As we settle into the reality that an overgrown albino Chernobyl sewer rat is now our president (and his other three-eyed friends now form his cabinet), it’s been a challenge to wake up in the morning, much less stay positive. A few months ago, right after the election, I found solace for this in a plate of al pastor, thanks to the growing empire of El Roto, at the time Long Beach’s only reliable taco truck. These days, I’ve been trolling around downtown during lunchtime, buying my edible comfort from a different kind of taco truck – one that makes its own bacalao, its own pineapple coleslaw and an otherworldly mango habanero salsa.
The SoCal Caribbean Halal Truck is Long Beach’s latest mobile eatery, which if you’re keeping count nearly doubles the city’s crop. I mentioned them in that El Roto roundup since I’d seen the silver roach coach-looking thing parked at the gas station across from the VA hospital for a few days in a row, but I figured whoever was driving it merely got lost on a trip from Orange County or came down from L.A. to experiment with new locations.
Turns out, the two-month-old, all-things-Caribbean truck is owned by Ali Ahmed and Rashad Kahn, two first-time entrepreneurs (and brothers-in-law) who live in north Orange County and are dedicated to making Long Beach their business’ permanent home. Kahn, a Navy veteran, moved to the West Coast from his hometown of New York last fall and immediately launched the new family business with Ahmed, a former elementary school teacher and the brother of Kahn’s wife). Both were raised Muslim and both eat halal.
“Neither of us have ever cooked professionally before,” Kahn said during a recent lunch visit. “I know how to shoot guns and he knows how to teach kids.”
The two rented a truck and tapped Kahn’s Guyanese mother for some of her Trinidadian-tinged recipes, flying her out from New York and taking measurements as she whipped up the same curry powder she’d been making since Khan was a kid. Unlike Indian curries, SoCal Caribbean’s doesn’t use turmeric, instead adding roasted cumin, bay leaves and Puerto Rican adobo spices to make a pungent sauce that works as well on their lamb as it does on their beef (everything is available as a taco, burrito or plate).
“My mom would curry everything,” Khan says, laughing. “I’ve had curry pizza, curry tuna. I was so sick of curry as a kid.”
With the strictly-Trini restaurant Callalloo the only other local eatery that even comes close to tapping the cross-cultural mashup goodness of SoCal Caribbean’s menu, it’s not likely anyone will be getting sick of their custom curry anytime soon.
And even if you ever felt yourself starting to, you can just move on down the list of other Caribbean dishes, which has changed a half dozen times since launching and now includes vegetarian options (the chana curry – made with a different recipe that tastes more like the filling for the Trinidadian hand-meal doubles – is a must) and taco toppings like pineapple pico de gallo and sweet pineapple coleslaw. Like the curry lamb and beef, the Jamaican jerk chicken is a mainstay.
Khan and Ahmed say they’re always experimenting in “The Lab” (what the truck becomes during slow times), so expect even more changes in the coming months as they rotate in new dishes and bring back ones from the graveyard as daily specials. Some things stricken from the lineup for now but that I’m hoping make appearances again are Ahmed’s Thai egg rolls, a puffy dahl puri, a Dominican chicken stew and the bacalao-stuffed fish bakes, which when slathered in the gentle citrusy burn of their mango habanero salsa, can make even the worst day’s political news feel like a trip to a tropical island.
SoCal Caribbean Halal Truck is usually parked on Ocean Boulevard daily until 7 p.m. Saturdays, they’re on 3rd and Pine. Follow them on Instagram (@socalcaribbean) for the latest.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.