New restaurants and food trucks seemingly come to Central Arkansas in waves. The market will be quiet for months, then nearly a dozen spots may open in less than half a year. Right now, we seem to be in the middle of another mini-boom, with a number of recent openings and several more to come in the next few weeks. One of those new businesses is an offshoot of an existing restaurant. The Lab Food Truck, which opened in December, is attached to the restaurant group that owns Kemuri in Hillcrest. It’s currently run by executive chef Gilbert Alaquinez with the help of chef Cody Rudd, who returned to Little Rock after six months in New England. Aliquinez says customers shouldn’t be surprised to see The Lab stray from Kemuri’s Japanese heritage.
“The primary goal of The Lab is to test out new restaurant concepts,” said Alaquinez. “We’ll be working on a rice bowl concept in White Hall Monday through Wednesday, and the rest of the week we’ll be in Little Rock testing out other concepts in the food truck format. So you might see burgers, Mexican, tacos, burritos and things like that. My own background is Latin and Asian, so I’ll be working with those and putting my spin on it.”
Indeed, you can expect The Lab to keep with its namesake and freely experiment with its dishes. This past weekend the dishes I tried had a wide range of influences and some unexpected flavors. Take the Miso Cheesy Burger, a juicy bite with ingredients from all over the map. American cheese, miso-glazed onions, tomato jam, gochujang mayonnaise and cured cucumbers are rarely all found in the same kitchen, let alone on the same plate. But it was one of my favorite plates The Lab served, with the miso flavors from the onions bringing all the notes together. It doesn’t hurt that Alaquinez and Rudd are adept chefs who nailed the seasoning and temperature of the burger patty. Aliquinez tells me a version of this burger will probably be a mainstay on the menu.
Also impressive was the Coco Niño Burrito, which was mostly a straightforward Cali-Mex entrée. You’d expect red salsa, queso fresco, sofrito rice and smashed avocado on your burrito. You might not expect the sous vide pork belly, however, that Rudd used for the protein. This was an exceptional dish; pork belly can overwhelm everything if not handled well, but this burrito had balance and developed flavor notes that were exhilarating and memorable.
The Lab also featured two dishes that evening that were a little less adventurous, which is probably a smart move. The Trifecta Veggie Grilled Cheese paired Fontina, Havarti and Gouda cheeses with mushrooms, artichokes and sautéed fennel for a bold take on the comfort food classic. And the Muffuletta was almost traditional, with olive salad, salami and provolone joined by prosciutto and capicola; only the classic round Italian bread was missing.
“Now that we have this truck, we’ll be able to test concepts and menu items in real time in the market,” said Alaquinez. “I’ll be keeping a book on what works in what communities. The Lab in itself is a lab, we’re going to see what we can develop. It feels great, I’m excited to see what we come up with.”
While it is primarily a test kitchen for the Kemuri group, The Lab Food Truck is a solid new addition to Little Rock’s food truck scene, with good pedigree and talent in the kitchen. This week, you can find The Lab at Bernice Garden on Tuesday and Wednesday for lunch. The Lab will regularly set up shop in White Hall to work on a rice bowl restaurant concept, but you’ll be able to find the truck’s weekly location on its Facebook page. Alaquinez tells me his group is also working on a commissary for catering jobs and is looking at a possible bakery in the future. We’ll keep up with the new developments from this group and update you when we find out more.