It took Yang's Malaysian Food Truck owner and head chef Alex Wong several career re-starts before he realised that cooking was where he needed to be. Wong enrolled in health science at Sydney University, dropped out and then spent the next five years dabbling in everything from screenwriting to network engineering to a Bachelor of Theology before he put his pen down and started a chef's apprenticeship. Wong tossed the woks at China Doll and rattled the pans at fine dining seafood restaurant Rim Rock Cafe in Whistler before moving onto head chef roles at Chica Bonita in Manly and then Queenies in Surry Hills.
But Wong confesses, "I always wanted a food truck." When he first travelled through the USA, he discovered that "food trucks had the cheapest and tastiest food I'd ever eaten." In April of this year, Wong's food truck, Yang's, hit the streets of Sydney, the first to specialise in Malaysian cuisine.
Wong and I go back several years. In those early days, he used to write a food blog. In 2013 we went on holidays to the USA with Suze, three weeks of rampaging gluttony that we dubbed the Great Donut, Fried Chicken and American Barbecue Tour. He'd often talked about his desire to own and run his own food truck. Watching a friend's dream transpire into reality has been pretty surreal.
Yang's Malaysian Food Truck parked at Pitt Street Mall
Yang's has been up and running for about three months by the time I finally visit with Suze. The truck tends to move between Surry Hills, Circular Quay, Wynyard and Zetland (download the Sydney Food Trucks app or follow Yang's on Instagram or Facebook for up-to-date locations). Tonight the truck has taken up camp at the King Street end of Pitt Street Mall.
Chef Tina Nguyen taking orders
Chef Tina Nguyen (ex-Bentley and ex-Aria) is the cheerful face at the order counter. She's warm but efficient, and happy to explain each dish to anyone unfamiliar with Malaysian food.
Chef Lyly Nguyen in the truck's onboard kitchen
Wong works with chef Lyly Nguyen (ex-China Doll and ex-Lotus) in the kitchen. The truck's commercial fit-out - designed by Wong himself - is impressive. Wong admits it's bigger than a lot of restaurant kitchens he's worked in before.
One of everything, please
The menu is more comprehensive than you'd expect, a shopping list of eight options with the most expensive item topping out at $9 - the chilli soft shell crab. We order one of everything - except the roti with curry sauce - and even then our bill only comes to $46.
Soft shell crab with chilli sauce and mantou $9
Fluffy mantou bun with a deep fried shell
It's a combination that works a treat. The fresh sweetness of the crab interplays with the aromatic spices in the chilli sauce, the crunch of the crab contrasts with the pillowy softness of the deep fried mantou bun. Wong says he preps 50 soft shell crabs a day.
Roti chicken with sweet potato $7
Roti, the Malaysian staple of ethereally light and flaky pastry, is usually torn into pieces and dipped into curry. Wong gets around the whole eating-with-one-hand-dance by ladling chicken curry into the roti like a taco. It makes for much easier consumption. Cubes of sweet potato add a sweet mellow to the chick curry. A sprinkle of fresh coriander and a tumble of deseeded and diced cucumber and tomato give a element of freshness against the spices.
Hainan hot wings $5
It's finger food ahoy with the Hainan hot wings too. Wong does away with the need for rice by deep-frying the wings and serving them with a generous splodge of chilli sauce and smashed ginger shallot oil. The wings on their own are quite mild in flavour - just like Hainan chicken - but they transform into a different beast once you drag it through the ginger and chilli. Compact wedges of deseeded cucumber act as palate cleansers.
Ramli beef slider $5
The Ramly Burger might not mean much to Sydneysiders, but for Malaysians, it's the much beloved street burger, adding onions, egg, cabbage and mayonnaise to a typical chicken or beef burger. Wong puts his own spin on his version, called the Ramli beef slider. The soft Breadtop bun holds a hot gooey mess of beef patty, fried egg, cabbage, chilli sauce and melted cheese. It's a two-napkin affair, especially to get that last dribble of HP sauce off the bottom of your chin.
