Around lunchtime on Waterman Street on any given weekday, a cluster of students crowd the sidewalk, all of them awaiting the same thing: a meal from the Lotus Pepper food truck. Since 2013, the family-run eatery on wheels has been bringing Vietnamese home cooking to Providence’s East Side.
According to Thang Huynh, owner and manager of the truck, his mother Young Nguyen started the business when she noticed that, despite the abundance of other Asian restaurants in the neighborhood, College Hill lacked any Vietnamese dining options. Drawing on family recipes from her native Vietnam, Nguyen aimed to deliver authentic and delicious fare to campus.
Now, eight years later, that initial vision has been realized. Five days a week, both semesters of the academic year, Lotus Pepper serves scores of banh mis, vermicelli bowls and dumplings to droves of hungry students at 94 Waterman, its home parking spot on campus since 2017.
“I think my truck is special because we are different,” Huynh said on Wednesday, after another busy lunch rush. He explained that his truck offers a winning combination of good food and friendly customer service.
“We have good business here. We make a lot of good friends,” he added. He especially enjoys watching students grow over their time at the University, seeing them transform from first-years to graduates all from his perch at the truck’s rear window.
While a diverse array of community members frequent Lotus Pepper, Huynh said that there is a special connection between the truck and Vietnamese students. “There’s a lot of Vietnamese students from California or from Vietnam who come here a lot of time when they miss their home food,” he said. “And when they see us, they’re just so excited.”
Huynh missed the typical hustle and bustle during the previous year and a half of the pandemic. “I was dying to come back,” he said. “I came back here for a little bit in the spring, but the business wasn’t great. There was nobody here. We need foot traffic.”
Luckily for Huynh, the University’s return to more typical operations this semester meant a return to normalcy for his truck. “I was pretty happy that business turned out good as soon as we came back in the fall,” he said.
Huynh helps with every aspect of the operation, from driving and maintaining the truck to cooking and serving patrons, working alongside his wife and cousin. While his mother is no longer involved in the day to day operations of the eatery, her culinary influence still looms large.
“She’s a better chef and cook than us. We just took over her recipe and follow it,” he said. His mother is still the mastermind behind many of their new specials.
Huynh said they came up with the name Lotus Pepper because the lotus symbolizes Vietnam and peppers symbolize fiery food. “It translates to, like, spicy Vietnamese food,” he said. “Even though our food isn’t that spicy,” he admitted, laughing.
While the University remains its primary location, the truck makes stops throughout the state, including the Hope Street Farmers Market, the Providence Flea Market and other colleges like Roger Williams University and Providence College.
Wherever it parks, the truck’s savory aromas and large lotus emblem beckon customers old and new.
“The vibe is nice, certainly,” Alex Wey ’22 said as he waited for his order.
“It tastes more homemade than other stuff on Thayer,” Ethan Chung ’22 added. Longtime and frequent patrons, both said that they liked every item on the menu.
Joseph Jarin, a technician for Integra Biosciences, was on campus for the first time Wednesday to service equipment at the University’s science laboratories. He was immediately drawn to the truck. “I am a sucker for Thai, Vietnamese — any sort of Southeast Asian food,” he explained, after ordering the banh mi and veggie dumplings. “These guys are really, really nice,” he added.
For three years, Huynh and the rest of his family have been considering finding a physical location to open a Lotus Pepper restaurant somewhere on the East Side. But so far, they have failed to find a perfect location. With the potential of a non-mobile location unclear, Huynh is still happy to keep running his truck.
“I don’t think I’d be able to work for anybody anymore. I’m an entrepreneur; I work for myself. So I love the freedom — I don’t like to sit in an office,” he said.