Avenue. But while ice cream trucks have been around for years, trucks serving up meals are less common. According to the Anchorage Health Department there are 172 mobile food units. Of that, approximately 37 are truly mobile.

D'Elia said getting the truck on the street was two years in the making. He and his partners worked slowly in their time off fabricating the truck to their specifications. That meant cutting the roof off the top and having welder friends and jet mechanics (D'Elia and Baniky are both armed service veterans) come in to help build a five-foot long Yakitori-style grill.

The grill is where most of the food's "deep" flavor comes from, he said, using both hardwood and charcoal to fire it to up to 800 degrees.

Surf & turf skewers

With the exception of bread and Kimchi, everything is prepared in the 16-foot-long, 7-foot-wide truck. That can include Alaska-style “Surf and Turf” skewers (Alaska spot prawns, salmon and reindeer sausage) Bahn Mi-style sandwiches, pho and the truck's bestseller -- prime rib skewers with spruce tip barbecue sauce.

The plan is for the truck to stay open all-year, even in winter. The menu will change accordingly, he said. For example, this fall, when temperatures dip, the chefs plan to have more Indian-inspired cuisine, including lamb, game meat and winter fish.

D'Elia said he realizes it takes a lot of trust to invest in a food truck. It's different, and maybe even a little scary, but he hopes that both foodies and non-foodies take a risk and try something new.

“It's all still a learning curve,” he said. “We built this truck and spent all this time to see if it will go off or not. It's functioning and it's only gaining more and more popularity. We hope we'll get enough to really take off.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

CORRECTION: The names of Jake Baniky and Hott Stixx were misspelled in an earlier version of this story.