One spoon chicken laksa $7
Wong gives the classic laksa a food truck makeover too, transforming this usual sit-down affair to a stand-up version, cutting the noodles short and piling everything into a towering insulated cup. The one spoon chicken laksa is a brilliant idea in theory but the narrowness of the cup does mean you're dictated into eating the laksa according to how it's been layered. Tonight it means a thick strata of chicken at the top progressing to chunks of tofu and then the majority of noodles - two kinds, a wide noodle and a vermicelli - stuffed down at the bottom.
The laksa is more of a curry laksa instead of the coconut milk laksa most favoured in Sydney food courts. It's super thick and hearty, like a full-sized bowl distilled into a one-handed energy meal.
Nasi lemak $6
In Malaysia, traditional nasi lemak is wrapped up in a triangular parcel of pandan leaves. Wong saves you the hassle of unwrapping your meal by piling it into a box so you can pick your way through rice, boiled egg, sambal chilli paste, crunchy anchovies and roasted peanuts with ease. This one might feel a light little on the protein for the hungry, but it works well as a side dish.
Maggi goreng with egg $7
I have a soft spot for the Maggi goreng, because two minute noodles with sweet soy sauce and a fried egg is my kinda jam. The noodles still have some bite, the sweet soy is kicked up with a squiggle of chilli sauce, and shallots, cucumber, tomato and choy sum provide enough greens to convince you this is truly something healthy.
A&W root beer $3
Yang's does Malaysian coffee (kopi-o), tea (teh tarik or strong tea with condensed milk) and Milo. The Milo comes hot or cold - the Milo dinousaur is an iced Milo with extra Milo on top. But sometimes all you need is an A&W root beer to really take you back to the steamy and humid hawker markets of Kuala Lumpur.
Yang's parked at Harmony Park in Surry Hills
It only takes three words for me to hunt down Yang's a week later in Surry Hills. Mamee Fried Chicken is an irresistible lure.
Yang's menu on the day
Early customers before the pre-lunchtime crowd
There's a different feel to the food truck by day. At night it's an illuminated beacon on the horizon. Parked beneath the dappled sunshine at midday, it's not so obvious but for the snaking queue that will swell during the peak lunchtime period.
Mamee fried chicken $7 for three pieces
Scoring my order with a packet of the familiar Mamee Monster noodles from my childhood is far more exciting than it should be. Wong shoves in three pieces of fried chicken inside the packet with a crumble of noodles. In the main container is a generous dollop of sriracho mayo.
Fried Mamee noodle garnish
The packet presentation is cute but it's much more practical to dump everything out into your container. Grab a chicken wing, smother it in sriracho mayo and then try and pick up as many Mamee noodle bits are you can.
Was it good? You bet. The buttermilk chicken is super juicy, the crunch on the batter is reassuringly loud, and the sriracho mayo is creamy and spicy with an unexpected lift from finely shredded kaffir lime leaves. And then there's the brittle shatter of Mamee noodles. The entire combo is so damn good that after I finish I immediately get up and order another one.
The Mammee fried chicken special was only on for two days but I reckon if the public hassle him enough, Wong might just put it back on the menu.
Chef Alex Wong
10 Questions with Chef Alex Wong
1. What was the journey like to get to Yang's truck as it is today?
I was the first one of the new trucks to get pre-approval to build the truck when the City of Sydney released 40 new permits in 2014. I really wanted it ready for the summer of 2014/15 but delays in truck build, sorting out a fixed location to cook out of, truck storage etc took even longer so by the time I was ready, summer and the peak business for food trucks had passed.
I originally wanted more of an "Asian street food truck" theme which would give me a lot more creative licence, but the food truck manager at City of Sydney Council advised that to get pre-approval with the Council it was probably wiser to go for a specific cuisine. Malaysian was the easy choice - going back to the food from my childhood and my roots made menu planning really easy.
The menu is based on street food I loved eating growing up in Malaysia, combined with the eating style and vibe of the trucks in the States. I really wanted the food to be practical. When you're eating it off the side of the road, you need to make sure that everything is designed so you can to hold in one hand and eat with the other!
In April 2015 I finally got the truck up and running. There have been a lot of lessons learnt so far but there's still a lot more learning and growing!
2. What makes Yang's different from everyone else?
It's Malaysian food approached with a real "street" vibe. I was worried that Malaysians especially wouldn't get the way I was presenting the food - they are the Italians of the East after all! The food has its twists, but the vibe is as authentic as you can get: generator noise, eating off the side of the road in the open... it's just like the markets in Malaysia!
