Chowing down with SuAn Chow, goddess of SLC mobile cuisine

by BILLY YANG

Food trucks have come a long way in recent years. The mobile restaurateurs of today are shedding the “roach coach” moniker and moving toward haute cuisine.

Since 2010, SuAn Chow has been at the forefront of this movement in Salt Lake City with her blazing yellow Chow Truck, where she serves up her unique brand of fusion cuisine. The Chow Truck’s menu includes tacos, sliders and salads infused with flavors from Asia.

“Everyone understands tacos or sliders or salads,” Chow said. “The twist is the actual base, the marinade, the sauces.”

Panko-crusted tofu, coconut lemongrass chicken and pineapple ginger pork are some of the mainstays of the menu, and Chow offers them in the above-mentioned familiar forms.

Xiaoyuay Lou, a visitor from New York who was in town for the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE) Conference, stopped by the Chow Truck while parked at its weekly spot at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake.

“The sliders are really good – they’re delicious,” Lou said.

Chow’s flare for blurring the lines between different regional cuisines must have come from her upbringing.

She is a second-generation Chinese-American, born and raised in Salt Lake City. Growing up, her parents owned a restaurant that featured Polynesian themed décor and a menu with both Chinese and American dishes – similar to the campy Trader Vic’s, a legendary California-based franchise popular in ‘50s and ‘60s.

“On his menu, my father had great American comfort food,” Chow said. “He used to make the best breaded veal cutlets and chicken fried steak and roast turkey.”

These are some of the foods she grew up enjoying because her family spent a lot of time at that restaurant, Chow said.

“I always vowed never to get in the business,” she said. “I saw how hard my parents worked and thought there had to be a better way to make a living.”

But in 1985, she started her own restaurant, Charlie Chow’s, in downtown Salt Lake. It was her way of providing a venue for her father to cook traditional Chinese dishes, which is what he made for the family at home.

“I wanted to rescue my father from his restaurant, which was a dying concept,” Chow said.

She noticed the general public was becoming savvier about food and travel and saw a market for authentic Chinese food in Salt Lake.

“We did black bean mussels and clams. I was the first to offer dim sum as appetizers on the regular menu,” Chow said.

Her father died of colon cancer about a year after the opening of Charlie Chow’s, but she held on to the restaurant until 1993.

After she sold the restaurant, Chow moved to New York to explore new career paths. She was the director of creative services at Joseph Abboud and later sold real estate in Manhattan.

Even during her hiatus from the restaurant business, Chow kept an eye on evolving trends in the food world. In the late 2000s, she was reading about the food truck scene in Los Angeles and decided to head west to see what the hype was about.

“I went to L.A. and spent some time on some trucks and I felt it was something that could be great for Salt Lake,” Chow said. “No one else was doing it and I felt that this was something I could do and do well.”

The Chow Truck has been in business for just over two years and already has garnered awards from City Weekly and Salt Lake Magazine for its distinctive offerings. But all the accolades haven’t come easily.

Operating a food truck can be harder than running a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Chow said. With the mobile model, she has to battle the elements and stay on the move to comply with city ordinances that won’t allow mobile food services to stay in one location for more than two hours.

Technical difficulties aside, Chow’s truck has allowed her to connect with her customers and community in a way that’s not possible with a traditional restaurant.

Because of how the food truck is set up, with its large bay windows, Chow and her kitchen staff are able to gauge diners’ responses immediately.

“I always tell my kitchen staff that I’m offering them a kitchen with a view,” Chow said.

There is no full-time chef on board the Chow Truck. Instead, Chow relies on a steady rotation of local chefs to craft special items. Past collaborators include Ryan Lowder of The Copper Onion, who contributed a pork belly taco, and Takashi Gibo of Takashi, who gave the Chow Truck the tako taco – tako is the Japanese word for octopus.

In March, the Chow Truck is featuring a Utah elk slider with himichurri sauce by Ethan Lappe of Cafe Niche.

A first-time customer who was lured in by the intoxicating aromas permeating the Gallivan Center seemed impressed by the Chow Truck.

“I chose the Chow Truck because I could smell it from way over there,” Lindsey Goodman said. “I had the elk slider and it was amazing.”

That kind of reaction keeps Chow motivated.

“Being able to hear people respond to the food is very gratifying,” she said.