BRANDON — It helps to have a treasure hunter’s instincts to find the South Pacific Grill food stand.
You wouldn’t think it would be hard to spot. Hung Nguyen’s candy apple red roadside trailer sits in a lot on the corner of Pauls Drive, just 30 yards off busy Brandon Boulevard.
A canopy of moss-dripping oak trees provides shade, but also a little too much cover. Flags from the neighboring Performance Pit Shop also flap in the way. And the kind of customer who is interested in eating the Macho Nacho Burger at Denny’s across the street probably isn’t seeking out his mix of authentic Hawaiian and Asian flavors.
But a little persistence pays off in big flavors and an interesting backstory.
Nguyen started his mobile restaurant about two months ago. Summer is a challenging time to open any restaurant much less an outdoor one, what with stormy weather, hot afternoon temperatures and summer vacations combining to keep customers indoors.
Still, South Pacific Grill’s food has attracted a passionate group of fans. Twitter friend Linda P. Helman tipped me off.
“The Kahlua pork with ginger citrus slaw is da bomb,” she wrote.
Linda was right.
When I stopped by on Monday, I ordered the sandwich, along with a batch of Korean short ribs, or galbi, and an order of banana spring rolls with coconut sugar dipping sauce.
The short ribs were sweet and tender with a teriyaki-sesame flavor. The spring rolls, filled with warm latundan bananas (also called apple bananas), were crispy and melty with a honey coating.
I didn’t even get to the Huli Huli chicken, a recipe he got from a woman named Auntie Glade who sold the dish at a roadside stand on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
But that pork sandwich ...
Nguyen told me he slow-cooks the pork in a banana leaf after marinating it overnight and covering it in a special rub he makes himself. There may be some sea salt and brown sugar in the mix as well. After putting only a dab of hoisin sauce on it, he piles on a mound of crispy, tangy citrus ginger slaw and slides it between a toasted bun. It’s a recipe he learned cooking pig in the ground while living with his father in Hawaii.
“The only thing missing from this is digging the 6-foot hole,” he says.
Nguyen, 37, started in the food truck business when he 15, driving a manapua truck in Waianae, a town of about 13,000 people on the western shore of Oahu.
“A manapua is sort of an ice cream truck that serves food,” he says. “It’s like a convenience store on wheels.”
Nguyen’s family first came to the U.S. in 1980 when they fled an internment camp in Vietnam after the war ended there. After making their way to Malaysia, they wound up settling near MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa. Nguyen’s father became a fisherman and crabber. Nguyen attended Robinson High School.
His father later built a shrimp boat and opened three TNT Seafood stores in St. Petersburg, but his parents eventually divorced. After the split, the stores were sold and Nguyen stayed with his mother in Tampa while his father moved to Hawaii.
You can taste his family’s flavor in the pork spring rolls he makes. The recipe came from his mother. There’s a touch of Vietnamese ingredients in the Teriyaki Burger he makes with a pineapple salsa, carrots and daikon. Then there are the chicken wings, which he offers in three flavors: Sweet, “Burn You Once,” and “Burn You Twice.” Sriracha and some spicy Asian peppers are involved in the latter flavors.
You can see his Hawaiian heritage on the side of his South Pacific Grill trailer in the form of a honu, the sea turtle icon that symbolizes longevity, peace and good luck.
It brought him good luck a few weeks back when a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy saw the honu symbol and stopped for a meal. Now Nguyen serves food at the sheriff’s office twice a week.
“Someone stopped by once to ask if we served turtle,” he says. “In Hawaii, those are fighting words, bruddah!”
The menu’s reputation is slowly growing. Participating on Aug. 31 in what is being billed as the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds should boost his exposure.
“People who see the menu wind up loving it,” Hguyen says. “The hard part is getting them to the ordering window.”
That’s the thing about treasure hunting. That mother lode is tough to find. But if you show enough patience and search diligently, eventually you strike it big.