WILMINGTON—Bold blues, bright pinks, electric oranges and purples stand out on Austin Belt’s Tokyo lights-inspired design of Banh Sai Asian Fusion food truck. The vision and play on words signify his most beloved areas of interest: Asian cuisine and ‘80s nostalgia.
“‘Karate Kid’ is one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time,” Belt said.
A culinary graduate from Central Piedmont Community College, the 31-year-old and his wife, Lucy, have moved around over the last seven years, as Belt followed his passion for cooking. He worked as a sous chef in quite a few kitchens, including Bradshaw Social House in Charlotte, Grill 401 in Fort Lauderdale and The Watch in Charleston.
“Ask anyone who has worked with me during Sunday brunch: ‘80s music was always on,” Belt said.
Two years ago, he and his wife moved to Wilmington to be closer to her parents, and to plant roots professionally and as a family. Belt took a job at Kornerstone Bistro, with his eye always focused on eventually opening a brick-and-mortar. He began conceptualizing what it would be, researching food he would make, and decided to approach his idea first as a food truck.
“Then Covid hit and I figured why not just go for it?” he said
He and his wife invested $70,000 in the business, including upstart costs, salary and the purchase of a truck from Rolling Kitchens in Manassas, Virginia. The company strips old FedEx and USPS trucks and customizes them.
“They put a brand new kitchen in, so one side has sinks and regulatory stuff, like a hand-washing station, and then on the other side I got to choose if I wanted an oven, grill, flat top or fryer, and built it out myself. It’s pretty reasonably priced too,” Belt explained.
Because a food truck has less overhead and staff, Belt said he felt more comfortable taking chances and exploring what works as a first-time business owner. Also, a food truck would help build in a base audience.
“I figured if I can get enough people in Wilmington interested in my food truck, then by the time I open a restaurant, I’d have enough of a following to keep the doors open,” Belt explained.
Experimenting in the commissary kitchen at Diamond Food Enterprise has led to various takes on the banh mi sandwich, Belt’s personal favorite. He uses a white Cuban roll from Breadsmith to tuck in one of three choices of fillings and/or protein, including Japanese-style fried chicken, pork meatballs or fried Brussels sprouts.
“I marinate the chicken for two days in soy, garlic, mirin and sake,” he explained, “and it’s breaded in all-purpose flour and cornstarch so it gets a nice crisp. The Asian pork meatballs are made with garlic chili sauce and ginger, lemongrass, parsley, herbs, and soy-sauce-based seasoning.”
The Brussels get dropped in a fryer for 20 seconds and come out perfect every time before being topped with seasoning, according to Belt. Then, the filling is tucked onto a bed of cilantro and pickled veggies, like carrot, cucumber and daikon radish, before being topped with fresh jalapeños and spicy aioli.
Belt also serves noodle bowls, specifically ramen — a brothy, warm soup to soothe the soul during cooler days of the season.
“One of my fave chefs is David Chang of Momofuku,” Belt said. “Ramen is very simple yet complex.”
Each serving is topped with miso, mushrooms, kimchi and green onion, with options to add pork meatballs or a soft egg.
“On a menu, if you can add an egg, I’m going for it,” Belt said, “because egg makes everything better.”
It became one of his favorite toppers on the traditional Japanese cabbage pancake, okonomiyaki, at a spot back in Charleston called Xiao Bao Biscuit. He’s been tweaking a recipe to bring to the Banh Sai menu.
“Usually, it gets Sriracha over the top or miso aioli, scallions, bonito flakes, and you can add an egg,” he said. “They also have an add-on of pork candy. It’s kind of like cotton candy — it’s texture is weird, but it’s so good. I would love to do that and do some brunch stuff on the truck.”
He’s focusing on curries this winter — green, red and yellow — and also serves Cobra Fries. The latter marries salty, sweet and spicy flavors, thanks to the combination of Sriracha, hoisin, Banh Sai aioli and togarashi.
“Togarashi is by far my favorite thing in the world,” Belt exclaimed. “It’s a Japanese pepper blend or blackening spice, but that explanation doesn’t do it justice. I use it in everything.”
Just a few nights ago, he dabbled in Asian-inspired wings with his signature sticky sauce, which went over well with diners. But he says the real crowd-pleaser has yet to come. It’s the one item his wife and family always ask him to make: Pad Thai.
“I’ve been making it for a decade,” Belt said. “My wife laughs because she always wants me to make it, and I say, ‘I’m tired of it,’ but then she teases me: ‘Well, you know you’ll be making a lot of it on the truck.’ And I will.”
Belt has been cooking since he was 17 years old, and though he first went to college with the intent of being a business major, he found himself back in the kitchen after he finished all of his general education classes. He decided to finish out schooling in the culinary field before working his way through various eateries and experimenting with styles aplenty — French, American, Italian, Asian.
Working in Charleston under Bob Cook at Edmund’s Oast, his favorite restaurant, was a highlight and learning experience he said will carry forth with him in reaching his own vision.
“I was excited to get over there,” Belt said. “They operated with a family feel between bartenders, servers, cooks, managers, owners — it really felt like a family. I want to create that.”
Belt says he and his wife make a good team, not only working well together but balancing each other’s skills. “She helps me come up with concepts at home, and she is a great front-of-house person,” Belt said.
They’re operating on a five-year plan, maybe four, should all go well. Belt wants to open a Banh Sai full-scale restaurant. He doesn’t plan on stopping there, either.
“I want to own several kinds of restaurants,” he said. “The kid in me wants a restaurant with a bowling alley and arcade games, but then I also want to have a sit-down tapas bar.”
For now, he’s just focused on getting his truck parked wherever the local ‘80s trivia night is happening. “You can ask me any kind of ‘80s questions you want,” he said with confidence.
He’s also looking ahead to the rescheduled Motley Crüe, Poison Def Leppard and Joan Jett concert that was canceled from Covid-19.
“You should see the room above my garage: It’s all ’80s — the music, the movies, PacMan and Golden Tee for Atari … I love that stuff — and Asian cuisine. It’s just fun food.”