Whether it’s vegan Philly cheesesteaks, traditional hot pots and now Japanese cuisine, Jeff Ji is all about doing things differently with lunch trucks on Temple’s Main Campus—both for himself and others.
“When I want to start a business, I don’t want to make similar food with other trucks,” said Ji, the owner of Tabeteki, a new Japanese food truck on 13th Street. “I don’t want to take others’ business, so I want to make some food here that Temple doesn’t have.”
Tabeteki opened last semester as the only truck on campus that serves exclusively Japanese items, like Japanese curry and udon noodles. Even though Ji is Chinese, he’s had experience working at a Japanese restaurant during his five years in Philadelphia.
“Some trucks, maybe they have sushi or something, but I don’t serve sushi—I serve takoyaki, tempura, tonkatsu,” Ji said.
As students may be unfamiliar with some items on the menu, Ji makes sure to explain less common dishes to students. The takoyaki, for example, is a ball-shaped Japanese street snack made from a batter, cooked in a special pan, filled with minced octopus and brushed with takoyaki sauce.
The truck’s most popular food items vary depending on what students are feeling up to at the moment.
“Most people, if they want a snack, they pick the takoyaki,” Ji said. “If they want a full meal, they will pick the tonkatsu rice or the chicken rice. Sometimes they will buy both because they think one meal is not enough.”
Many will notice Tabeteki for its vivid front painting, which is based off Katsushika Hokusai’s acclaimed 19th-century work “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” It was spray-painted on last semester by one of Ji’s close friends, Jerry Cai, who graduated from a top university in China and now attends a local art school.
While the process took a week, Ji is happy about the final result and feels it gives off the traditional Japanese feeling he wanted.
In addition to running Tabeteki, Ji also owns Vegan Tree, the truck right next to Tabeteki, which serves vegan burgers and sandwiches as well as traditional East Asian dishes like the hot pot, which involves a hot broth that cooks various ingredients. With these two responsibilities, Ji enlisted the help of two friends, Jaydan Wong and Junchen Dragon, to help run the trucks.
“We just help each other, we don’t have actual positions,” Ji said.
Ji said he chose Temple for the location of both his trucks because “Temple had a spot for us.”
Now with a couple of years under his belt, Ji hopes to eventually open a restaurant in the city. Although he isn’t sure about what it’s going to serve yet, he said a restaurant would give him more business during the idle summer breaks where students are primarily off-campus.
For now, Ji is looking to increase exposure and better communication between himself and students, one outlet being through WeChat, a free messaging and calling app. With the ID of “spicypot,” students can contact Tabeteki about what food is available and what items have run out for the day.
“They can add me as a friend and tell me like what kind of food they want and what time they want to come for pickup,” Ji said.
He also plans on expanding the menu soon with traditional bento boxes containing two or three sides and a soup.
“I do unique food … unique ones are like my self-point,” he added.
Albert Hong can be reached at email@example.com or 215.204.7416.