A Few Minutes with Rebel Heroes Co-Owner Tan Nguyen
Tan Nguyen is the 36-year-old co-owner of the new Rebel Heroes food truck, which roams the streets of Arlington, perhaps even as you're reading this. Nguyen and her mother, Ninh, are natives of Vietnam, and together they launched the business with the goal of "revolutionizing the sub."
The focal point of the Rebel Heroes truck is their take on the banh mi, which they offer on traditional rice-flour baguettes. Their menu is split into two sections, the "Old Guard," which are more traditional banh mi, and the "Rebels," which are adulterated versions of the classic Vietnamese sandwiches. Tan Nguyen offers a more detailed explanation in our Q&A, which took place just a week after she and her mom started their mobile banh mi business.
How did you get interested in street vending? And what's your background in cooking and/or food service?
I’ve mostly been front of the house. I managed a restaurant in Tribeca called 99 Hudson, way back when. But basically my background in food service is a big foodie world traveler. I’m a graphic designer, so I do concepts basically. I have a lot of chef friends. I’ve always wanted to have a food truck ever since undergrad at GW. I basically frequented a pasta truck way back when. This guy was the first Rebel Hero, I guess. He used to have a surf board on his truck and, you know, had pasta out of his truck. He was the only thing different on the block. He always had a major line, and he’d like take off at the end of the day and go surfing in Maryland. So I was like, ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’ That [garbled on tape] stuck with me for over a decade. He was a really cool guy…His concept was so simple, like pasta he’d boil in a bag, and he made big bank. There was always a line for him, even though it wasn’t very complicated food. Ours is much more complex than that…My mother does the cooking. She had a restaurant before down in South Carolina [Note: It was a Chinese restaurant with Vietnamese dishes on the side.]. Basically, it’s our foray together, my first as owner, co-owner, but mainly I do concepts and designs. I designed the truck and the menu. The menu was seeing like the natural ties between Latin and Asian foods...I’ve always loved banh mi, and I’ve traveled all over Asia, Europe. I haven’t really been to Latin America yet, but I’ve been to Central America. I’m just really interested in new combinations of flavors and sort of anything new and exciting. I guess banh mi has always been sort of a street food. Historically, it’s always been a street food in Vietnam, and it was always a cheap way to eat. It worked conceptually, but I didn’t want to do a typical eat-in sandwich. It wasn’t very exciting to me. I could just open a deli or whatever, but I’m not interested in that.
Your main items are variations on the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. How authentic is your banh mi? Does it include a rice-flour baguette? Pickled vegetables? Pate? Are they prepared a head of time or in the truck itself?
We custom-make every single one. I mean, the meat comes prepared ahead of time. We cook out of Open Kitchen, which is in Falls Church. It’s a fully licensed kitchen space. Caterers use it. We share a space there. We cook out of there multiple times a week, and then we take the food on the truck and serve it up. But [we] reheat every portion and we top every sandwich individually. So it’s not fast food, quote-unquote. We make each and every one of them. It takes a little while, because it depends on [the toppings and dressings]. We have different kinds of mayo for heat levels. So we a Sriracha mayo, which is hot, and then we have a chipotle mayo, which is more smoky sweet, with a little kick but not too much. And then we have a lime mayo for those who are afraid of the spice. So we have something for everyone...But the basic menus are like the Old Guard…it is a traditional Vietnamese and a traditional Cubano, pretty much. I mean, the Cubano is not on the Cubano bread, because we only carry the Vietnamese baguette, which is...the rice and wheat kind, like a baguette, like a French baguette. We get it from a distributor. We get it every day.
On a glance at your online menu, I don't immediately see the classic banh mi thit nguoi with cold cuts and pate. Was that a conscious decision not to sell the kind of banh mi that you can get at the Eden Center? Or was it an acknowledgment that your audience might not want pate and head cheese?
Yeah, I think I consciously, definitely I didn’t really want that. I didn’t think it would reach a mass appeal. I think in terms of how the flavors blend well together and the ingredients that will work well together with the Rebels. Because basically what we do...is that we top it differently for the Rebels and we add Swiss [cheese], so they have to all work together. So the head cheese and all that, all the cold cuts and the Vietnamese ham and stuff, it doesn’t really work well with the Swiss cheese melted on top. I want the blend to work. We have a very small food truck, so it has to sort of integrate well…We don’t have room for 10 million different items, but what we do, we think we have a really tight menu.
You have a line of sandwiches that you call the Rebels. What makes them Rebels?
The cheese is the major difference, and we found that it’s a really big hit. People love all the Rebels with the Swiss melted on top. If you’re a cheese lover, it really works well. We heat them all and melt them up, and we also let you have the chipotle mayo or the Sriracha mayo on top of that, instead of just the plain banh mayo, which is like what you have for the Old Guard. It’s just like a regular mayo…Then we also will press it for you, like Cubano style, as an option, no additional cost or anything…
You also have an egg sandwich that is, essentially, your breakfast dish. What's the inspiration behind that and what does it include?
I wanted to be able to offer more options for people who are vegetarians, not like vegans or anything, but vegetarian. I’ve been cutting back a lot on my meat in-take, even though I’m Vietnamese. [She laughs.] The tofu sandwich is very popular actually, and the eggs have been as well, because a lot of people want something else other than pork and chicken. So that’s where the egg comes from. I just wanted more vegetarian-friendly options. ..It’s eggs with cheese, scallions, jalapenos, and the Rebel mayo. So it’s nice and spicy...but as with everything, we custom-make each sandwich for you, so if you can’t handle the heat, then we’ll take it off.
Will you sell any sides with your sandwiches?
It doesn’t come with any sides right now. We were going to do plantain chips, but we’re not ready to deal with the deep fryer. We got a little learning curve. With the trucking moving around, hot oil doesn’t really go well. So...for now we’re carrying different lines of chips. We have a really great line of Mexican sodas, Jarritos. You might have heard of them already. So people are really digging that. I might do Inka Kolas in the future…We do shrimp chips. We have big bags of shrimp chips. That’s sort of our special item, and then we have Miss Vickie’s, which are like jalapeno chips and then the salt and vinegar. That’s more like a kettle chip kind of thing. So we offer a little bit of familiarity and a little bit of something new. It’s been interesting because a lot of people have been responding to the new stuff, because they’re like, ‘If I’m getting this different sandwich, I might as well get this different soda.’
You have international accents on your essentially Vietnamese menu, like a Cubano sandwich and Mexican sodas. How did you decide which cultures to include in your venture?
Well, I wanted to expand our menu. The Vietnamese-Cuban is just what we’re starting with, but we’re called Rebel Heroes. We’re not trying to limit ourselves. I would like to do an…Asian-Latin flair always. I feel like the baguette that we have [fits] culturally well in terms of carrying different kinds of flavors and meats….So we might do Korean or we might do Latin, like guacamole spread on top with some of the meats in the future – for people who don’t like mayo, for example.
So is it the cilantro connection between the cultures?
Yeah, definitely, there was a cilantro connection and the pickled element and the pork element, you know. They all sort of go really well together. Some people don’t like dill pickle, but they love the daikon radish and carrots instead. It’s just to give it that tartness. It all works together….I definitely noticed when I was back here, because I just moved back from New York to do this business…I noticed that there’s a huge Latin population here that, like, eats at Vietnamese restaurants…. I think unconsciously that I noticed that. Also, one of my really good friends, she was on Top Chef, and she’s like Puerto Rican and Italian and Filipino [Note: the chef in question is Josie Smith-Malave, who competed in Season 2], and she used to always talk to me about the blend of Latin and Asian cooking, so I got really interested in that combination, probably on so many different kinds of levels.
What do you think the attraction is from one culture to the other?
The spiciness factor. [She laughs.] I think in both cultures we sort of adjust it to our own [liking]. It’s not like it’s in [a dish] and you just eat as is…I feel like we have a very similar way of eating, you know, and styles. Probably even the…climate. We grow a lot of the same kind of vegetables. It’s not like something totally crazy and different. We eat rice, you know. There’s a lot of crossover there.
You opted for a truck vs. a more traditional street cart. What do you think are the advantages to the truck vs. cart?
You mean "street cart" as in one that’s stationary? Oh, yeah, we didn’t even consider a stationary cart. It was always going to be mobile. It was always going to be, like, sort of a party on wheels. We have the speakers, where we might get one of the guys that works with me to sort of MC it on Friday. We have a little party going on on the sidewalk sort of....We’re a fun truck to follow. I don’t think the stationary cart would have worked for us at all. First of all, the truck has a lot more power to it, and I don’t think that Arlington even lets you do those little carts anymore. I think everything has to be enclosed in a vehicle now with a bug screen and everything. You can’t even get a regular street cart anymore. That’s what the inspector just told me…Plus, we wanted to go to D.C., D.C. and Arlington. Actually, people in Arlington have been giving us a lot of love. We’re definitely going to stay in Arlington, too, but if we expand, we’re definitely going to hit D.C. So we wanted to be a mobile kind of business, and plus, I just came back from New York, so we have a lot of food trucks there. We have a coffee truck, a mud truck. I really love food trucks, mobile food trucks to follow. They just sort of drive around. It’s like the ice cream man, you know.
You mentioned that you might go into D.C. Was there some advantage in doing Northern Virginia first?
Oh, yeah, they have a very streamline process. There is very little red tape. Comparatively, it’s so much easier. I feel like food trucks should totally come to Arlington. I would love to start like a food-truck community here and have camaraderie with other food merchants. People have approached me, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, start a food truck!’ I’m a very cooperative person, so I would love to see other food trucks pop up and have other people not be so hesitant to eat at a food truck. They’re very clean…It’s not like we’re just making it out of the basement or something.
What was the main difference between Arlington vs. D.C. in the permitting process?
I don’t deal with that particularly myself, so I can’t give you an accurate assessment. I just know it takes us longer to get them. I just know we can’t get one right now, but we’re in process...for D.C. We’ve applied, but I don’t know what the status is as of now. But we just launched last week, so I think we’re going to focus on Arlington for a bit, you know. A lot of people have been coming from D.C. to eat in Arlington, so I think that’s pretty cool, and the traffic is so much better, so I don’t know. If Arlington gives us a lot of attention, who knows?
Do you see this as an expandable concept with multiple trucks?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, our whole vision has always been to have multiple food trucks…all Rebel Heroes. Eventually, we want to, maybe by fall for sure, we want to do like catered parties and also little events, fun events with the truck on weekends. Yeah, we’re going to need more trucks. You can only sell so much off of one location.
One does not live by sandwich alone. What foods do you like other than sandwiches?
Me? Gosh, what am I a big fan of? It’d be weird to say another sandwich. I’m all of sudden drawing a blank. I eat out all the time, so this is totally horrible that I can’t answer the question. Give me a second. I’ve just been living the Rebel Heroes life. Mom’s cooking really! Anything my mom makes, basically I eat. But if I go out, I guess…I have to say that I don’t really have one particular favorite. I am right now in a Mediterranean kind of mood these days, because it’s sort of light and healthy and I don’t feel like grossed out after I eat. I never eat fast food really. I can’t tell you the last time I had fast food.