Heart of the House: Mike Martins, Taïm Mobile

Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In "Heart of the House," Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.

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Michael Martins, Operations Manager, Taïm Mobile. [Photographs: Helen Zhang]

When Taïm Falafel and Smoothie Bar opened on a tree-lined part of Waverly Place in 2005, the quaint and just-bigger-than-a-hole-in-the-wall shop was met with instant accolades. It wasn't long before the miniature balls of herb-laden chickpea were called the best in the city—a city that was certainly no stranger to falafel before.

The brainchild of Israeli chef Einat Admony and her husband Stefan Nafziger, Taïm is known for pairing irresistibly fresh toppings and sides with their falafel sandwiches and platters, like Moroccan carrot, beet and Israeli salads, pungent and creamy Babaganoush, and spicy imported Israeli pickles. With a new Nolita storefront in the works, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Taïm should go mobile as well. Spreading falafel love far beyond the West Village, the shop's food truck, Taïm Mobile, serves up its signature sandwiches and platters 7 days a week anywhere from the Financial District to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

We chatted up Mike Martins, the truck's Operations Manager, after selling out one busy weekday. While there were sadly no leftovers to snack on, we got some interesting scoop on the food truck industry (who knew they traded lunches?), and the secret to Taïm's falafel recipe.

How did Taïm Mobile start? The truck was started by a guy named David Shapiro. He was working in finance and kind of wanted to get out of it, and through a friend of a friend knew Stefan and Einat, who started Taïm in 2005. He was like, "I want to start a food truck but don't really know about food. You guys have this amazing restaurant, let's put it on wheels."

How did you become involved with the truck and what do you like about managing it? I worked in food trucks for a few years, managing Wafels and Dinges before this. I like it because you're on the street. It's a pain in the ass in the winter because it's cold out, but it's nice to be out there, in a different spot every day.

20120220-193759-taim-mobile-250px.jpgHow does a food truck go about choosing where to park? It's kind of trial and error. You can develop a spot, like for example this spot [on 20th St. and 5th Ave.]. It's by no means an awesome spot, it's got normal traffic, but if you go to the same spot on the same day every week, you become just like a brick and mortar shop. Or you can roll the dice and try a spot you think would be busy. Like our original Midtown spots, which were the best, but we don't go to anymore because of all the food truck regulations.

What went down in Midtown? Midtown was the place to go for two years. The business up there is crazy. 46th and 6th, 52nd and Lex, all those spots over there. But there's a law called the Meter Vending law, which has been around for a long time, which says you can't vend from a metered parking spot.

When food trucks became popular, it went to the courts and the judge said that it did apply to food trucks. So the police started enforcing it. So everybody got kicked out of Midtown. That's why we don't go up there anymore, because we get threatened with arrest, they say "you're gonna keep on selling, we're gonna arrest you." It's gotten really bad. That's why they started the Save the Food Truck Association, there are also lobbyists that the NY Food Truck Association is paying to try to change the law, because it's so stupid. We're a legal company, but we really don't have any place to exist, because 90% of the spots in the city are metered parking lots.

Where is the truck's home? The truck lives in a commissary area in East Williamsburg. That's where our kitchen is. When you have a food truck, you have to have a commissary attached to it, which is an area you have to clean up, to wash, get rid of oil, all that stuff. So we found this place, it's a facility that provides that for a lot of food trucks. Rickshaw Dumpling is there, Korilla BBQ, Souvlaki. We all have our own kitchens but they're all next to each other so we're all friends.

Serious Eats, among others, has named yours one of the best falafel in NYC. What's it like living up to that reputation? Who do you think are your notable competitors? Easy. [laughs] We're just on a totally different level. Most people have chickpea but they also have fillers like baking soda and flour. We have a gluten-free falafel. It's organic chickpea, and for our green falafel it's mint, parsley and cilantro. And herbs. That's it. There are no fillers, and it makes for the best falafel.

Is the menu directly derived from the shop? Do you guys ever mix it up? There are a few differences. The sandwich is the same sandwich, but at the shop they have a green, Harissa, and roasted red pepper falafel. They have three options. We always have the green, but we add a weekly special, like Kalamata olive, so we have two at all times. We also have a quinoa salad at all times that the shop doesn't have at all. It was something just done for the truck. They use tabouli on their platter, while we use the quinoa salad. On the other hand, they have the Moroccan carrots, the beet salad, the Babaganoush and we don't have any of that.

What are the challenges of working out of a truck? Ever get cabin fever? If it's slow, it definitely gets to us. This group we have, we're all very good with each other. When it's slow, you lose your rhythm and you just want to leave. But if it's steady, it's like a machine. We've gotten so good at working in a small space.

Do you guys eat your own falafel? Where are some of your favorite places to get snacks? I don't think any of us eat a falafel sandwich anymore, but we do snack on stuff. We'll make our own platters. When you're around falafel that long, you know how it is. I don't think I've had a falafel sandwich in 5 months. But we love the smoothies so we always have those. We also try to trade with other food trucks, like Korilla BBQ. On Mondays when we're at World Financial we'll trade with Gorilla Cheese, and Kimchi Taco. I don't want to play favorites because I love everybody, but the tacos at Korilla are one of my favorite things, along with Luke's Lobster lobster rolls. And the Cinnamon Snail is awesome, the vegan guys from New Jersey who recently came to Manhattan. I'm not even vegetarian or vegan, but the food that they make is amazing.

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