When food truck owner Phil Vanderhider talks of "getting our cuisine known," he speaks not of typical hot dogs and burgers, but about something a little more exotic.
Try jambalaya, etouffee pockets, chicken and sausage gumbo, crawfish and corn bisque, po' boys of shrimp, catfish or chicken — and more.
"I'm Cajun," Vanderhider, a native Louisianan, declares with pride. "And when we gather, we cook. I grew up with my parents and grandparents cooking. Cajun cuisine is second nature."
Thus, Cajun in a Truck was born in October, parked at lunchtime hungry spots throughout Hernando County from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and a participant in food truck rallies and festivals across the area on weekends.
"We stick with traditional Cajun," said the 48-year-old entrepreneur, "what I grew up eating and cooking."
Vanderhider brought his tastes with him when he moved to Florida in 1997.
With his 24-foot, fully equipped mobile restaurant, Vanderhider and a staff of three veteran cooks and five experienced servers spread what is news to many: "Cajun is not fire-hot."
Traditional seasonings, he said, include "the trinity" — bell pepper, yellow onion and celery — plus paprika, onion and garlic powders, and file (pronounced fee-LAY) from sassafras leaves.
"These are the flavors that will come out in anything we cook," Vanderhider said, "not made to overpower you with oh-this-is-too-hot-I-can't-eat-it."
Even one of his specialties, Cajun toothpicks, composed of onions and seeded jalapenos cut in narrow strips, battered and flash-fried, tastes of sweet rather than heat, the chef insists. Seeding and frying the jalapenos tames them, he explained.
The lip-puckering fire, often associated with Cajun, can repose in the dipping sauces, with their own pungency range in a vinegar base: a mild yellow made from yellow tabasco peppers, a green hot sauce with a jalapeno punch, and red hot, owing its nuclear-like blast to the habanera chili pepper.
"We'd rather cook savory and then let you add hot sauces that you prefer," Vanderhider said.
Having concocted his own sauce recipes, he also has them processed by a Louisiana company and sells them bottled from the truck and via his website.
The sauces are available for dribbling or pouring at Cajun in a Truck, where featured as full entrees are the jambalaya, gumbo and bisque, plus shrimp etouffee pockets, po' boy sandwiches and sides including boudin balls of ground pork seasoned with the trinity and traditional spices, rolled in panko crumbs and flash-fried.
The shrimp po' boy is the biggest seller.
Vanderhider offers a brown-box lunch for $5, entrees from $7 to $9.95 (seafood the costliest) and specialty items at $5.50 and $6.
Looking ahead, the former building-trades-worker-turned-restaurateur said, "Our business model is to launch three trucks and make Hernando County our business headquarters."
He has his sights on Pasco and Citrus counties, then counties to the south in the Tampa Bay area.
Vanderhider plans to begin marketing his specialty seasoning blends in 2014.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]