At Roving Pop-Up SMAX, the Okonomiyaki is animal-style and yes, it smells good
Such is the art of delivering delicious cuisine – and teaching the great language of the Bay Area – to SMAX, an ephemeral and test kitchen which focuses on creatively assembled sandwiches and treats served by Paris and Joog, two friends from San Francisco and Vallejo, respectively. Usually displayed at events like District Six Day 415you will find P who runs the kitchen and Joog who oversees operations and management.
Together, the duo draw on their Asian American upbringing and nostalgia to deliver a rotating menu of wildly reimagined flavors. Their dishes are artfully expressive creations in which identity, dreams, culture, friendship and flavor mingle in every bite.
A beefy minced cheese certified bodega? It’s understood. Guava BBQ Chicken Banh Mi made with freshly whipped fruit? You already know. And perhaps the most inventive of their ideas, honey walnut shrimp like you can only find at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, now reincarnated as a katsu sandwich? It hits.
They experimented with an “Oko Scallion Pancake” – a Chinese-style scallion pancake topped with Japanese okonomiyaki ingredients such as cabbage, thick sliced bacon, mayonnaise, and a fried egg.
They also had fun with pastrami fried rice, a New York version of the Chinese staple, fueled by their summer trips to the East Coast after DJ nights at the club. (In true Bay fashion, DJ Joog has a musical hustle.) Oh, and you can’t forget their orange creme cookies to top off your culinary nostalgia, like a late-night liquor store.
Personally, I came for the “Animal Style” okonomiyaki – a take on traditional Japanese rolls made with In-N-Out style dressing and bacon – and “The Island Boi” – a Hawaiian-inspired sandwich with homemade Spam, melted American cheese, egg and macaroni salad between soft Hong Kong-style pineapple buns. I paired this with a sweet, sesame-filled ube mochi.
I slipped Baba’s house—a restaurant and specialty Asian snack shop that’s also part of SMAX’s temporary locations in the East Bay—where I had the privilege of sampling these delicacies friends have been offering for five years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KQED: How would you describe the food at SMAX?
PARIS: We make specialty sandwiches that are rooted in the nostalgic dishes we really love to eat or grew up on. We talk about what we used to eat in the neighborhood, and that inspires us for our new dishes. We want to take people back to better times, when we were all younger, and we pack all of that into our food with new ideas.
With such an extensive rotating menu, what was your most popular item?
JOOG: We are constantly changing and experimenting. A [item] which got the best reviews is the “chopped cheese”. We plan to do this more regularly with rotating promotions. It was a new way to showcase a New York burger that Bay Area residents had never seen before. We love this sandwich.
P: Chopped cheese, of course. But all around people fucked with all our crazy creations. People are excited about the new things we create. We love getting feedback and seeing how people interact with a new sandwich, but we might only do it once and keep coming up with new things.
How does your food reflect the Bay Area you grew up in?
J: I come from Vallejo. We always want it to be accessible to our people, to serve the communities we care about. It shows in our food because we are always looking to serve other independent creative people, anyone trying to make something on their own. It is difficult to be financially independent in the Bay. But we want to provide that community and good feeling to people without ever seeming exclusive. Anyone doing their own hustle and doing their thing, it’s inspiring. Whether it’s art, music or community organization. All of this is valid and influences the way we cook because these are the people we serve.
P: I’m from San Francisco. It’s just about looking out for others here. We may not be available for a pop-up, but we’ll connect someone to someone who is. Artists, sellers, DJs, it’s a whole big community that comes together so that we can all eat. Meeting new creatives and finding new products that local people are selling is dope, and we strive to make those connections with others, especially since we’re all from the same soil here.