On a sunny Friday afternoon in Oakland, at the corner of Webster and 2nd streets, Elmy Kader hands over a Styrofoam box through the Royal Egyptian Cuisine food truck's pass-through window and says, "Here's something special from me to you. When you go back to the office and open it, you'll see."
The customer had ordered Kader's gyro, which is one of the better versions you'll find in this city. But the personal touches — that extra "something special" — are what make each meal at Royal Egyptian more memorable than your standard food truck dining experience.
"Something special" might be the garlicky sautéed eggplant that Kader adds to give an extra dimension of richness to a falafel wrap. Or it might be whatever improvised side dish he's playing around with: During one visit it was big potato slices that Kader had doctored up with shredded cheese and Tapatio hot sauce.
Whatever you order, Kader will serve it up with a wink and maybe an anecdote or a bit of endearing shtick. Watching him work the lunch rush recalls a time before it was commonplace for gourmet food truck operators to have carefully constructed brand identities and legions of Twitter followers — when they had to rely entirely on charm and short-order cooking chops to attract customers. When Kader handed me what turned out to be an enormous order of barbecue chicken, he said he hoped I was hungry: "No leftovers. God is watching you." Another time, he made a big show of packing up a couple of wrinkly roasted whole chili peppers. "Heaven and hell," he said, gesturing to one and then the other. "Be careful!" (Later, I forgot to heed the warning and took a big bite out of "hell." It was an apt description.)
The important thing is that Kader's food is quite good. Most of the menu consists of Middle Eastern street food standards like gyros and falafels. But Kader doesn't like to limit himself, so he also sells things like barbecue ribs and chicken, which he grills in the truck.
The spit-roasted pork and chicken shawarma were both excellent — slightly smoky, with a dark spice coating. The Egyptian-style falafel wrap (Egyptian in part because the falafels are made with fava beans rather than chickpeas) was slightly mushy, but what it lacked in texture it made up for in flavor: herbaceous and super-garlicky, with a bit of a kick from a spicy tahini sauce. Among the side dishes, the oozy potato salad was especially tasty: soft and mayo-heavy, with a refreshing hint of dill.
Prior to launching Royal Egyptian Cuisine last summer, Kader had run other businesses — a clothing company and a trucking company, among others — but this is his first venture as a cook. Still, he told me that food has been his passion ever since he was a kid growing up in Alexandria, Egypt. When he moved to France as a young man, during the Seventies, he got his first and only restaurant job, as a chef's assistant at an upscale place in Marseilles.
"When I am sad, I always go into the kitchen," he said. "When I'm happy, I cook. When I need to think, I cook."
These days, Kader has big dreams — a three-year plan that would see his business expand to include a commercial kitchen; a full-scale catering and delivery service; and a second, seafood-focused truck. He said he wants Royal Egyptian Cuisine to be "a real five-star business" — one that places more of an emphasis on service and the kind of personal touches he's already known for.
On a nice day, when there's festive swing music playing from a boombox and several umbrella-topped tables set up on the curb next to the truck — the overall experience not so different from dining at a quaint sidewalk cafe — you get the sense that Kader is already part of the way there.
The Royal Egyptian Cuisine truck is parked at the intersection of Webster and 2nd streets, Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., and until 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Soon Kader plans on extending those hours — till 6 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
Soleil Banguid Fundraiser
What the Fork previously noted the sad passing of Soleil Banguid, the chef at Soleil's African Cuisine, whose delicious pan-African cuisine and infectious good spirits won hearts and minds. Banguid died in March after suffering a severe stroke. Now, two Alameda business owners, Monica Trejo (of Wescafe) and William Wong (of Localize It), are organizing a fundraiser to support Banguid's wife, TJ, and her family.
The event, entitled "Le Soleil Brille Toujours" ("The Sun Always Shines"), will be held at the Albert H. DeWitt Officers Club in Alameda at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 12. Dinner will feature several of Banguid's recipes (cooked by Trejo), and there will also be an African drumming performance.
Tickets are $75, and will be available for purchase online (the link hasn't yet been publicized) and in person at Wescafe (1536 Webster Street, 510-522-7200).