If there’s truth to the idea that big surprises come in small packages, a Fort Worth trailer measuring roughly 10-by-10 and located in the parking lot of Avoca coffee on Magnolia Street is proof. After Tokyo Café was gutted by a 2014 fire, former head chef Kevin Martinez wasted no time forging a new home for his creativity by purchasing a former mobile lemonade stand. He repainted it red and white, added Japanese decor and brought it back to life in 2015 as Yatai Food Kart.
“I first opened outside of The Velvet Box, which was a sex shop, and business was really good," Martinez says.
Churning out Asian street and comfort food is Martinez's forte. “I’m obsessed with certain regional cuisine, but Asian food has so much to play with,” he says. And Martinez’s ingenuity — or sorcery, rather — begins with a bowl.
The menu evolves day to day, generally offering one ramen dish and one wild card, each typically priced from $7-$9. Gathering ingredients from local farmers markets and Asian markets allows Martinez to keep things fresh and interesting. One day a fried duck is swimming in a bowl, on another day, dashi-braised pork shoulder or wild boar. “Why not?" Martinez asks. "If it’s available, cook it.”
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The miso ramen came in a deep bowl with a hearty serving of noodles soaking in soy broth with a lightly salted, roasted pork belly from Niman Ranch. This bowl was created to spotlight spices rather than allow the meat to overwhelm the dish, Martinez says. The Thai chili oil and black garlic oil blended well with the umami flavor of seaweed and a cured fish known as Narutomaki, topped with a soy poached egg.
Steamed buns are a recurring menu item, and although they’re simple in presentation, the various ways Martinez prepares them show off his ability to be edgy. His hand-made buns have showcased Southern fare like fried chicken with slaw and Thai dressing or a savory mix of pork and Peking duck enclosed by a pan-fried steamed bun resting in sweet teriyaki. It's a taste of fine dining without the white tablecloth.
Martinez briefly manned the kitchen of a downtown Fort Worth restaurant called La Perla, where he learned regional South American cuisines that provided inspiration for Latin-Asian fusion dishes. Inspired by a trip to Puerto Rico, he pieced together a sandwich with pork shoulder, pickled ginger and Japanese mayo and a kimchi mango gordita.
The customer base of a coffee shop parking lot may be vastly different than a sex store, but that hasn’t slowed Yatai’s following. He plans to return to Tokyo Café full-time, but Yatai will remain open. “I’ve never been the huge volume guy, but I want to do two things each day and do them right," he says. "I’m just trying to be a positive influence in the culinary growth of Fort Worth.”
1311 W. Magnolia St., Fort Worth