The Truck: The Box , locations found on Facebook and Twitter .

The Fare: Traditional food, with a spin.

The Stop : Reis Llaneza is


Thinking Outside "The Box": Serving Up Nontraditional Tradition

The Truck: The Box, locations found on Facebook and Twitter.

The Fare: Traditional food, with a spin.

The Stop: Reis Llaneza is all about nontraditional traditional food. That's the theme Llaneza, born and raised in Hawaii, stuck with when he opened The Box last September, after going to culinary school and spending 14 years in the kitchens of restaurants like Flo and Yarrow Bay.

Like many other food truckers, Llaneza had his heart set -- and still does -- on opening a restaurant. He was "doing a lot of fine dining," he said, when his wife urged him to start something of his own. A food truck seemed to fit the bill. So Llaneza studied up on business, bought a used truck from the government that he gutted and fixed, and pulled together a menu that he hoped would be playful.

Sure, from talking to Llaneza, it seems like he might have preferred to open something a little fancier than a truck. And that's most likely what he plans on doing later on. But for now, his love for his box on wheels is obvious from the food he serves.

Hom bao, chicken karage. These are two of The Box's most popular dishes that constantly sell out, according to Llaneza. They're two distinctly Asian dishes -- Chinese and Japanese, to be specific -- that represent the "Asian flair" Llaneza taps into when creating his recipes.

To do this, he draws from his experiences at Japanese restaurants, his wife's Chinese background, and his own Hawaiian roots.

Llaneza puts a twist on traditional Chinese steamed buns, with his open-faced Kahlua pork and barbecued pork hom baos.
Take the hom bao ($2.50 each), for example. In its traditional form, the hom bao is a lovely, steamed barbecue pork bun, known for its pristinely white bun that's filled with a meat filling. I know the traditional hom bao well: When I was little, I helped my dad -- who used to own a Chinese restaurant back home in Connecticut -- make these steamed buns. He was a master of making the dough and filling in record time. I was a master of discreetly stealing freshly-cooked buns from the steamer when my dad wasn't looking, only to burn the roof of my mouth as I wolfed them down.

Llaneza's take on hom baos are no less lovely than traditional form, but are very different: his are open-faced, with braised pork belly that's flavored with hints of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar, all topped with onion, celery, carrots, and shredded napa cabbage. He also offers an open-faced Kahlua pork hom bao.

He referred to his baos as "Chinese tacos," and is conscious of the fact that they're not exactly traditional.

"I asked my wife's parents if it was alright if I called these 'baos,'" Llaneza recalled.

They're not really like hom baos, his in-laws told him, but they're still good. In fact, Llaneza's hom baos are reminiscent of Peking duck pancakes, which are essentially fluffy pancakes that are topped with roasted duck, scallions, and hoisin sauce.

Whatever they resemble, whatever they're called, one thing is clear: Llaneza's hom baos are wonderful, nostalgia-inducing staples of his menu. No wonder they constantly sell out.

Llaneza turns the traditional chicken karaage ($8) inside out when adding his own flair. Literally.

For traditional karaage, bite-sized pieces of chicken are usually marinated with soy sauce, ginger, and garlic, drenched with a potato starch, and then deep fried. To keep the chicken crispy, Llaneza said he fries the chicken first then tosses it in the sauce. His inside-out karaage, so to speak, is solid.

Llaneza makes it clear that despite his island roots, he doesn't want to turn his truck completely Hawaiian. Instead, he wants to keep spinning variations of the traditional dishes he learned to make in culinary school -- to keep things playful. And to keep thinking outside the box. So far, so good.

Follow Voracious on Twitter and Facebook. Follow me at @katchow.

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