Talking with Trip and Ulka Shriver of Backstreets Catering
1. Tell us about Backstreets Catering
We’re a food truck serving healthy homestyle food from across America. Every item on our menu hails from the backstreets of a certain American town or city. The food we serve is authentic to its roots while featuring a fresh set of ingredients and preparation that’s as healthy as possible.
2. Why did you choose that style of food for Backstreets Catering?
Ulka: Trip has lived in various corners of the country and he’s always been one to savor the foods he comes across. He’s spent time in the Southwest, from California to Texas. He grew up in New Jersey, and that's where he came to appreciate a good cheesesteak. We haven’t featured seafood on the truck yet, but Trip later grew up in New England, and our catering menu has a number of coastal options. Trip has spent most of his adult life in Virginia, and he's really developed his own pulled pork barbeque during that time - we think it comes from neighboring Tennessee more than the Carolinas to the south.
Trip: I wanted a bit of an eclectic menu, featuring the foods I really enjoy. I’m a cheesesteak fanatic. I love them, but I want a good one, not something made with Steak-Ums or a poor cut of meat. And a good cheesesteak requires a good roll. So, my idea was to pick a few things and make them right.
3. Are all your items based on regional specialties?
We use city streets as the theme for the food, and when an item is from a certain region we want to be authentic. But there are a few items that were named for a region, not necessarily because the items hail from that part of the country more than others, but for other reasons. For instance, we named our grilled cheese sandwich for Green Bay, Wisconsin, just because that region is known for its cheeses ... and for Cheesehead football fans.
4. How did you come up with your current menu?
We wanted something that would appeal to a wide range of people.
The Philly Cheesesteak is delicious and it’s a classic that appeals both to people from the Northeast as well as those who've traveled to Philadelphia and fallen for this sandwich. It's a hard task to find an authentic cheesesteak this far from Philadelphia - in just a couple of months, we're already known as the place for this speciality.
Being in the South, we knew we needed to represent barbecue - the pulled pork sandwich, done Memphis style, with a sweet and tangy sauce as well as a dollop of our signature salsa. We have a giant rotisserie smoker, and we wanted a feature that took advantage of that attraction, so that’s that’s how we came up with the smoked chicken. It isn't a true Buffalo wing-style recipe, but our chicken thighs are marinated in a homemade hot sauce before they hit the rotisserie, and we serve it with a dipping pepper sauce.
With the quesadillas and tacos, we’re serving up something that’s popular and a little trendy. And they work well because they let us feature the pork that comes off our rotisserie, in a way that's a little different from all the barbeque options we see in this region, as well as highlighting our signature homemade "Road Trip Salsa." We also sell chips and salsa, and jars of both our red and green varieties of salsa.
5. What’s Road Trip Salsa?
Trip: It’s our own salsa, made from a recipe that evolved from one used at a Mexican restaurant I owned previously. It's come to be fresher and lighter - a truly unique recipe. The salsa is faithful to our idea of being really tasty and healthy - it’s made with just tomatoes, peppers and lime. There are no artificial preservatives or additives of any kind. The name "Road Trip" plays off the idea of Backstreets. The speed limit on the jar indicates the level of heat - the higher the speed limit, the hotter it gets. I use a secret paste I've developed, made with three different peppers, to infuse heat in varying degrees. The red salsa comes in at 65 mph and the green salsa is a sweeter 45 mph ride. Traditionally, salsa verde is milder, and used more often for cooking. People really like the salsa so we’re working on having it placed in some retail stores. For now, we use it in our recipes and we’re also selling jars canned and labeled by us at the trailer. Once we get a little momentum in our sales, we’ll market the salsa professionally. At that point, we plan to sell it with a "side-car," which is a separate packet of our secret pepper paste, so customers can set their own levels of heat.
6. What’s a good item to highlight your salsa?
The Memphis Pulled Pork Sandwich. Our unique spin on the traditional pulled pork barbecue sandwich is to add our Road Trip Salsa along with a traditional barbecue sauce. It gives a little flavor and heat that you won’t find anywhere else. That comes on top of the pork itself, which starts with our own special rub and then gets smoked until it falls off the bone. The way we smoke it makes the pork really tender. Some people assume it must be fatty to be that tender, but it’s not - it’s actually quite lean - it’s the type of meat we use and the smoking process that makes the meat tender.
7. Do you smoke on location?
Trip: Yes. When I pull up to do lunch at an office building I’ll arrive early and throw on the meat and chicken. Sometimes, when people order, I pull their lunch right off the smoker.
8. Why did you decide to make the smoker a part of the truck?
Trip: When I was looking for a truck I went online and looked at a few different websites. When I saw a truck that had this giant rotisserie on the back I knew right away that I had to have it. That sucked me in, then I built the inside around what I wanted to do with the rotisserie. I love the rotisserie. It’s 72 inches wide and holds 450 pounds of meat on 6 shelves that rotate around the inside. It’s really a wonderful piece of equipment. It smokes with a combination of wood and hardwood lump charcoal. It does everything, including vegetables. When I was in Virginia I used to load the rotisserie up and do everything there - zucchini, squash, asparagus, broccoli, sweet potatoes, new potatoes - everything went in the smoker and came out perfectly.
9. Can you tell us about your Buffalo style chicken?
We start by marinating bone-in chicken thighs in our homemade hot sauce overnight. In the morning we smoke the chicken on our rotisserie - nothing is deep fried - and then we serve three bone-in thighs with a dipping sauce that’s either hot or not-so-hot. The rotisserie adds a smoky, hot flavor and it’s much healthier than deep frying.
