Talking with Izzy and Tracy Tahil about Blue Pacific Grill & Taco Bar
1. Tell us about Blue Pacific Grill & Taco Bar
Izzy: Through my early life I became familiar with a lot of different foods with rich traditions of flavors, textures and cooking styles.
I was born and raised in Singapore where there are a lot of different food cultures. It’s a multicultural country with influences from the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Europe. After college I moved to New York - another melting pot of many different cultures and foods. It is this background, featuring flavors from around the world, that we are bringing to our food truck.
The Blue Pacific Grill & Taco Bar is a reflection of my background and influences. “Taco” is only a partial description of what our truck offers. When you think of a Mexican taco you think about flour tortillas or corn tortillas. We’re using breads from all over Asia. From India, we have Naan and Parathas, and Scallion Pancakes, which are Chinese. What we're trying to do is to introduce Jacksonville to different flavors, not only from Asia, but from the Caribbean, the United States, and all around the world. We want flavors that are different but that everyone can try. Many people associate Asian, Indian and Jamaican food with a lot of spice. But Indian food does not have to be spicy at all. Indian food has one of the most complex spice profiles, but it doesn’t have to be spicy hot. The same is true of Vietnamese food. We have a Lemongrass Pork that we make with Scallion Pancakes. They’re not spicy. Tracy can attest to this. She’s an original Jacksonville resident and her taste buds aren’t attuned to flavors that are overly exotic and spicy. She was the trial person for all our food. She was born and raised in Jacksonville so we figured if she liked something then it would have a broad local appeal.
Most of the tacos have a tiny kick to make them interesting but they’re meant to work for everyone. We put a lot of thought into every taco we make. Not only do we want the right flavors but we also want the right texture - moist, sweet, crunchy, or soft - the goal was to combine everything into a single taco that represented a certain region of the world.
2. Does Singapore have it’s own indigenous type of food or is it the mixing pot?
It’s a mixing pot of cultures. Singapore itself is made up of four distinct cultures - Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. The Eurasian culture, for example, combines Portuguese and British influences. The British ruled Singapore for many years. Did you know that a consistent top ethnic dish in the in the UK is Chicken Tikka Masala? We have a Chicken Tikka Taco that uses the same ingredients and is marinated in the same way as the popular Chicken Masala dish.
3. Do they eat tacos in Singapore?
No! But when Indians eat their Parathas they’ll form them in a way that looks like a taco to us.
4. When did you launch?
On the 25th of January . We launched at the Aardwolf Brewery.
5. Have you adapted your dishes for a US palate or are they similar to what you’d find in the native countries?
If you went to any of the countries we feature tacos from you’ll see that our creations are very popular menu items. So, if you went to Vietnam, Lemongrass Pork or Chicken will be on the menu. Our version won’t be very far from the original.
6. Can you tell us about a few of your tacos?
Representing Latin American fare we have a Carne Asada Steak Taco. This will be in any Latin or Mexican restaurant. We make our own Mojo marinade for the steak and use a Chimichurri sauce over the taco.
We also have a Teriyaki Steak Taco, which is a Japanese inspired dish. It uses a Scallion Pancake to hold the meat, along with cucumber, fried onions, scallions, sesame seeds and Sriracha-YumYum sauce.
We have 3 pork tacos. Our Pulled Pork Taco uses pork that’s slow cooked for over 10 hours. It’s in a sweet sauce over cole slaw, with fried barbecue onions, scallions, homemade chipotle mayo, and potato straws. The potato straws give it a nice crunch. The Pulled Pork Taco will appeal to a wide variety of people. It’s not spicy on its own but for some spice and smoke we top it with a chipotle mayo that we make ourselves. Our Lemongrass Grilled Pork Taco is a Vietnamese inspired dish. We marinate the pork in crushed lemongrass and other spices. As with a lot of Vietnamese food it will be refreshing to the palate. It can fill you up but it feels light to the stomach.
Izzy: I'm a diver and have travelled to the Caribbean a lot. One of my favorite Caribbean dishes is jerk pork. The spices, Scotch Bonnet peppers, and marinades make jerk sauce completely different than what you get from an Indian or Chinese marinades. Our Jerk Pork Taco draws from this Caribbean influence. We use a home made mango-peach salsa that blends with the other ingredients while cucumbers and plantain chips add a crunchy texture to balance the overall taste profile. Tracy doesn’t like really spicy food and the Jerk Pork Taco was the one I was the most worried about her enjoying, but she did!
Tracy: I love it. The flavors in the taco blend so well that no single ingredient is overpowering. The combinations of the textures and flavors is really special.
7. What can you recommend to someone who’s interested in exploring but isn’t overly adventurous?
On the more familiar side we have Latin and Mexican options such as the Carne Steak Asada. If you’re looking for a safe dish that’s also light, the Lemongrass Chicken is a good choice. It’s light and the flavors are easy on the palate.
Our tacos run the gamut from mild to slightly spicy, so it depends on what you feel like eating. If you like pulled pork then our Pulled Pork Taco is sweet and goes really well with the barbecued fried onions and potato straws.
It’s hard to recommend just one thing. We put a lot of thought into having options with broad appeal and you really can’t go wrong trying anything on the menu.
