Of all the food trucks in Houston that have opened in the past year, few have captured the imagination of Houston food enthusiasts in quite the way Joshua Martinez has with his truck The Modular. Instead of a theme like burgers or pizza, The Modular is centered around whatever Martinez wants to serve. From ramen to tacos to lobster risotto, there's hardly any cuisine that The Modular hasn't served at least once. That flexibility has made it an attractive destination for unemployed chefs to host one-off pop up style dinners with the truck. It's also the ethic that's driven the recent food truck chef takeover of the Grand Prize kitchen.
Martinez spoke to Eater about how he decided to start a food truck and what his greatest successes and biggest struggles have been in his first year.
You had a good job at Kata Robata. Why did you decide to open a food truck?
Honestly, 7 years ago, now 8 years ago, this idea popped up in my head. I was driving to work in Austin to another sushi restaurant I was working for and I saw taco trucks eveywhere. I'd go and eat these tacos I'd go man this is such great food. I like the idea of very easy to get food. Then it got a little more solid when I almost lost my life for a torta.
I was riding my scooter down Congress. I picked up some tortas and put them in my scooter. This car came out of nowhere and I got hit. The bike was completely lost, but for some reason I only came out with a bruised heel. I was amazed. I was going about 50mph. That right there I realized I've gotta do something with food trucks.
When I got back (to Houston) I started work at the Azuma Group. I enjoyed my work. I loved it. I got asked to go to Kata Robata, because we were bringing Seth (Siegel-Gardner) in. I wanted to be part of that. As soon as Seth was about to leave, when his tenure was up. That's when I decided I'm done working in restaurants. I want to finish this idea that I had. At that moment, I decided to start looking, find the trailer, get it built, get out there and start serving the food you want to serve. That's how The Modular started.
You were originally partnered with Ben Rabbani.
I knew that my cooking chops weren't close to anyone else. I'm a front of house person. I trained my palate through the years. I know what I like. I know what flavors pair well. The translation from what I know and putting it on a plate was very hard for me to do. I needed a chef. I went looking for people who were leaving their jobs. At the time, that was the beginning of the great exodus of chefs throughout the city: they left on good terms, bad terms, whatever. They all just decided to walk out. I went to Ben Rabbani, but my work ethic and his work ethic were totally different. Not for bad, not for good. I saw that if I wanted to go forward with the project and to succeed I needed somebody else who was more in line with the way I was thinking.
How did Lyle Bento come on?
Almost two weeks later, Lyle was available. We talked for a little bit about him coming on board. He was, like, yes, of course. That's when I went all out. Ben left two days later. We started developing, pushing the envelope. We went with the (original) idea for the menu for a little bit of time. I started getting pigeon-holed as Japanese fusion blah blah blah. That's the one thing I didn't want The Modular to be. I didn't want it to be one particular item, one particular type of cuisine. So we started doing everything and anything we could get out hands on.
I think our first change up was at 13 Celsius we did all Northern Italian cuisine. That was the very first time that we added a whole different type of cuisine to the menu. We felt safe adding a few of theose items with some of the other items we already had. Then we added a few items that were not Italian and not Japanese inspired. That's when we figured out The Modular was what it was. Anything. We'd wake up in the morning. We decided to make gumbo. Both of us had never made gumbo before. We'd eaten it. We decided to try and make it.
You've collaborated with at least a dozen chefs. Which one was your favorite?
Our favorite was the one where we didn't have to do anything. That was Chris Shepherd and Antoine Ware: Hay Merchant versus Underbelly inside the truck. It's honestly the first imte you got to see a lot of the stuff that's on the menu today. They were obviously working on it on their own, but the Korean dumplings ? that was the very first time anybody got to see that dish. It was really fun for us because Lyle and I got to give this little baby to them and say, alright figure it out, have fun.
It was a pretty interesting time. Putting 2 of the larger than life chefs inside that little can. What they produced was really fun. That's the fun about being on both sides of the fence for so long. You have friends that are in brick and mortar. It's fun to grab these guys and bring them into your life for a little bit and show them “this is our kitchen.”
Every unemployed chef rotated through.