3. Who is Yang?
I am Yang! My Chinese name is Wong Rui Yang. My mum, grandparents, cousins and relatives in Malaysia all called me Yang (the 'a' is pronounced 'ah'). I used to be embarrassed when mum would call me that in public so I told her that. Then she started yelling "Alexander!" in public. That was more embarrassing. So I told her Yang was fine.
Working on the truck
4. What's the biggest misconception people have about food trucks?
That the food is fast, cheap and big. They also think burgers and fried food, so a lot of people stare at the menu and think "Oh, it's just Malaysian food". We're producing restaurant quality product that we would like to cook to order so, especially when there's a line, you can be waiting 5-15 (at worst) minutes for your food.
The other misconception is that running a truck is cheaper than owning a restaurant. I would say in most cases it's more expensive! More insurances, more maintenance costs (truck AND kitchen), the need to have a fixed kitchen to cook from before loading it on your other kitchen (the truck) and council fees. And then you charge less for your food because of the misconception that you should be cheaper because you're a truck - if you don't charge cheaper rates they'd prefer to just eat at a restaurant/cafe.
And there's also a misconception that they're dirty. Food trucks go through more stringent health inspections than restaurants! Tip to food trucks - keep the kitchen spotless because customers notice!
5. What's the best thing about running a food truck?
New customer reactions and meeting the regulars. I love it when someone is genuinely enjoying the food, and being there to watch that moment. When a guy orders the cheapest thing on the menu just to try it out, then proceeds to order two more of it or the rest of the menu!
I love engaging with my regulars, especially when I'm in the suburbs and I have time to look after them - I use them as my sample group when I want to try new items for the menu!
The driving. The fact that so many things can go wrong because you're at so many different places: flat tire, dead batteries, water pump or generator conking out, traffic, road accidents...
Seasoning the deep fried soft shell crab
First day. Walsh Bay. There was a massive line up, the fryer didn't work and we already had 10 dockets before we were even ready. I was pan frying crab, we didn't pack enough food and no one really knew what they were doing. It was a total sh*tfight in the kitchen. One customer waited 20 minutes for a roti and I didn't have it. It's our only 1 star review on Facebook. I'mm still offering that customer a free meal if she wants to come back and try again.
You can't make everybody happy. Food is food and when you're doing it differently, you're bound to find someone who doesn't like something, but someone else will love it.
9. How do you see the Sydney food truck scene and where do you think it's headed?
It needs to grow out of the city. The food trucks moving out to the inner west are absolutely killing it - shout outs to Mister Gee's and Happy as Larry with their awesome food. City of Sydney gave us a platform to start but it's really up to the operators to think outside the box about where we're serving.
I'd really like to see a "food truck park" where we can all pull up on a plot of land and people come, choose their truck of choice and eat on picnic benches. That's the dream but it'll take a lot of business owners with different visions coming together to make it happen. Or a council to just build one and approach operators. Whichever comes first.
Yang's is opening a restaurant this year in Castlecrag. It won't be solely Malaysian but more modern Asian tapas and noodle soups.
For the truck, we'd like it to be more fun eating with Yang's. I'm planning something bigger than just lunches in the city... think red stools and badminton nets. I'm just hunting down the right location for it. We want people to hang around, create an atmosphere and make it fun!
Note: Grab Your Fork is friends with Alex Wong from Yang's Food Truck. All items in this post were personally paid for. No bribes were exchanged.
Yang's Malaysian Food Truck changes its schedule weekly. It tends to frequent:
Pyrmont - Metcalfe Park
Surry Hills - Harmony Park
Sydney CBD - Pitt St Mall
Sydney CBD - Queens Square, near Hyde Park
Sydney CBD - Walsh Bay
Sydney CBD - Wynyard Park
Zetland - Joynton Park
Download the Sydney Food Trucks app or follow Yang's on Instagram or Facebook for up-to-date locations.
Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Sydney food trucks: Mister Gee, Burwood
Sydney food trucks: Knafeh Jersualem Street Food
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7/04/2015 04:30:00 p.m.