The signature "Animal Style" okonomiyaki at SMAX—a veggie pancake with crispy noodles, secret sauce, bacon and more. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a weekly conversation with Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary culture through the mouth of a first-generation local.
When it comes to local food and culture, there are certain rules and codes that Baydestrians abide by.
The DO’s: Share the love. In the words of rising Vallejo rapper, LaRussell, the Bay is a place where we Cook Together, Eat Together. Around here, it’s all about breaking bread with your folks and feeding your kin.
Instead, Bay Area food “smacks,” “shhhhmacks” or “SMAX.” And when done right, it’s something we can all appreciate.
Such is the art of delivering delicious cuisine—and teaching proper Bay Area slanguage—at SMAX, a pop-up and test kitchen that focuses on creatively assembled sandwiches and treats served by Paris and Joog, two friends from San Francisco and Vallejo, respectively. Usually posted up at events like District Six’s 415 Day, you’ll find P running the kitchen and Joog overseeing operations and management.
Together, the duo draws from their Asian American upbringing and nostalgia to provide a rotating menu of wildly reimagined flavors. Their foods are artfully expressive creations in which identity, dreams, culture, friendship and flavor mingle in each bite.
A beefy, bodega-certified chopped cheese? Got that. Guava BBQ chicken banh mi made with freshly whipped fruits? You already know. And perhaps the most inventive of their ideas, honey walnut shrimp like you can only find at your neighborhood Chinese joint, now reincarnated as a katsu sandwich? Smackin’.
If you’re looking for more than a flavorful sando, they don’t just stack bread at this roving pop-up; they also dish up savory plates and sugary desserts while providing take-home sauces and merch.
They’ve experimented with an “Oko scallion pancake”—a Chinese-style green onion pancake topped with Japanese okonomiyaki ingredients such as cabbage, thick-cut bacon, mayonnaise and a fried egg.
They’ve also messed around with pastrami fried rice—a New York City twist on the Chinese food staple, fueled by their summer trips to the East Coast after late-night DJ runs at the club. (In true Bay fashion, DJ Joog has a music side hustle.) Oh, and you can’t forget their orange creamsicle cookies to cap off your culinary nostalgia, like a late-night liquor store run.
Personally, I came for the "Animal Style" okonomiyaki—a version of the traditional Japanese hotcakes made with In-N-Out style dressing and bacon—and “The Island Boi”—a Hawaiian-inspired sandwich with house-made Spam, melted American cheese, egg and mac salad between chewy Hong Kong-style pineapple buns. I paired that with a sweet, sesame-filled ube mochi.
I slid by Baba’s House—a restaurant and specialty Asian snack store that doubles as one of SMAX’s temporary locations in the East Bay—where I had the privilege to taste these delicacies that the friends have been offering for the past five years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KQED: How would you describe the food at SMAX?
PARIS: We make specialty sandwiches that are rooted in the nostalgic dishes we really enjoy eating or that we grew up on. We talk about what we used to eat around the neighborhood, and that inspires us for our new dishes. We want to bring folks back to better times, when we were all younger, and we just package that all in our food with new ideas.
With such a vast rotating menu, what’s been your most popular item?
JOOG: We’re constantly shifting and experimenting. One [item] that got the best reviews is the “chopped cheese.” We plan to do that more regularly with rotating specials. It was a new way to present a New York burger that people in the Bay haven’t seen before. We love that sandwich.
P: Chopped cheese, for sure. But all around, people have been fucking with all our crazy creations. People get excited for the new things we create. We like to get feedback and see how people interact with a new sandwich, but then we might only do it once and keep inventing new things.
How does your food reflect the Bay Area you grew up in?
J: I’m from Vallejo. We always want it to be accessible to our folks, to serve the communities that we care about. That shows up in our food because we’re always looking to serve other creative independent people, anyone trying to just do something on their own. It’s hard to be financially independent in the Bay. But we want to provide that community and good feeling for folks without ever seeming exclusive. Whoever is doing their own hustle and doing their thing, that’s inspiring. Whether it’s art, music or organizing the community. Those are all valid and influence how we cook because those are the people we serve.
P: I’m from San Francisco. It’s just about looking out for others here. We might not be available for a pop up, but we’ll hook someone up with another person who is. Artists, vendors, DJs, it’s all a big community of putting each other on so we can all eat. Meeting new creatives and finding new products that local people sell is dope, and we strive to make those connections with others, especially since we’re all from the same soil here.
What’s been the biggest challenge in being a pop-up over the past half decade?
J: It’s hard to keep up with overhead and set our roots down as an independent business in the Bay. It’s almost impossible to buy a house or have property. We’ve always wanted a place to permanently be in, but it’s really hard to make that transition from mobile to having our own spot. We’ve been in this for so long and have hella experience, but [running a business like this] is a lot harder because we’re in the Bay Area.
P: Our food menus are a form of creative expression. That’s why we switch it up. If you miss an item, you might not see it again. It’s our artistic expression in the moment. But we also realize we need to have some idea or main menu item that folks can hold on to as well. We need to provide consistent service but express ourselves as chefs. It’s a slower route for us to convince folks because we might switch it up. It’s a challenge, but people seem to enjoy trying our new stuff.
What are your thoughts on the whole “slaps” versus “smacks” food war?
P: Food definitely smacks. We wanted a name that was fun and encapsulated our energy and the vibe we were going for. What’s a word that people out here really connect with, especially with food? Smacks. The funny thing is that at first we were actually called “Slaps and Smacks” because we did events with DJs at first, too.
J: We broke away from the “Slaps” part and stopped having DJs, and we just became “Smacks.” After a few years, we wanted our own personality to stand out so we changed the spelling to “SMAX.”
P: Now, we see more and more pop-ups with smacks in the name, so I’m kinda glad we pivoted and changed up the spelling early on.
J: At the end of the day, we want our food to be rooted in the Bay. We can do that because we’re from out here, and we will always push that culture.