During that whole weird period where everybody was coming and going and not knowing where they were going to end up, they all jumped on the truck. The only person who's never done it is Seth Gardner. I've tried. Over and over. He won't do it. I begged him. Who knows? I might still be able to get him before he opens up (Pass and Provisions).
Jonathon Jones did JJ vs Randy (Rucker). (Justin) Bayse and Peter (Jahnke) did Les Sauvages redux for the opening of Alex (Gregg's) photo show. It was really fun, because once again they redid a lot of their menu items on the truck. They picked some of their favorites.
What's been the hardest part about doing this?
Cleaning the truck everyday. Moving it with all your product. Think of the idea that you have your whole restaurant kitchen. Now you have to figure out a way to keep everything from moving while you're driving on the Houston streets. We all know Houston streets are not fun. I think all the food trucks have mapped out what streets are the smoothest and how to get from one area of town to another. We all share that information.
Usually in a kitchen you tear everything down, you put everything away and that's it. (On the truck), you have to tear down, put everything away then drive a long way to wherever your commissary might be, which is usually nowhere close. Get there and decide if you're going to clean your truck that night or come back early in the morning for a full clean out.
How hard was it to replace Lyle? How do you feel about where you're at right now?
It's fun because I've now had to do all the base prep and cooking. If you asked me to do it this time last year, I would have told you no way. I would have probably closed up. Lyle was instrumental in showing me a lot in the kitchen and how to do it right with the speed and precision that he has. Almost twice a week we call each other and talk about what to do. For the whole fish dish I wanted to do, he told me the most fail-safe way for me to do it without screwing it up completely. I wanted to grill it 100%. He told me no way. Fry it first, then grill it. Small things like that.
Do you consider yourself the leader of the food truck community?
I don't want to say that. There are better people and much more eloquent leaders in our group. I'm vocal. I definitely won't stray from a good fight, with the city or if I feel like somebody's doing something that's not conducive to the group I'll definitely call that truck out. Not publicly but I'll definitely talk to them. If and when we go in front of City Council, I will be there at the forefront. There are people who have been doing this longer than I have. Who have made strides in changing the policy.
Have you learned to live with the regulations, or do you feel stifled?
I definitely feel stiffled. We take a chance everyday we go and park at a bar. At any time, our friends at the Health Department can give us a ticket for being too close to chairs. I've never gotten one. After this article, I will. I'm very good friends with those people. I'm up there every week to ask questions.
Who is your favorite truck?
Serena Seafood. Her food has blown me away. She is a truly naturally talented chef, cook, whatever you want to call her. She cooks from the heart. You can taste it in the food. See some of the most incredible stuff coming out of that little green truck. Some of us we're definitely ? putting out products that are more ? gimmicky. There's a lot of gimmicky food out. As long as you put crap on top of fries you're not gonna go out of business. It will sell no matter what.
What's the next generation of food trucks?
Food trucks that are really, honestly chef-driven. You see it in other markets. Paul Qui's truck has not been a gimmick truck. They make good, izakaya-style bar food. He and his partners come out with a really great product.
We have enough Korean-fusion, burger trucks. There's another one that just came out, Koagie. It's pretty impressive. Three weeks it took them from concept to build out to permitting. It's probably a $75,000 truck. The owners went all out. Did they make a good investment? I don't think so. We know how much money we make. For anybody who's investment minded, I wouldn't invest my money in a food truck because you won't see your money back for two or three years. If I want my money back, I want it in the first year. They better come up with something really incredible out of that truck.
Let's talk about the cheese truck.
Lyle and I came up with doing grilled cheeses awhile back. There was another truck that was gonna come out. Out of respect we won't touch it. It was a pipe dream for somebody and never came out. I decided we'd bring it out.
What are you going to serve?
All things cheese related. Probably five grilled cheeses as the base menu. We'll add to the menu. I've sourced and will have cheese curds. Nobody has them in town, but you can order them and get them sent to you. In two or three weeks, I'll have my first 20 pounds to play with. The Houston Dairymaids have been incredibly helpful. Next week I'll start staging at the Dairymaids to get a little more focus and knowledge on cheeses. I want to concept this whole menu 100%. I want to do it by myself with very little help from other chefs. If I fail, I fail by myself.
Joshua Martinez [Facebook]