Street Eats: Missoula food carts filling a tasty niche

A hot dog stand on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street has been a Missoula staple for years. Mexican restaurant El Cazador has also long carried the flag for the mobile food movement after owner Alfredo Hernandez set up a food truck slinging late-night tacos and burritos downtown after bar time.

Since these founding food truck fathers made their marks and with the rise in popularity of the markets downtown on Saturday and at Out to Lunch in Caras Park, Missoula has embraced the idea of quick, inexpensive eats.

Now, two Missoula food carts are making it their mission to bring fresh flavors to town.

Theo Smith moved to Missoula several years ago from Seattle, where he had gone to culinary school and worked in a variety of restaurants.

“The first thing I missed from the big city is the food options, especially ethnic food,” he said.

Although he had not planned to work with food when he moved, Smith eventually helped start Asian-food restaurant Iza as the chef and co-owner. Before he sold his stake in Iza, Smith decided to continue down the food path in Missoula.

“I was burned out from starting restaurants, I wanted something simple. It’s too easy to get holed up in a kitchen, the excruciatingly hot conditions of working over the stove all day. The food cart seemed to make a lot of sense,” he said.

Smith said part of what he had become well-known for at Iza was his curries, which is one of the reasons he chose Indian food for what would eventually become his food cart, Masala.

“I looked at the landscape and didn’t just want to open another burger joint, pizza place or burrito stand,” he said.

The food cart was a more affordable way to give his new venture a shot. To fund Masala, Smith turned to online crowdfunding site Kickstarter, launching a fundraiser in the spring of 2012 that brought in more than $9,000.

“I had heard a lot of people who said ‘If only there was a real Indian place in town, I would eat there all the time.’ This was the way to put that to the test,” he said.

Masala is open during the spring and summer, and closed during the winters. Part of what makes good Indian food hard to make is learning how to make it correctly, which is why in the off season, Smith travels to India to improve his cooking.

“I realized if I was going to get street cred, I needed to go to India, travel and eat,” he said.

Now in its third season, Masala serves food six days a week between community events, private catering, and setting up in front of Draught Works Brewery. Smith has four employees to help with the workload.

He said the eventual plan is to use the popularity of the food cart as a platform to turn Masala into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, something he hopes to achieve by the end of next year.

“But one beauty of the cart is there are limitations on what you can do. As a chef, I can just focus on just a few dishes each day,” Smith said.

While menu items are changed on a monthly basis, Smith said there are favorites they try to bring back often, like their chicken tikka masala and the lamb rogan josh. Masala tones down the heat and spiciness slightly from how it would be more traditionally served.

“We don’t know if most people can handle that really extreme heat,” he said.

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Like Masala, the owners of Bao Chow started out with a hope of bringing a new type of food to Missoula.

Nicole Taranto and Bradley Daniel’s hot asian bao buns have a soft steamed dough on the outside, with chopped chicken, pork or vegetables on the inside.

“In Asia and China, it is a common street food, it’s pretty much the Chinese version of the hamburger,” Daniel said.

The first steps in what would eventually become Bao Chow came when the couple was students in the Culinary Arts program at Missoula College, when chef Tom Siegel made bao buns for a class.

When the pair later decided to start a business after graduating, but wanted something small and affordable, they settled on a food cart. To set themselves apart and serve something unique, they decided to do bao.

“I don’t know of anywhere else around where you can walk in and get fresh bao buns,” Daniel said.

Taranto said early on, the hardest part was trying to get customers to buy something they might never have even heard of before.

“People are often (more) ready to talk about a bad experience than a good one. It’s so great to hear when people see us and say ‘My friend talked about you guys, you really do exist,’ ” she said.

The pair recently finished renovating a new commissary kitchen space to take their bao business to the next level. Since opening in October 2013, they had been working out of Mama’s Pantry, a food incubator that rents out commercial kitchen space.

In February, Daniel saw their new spot available to rent online.

“She said we didn’t need to spend the money and I said, ‘no, let’s go get it,’ ” he said.

Daniel said they decided they didn’t want to deal with banks to take out loans for any part of the food cart business, and haven’t had to so far.

“Now, I don’t owe a penny for anything in here,” he said.

Until the start of July – when Daniel is leaving his job to give Bao Chow his full attention – the two founders were keeping their side business alive while working full time at Biga Pizza. Taranto said later this year she hopes to also step away from Biga and maybe even be able to hire a few employees for Bao Chow.

Unlike Masala, Taranto said they don’t have the intention of turning Bao Chow into a full restaurant. A walk up window is the most she’s hoping of doing with the bao buns, but said they are just a step in a series of business ideas she and Daniel hope to accomplish in Missoula.

For the summer, Bao Chow will be at Out to Lunch in Caras Park on Wednesdays, and set up at the corner of Main and Ryman streets on Thursday and Friday nights, as well as taking part in as many of the weekend events as they can.

After hooking up the last few appliances and having a new range hood installed and certified in their new kitchen, all that’s left for them to get to work in their new space is the OK from the health department.

“We’re going to be free to be in here working whenever we want,” Taranto said. “The second they say we can move in, we’re starting.”