The menu at Short Grain Food Truck fluxes on an almost daily basis, with dishes being added and deleted according to which berries looked prettiest that morning and what fish clasped the business end of Mark Marhefka’s line. The O.G. (standard shorthand for “original gangster”), though, is locked in place: Like a pyramid at the center of a time-lapse video, the chirashi bowl holds its slot while tea-smoked chicken and fried rice flutter in and out around it.
Understandably so. Built on a bed of lovingly steamed white rice that coheres without clumping, The O.G. is essentially a vehicle for immaculate slices of fresh raw fish. But what a supporting cast! The fish is overlaid with little crooks of puffed rice; vinegary pickle slivers; a dollop of sweet, sunset orange fish roe; crinkly dried seaweed and brittle white sesame seeds. Assuming you’re not put off by a flume of slick, Sriracha-tinged mayonnaise, the discreetly hearty coastal dish is exquisite. When I first tried it, I blogged that it was a dish I’d happily eat every week. In retrospect, that sounds like an understatement.
Still, The O.G. suffers from one weird quirk: It apparently makes eaters ponder the mechanics of restaurant reviewing. That’s probably not a good thing. No composer wants to hear her music inspires thoughts of tax reform. And yet, twice over the course of two days, I was approached by readers who had paid a single visit to Short Grain and were seized by worry that the artistry they’d devoured with chopsticks wouldn’t qualify for a starred Post and Courier write-up. “Can you review food trucks?” both of them asked anxiously.
It’s true that most of the restaurants singled out for review have a fixed address. Even in food truck strongholds, such as Austin and Portland, critics tend to focus on restaurants with ambiance, service staff and wine lists to assess. (Elitist? You try coming up with 1,000 words to describe five gluten-free tacos.) But there are instances in which food served from a truck is so stupendous that it would be criminal to ignore it. As The O.G. and its instant fans suggest, that’s certainly the case with Short Grain.
Short Grain is the brainchild of Shuai Wang and Corrie Wachob, who gave up jobs at New York City izakayas to find work in Charleston. But local restaurants are long on top talent (and dangerously short on line cooks), so Wang and Wachob struck out on their own, billing Wang’s cooking as “untraditional Japanese.” Back in New York, Wang served as sous chef at the convention-busting Chez Sardine, where he doubtless gained fluency in sushi rice, ginger and roe, as well as a breezy attitude toward cuisine that’s perfectly suited to a trailer operation.
From the customer’s perspective, there are a few drawbacks to the mobile setup. At most of Short Grain’s regular locations, you’re only guaranteed a seat and table if you work in a nearby office. Outdoors, the best you’re likely to do is score a stretch of curb. And unless Short Grain is parked at a brewery, which is a sometime occurrence, the food’s striking compatibility with beer is irrelevant.
Such is the way of food trucking. But the service circumstances also create a problem that doesn’t afflict trucks specializing in fried chicken or hot dogs: Short Grain’s dishes are a little too delicate for South Carolina summers. Again, that’s not an issue if you can hustle your order indoors. Beneath the midday sun, though, gobs of mayonnaise; runny egg yolks and raw fish are apt to warm up quickly. I started wondering about the wisdom of a Short Grain picnic around the time my iPhone overheated.
Maybe I would have let a lesser lunch bake. But I was forced to confront the finer points of temperature and goop because I hated for anything to interfere with dishes that otherwise came pretty close to perfect. I ate the entirety of Short Grain’s menu and liked it all.
Stubby grains of rice, artfully dressed with vinegar, figure into most of the dishes. The rice is a powerhouse on its own, a point made forcefully by the substantial onigiri, or rice ball. Onigiri are frequently decorated with kitten whiskers or panda ears, but Short Grain’s version doesn’t come from Too-Cute Prefecture. Instead, it’s pumped full of a sophisticated smoked fish salad.
Equally classic in form is the bento box, although the components beyond the rice have more pickled spark and puffed rice crunch than the usual segmented Japanese lunchbox. One of those nooks belongs to the definitively great tofu-and-collard fritters, shaggy and piped with mayonnaise. The tofu isn’t immediately recognizable as such: It’s just a bit of silky background to the greens’ earthy bitterness. A counterpunch of sweetness comes from tiny rings of scallions.
There’s a lot going on with Short Grain’s dishes. Wang’s instinct is to make everything more audacious, more ornate: You get the sense he’s trying to do for Japanese food what David Bowie did for the kimono. Even a dish as simple as vegetable fried rice is showered with puffed rice and matchsticks of red onion. The meaty mushrooms and startlingly handsome butterbeans that populate the rice aren’t the least bit dry, but a slow-cooked egg and squiggle of soy mayonnaise serve as an insurance policy.
Wang knows when to pull back, though: One of the most expressive dishes on the menu is a gorgeous green salad of hauntingly fresh strawberries and chunks of marinated beets, finished with clouds of goat feta cheese, curls of pickled red onions and puffed rice.
But not every dish demands that treatment. Okonomiyaki is supposed to be a gleeful mess. Short Grain takes that license and runs with it, translating the pancake-layering shenanigans to a quartered Belgian waffle topped with sweet soy sauce, bacon, egg, pickles, fish flakes, red onion, chopped seaweed and mayonnaise. It’s soggy and salty, but the constituent parts are remarkably well balanced. More strikingly, it tastes like it couldn’t have come from anywhere but Short Grain. That’s the kind of hallmark cooking that belongs in Charleston, whether served in a dining room or from a trailer.