By the time you’ve heard the drum kick, it’s too late.
The year is 2018, and you just finished reading Jackie Tran’s story about the sushi restaurant Yamato for the blog Tucson Foodie. The photos he took of the sushi chef, Noboru Nakajima, are intimate, like the camera wasn’t there. You’re compelled to learn more about the person who took the pictures, who captured the focus the chef placed into cutting delicate slices of nigiri. You click the link in his Tucson Foodie bio, and there! The synth slams down — you just got Rick Rolled.
Luckily, there are many other ways to get to know Jackie, the owner and chef of the new food truck Tran’s Fats, which opened at Hotel McCoy, 720 W. Silverlake Road, last Friday. It’s easy, actually, to fall into a parasocial relationship with him. Just follow his handle @jackie_tran_ on Instagram, read a few of the over 1,000 articles he wrote for Tucson Foodie, and soon you’ll be trying the dish he recommends at Cocteleria La Palma, considering getting a matching cowboy hat, or wondering whether the mom-and-pop restaurant you ducked into is Jackie approved.
You feel like you know him. You do know him, to an extent — he just doesn’t know you. Then you see him in line at Barista del Barrio, or on the FlixBus back from Phoenix, or in the checkout line at the neighborhood Safeway. He’s a celebrity, Tucson style.
“There [are] sometimes, I feel [people] give me too much credit,” he said. “But at the same time I don’t want to dismiss it, either.”
“The only thing I could say is to set your expectations really low, rather than high … it’ll be nicer to surpass your expectations than come up short,” he said.
It’s not often that people become celebrities and then chefs. The skill set is quite different, as Jackie learned when fresh out of the University of Arizona’s journalism school and was trying to find a back-of-house job in Portland, Oregon. All Jackie’s credentials got him was a serving gig at a newly constructed BJ’s. He quit before they officially opened their doors and came home to Tucson.
Jackie grew up here, near the airplane boneyard, in a three-bedroom house containing 12 extended family members. Home didn’t offer many opportunities to develop his palate (“[My mom] thinks she’s a good cook,” he said). Most of the meals were cooked on a tight budget, which meant eating the same thing for a week.
“I always had a curiosity for trying different things,” he said. “In a lab test with rats, [scientists] fed them a bunch of different things and then measured the brain activity, and [the rats] had a stronger olfactory connection if they tried more different things,” he said. “So I just did that as soon as possible.” This is how he knows that there is 2900% the daily recommended serving of cholesterol in pig brain. “A February’s worth of cholesterol,” he said. He’s tried it all.
He has a similar approach to friendship. “It’s only outright liars and thieves, I would say, I actually have disdain towards,” he said, “which, sadly, is fairly common.”
He loves Tucson because he loves the people here, how he knows restaurateurs who have big disagreements but will end up sending each other supplies in their time of need.
When we were interviewing at Presta Coffee Roasters, a friend passed by who was the bartender at the spot he would go to read J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “The Food Lab” for the second time. He can’t go to Presta without running into someone who cares about him.
Jackie has watched Tucson change over his lifetime here — namely, by getting way more expensive. Before inflation and supply-chain issues, Jackie wanted everything on the menu to be under $10, to keep his food accessible to the community that raised him.
The $10 cutoff was also somewhat in homage to the blue collar roots at Barrio Brewing — “For a respectable amount of time they had nothing over $10 on their menu,” he said — and a bygone favorite called The Grill. “The Grill was open 24/7, which everyone is really nostalgic about, going at 3 a.m. and ordering pesto tots, even though they would see roaches,” he said.
When Jackie started formulating the menu for his food truck, two years ago, he used a spreadsheet. Menu items and sauces were evaluated for their cost, labor and X factor, and assigned a total score. One labor-intensive item didn’t make the cut, but he included it anyway: because his logo is a soup dumpling, he felt like he’d be misrepresenting if he nixed the pho soup dumpling from his menu.
