Trailer-Made: The Hot Box Diner

The Hot Box Diner
805 Stark St., 512-593-1269,
Hours: 11am-2pm and 6-9pm Mon-Thu; 11am-2pm and 6-10pm Fri; 6-10pm Sat.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.18.14
“We cook in an Asian way, we present in a Mexican way and we serve in an Austin way.” Robert Sharp has practiced his sales pitch for running a food trailer in Austin, where even a humble taco truck dreams of becoming something more. The Hot Box Diner serves the first function well, with work-friendly values on tacos, rice bowls, nachos, quesadillas and flautas for lunch and dinner in the parking lot beside Piper’s Upscale Resale, a shop run by Sharp’s aunt. Sharp has paid the bills working at places like Opal Divine’s, the Veranda and Bartlett’s, but the Hot Box gives him a place to chase the dream of something more. Sharp said he plans to add breakfast soon, with visions of eggs Benedict over plantain cakes and breakfast tacos incorporating lessons from shops all over town.
The Hot Box Diner’s rice bowl — called the Hot Box ($4-$6) — was a simple, fortifying all-in-one paper boat with white rice and firm black beans at the base, with the option of adding cilantro, lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeño and red onion at no charge. Add them all, with each one acting as a color guard and flavor negotiator between the starch and your choice of beef, pork, chicken or veggies. Pork was a strong choice, with a perfumed accent of Korean plum tea and sweetness woven through a smoky, wood-grilled flavor base fortified with Cuban mojo sauce. At $5, it was a filling lunch of unassuming feel-good, as mellow as the trailer’s young crew. A few grilled jalapeños at 50 cents extra shook some of the other flavors awake.
(ABOVE, from left: A Hot Box rice bowl with pork; fried plantains; beef nachos on flour tortilla chips. AT TOP: Chicken tacos at the Hot Box Diner, a trailer near the intersection of North Lamar Boulevard and Koenig Lane.)
Tacos come three to an order for $4-$5 depending on protein, not bad in a market where a single taco routinely runs that price. The chicken was salty and starting to dry out, but its smoky background played well against the greens and reds of the cilantro, jalapeños and tomatoes. Cheese was 50 cents extra and worth it, something to help the loose taco fillings find a foothold in waxy, store-bought flour tortillas.
The rice box and tacos were sincere and fresh and good values, but every trailer needs a mascot to pump up the crowd. Fried plantains ($1.75) are the Hot Box Diner’s mascot. Fried as firm as poker chips, they cashed in on the plantain’s high starch and tropical sugar with a glossy batter that held its crunch from the trailer to the car to the office. Ask for sriracha or Valentina’s hot sauce on the side to contrast the sleepy starchiness.
At the Hot Box Diner, the beef is butchered fresh from sirloin primals, Sharp said, then cooked over a wood fire followed by a long run through spices, chiles and vegetables. The result was a balance between the tensile texture of steak and the fall-away fiber of stew, with the smoke and full-braise flavors of each. At $8, I wouldn’t call the nachos made from that beef the best value at the trailer. But they were a respectable stoner’s collective of jack cheese, black beans, jalapeño, tomato, cilantro and onion, served by request over freshly fried flour tortilla chips rather than corn. The crispy-chewy texture — like pita chips with a border accent — made nachos that were less like your microwave’s branch office and more like the quirky Austin trailer twist we’ve come to expect.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)