A Food Truck Worth Chasing
Kuki’s brings Japanese-inspired flavors to the people
Story and photos by Rob Fisher
Teri Takikawa stood next to his mother Fukuko—known as “Kuki”—as they worked side-by-side in his mobile kitchen, filling orders for eager customers swarming outside. The shiny black Ford had a former life as a shuttle van in Portland, Ore., but Teri and his wife, Kelli, have put in a kitchen where the seats used to be, transforming it into Monterey’s latest and—at present—only gourmet food truck.
When Teri was growing up in Pacific Grove, Kuki (pronounced like “cookie”) Americanized the Japanese dishes of her own childhood just enough to make her boys eat them up—and make the neighborhood kids love them, too.
Recently, Teri and Kelli became inspired to create a food truck to share these family recipes with others, and to Kuki’s surprise, they named it after her.
The Takikawas are both food-oriented people, but they aren’t professional chefs, so they partnered with Mark Doton, who had served as executive chef and culinary educator at Whole Foods in Monterey, where Kelli is the store’s team leader.
Doton grew up on a small farm in Vermont, and only became a chef after an earlier career. He’s worked in the kitchens of Bernardus, Sierra Mar and with Sarah LaCasse in her certified organic kitchen at Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand. He shared the Takikawas’ sense of purpose right from the start, spending time with Kuki to develop a menu based on her original sauces.
In keeping with the ethics and quality-minded sourcing ethos of the places where both Doton and Kelli have worked, Doton buys vegetables as much as possible from local farms, natural meats from Niman Ranch, and organic, air-chilled birds from Mary’s Chicken. “I just love the way it cooks up,” he says.
“Everybody thinks that it’s fried, but it’s baked,” explains Kelli of Kuki’s Bonsai Chicken, one of the truck’s signature dishes. “It’s crispy, and it fills your mouth with all the flavors of the teriyaki and the chicken.”
On the day I visited, I got to sample the popular chicken, which was saturated in light, sweet teriyaki flavor and so tender that it fell off the bone.
I also got to try another popular dish, a rice bowl topped with succulent shredded beef and spicy coconut milk curry. It was loaded with fresh vegetables, all of it infused with lively coconut-and-chili goodness. I topped off my meal with a spicy peanut Sambal brownie, and it was easy to see why some devotees are telling Teri and Kelli that they are addicted!
“We wanted to be able to go to customers,” explains Kelli of their motivation to launch a food truck rather than a restaurant. “We wanted to be able to introduce people to food directly, and we like that excitement that it generates.”
Kuki no longer lives locally, and on the day I visited, she was just filling in for Chef Doton, who was away at a wedding. She looked right at home in her namesake truck and is flattered by all of the attention, but it didn’t start out that way.
Unbeknownst to her, Teri and Kelli announced the new business to their friends by sending out a photo of a stylish young Kuki in sunglasses, standing beside a tiny convertible in 1950s San Francisco. At first, Kuki was deeply embarrassed. But she says now that what her son and daughter-in-law are doing has given her life a lot of meaning and filled her with gratitude.