10. Can you describe your Philly Sandwich?
It starts with shaved rib-eye. If you're in Philadelphia and someone serves you a cheesesteak that’s not made with rib-eye they’ll probably be run out of town. That’s what they use in Philadelphia - a thin-shaved rib-eye. You don’t want to have to rip the meat apart either - that’s why we chop it up as we’re cooking it. It’s easily eaten and it’s lean because the fat melts away as it’s cooked. Our Phillys come with caramelized, grilled onions and green peppers. All of our sandwiches are served on buns from Cinotti’s Bakery.
11. Why did you choose Cinotti’s Bakery for your buns?
We knew what we wanted in terms of the bread we needed for our sandwiches. We wanted a sub roll with a thin, crusty layer on the outside to give it a bit of crustiness, but then with a nice, soft interior. To find the right bun we ate a lot of bread from a lot of local bakeries. We had been steered towards Cinotti’s by locals, and when we tried them we knew right away that Cinotti’s had what we wanted.
12. What’s the Tiajuana?
It’s a quesadilla, but it’s a little different from the American concept. We use a corn tortilla, which is traditional to Mexico, rather than a flour tortilla. We melt a blend of cheeses and fold the tortilla in half. We serve three quesadillas with cups of sour cream and salsa for dipping. You can also add pork to it, from the rotisserie, with a touch of salsa - that's how most folks like them best. It’s nice and crisp on the outside and ooey, gooey good on the inside.
13. Will you be serving breakfast?
With the Beaches opening up to food trucks, we’re hoping to serve on weekend mornings and late nights - breakfast will be an option, for sure. We had a regular breakfast service in Virginia, and it was quite popular. Recently, we brought back our breakfast favorites on Sunday mornings at Palm Cover Marina on the Intercoastal waterway (map).
14. What do you have for breakfast?
We have a Breakfast Burrito which has a very good chorizo for the meat and real, fresh eggs that are beaten to order with cheese and salsa. In addition, we cook eggs to order, offer bacon and sausage and fire up hashbrown potatoes - we can prepare breakfast sandwiches or full breakfast meals with these.
15. What’s the most popular item on the truck?
It’s 50-50 with the Philly Cheesesteak edging out the Memphis Pulled Pork Sandwich by just a bit. Everyone has their own favorite place for barbecue and we’re slowing winning over our own fans, but our cheesesteak is very unique in this market, and time after time people tell us that we have one of the only authentic Philly Cheesesteaks outside city limits. So we’re probably building our biggest following around the cheesesteak. If you’re from the North, it’s a piece of home. So, that’s probably our biggest claim to fame.
16. Do you have set locations yet?
Not entirely. We’ve been in Riverside near the Fidelity and Everbank towers on Fridays. We’re going to be at Palm Cove Marina on Sunday mornings from 10am - 2pm. We’re also looking towards locations in the Beach area now that they have relaxed their restrictions on food trucks. The best thing is to follow us on Facebook to see our latest location.
17. Do you do a lot of catering?
It’s definitely a big part of what we’re about. We have the truck and a whole range of steam tables so that we can serve in any environment, inside or out. We've marketed ourselves toward community events, family gatherings and even casual business meetings; we used to carry our fare in to banquets, but these days people are crazy about food trucks and enjoy the ease and charm of walk-up service. Our largest event was an 800-person picnic dinner during Washington, D.C.'s Police Week, in honor of and hosting families of fallen law-enforcement officers. That was a tall order for a family owned and operated business, but it was an honor to step up to that challenge. Locally, we've started booking family reunions and even casual wedding dinners.
18. Can you tell us about your background?
Trip: I started in a restaurant when I was 16, working first as a dishwasher and working my way up to being a short order cook. When I graduated high school I joined the service. Afterwards I went back into the restaurant business where I spent my entire adult life. I always loved being in the restaurant environment and being a part of it. My dream was to have my own restaurant, which I eventually opened with a partner. It was a Tex-Mex restaurant in Virginia that we operated for many years. When we eventually decided to go our separate ways, I downsized and we started this mobile catering business. Northern Virginia wasn’t very progressive and didn’t allow food trucks to move about, so we relied on catering and concession contracts. For the most part I was located at a single office park during the week, but we also serviced a lot of Blue Ridge wine-country festivals and did a lot of catering.
19.What drew you into the restaurant business?
Trip: I’ve always enjoyed cooking, whether it was in a restaurant or cooking in our home for friends and family. I’ve always enjoyed people’s reaction to what I cook - it's what I have to give, and it's gratifying when people appreciate it. When someone comes back and gushes over my cheesesteak it makes me feel really good.
20. Why did you go from owning a Tex-Mex restaurant to owning a barbecue style food truck? Why not open a Mexican themed food truck?
Trip: I fell in love with the rotisserie on the back of my trailer as soon as I saw it, and from that time I envisioned it as a barbeque pit. It called my name and said “you’ve got to do this!” I love grilling and smoking. I’ve always loved barbecue, and when I finished with the Tex-Mex restaurant, I found myself freed up to pursue this and other ideas.
21. How did you get to Jacksonville?
Ulka: We’d been in Virginia for a long time but it’s a little more hectic and congested than we wanted as an environment for raising our daughter. We decided to move somewhere warmer and closer to the coast. Trip has a sister who has lived in Jacksonville for a long time so we've come to visit Northeast Florida from time to time. There are so many factors that were right for us here. It’s an emerging city without being too big. It has the beach as well as a thriving downtown. It was southbound, but ecclectic and welcoming. Of course we wanted to be near the beach, so we ended up moving to Ponte Vedra Beach.
22. Where did you get the name of your food truck?
Trip: It’s from a Bruce Springsteen song called "Backstreets." It was on the Born to Run album and is one of my favorite songs. It clicked with me one day because we were going to be on the back streets, and it seemed really fitting and inspiring.