JapaCurry serves up street food in downtown San Francisco

The colorful JapaCurry truck designed by a friend in Japan. Hamada hopes that his eye-catching truck and tasty curry will be a hit in Downtown San Francisco.

What does a laid off information technology worker do after nearly two decades of living in America? For 40-year-old Jay Hamada, the proprietor of the newly established food truck JapaCurry, it is an opportunity to start over and pursue his lifelong dream of serving delicious Japanese cuisine.

Starting in December, the colorful JapaCurry food truck will be making appearances in San Francisco’s Financial District to serve lunches to hungry office workers. Hamada aims to offer a selection of curry lunches as well as bento boxes with chicken kara-age. He made his debut at San Francisco’s Off the Grid mobile food market on Nov. 19, where he served up his curry for dinner patrons gathered at Fort Mason.

While the Off the Grid crowd was gathered for dinner, Hamada hopes to work primarily for the lunch crowd instead.

“My curry is a lunch thing,” he said. “I think a plate full of curry with some tonkatsu is way too heavy for the evening. People who come to Off the Grid want to eat something smaller, lounge around and listen to some music and chat — this is a setting more for finger foods.”

So far, Hamada reports his food truck has seen success. While he’s only been in San Francisco for one night with Off the Grid, he said he has a good feeling about it.

Hamada left his native home in Miyazaki Prefecture 19 years ago to study English. His inspiration to go abroad had its roots in his dreams of becoming a restaurateur.

“When I was young, I worked in a restaurant at a hotel. The international clientele we received exposed me to the idea of learning English,” he said in an interview that was conducted in Japanese.

While he left Japan to learn English with hopes of rejoining the food industry, Hamada found himself in America as the tech boom was in full swing. He coupled his English education with computer science and became a network engineer in Silicon Valley.

With the economic bust, Hamada was laid off. Instead of looking for another job in IT, he decided to revive his passion for food. His initial hope was to open a ramen shop that served authentic Kyushu-style tonkotsu ramen in California.

“I thought ramen was the way to go,” he said. Hamada admits he had never intended to make curry up until recently. He hoped he could ride the popularity of ramen and open a stand-alone restaurant in San Francisco, but discovered it was too expensive. He sold his house and continued to wrestle with his passion for ramen, even leaving for Japan for six months to study how to make the dish.

At the height of the Korean barbecue taco trucks, the thought of a mobile food truck crossed Hamada’s mind. He considered the idea, but found that a ramen truck would require too much water. He toyed with the idea of a Japanese taco truck, but it seemed overdone. The food truck was thus put on the back burner.

“The funny thing is, as I was leaving for Japan to learn about ramen, I thought curry would be the perfect thing for a food truck.”

After he returned from Japan, Hamada continued to pursue his passion for ramen, but made a change in plans last September. The cost of starting a restaurant was too much, and recent changes in regulations for food trucks in San Francisco made the food truck a more attractive option. Hamada also changed his tune after eating at Murraci’s Japanese Curry & Grill in Downtown San Francisco and thought “this could work.”

Jay Hamada’s Japanese-style curry.

In just two months he procured a used food vending truck and learned how to make curry. He had never studied curry before, but he learned from Seishiro Takaoka and Koba, a pair of chefs that taught him the trade. Takaoka and Koba ran a curry delivery service in Mountain View called Timer Curry, which has since closed with the two chefs’ departure back to Japan.

Hamada then contacted a friend of his in Japan to design the colorful exterior of the truck, which he finds just right for San Francisco.

“I initially wanted something more manly, but what came out was something more feminine, and I thought it might work better,” he said.

In just 10 days, the design was complete, and Hamada was ready to turn his plain white food vending truck into a proper curry truck. Although he had the curry and the truck design down, he experienced some delays.

Hamada wanted to have JapaCurry ready to go within a month. Buying the truck and learning the business model didn’t take too long, but rebuilding the kitchen inside the truck and applying for permits forced him to wait two months before he was ready to go. He also encountered problems in finding a proper kitchen where he could prep before heading out on his truck.

He tried to rent out a kitchen that was formerly a take-out pizza kitchen, but negotiations broke down at the last minute.

Despite his setbacks, however, Hamada found a shared kitchen south of the Mission District in San Francisco. With only two other people on staff, Hamada seems perpetually busy with preparing.

“We’ll need flour and paper towels. Oh, and wax paper.” Even while doing an interview, he was making sure everything was in order. Hamada instructed his young employee on what to pick up at the store. He went to the back of the kitchen and retrieved his car keys. He handed them to his helper and told him to take his car to the store before resuming the interview.

JapaCurry also serves up power-lunches with tonkatsu and kara-age — a lunch for the hungry urbanite. photos by Jay Hamada

Hamada hopes to expand Japanese food on wheels. As a proponent of street food, he’s starting out with curry and bento but wants to see more.

“I want to inspire people to take up other niches,” he said. “It’s cheaper than ever to start a food truck business, and I expect a lot more people to start doing it. I hope my truck will inspire people to do other trucks, like yakitori, or even make ramen work somehow.”

Hamada has yet to let go of his dream of making ramen, but he hopes to expand JapaCurry as well. He hopes that with increasing popularity, he can offer more to his customers.

“As I said with Off the Grid, it’s better for finger foods, and maybe one day I can introduce things like takoyaki there — that would be perfect,” he said.

For now though, Hamada is setting out to feed hungry office workers who are in search of cheap but filling Japanese lunches. Expect to see him around Downtown San Francisco starting in December.

For more information about JapaCurry, visit www.japacurry.com.

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