Where can you get fresh fish prepared by an award-winning chef? Sometimes the location may not be on the coast or a river but instead from a mobile kitchen.
In downtown Wilmington, I found Chef Keith Rhodes hustling to serve customers eagerly standing in line at his food truck parked on North Fourth Street in front of the Brooklyn Arts Center.
“Fresh – local — organic” are emblazoned on the truck’s sides to assure out-of-towners unfamiliar with this chef that ordering his food is a rewarding experience.
Most local patrons know that Rhodes is more than simply a food truck cook because he is also chef and owner of Catch, a modern seafood restaurant, and Phun, a seafood bar, both in Wilmington. He has also been voted that city’s best chef for three consecutive years.
A past competitor on the “Top Chef” series of the Bravo network, Rhodes has also been a semifinalist in the James Beard Award category of Best Chef Southeast, a coveted nomination that includes competition from North Carolina and four neighboring states.
Even with these accolades befitting the chef of a prominent restaurant, he is a perfect fit in his mobile kitchen. What’s the best part of operating out of a food truck? “Serving people who aren’t normally coming to my restaurant to access my food,” Rhodes said.
The truck was parked unpretentiously in front of the 122-year-old arts center with stained glass windows and 50-foot cathedral ceilings that hint to its original use as a church. When the center held a “flea” (a showcase attracting hundreds of shoppers in search of “vintage, retro, and upcycled items” that include clothing, furniture, and home decor), it invited food trucks to feed the crowd. Vendors, who opened for business at 10 am, were appreciative that Rhodes would deliver lunch to them so that they wouldn’t have to leave their booths.
However, a few vendors and their customers were surprised that Rhodes’ truck specials include seafood marinated in citrus juices, fish tacos, and homemade soups. On the day that I caught Catch the Truck , I ordered crispy Carolina catfish tacos. The catfish was excellent — a perfect foundation to create tacos with cabbage, cilantro, cheddar cheese, and ranch aioli.
Other choices on the menu that day included:
• Saigon hotdog
• Sweet chili glazed wings
• Spicy Cajun grilled shrimp
• Pad Thai veggie tacos
• Margaret Shelton’s green apples
Erin, who was taking orders from the front of the truck, said that the morning had started “pretty laid back until around 11 when customers began arriving. We’ve been busy since noon.”
Even before lunchtime, tacos are popular, she said. The two choices ordered the most were the Carolina catfish taco that I had ordered and the Saigon hotdog.
In the truck’s food preparation area, Chef Rhodes worked with three others, including his daughter. When he finished an order, a customer could adorn it with one (or more) of his special salsas: drunken, habernaro, roja, and verde.
An award-winning chef of the North Carolina Seafood Festival and winner of the People’s Choice Award for the N.C. Crab Cake Competition sponsored by the state Department of Agriculture, Rhodes is clearly as comfortable and organized in his mobile kitchen as in his restaurants.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.