Patrons dined from paper food trays at tables and along the bar at Two James Distillery on a recent Wednesday night, at 2445 Michigan Ave. in Corktown. Thai food menus were laid out in neat stacks.
Food hasn't been readily available at the popular cocktail spot since its opening last year, but for the past few weeks, Katoi—a localized take on Thai street food—has been filling bellies here from a large green truck parked out back.
It's a unique arrangement in a city with notoriously, headache-inducing food truck laws, and it remains to be seen if the concept catches on at other watering holes with no kitchens.
Eschewing mobility for an embrace of their physical location at Two James, Chef and food truck owner Brad Greenhill says Katoi is “less of a food truck and more of a food concept.”
“We’re not going to be at Campus Martius or Eastern Market,” he says. “We’re going to be a fixture here.”
They seem to have parked themselves comfortably in a position to grow.
Katoi began serving dinner at Two James Wednesday through Saturday nights in mid-August, and last week just added Tuesday nights, with catering and delivery options available as well.
On the occasional Sunday night they'll take the truck over to Motor City Wine, just across the street.
"Customers have been wanting food here a long time. I heard it all the time when I was working here," said Sam Falik, a former Two James employee who is now working with Greenhill on Katoi. The distillery, meanwhile, gets to add a food menu without having to splurge on a commercial kitchen build-out.
It helped Katoi get up and running quicker that they bought the truck from a former food vendor—the Green Zebra—which came with the vendor’s license.
“The license carries over with the truck, and is good until the end of the year,” Falik said. “That was extremely helpful in getting us into business quickly.”
Seated at the bar, Kristyn Koth was happy for the new food options. Koth ran her own mobile food operation out of a 1956 Airstream trailer in 2010 and 2011, and knows how hard that business can be. Food truck laws in Detroit are "a tangled mess," she said. She eventually gave hers up after being hit with a mounting pile of violations and no clear route from the city to legally pursue mobile food vending.
It took El Guapo, “downtown’s first fully sanctioned food truck,” about 60 visits to City Hall over the course of six months to get licensed by the Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environment Department, Crain’s Detroit Business reported when El Guapo finally opened in the summer of 2011.
At Two James, customers order at a window near the building’s rear entrance and take a numbered card back to their tables. When the order is up, Katoi's food runners take the dishes from the truck to the patrons and retrieve the numbered card. In addition to the bar's regular seating, Katoi has two tables set up in back near the truck.
Greenhill gives traditional Thai street food a particularly Michigan spin. “We’re using Thai flavor profiles with what is seasonal here," he said. "Right now we’ve got corn, eggplant, tomatoes, grilled leeks—all of that is coming up fresh and we can get it locally. I wouldn't describe it as authentically Thai—it's Thai inspired."
An order came up, steaming from the ledge of the truck’s service window—a bowl of noodles in a rich red curry. The curry was spicy but not overpowering, balanced with coconut and fresh cilantro. Meat melted from the bone of curry-sunken drumstick of chicken.
Almost all of the vegetables used are sourced locally, from Keep Growing Detroit and Eastern Market vendors to neighborhood farms in the city. “Some of the herbs people don’t have the ability to grow locally yet,” said Greenhill, but “more and more of it we will eventually be able to get local.”
Prices range from around $5 to $15 per dish.
Greenhill began cooking as a student at the University of Michigan before pursuing it professionally at award winning restaurants, first in Ann Arbor and then in Boston. He got burned out on the industry and moved into web development for some time, but the local culinary scene lured him back, as he became involved in popular food pop-ups in Detroit and Hamtramck.
He was interested in striking out on his own, he said, when he was talking to friends of his at Two James.
“They wanted to do food, we wanted to do a food truck. As we started getting more serious about it, it was like, let’s just park it right here,” Greenhill said. So far, so good.