8. What would you recommend to someone wanting to try something a little different?
In that case, I’d recommend trying the Chicken Tikka. It’s a tandoori chicken that’s marinated, then grilled to give it a slight char. It has a typical Indian flavor but not spicy. This is a traditional dish you’d find in any Indian restaurant.
9. What does Tikka mean?
Tikka is a cooking style that involves marinating meat in many spices and then cooking it in a tandoori clay pot. It’s a traditional Indian cooking method.
10. What’s a Paratha?
It’s a staple Indian bread, made from wheat flour that Indians eat with almost every meal they have. The Indians have a great array of breads like paratha, naan, chapatti, and others. Paratha is made with layers of dough to make it fluffier and holds up very well for the tacos.
11. Can you tell us about your vegetarian options?
We’re going to feature a Chick Pea Masala. Masala has spices like garam masala in it that give it an Indian taste profile. It’s a little spicy, but not too hot. Another vegetarian option will be made with a Black beans and packed with different kinds of vegetables.
12. You have a pretty large menu. Did you discard a lot of items as you were making it up or did you keep everything?
We did discard a lot. What’s on the menu represents all our absolute favorites. We had 15 meat dishes to start and had to cut them nearly in half. Where it is now is a good representation of what we can produce consistently and with a lot of quality. We’re already working on new flavor profiles though. There’s definitely room to expand on the menu but what we have now is good for a general introduction, especially for people who may not be really familiar with Vietnamese or Indian food. Our goal is to get people to try something new without being intimidated by it.
13. What’s your single favorite item on the menu?
Izzy: There are two that I really like - the Jamaican Pork Taco and the Chicken Tikka Taco. The spices are all different and it’s hard to compare one to another, so sometimes it just comes down to what I’m in the mood to eat.
Tracy: As we were trying out each new item I kept saying “OK, now that’s my favorite.” I really like the Teriyaki Steak and the Lemongrass Grilled Pork. If I had to only pick two, those would be my favorites. The Pulled Pork has the Chipotle Mayo and it’s something special too. It’s quite good.
Izzy: It was surprising because Tracy’s very particular on certain tastes and I was really surprised when she told me she liked the Lemongrass Grilled Pork so much. It’s feedback like that from Tracy and many others that makes me confident that our menu will have wide appeal.
14. Did it take a long time to come up with the recipes?
Izzy: Yes! For each item I had to consider the spices and then add texture through things like sesame seeds, grilled onions and fried potato straws. I had to consider how everything would work together in a single taco. When I first started I had at least 25 - 30 recipes I was playing with. It took a lot of tastings along with trial and error to get everything right and to whittle the menu down to where it is today.
15. Who does the cooking?
Izzy! Tracy is our taste tester.
16. Izzy, what’s your cooking background?
Izzy: I’ve been in hospitality, food and beverage for well over 25 years. I’ve worked in hotels and restaurants in New York and Hawaii. I also love to travel and have been to so many different countries around the world. I’m constantly trying different foods. Last year I was in Asia with my son and we travelled to 7 different countries for 6 or 7 weeks. The whole purpose of that trip was to try different foods from that region. I wanted to introduce my son to a lot of different street food out there.
17. What’s the appeal of street food?
Izzy: I think that street food has a lot to offer. A lot of time, the simplest form of street food is one of the better food experiences you can actually have. Street food is readily accessible. It’s food eaten by the locals and you’d find in any household. It’s not haute cuisine food from a 5 start restaurant. Street food is simple, fast, and can offer a lot of flavor.
A lot of people from Asia or the Caribbean, when they taste our menu, the food is identifiable to them right away. They are able to taste the different ingredients we use. I try to keep things simple and authentic.
18. What attracted you to the cooking side of the food industry?
Izzy: In the food and beverage side of the business I didn’t have much latitude to create dishes for the general population. The hotels and resorts I worked at had their own chefs and their own menus. I wasn’t able to be creative in the way I’m able to with my own business.
19. What attracted you to a food truck?
Izzy: It’s always been my dream to be able to share with friends what I know as good food. I like to introduce people to different flavor profiles. As I go out with people to different restaurants - people who may not have been to an Indian or Vietnamese restaurant, I try to explain to them what they can expect and not to be afraid to try.
A truck lets me be creative and available to a wide range of people. If people like what I’m doing I’ll be able to introduce them to more and more new types of things. I have many dishes that I would like to introduce in the food truck. For example, I plan to make one of my favorites - Rendang. It’s a slow cooked beef with different spices. According to CNN, Rendang is one of the 50 best foods to eat in the world. Rendang can be found in many Malay or Indonesian restaurants. The spice combination and the sweetness are just amazing. Another one is Kalbi, a Korean BBQ short rib. We plan to introduce these as special dishes to see what’s accepted. That ability to bring out new things here in Jacksonville is what I really like about having our own truck.
20. Will you offer catering services?
Yes, definitely. Our menu is very different from any other food truck out there. Malaysian food, Indian food, Vietnamese food - there are no food trucks in Jacksonville with those cuisines. We offer a really good introduction to a lot of ethnic foods so you can try them out and explore to see what you like. Indian food, for example, might surprise a lot of people. Contrary to popular opinion it is not always spicy. And most Indian food is vegetarian. We hope people will visit us and give it a try. We’ve worked hard to make the menu approachable so people feel comfortable jumping into something different.