WILMINGTON — Three years ago Austin Belt launched his first food truck, Banh Sai Asian Fusion, with a five-year plan to turn it into a restaurant.
The goal has been met early as he and his wife, Lucy, have the keys in hand to transform the Cargo District’s former Drinx space at 2162 Wrightsville Avenue into a 30-or-so-seated eatery. They hope to have it open by November.
“We’ve been lucky enough to have such great support from the community,” Belt said.
The truck is parked at events every Wednesday through Saturday at venues such as End of Days, Fermental, Starling Bar and Bull City Ciderworks. They’re soon to be his Cargo District neighbors, as the restaurant will be located in Delgado Square, adjacent to Ruff Draft and Mess Hall. The restaurant is located along a growing corridor, also surrounded by the Carolina Place neighborhood.
“We just love that community,” Belt said.
The couple have partnered with former Wilmington chef Chris Vergilli, who worked with Belt at Kornerstone Bistro and helped launch the bistro’s sister restaurant, Tidewater Oyster Bar, both in Porters Neck. Vergilli moved to Charlotte last year for other ventures in the industry that didn’t pan out, so when Belt called about transitioning Banh Sai into a restaurant, the timing was kismet.
“We clicked right away when he was my sous chef — same personalities, for sure,” Vergilli said.
Belt and Vergilli both have traveled across various states to pursue their industry careers. Belt — a culinary graduate from Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte — was a sous chef at Bradshaw Social House in Charlotte, Grill 401 in Fort Lauderdale and The Watch in Charleston before coming to Wilmington.
Vergilli, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, has opened and worked at many restaurants, including three of Chef Bruce Moffett’s famed eateries in Charlotte, such as Good Food on Montford and Stagioni. He also worked in Oakland for a stint at Oliveto.
“I’m excited to get back to Wilmington,” Vergilli said Wednesday in the midst of packing up his home in the Queen City.
Banh Sai leans into Belt’s proclivity for ‘80s movies and regalia of the era. The truck has a Tokyo lights-inspired design, with bold blue, bright pink, neon orange and electric purple making up its design.
“Several people that walk up to the truck say it looks like their ‘80s or ’90s Trapper Keeper,” he said. “And we want to continue that with the brick-and-mortar.”
The Magnolia Project, which designed the Starling Bar, will be lending help with Bahn Sai’s interior. Belt said he wants it to be “homey,” yet nostalgic and with a mural included, though nothing has been finalized per imagery.
Currently, the Banh Sai menu features five or six staples — rice bowls, banh mis, wings, Cobra fries. The two restaurateurs plan to expand the menu to 10 or more items.
Banh Sai’s rotating fried-chicken rice bowls — named after the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” series — are popular currently. The Rafael, with cabbage and kimchi, is often featured on the food truck. The expansion of space means offering others in the series. The Michelangelo bowl features grilled pineapple and bell peppers, while the Leonardo has pickled bird-eye chilies, General Tso’s chicken, Brussels, and Banh Sai aioli, and the Donatella showcases an edamame salad, red cabbage and sweet-heat chicken.
“We have rotating special items that we want to have on the menu more often, like our katsu sandwiches,” Belt added.
Katsu means panko-crusted. One of Banh Si’s sandwiches, “The Kano,” features katsu pork, kimchi pimento cheese, hot honey, pickled jalapeños, and the house aioli.
He also is looking forward to adding in more seafood options. Tuna and shrimp appear as specials now, but with limited storage on the food truck, it’s only occasional.
“You don’t want leftover seafood on a food truck,” Belt said. “So being open more days means having proper ways to store it and it actually being more sustainable.”
He wants to procure various local fish and is considering doing oysters on the half shell. Vergilli, who has worked with local fishermen in the area during his time in Wilmington, did a kimchi-butter roasted oyster before and is looking forward to executing more creativity that aligns with Banh Sai’s Asian-fusion flair.
“I just love how flavorful and eclectic Austin’s food is,” Vergilli said. “Let me put it this way: It’s like New Orleans food — nothing is bland.”
If all goes according to plan, the two have discussed possibly launching an oyster bar in the future.
“This will be like a staging ground to see what takes off,” Vergilli said.
“We’ve both always had a passion for the bivalves,” Belt said.
But first things first: building out the kitchen, getting equipment and deciding the logistics.
Once open, Banh Sai will operate six days a week, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and likely will close on Tuesday. Belt said he may still keep the food truck going as well.
“That’s up in the air, just because there’s so many moving parts when it comes to running both,” he said.
Have food news? Email editor Shea Carver at firstname.lastname@example.org.