“Yo, it’s the Wu-Tang hoagies!” a black kid on a bike says to his buddy as they roll through West Philly’s Clark Park on a recent Sunday morning. Off to the side is a distinctive orange-yellow food cart with a green smoke-breathing dragon painted on its side, big red umbrella and a pair of Chinese throwing knives dangling from either side of a specials board.
Paul Davis laughs as he stirs a pot of seitan “chicken” in sesame-peanut sauce. Next to him, partner Steve Renzi cuts and guts fresh hoagie rolls from Cacia’s Bakery in South Philly. “We’ve had a couple nicknames,” says the soft-spoken Davis. “Some people call us the ‘Tofu Dragon.’”
The actual name of the cart is Kung Fu Hoagies—a vegetarian/vegan venture that longtime pals and South Philly residents Davis, 31, and Renzi, 30, launched in mid-March. On weekends, the duo sets up at Clark Park; during the week, they’re typically at Passyunk Avenue and Dickinson Street for the lunch rush. They use daily Facebook and Twitter updates to let their followers know where they’re gonna be, and after just three months, they’ve garnered steady lines of customers, glowing Yelp reviews and lots of buzz on the street about where to get a cheap, kickass vegetarian banh mi or noodle bowl.
And the kung fu thing isn’t just a gimmick. Five nights a week, Davis and Renzi take classes at Seven Mountains Kung Fu in Center City, where teacher Phuoc Phan instructs them in That Son Vo Dao, a Vietnamese martial art that originated in China. Davis has been studying it for years; Renzi got into it a year ago.
“It’s changed me so much as a person, and I don’t know if we’d be doing [Kung Fu Hoagies] without it and without our teacher,” says the gregarious Renzi, adding that Phan has advised the pair on everything from traditional Vietnamese recipes to the artwork that adorns the cart.
Davis, a talented visual artist, crafted the cart’s dragon and calligraphy. He’s pretty talented in the food department, too. A Pittsburgh native, Davis has worked in kitchens his entire adult life, including cooking here in Philly at Whole Foods and at Monk’s Cafe, as well as restaurants in Seattle and San Francisco. Meanwhile, West Chester native Renzi used to cook at Whole Foods and Downey’s on South Street, then became a social studies and special ed teacher at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts for four years before resigning last year.
Last fall, the duo—both vegetarians— hatched the Kung Fu Hoagies idea, choosing a cart over a food truck because of both the lower initial investment (less than $10,000) and the fact that they both wanted to be out on the street interacting with customers.
“I guess a lot of people who know me kind of expected this,” Davis says of the venture. “Like, ‘Oh, it’s another one of Paul’s crazy ideas’ ... But because this brought together all the aspects of my life, I had confidence it would work.”
Initially, the plan was to serve vegetarian hot dogs, but that quickly changed to Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine since that was what the pair were eating all the time.
“It’s nice to be putting out healthy, tasty food,” says Davis. “I guess Philly can use that, and there aren’t any other food trucks or carts doing quite what we’re doing, but we’re not trying to force people to change. People seem to like it, and good food is good food, I guess.”
Davis and Renzi spent months perfecting recipes—a couple of banh mi varieties, a coconut-lemongrass “beef” curry over noodles, an orange-BBQ “beef” hoagie, side dishes like spicy cucumber, jicama or noodle salads, and more—and going through the process of getting permits to operate their cart on city sidewalks.
Since March, 15-to-18-hour workdays, seven days a week, have become the norm. They’re up before sunrise to get the rolls and head to a commissary in Upper Darby where they do much of the prep work—pressing and marinating tofu, chopping vegetables, frying noodles, pickling daikon and carrots, making sauces. Then it’s back to the South Philly garage where they store the cart, loading it up with food and drinks, hauling it to the day’s location, and setting up. At the end of the day, it’s thorough cleaning, then off to kung fu class. More hours are spent doing touch-ups and other maintenance on the cart, filling propane tanks, running errands and thinking up more recipes and future ideas for the business.
Both guys average about four to five hours of sleep a night. “It’s a grind, but it’s worth it,” says Renzi, acknowledging that the job doesn’t leave room for relationships or even really hanging out with friends—unless their friends drop by to visit them at the cart. Davis and Renzi have talked about a food truck or even a storefront someday, but for now it’s all about the cart.
“We chose this and we love everything about it,” says Davis. “I’m one of the lucky ones to really make work my life and life my work.”
Workin' It is a new column by Staff Writer Michael Alan Goldberg, who spotlights a different working professional each week.