Mobile-Food Pioneer: PGH Taco Truck's James Rich
James Rich started making tacos for a fast-food company during his college days. Now he’s known for the creativity he serves on the PGH Taco Truck.
photos by Laura Petrilla
James Rich got his start in the taco trade at what was then the world’s largest Taco Bell. He picked up the job in 1989 as a freshman at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Happily for fans of the PGH Taco Truck, he quickly was enticed by the Burrito Buggy, an iconic food trailer parked in the center of campus. “That looked cooler and more fun,” he says.
When Rich graduated in 1993, he says he briefly toyed with the idea of opening his own food truck, but the timing wasn’t right. “That dream remained dormant for 20 years,” he says.
Aside from a brief stint as the opening chef/owner of Café Du Jour on Carson Street in 2001, Rich worked outside the restaurant industry. But the thought of owning a mobile food operation never died.
In 2008, Roy Choi and his hybrid Mexican-Korean cuisine Kogi truck in Los Angeles brought food trucks to popularity throughout the country. A few years later, Pittsburgh largely was an empty market. In 2011, Rich says, he was “unemployed, playing poker and learning to use social media.” He began researching the ins and out of food trucks to fill that void.
In 2012, he purchased a used Tully’s Coffee truck, tested taco recipes and started promoting his new venture. And then he nearly sold it. “I’d lost my steam. I’d lost my confidence,” Rich says.
He spent the next few months sorting through personal issues and trying to regain traction for the project. He couldn’t. It took a last-minute phone call in December 2012, asking Rich to pinch-hit as a chef for a No Menu Monday at Bar Marco, to get rolling again.
“That gave me the courage and validation I needed to move forward. It felt right,” Rich says.
One month later, Rich was selling tacos from his truck. He hasn’t stopped moving since.
“With the exception of occasional breaks, we’re operating six or seven days a week year-round. Most other trucks here aren’t doing that,” Rich says.
Rich approaches menu design with the spirit of a chef’s background but an eye toward accessibility.
“People often come up and ask for a ‘regular’ (ground beef, shredded cheese, tomato salsa) taco,” he says.
Still, by becoming the largest purchaser of Clarion Farms beef, he’s managed to connect those “regular” tacos to the local food system.
Now that Rich is the de facto chief of the city’s small but growing food-truck community, he’s set to form a deeper connection to Pittsburgh’s food community: Rich recently announced that he took over the food program at Gus’s Cafe in Lawrenceville — but that the truck will run as frequently as ever.
Maple Chipotle Pork Carnitas
- 1 boneless pork shoulder (5-6 pounds)
- 5 heads of garlic
- 6 large red onions
- 2 bunches of cilantro
- 12 limes
- 2 pineapples
- 2 cups real maple syrup
- 2 quarts pineapple juice
- 1 12-ounce can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (found in most supermarkets in the Mexican-foods aisle)
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking
- Kosher salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper, quantities to taste
- Corn tortillas
- Clean 2 pineapples and dice into ½-inch cubes.
- Clean 24 cloves of garlic.
- Finely dice 4 large red onions.
- Coarsely chop 2 large red onions.
- Juice 12 limes.
- Clean, dry and trim 2 bunches of cilantro.
- In a bowl, pour the lime juice over the finely diced onions, cover and set aside in refrigerator to pickle. Blend ½ cup of soy sauce, 1 cup of maple syrup, 1 quart of pineapple juice and a 12-ounce can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Trim the meat of excess bones and cartilage. Rub the pork shoulder thoroughly with a mixture of salt, black pepper and a few pinches of cayenne pepper (adjust cayenne to taste). Cut small pockets into the top of the shoulder and insert 24 whole, peeled garlic cloves throughout the surface of the meat. Slather the pork shoulder in olive oil and place in a deep roasting pan, with the fat cap facing up.
- Pour the blended mixture of pineapple, maple and adobo over the meat. Pour ½ cup of olive oil over the pork shoulder. Add in the coarsely chopped onions. Place in the oven uncovered for 1 hour.
- Reduce the temperature to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the pork shoulder and baste with the juices in the roasting pan. Add additional pineapple juice to the pan so that the pork is halfway submerged in it. Pour 1 cup of maple syrup over the top of pork. Cover the roasting pan in aluminum foil, making sure there are no gaps or holes.
- Return the pork to the oven for another 3-5 hours, until it has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit and the meat is fork-tender.
- Finish the seasoning of the pork with salt, pepper, cayenne and a bit of maple, until the final flavor is to your liking, and serve over warmed tortillas with the lime, pickled and diced red onion and cilantro to garnish.