The best new food truck in the Valley has no truck. It has no storefront and only a few staff. But for a relative small fry, its food is delicious, and its future looks bright — as long as enough curious diners discover where it is.
It’s Tiny Kitchen Food and Drink, the eatery housed inside Gateway City Arts on Race Street in Holyoke. The kitchen, described on the arts center’s website as a “ramen pop-up restaurant,” opened on Nov. 4 with a fairly limited menu: three takes on that quintessential Japanese noodle soup, plus spaetzle mac and cheese (which can be prepped with lobster meat), wilted spinach salad, and chicken wings served with Vietnamese fish sauce, fries and pickles. For dessert: coconut milk chocolate fondue. To drink: select beer, wine, cocktails, and coffee.
The menu may expand in the future, but for now, that’s it. The hours are limited to Tuesdays (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.), Wednesdays (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), Fridays (11 a.m. to 3 p.m), and Sundays (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Tiny Kitchen isn’t easy to find, either — visitors need to pull open the main doors of the arts center and explore the ground floor for a minute or two in order to spot it.
But like the pearl in an oyster, or the little baby Jesus in a king cake, Tiny Kitchen is worth the search. When it comes to really good, casual fare, John Peter Wentworth and Tara Tulley know what they’re doing. Wentworth worked previously as the chef at King Street Eats and The Dirty Truth in Northampton. Tulley used to be the pastry chef at Green Street Cafe, and recently she collaborated with Sunderland’s Kitchen Garden farm on preparing foods for local markets, farm dinners, and catered events.
The duo also runs a sister pop-up restaurant here at Gateway City Arts, called “Fast Friends, Slow Food with Love.” As comfortable as they are with on-the-fly cooking, Wentworth told me, Tiny Kitchen is their attempt to “build some consistency” into the weekly food offerings. For now, that’s twice a week — Holyoke Hummus Company runs this kitchen on Thursdays — but over the course of 2016, Tulley says it’s likely that Tiny Kitchen will be open more often, with an expanded menu.
If that comes to pass, get excited. Fellow Advocate writer Amanda Drane and I sat down with servings of the pork loin ramen with smoked bacon and bean sprouts ($7), the Vietnamese fish sauce wings ($9), and the spaetzle ($10), and we ate well.
It’s easy to cook up a salty broth — many American taste buds conditioned by years of commercial canned soup expect a certain amount of sodium, in fact — but good ramen broth succeeds when it manages a smooth, meaty, savory flavor without that burst of salt. This ramen achieves that balance. It’s rich and mild at the same time. The orange-yolked eggs are nicely soft boiled, the sprouts are crunchy, the pork loin is soft and tender, and the small cuts of bacon add a nice smokiness to the bowl.
The chicken wings also impressed us. Wentworth and Tulley drizzle them with a Vietnamese fish sauce that I feared might be too acrid, but the sauce is sweeter than expected, almost like slightly-salted honey. That drizzle hits not only the crunchy skin of the chicken wings but also the fresh-made french fries and the sticky rice at the base of the plate.
Add a dash of dried garlic flakes to the top of this serving of wings, fries, and rice, and you’ve got yourself a hearty lunch that’s both novel and familiar: a sort of Asian-fusion tailgate food (the homemade spaetzle mac and cheese is a change in tone from these items, but nonetheless it is deliciously creamy and rich).
The ramen broth, Wentworth said, is made by cooking down a really strong chicken stock, then letting the pork loin soak in there for about a day and a half. “That’s where all that unctuous flavor comes from,” he explained.
Into that broth goes eel sauce (which is a type of MSG-free barbecue sauce, not sauce made from eel), mirin, dried shiitake mushrooms, and a dash of dried fish. Let that steep for an hour or two, cook in some fresh wheat noodles, and voila — great ramen.
These are recipes Wentworth has toyed around with before, but they don’t necessarily define the types of dishes that Tiny Kitchen will rely on as it grows. The restaurant trends healthy, and relies on locally-sourced ingredients as much as possible, but the next few months will invite new rounds of playing in the kitchen.
“This place is still figuring out what it is,” Wentworth said. “We haven’t sought too much attention yet, since there’s only so much we can do out of a kitchen this size, but we’re starting to get busy for meals. That’s just happening kind of organically.”
In part that’s because Gateway City Arts hosts classes and workshops for visitors, Tulley said, but most of the newcomers to Tiny Kitchen are there because they have heard good things about the food.
“We’ve been acting like this is basically a food truck,” Tully said. “It’s a similar set-up. And eventually I think we will get a food truck, too. But right now we’re just trying to figure this out.” They have enjoyed much about their years in the Northampton restaurant scene, she added, “but we love Holyoke. There’s so many cool people here, and so much potential.”
She’s speaking of the city as a whole, but the same applies to this new tasty enterprise: much potential and, soon, more ideas moving to the front burner.•
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.