You might think that a former video-game wizard’s decision to start serving obscure Japanese fast food out of a truck that’s decorated with Japanese cartoon characters amounts to a convenient gimmick. But Gerald Abraham, whose Okamoto Kitchen comes to Santa Barbara this weekend, credits his gamer career for why his anime-covered restaurant-on-wheels has become one of the most successful food-truck purveyors in Southern California.
“Everything that I’ve done leads back to gaming,” said Abraham, who’ll be serving at the Asian American Neighborhood Festival around the Presidio on Sunday, October 8. “Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter are the games that helped me think analytically. They helped me peel back the layers and problem-solve step-by-step. They gave me the discipline and patience to sit down and analyze each situation.”
So when Abraham — who went from gaming to producing visual effects — and his wife, Chizuru Okamoto, a chef he met during his time in Japan, decided to start a food truck, their research was meticulous. And when Okamoto Kitchen started rolling in July 2015 (with the support of fellow gamer Shidosha Hodges), they analyzed each victory and failure like it was a battle. “Number one, I don’t like losing, but it’s inevitable,” said Abraham. “So when you’re playing against somebody who beats you down, it’s about figuring out how to come back from it afterward.”
In the competitive food-truck world, Okamoto Kitchen, which now includes two trucks with a third on the way, enjoys additional advantages as well: One are the colorful anime characters gracing the sides of the truck, almost impossible to miss even from a football field away. The other is a unique cuisine: a modern, easier-to-eat spin on Japanese comfort foods, like the Gyu Don Stack (with fried rice cakes encompassing the traditional rib-eye beef dish) and the popular “Nom Bomb,” a sandwich that plays on the nanban fried chicken plate.
The latter is something that Abraham first tried while living in Japan at a modest, family-run diner next to his language school. “It was so good,” said Abraham, who recalled thinking, “If Americans knew about this, they would eat it up.”
And therein lies their niche: In a SoCal world filled with sushi, ramen, and izakaya options, Okamoto Kitchen is serving up brand-new flavors. “That was strategically planned,” said Abraham, whose menu includes plenty of fish and tofu options as well as cheese mochi sticks, pork-belly fries, poke soba, and sweets like coffee jelly. “The goal of Okamoto Kitchen is to introduce Western culture to some of the lesser-known Japanese foods.”
Okamoto Kitchen comes to the S.B. Trust for Historic Preservation’s Eighth Annual Asian American Neighborhood Festival on Sunday, October 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park (123 E. Canon Perdido St.). Free parking is available behind Panino. Visit okamotokitchen.com and sbthp.org/aanf for more information.