Rudy Peña grew up in the restaurant business, helping out at his parents' place over the years waiting tables. When the time came for him to head off to college, he chose another path: electrical engineering and applied math. Or so he thought.
Eventually, he yearned for his roots in the restaurant industry and decided to leave the corporate world.
“I jumped into the pop-up scene to kind of get my feet wet,” Peña says. “I had different plans, but then COVID happened.”
Over the past six months, he’s invested his time into studying the math and science of taste.
“The way I like to look at it is, I’m actually engineering the food to taste as best as possible through trial and improvement since I don’t have a culinary background,” Peña says.
Peña’s pop-up, Roodie’s Shack, can be found at local breweries around the city, such as Peticolas Brewing Co., Pegasus City Brewery and Celestial Beerworks.
Tacos are on the menu every day, but there’s always one other main dish that rotates daily. (When dealing with a one-man show, this is such a smart choice. Too many times pop-ups and food trucks get overwhelmed with ambitious menus that result in long wait times and frazzled cooks.)
The main rotating items are a Cuban sandwich, a cheesesteak sandwich, a Cali burrito and a Jucy Lucy, which is an ode to a cheese-stuffed burger out of Minneapolis.
The taco selection includes al pastor, brisket, carne asada, picadillo, carnitas and nopalitos.
“I like to consider my concept a modern approach to American dining by highlighting the American cuisine our country has to offer,” Peña says. He points out that the Cuban sandwich is actually a product of the U.S. by way of Ybor City near Tampa Bay, Florida.
After repeatedly being seduced by the stacks of his Cuban sandwiches on his Instagram feed, I was finally able to track down Roodie’s Shack at Peticolas Brewing last week.
Before heading over, I preordered my sandwich using Roodie's Shack's Square site. About 20 minutes later, when I walked up to his table in Peticolas’ parking lot, a lone, brown bag was awaiting me with my name on it. I got a couple of beers to go and headed back to my car.
As I pulled away the foil that swaddled the sandwich, the scent of smoked meat enveloped me. It smells better than the pictures look.
Peña explains he smokes his Cuban mojo-style pulled pork for his sandwiches. The bread, which Peña gets from Cuban Dulceria International Bakery, is thin and has a slight crunch to the exterior. Between the smoked pork, ham and soft bite of pickles, it is a perfectly engineered sandwich.
“I strongly believe the bread is the difference-maker in the taste of the sandwich,” Peña says. I may argue the smoked meat is the true game-changer, but the bread definitely brings it all together.
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I noticed a small tortilla press on his table while I was picking up my sandwich, and at that moment I regretted not getting tacos, too.
When I asked later, Peña said since the quarantine, he’s had more time to test different recipes and now makes his tortillas when they're ordered. Talk about game-changers.
Maybe more engineers should consider career changes into sandwiches and tacos.