Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Food Insider takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, it’s Justin Patterson, chef and owner of The Southern Gourmasian.
The Southern Gourmasian is unique among Little Rock restaurants in more ways than one. It is one of only a few food truck in the city to successfully make the transition from truck to dine-in restaurant. Its combination of flavors is also particular; no other restaurant in the city has staked its name on merging Deep South favorites with East Asian flavors. And despite the fact that its chef, Justin Patterson, is undeniably one of the city’s best, it’s only the occasional dish that will run you more than $10. And it all comes from a man who started out by going to school to play classical guitar.“It was fun, it was awesome. I learned a ton about music,” says Patterson. “Music to me is a lot harder than cooking. But I also cooked while I was in college, and I had an inkling that I enjoyed doing this.”
Patterson moved to Nashville with some friends to start recording with a band, in the meantime working in restaurants to pay the bills. That’s when he discovered his true passion was at the cutting board rather than the fretboard. Patterson returned to Little Rock and started The Southern Gourmasian food truck, which melded his history in Southern cuisine with his newfound love for Asian cooking.
“I always loved Asian ingredients, even before I had a concept in mind,” says Patterson. “That was always employed in upscale restaurants, you see Asian ingredients, the flavors are there. When I was looking for ideas for starting a food truck, I asked myself what I was cooking that I was most excited about. And it was Asian food.”
Patterson spent nearly three years cooking out of his trademark yellow truck at events and in parking lots, moving around every day to find customers. It made for a steep learning curve, but it also gave Patterson the jump-start he needed to realize his goals.
“It gave me a firm foundation of what I want to cook,” says Patterson. “It taught me I was going to have to work my butt off, and it made me unafraid of opening a restaurant. You hear how it’s going to be hard, and it was hard, but it wasn’t any harder than opening the truck. I knew for me, the food truck was never the end game, it always the means to getting the restaurant open.”
The Southern Gourmasian opened its restaurant a year ago this month and quickly proved that the food truck experience had paid off. Patterson’s ability to play two different genres off each other suddenly had more room to shine, and new dishes like the ramen bowl and Korean fried chicken that weren’t possible in the truck became mainstays. Still, if you only try one dish at Gourmasian, it’s almost certainly going to be the distinctive steamed buns.
“What we do is almost a spin off what you would see when you get the famous duck dish with steamed buns,” says Patterson. “It’s open-faced, light and airy. To me, they’re the perfect conduit for the protein, whether it’s the chicken or beef or pork belly, which is my favorite.”
Patterson’s team still operates The Southern Gourmasian food truck at events and a few regular spots (including the new Food Truck Stop @ Station 801). But there’s no doubt the food truck scene has shifted in Little Rock in the past year or so. Patterson offered up a couple of opinions about the current state of Little Rock’s truck environment.
“There are a lot of food trucks, and there are a lot of good food trucks,” says Patterson. “But because a food truck requires less capital than a restaurant, it’s easier for people to open, and maybe they aren’t that serious. There are a lot of food trucks where maybe their foot is only halfway through the door.
“And Little Rock also has … and I hate to say this, but money doesn’t lie: Little Rock has kind of backed off its obsession with food trucks at the same time when the number of food trucks is multiplying. And it might go hand-in-hand, when people want to have something, but then they have it in droves, it becomes a little less exciting. The big events are still great, like the Main Street festival and Harvestfest, but it’s not the same on a daily basis.”
Patterson does a few big events of his own, including the monthly beer dinner with Stone’s Throw Brewing, which was in place before the restaurant ever opened. Patterson says it’s a chance for him to try new dishes and for Stone’s Throw to experiment with some unique brews and pairings. As for his own personal pairing, I asked Patterson if he enjoyed Asian or Southern cooking more.
“The answer would have been Asian, but now I’m really starting to get more into Southern food. You grow up around something, and you get to see the worst of it. I wasn’t really enamored with Southern food until the last few years when I realized I missed part of this Southern thing. So it’s a hard question. This year it’s probably Asian, but I’m really getting an appreciation for Southern right now.”