Street food starts in St. Clair kitchen
Rice balls rolled onto city’s MeNu
The night before taking his fried rice balls to the public for the first time at TO Food Fest in June, Allen Tan was excited but panicking.
“I was stuck making miniature rice balls by hand, and I never realized how much work it took so I was stressed,” he recalls. “When we got there we had one little fryer, but we had the longest line in the place and we sold out in an hour and a half — 300 rice balls, so it was a really good welcoming to the food scene.”
As MeNu, Tan and Bryan Siu-Chong, his business partner and best friend since childhood, offer Asian-inspired street food in the form of fried rice balls with creative names.
There is Porkzilla (pork belly, veggies and mozzarella) and Pokéball (Chinese sausage, veggies and smoked mozzarella) and Angry Birds (roasted chicken, veggies and mozzarella), and then the fan (and his personal) favourite: Gangnam Style, which is stuffed with beef short ribs.
“I’ve fused some of the flavours of southeast Asia with the unique concepts of the west coast — of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver — because they have a better understanding of the street food culture at the moment, compared to Toronto,” Tan notes from the back of Urban Bistro on St. Clair Avenue West near Yonge Street, where he prepares the balls.
Since deciding to start his own food truck in May 2012, Tan has been documenting his journey online. He volunteered with food trucks in Toronto and travelled across North America and Asia to gain experience in the industry and develop ideas for his own venture. While he doesn’t yet own a food truck, he frequently partakes in pop-up events and festivals such as the Toronto Underground Market.
“It’s not just the food I’m selling you,” he says. “The food almost comes secondary to the brand.
“I want to tell you the whole story attached to it, and how I started from nothing — no experience, no capital, no education in the culinary world — and how I took a methodical process of acquiring a food business.
“I want to show you how to be an entrepreneur, how to start your own food truck or even chase your own dream, because it was my dream a year ago to start my own food truck.”
With the name MeNu, which also stands for “me and you,” Tan hopes to change the way people read a regular menu: by making them think of his compan whenever they see a menu.
And with the tagline “Travel, Eat, Share” in tow, in January Tan and Siu-Chong are taking their business to Bangkok and Singapore in hopes of collaborating with food vendors abroad.
“With all the knowledge that we’ve acquired in Toronto doing these pop-ups and food events, we’re going to try to bring it over to Asia and do the same thing over there,” he says.
Not only does he have a roster of contacts from his previous travels, he hopes his English skills will help draw in some of the many tourists as customers.
“Last week I e-mailed a couple food trucks in Singapore and just told them the story of how I’ve been starting a food business from nothing and they were willing to collaborate when I go back in January,” he says. “When I go back to Bangkok, why can’t I talk to the tourists and say, ‘Hey, I’m from Toronto, I’m doing a food pop-up in the middle of Bangkok, here are my cards,’ while documenting the whole thing?”
Through his previous travels he was able to meet the founder of Kogi BBQ Taco Truck, an iconic Los Angeles and Orange County based taco truck that birthed the food truck movement, as well as the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race season two winners, whose offerings include a Kimchi fried rice ball.
“I had it and I was like, okay that’s a good medium to transport the flavours and ideas that I want, but I’m going to take it a step further: I’m going to put cheese in it,” he says. “I’m going to top it and decorate it like a gourmet item.
“The fried rice ball evolved and it’s still growing.”
As their whereabouts are always changing, Tan suggests checking Facebook or Twitter to find out where they’ll be serving next.
“I’m sure if people want to tweet me, ‘I want to come try some of your rice balls at Urban Bistro’ I’ll be like, ‘Okay, how about you come in on Friday, I’ll make some for you,’ ” he says, grinning. “I’m willing to do that just because if you want to try it there’s no reason for me to say no.”
Although his childhood dream was to become an automotive engineer, Tan puts his own spin on the path he follows today.
“Now instead of designing cars, I’m designing food,” he says. “Instead of engineering cars, I’m engineering flavours.”
About this article: