If you're going to talk about the food trucks in Lincoln, then you've got to talk about the truck that kicked off this era of local dining: Heoya.
When owners Minh Nguyen and his wife, Linda, launched the Asian fusion truck in August 2011, he said they found Asian food scene lacking and no food trucks roamed the streets.
The son of two Vietnamese sandwich shop owners, Nguyen and his family became the first to introduce its fusion menu with bahn mi sandwiches and Korean barbecue burritos and tacos.
"We looked around to see what Lincoln was lacking, and at that time there were no Asian sandwich shops around, which have now become very popular in not just Lincoln," Nguyen said. "If you go to other cities, that's huge."
Today, Heoya offers a variety of Asian-American dishes ranging from stir-fry beef noodles and egg rolls combined with its own fusion-oriented takes, including french fries covered in Korean barbecue sauce, Asian mayo and its signature orange sauce topped with cilantro, as well as fire rangoons, which are crab rangoons with a cream cheese filling much spicier than the standard fare.
Heoya also serves tacos and burritos with grilled meat, Napa cabbage, daikon and pickled carrots like you'd see in a bahn mi sandwich.
"The meat is grilled, so it has that little char to it," Nguyen said. "Then the rest gives it different textures, so when you chew it it gives it that crunch."
All of the recipes have Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean influences. Because the business is run by Nguyen and members of his family, all of whom are of Vietnamese descent, the recipes primarily come from Vietnamese family members. From there, Nguyen said, most of the food and sauces came from experimentation.
"You have the standard sauces, and the red sauces are our Korean barbecue sauce. We also have creamy garlic and orange sauce, which is a mixture of all that," he said. "It's all home based. We came up with them in the kitchen thinking of the new things to do, trying them out and mixing stuff together."
The heavyweight star of the show comes in the form of the burritos, which feature the grilled meat, daikon and pickled carrots, cabbage and sauces topped over a small bed of fluffy short-grain rice. The chewy-crunchy mixture is wrapped up tightly in extra-large burrito tortillas supplied directly from Lincoln's own Mexican food chain, D'Leon's.
Nguyen said he believes making the connection with D'Leon's and other businesses around Lincoln -- an important step for any food truck trying to make its way through the city.
"You have to build those connections. With the food truck scene, we want more food trucks. People say they're going to be competition. No, they're not competition. It's a draw," he said. "When you have one truck, you can only get like a hundred people. But if you get five trucks together, you're going to get your customers, their customers and it's just a draw."
And Heoya doesn't attract customers to just its truck. On July 13, 2012, Heoya opened up a storefront in a corner kitchen in the U-Stop gas station at 3280 Superior Street.
Originally opened as a home base to prepare food for the truck, the large crowds that fill Heoya's lunch rush are a testament to how well the community has responded to Nguyen's food.
"It was a busy first day," said Charlie Nguyen, one of Heoya's co-owner and Minh's brother in law. "We get a very big lunch crowd. It's nonstop all day long."
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Part of that success may have to do with the experience Nguyen wants to impart on all the customers who stop through. Each of Heoya's employees was trained to learn and remember the first names of each customer who comes in for food.
"With food trucks, you get a much more personal connection to what you eat. You see how it's made all while interacting with the person who is making your food," Minh Nguyen said. "So we want to remember you. Other places and big chains will give you an order number. You're not a number, we want to know your name."
But things didn't go off without a hitch when the Heoya crew was first starting out. After doing a bit of research, Minh Nguyen originally believed he would be able to park the truck on Lincolns streets and open for business as long as the meter was paid for.
"But we weren't able to do that, so even now we're confined to private lots," he said. "We got kicked off streets, ticketed in the streets. It's hard for a food truck to open because you don't have your name out there. The city's regulations have made it harder, definitely."
Minh Nguyen said they had originally hoped the city would change its regulations and work with them to help move trucks into the streets. But almost a decade later and they've begun to lose hope.
"We wish Lincoln would do something for that, but we're not holding our breaths. We've waited eight years now and nothing's been done," he said.
Nguyen said some of the concerns about letting food trucks wander in places such as the Haymarket come from other restaurants, which fear nearby food trucks will take customers away from them. But Nguyen believes having food trucks in the Haymarket wouldn't have a negative impact on local restaurants and would incentivize people to visit the district.
"We'll be away from them, just allow us a chance to at least be down there. If people want food from a restaurant, then they're going to go to that restaurant instead of us," Nguyen said. "But I guarantee you that if you had three or four trucks down in the Haymarket way away from the restaurants, people would still come visit just for us."
Because of the restrictive nature of the regulations, Nguyen fears the food truck scene in Lincoln's growth may be stifling.
"It's barely changed, it hasn't grown. It hasn't really changed because to start a food truck up and to operate every day, it's difficult because you don't have a place to vend," he said. "The places you are allowed to vend, there's not enough foot traffic."
But still, you can count on Heoya to show up to any event or food truck festival that pops up on the calendar.
"When we have festivals, we have lines that go down the street," Nguyen said. "Every little event we do helps a lot. It's how we got our name out there."
And even though it isn't the experience Nguyen had expected, he is thankful for the experiences he's had serving customers all around the city.
"I used to work on the mortgage side of things at a big investment company, and during the Recession, it really sucked," Nguyen said. "But now when we decided to this, I get to help people. This is what I enjoy doing, and I want to keep doing it."
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