Best Restaurants 2011: On a Roll

Dim and Den Sum founder Chris Hodgson hit the food truck fast lane last summer, paving the way for others to follow in 2011.

Chris Hodgson, a caffeine-wiry, scruffy-chinned 25-year-old, answers questions with quick, darting humor. That speed fits his achievement. In less than a year, the Shaker Heights native has become the driving force of Cleveland's hottest dining trend: food on the move.

Dim and Den Sum, Hodgson's food truck, appeared on city streets in June, sparking a media craze and online lunch buzz. He's already inspired so many fellow Cleveland food-truckers, they've spawned monthly group meet-ups. Recently, the motor-mouthed Hodgson slowed down long enough to explain his truck's name — "dim sum" means "treasures of the heart," not Chinese dumplings, while the rest is a play on words ("and then some," get it?) — his cuisine ("comfort with an Asian flair") and his plans to start a restaurant that'll actually stand still.

CM. When did you first get food from a truck and think, Wow, I could do that?

A. 2009, New York City. I was working at [Spotted Pig], a Michelin-star restaurant. I was eating at taco trucks all the time. And it kind of became a bet [among] me and the rest of the cooks: Who could do a truck first? They were all like, "Dude, we could make the best trucks in the world!" I decided to do it.

CM. What was the point where you realized, Oh, yeah, this is catching on?

A. Probably when the city contacted us to help write code and figure out how they could make this legal for other people. We hit 1,000 fans on Facebook. Every news place in Cleveland wanted to do a story on us. With lunches, we were up to an hour wait for people at the truck. We were like, "This is kinda working!"

CM. How often are you using what you learned at Scottsdale Le Cordon Bleu?

A. Culinary school is kind of a waste of time. You learn everything on the job. A lot of chefs in Cleveland never went to culinary school. They just put their head down and learned how to cook from other chefs they admired. They give you three hours to make one dish at culinary school. Well, I have three hours to serve 300 people out on the street.

CM. What's it take to make a food truck work?

A. You gotta be real active. You can't just have good food. A lot of people come to the truck to see us in action and see my sister's smiling face and to see me acting like a crazy person. It's part of the show.

CM. Do you help other people start food trucks?

A. I do. I was in their boat a year ago and wish someone was able to say, "Listen, don't forget about this, this and this. The fire department's going to shut you down! I don't care if you're good with the health department, you've got propane!" I've got a buddy who leases trucks. I've helped three other guys get contracts and start the leasing process.

CM. What problems have you run into?

A. We've been waiting a year for the legislation. We have a permit for selling food in Ward 3, [but it excludes downtown]. Brick and mortar cafes and hot dog vendors are putting up a fuss. The city is dragging their feet.

CM. How will your standing restaurant be different?

A. I'm going upscale with it. We're doing a wood-burning oven restaurant. It'll be food similar to Spotted Pig: very rustic, with an Italian, Mediterranean feel, focusing on wood-burning pizzas. Olives, olive oil, lot of lemons, lot of citrus. I want all my friends to eat what I cook. So I'm not going to charge anyone over $15 for anything.

CM. Where will it be?

A. Hopefully, Lakewood. I got a local team building my tables from the old Geauga Lake Big Dipper. We bought all the wood from that.

CM. What's new on the menu this spring?

A. Always something new. We only keep one thing the same, the PBLT [pulled pork, bacon, lettuce and tomato]. Other than that, every single week, our menu changes.

CM. What surprised you with its popularity?

A. Foie gras Tater Tots. French black truffle Tater Tots. Tater Tots sell like a motherf---er. We've been shut down before because we ran out of Tater Tots.
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