Other notable menu items are adaptations of favorite dishes around Tucson. His garlic cucumber ($8) is his version of the same menu item at Noodleholics, one of his favorite restaurants. The cauliflower ($15) is a dupe of Zayna’s iconic vegetarian option. If you’re getting the naked cauliflower, he’ll recommend you try it with a garlic tahini sauce (all sauces are $2). (For the battered rendition, he’d instead pair with the gochujang vinaigrette.)
Yet, the food truck took two years to open after he first teased us with a new Instagram page. In that time, ingredient costs soared and the concept shifted. The truck’s name, Tran’s Fats, was initially a reference to the different kinds of oil to fry in: duck fat, bacon fat, peanut oil, canola — until Jackie realized that keeping a supply of clean oils would run him $2,000 a week instead of $20. He still has more than one fryer: they’re all canola oil, but separated by vegan, gluten free and vegan, and meat.
I spent those two years checking Jackie’s and Tran’s Fats’ Instagrams so religiously that they are usually near the beginning of my Stories’ roster. I was looking for any hint that the truck might be opening soon; I got my hopes up with every update, to be shattered on the next slide with an ambiguous timeline. There was a professional spirit to this, yes — I wanted to be on top of the news — but my anticipation has been building for this truck.
Jackie spent those two years in limbo. He got some of the highest-profile food photography gigs of his career, but he was also furloughed from Tucson Foodie when it ground to a halt at the start of the pandemic.
“I’m still living in poverty, technically, in regards to my income,” he said. He’ll cite generous friends for the meals they have shared with him, because they know how much food means to him: birthday dinner at Yamato, an excursion to Bata.
When I was invited to a softer than soft opening last week (friends and family — and visitors at Hotel McCoy, his food truck’s sponsor and location — only), I was amazed that the day was finally here. I carpooled to Hotel McCoy with my editor and colleague, DSLRs in tow. We were stood up. He canceled the soft opening. He wasn’t ready.
In some ways, it wasn’t unexpected: our interview had been postponed because he was hours behind on prep. He has been regularly working 18-hour days. He later explained to me: because his commercial kitchen is off-site, any missed ingredient or item that runs out requires a long drive to get restocked. A forgotten part of a grocery list is a 40-minute mistake, in a situation where seconds count. But to him, it’s not necessarily a loss — he better understands his needs when he fails.
Jackie is a striver. His high school superlative was most likely to succeed. But in a commercial kitchen, that laser focus is less useful than the ability to spread your attention thin, being able to mentally triage your to-do list while multitasking with your hands. When I said, “What question should I ask you?” His answer was, “Why are you doing this?”
His short answer is that opening a restaurant was on his bucket list. The long answer is that he has to: he signed contracts with Hotel McCoy, who helped him realize his vision for the truck.
He wouldn’t have been able to do it without the friends he’s accumulated in his life here: the friend who brought him Ensure to chug at the grill because he hadn’t fed himself while working an 18-hour shift; the food service industry veterans who discouraged him from opening the food truck and then did everything they could to help him once he disregarded their advice; the friend who connected him with their attorney so he could save money on legal fees; the restaurateurs who gave him their budgeting spreadsheets and checklists of mundane and essential tasks for opening a restaurant; the friends who waited two hours for their orders while he was figuring it out; the friend who loaned him her car when his own died the morning the food truck officially opened, whose front seat he cried in after his first shift ended.
They’re never gonna give him up; they’re never gonna let him down; they’re never gonna run around and desert him. He’s the son of Tucson.
Location: Hotel McCoy, 720 W. Silverlake Road
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 3-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
For more information, check out Jackie’s website and his Instagram.
Great holiday recipes start with great water!
Restaurants, breweries and coffee shops know that clean, pure water is crucial. You can get that at home too with Kinetico Quality Water. Kinetico removes more contaminants than any other system. Get up to $500 off a non-electric, high efficiency, patented Kinetico system (restrictions apply). Visit KineticoTucson.com.
What does "supported by" mean? Click here to learn more.