"King of hearts! King of hearts!" The gentleman who takes the orders at the Tyson Bees food cart calls out playing cards like a Pokeno director. Patiently, the crowd — Penn kids, HUP nurses, food lovers from far afoot — mill about the cement patch at 33rd and Spruce, glancing expectantly at their cards, waiting to hear seven of diamonds, jack of spades, ace of clubs.
"Either you're a hero in this business or you're a loser," says Tyson Bees chef/owner Tyson Wong Ophaso. "I want to be a hero." I'd bet in the eyes of the loyal mob awaiting their curries, pork buns and banh mi, the 38-year-old already is.
That wasn't always the case. Like when Ophaso and his family were escaping Communist Laos, for example, or when he wore out his arm scooping ice cream at a mom-and-pop glacier, his first food job after moving to Paris from Bangkok. Or years later, when nobody wanted to eat cupcakes from his Spring Street Bakery in SoHo, which opened three months before 9/11 and closed six after. And certainly not when Ophaso was executive chef at Marty Grims' Chew Man Chu, a noodle bar as poorly received as it was short-lived.
Ophaso, if anything, is resilient, and after scrounging up the cash, he rolled out Tyson Bees in December. The truck, swarmed by dizzy bees painted by local artist Yis Goodwin (aka NoseGo), headlines with plum sauce-glazed short rib tacos ablaze with ginger on fresh corn tortillas.
Other tacos include the excellent chicken scented with Thai basil and a vegetarian edamame I'd only eat if I were vegetarian. And while I'm not a fan of the soft Amoroso roll for banh mi (above) — its saucy, lemongrass-perfumed pork shoulder fell through one like a fat man through a tissue-paper hammock — I love the buns for the O.G. hot dog, an all-beef Nathan's frank mounded with luscious short rib, crunchy purple cabbage slaw, fiery garlic-sriracha aioli, scallion and radish.
The most entertaining offspring of Bees' Latin/Asian style is the kimchi quesadilla (above), zingy fermented cabbage, white cheddar and scallions melding into something weird and glorious between two featherweight tortillas.
But Ophaso can cook straight Asian, too, evidenced by his stunning pork belly buns (my favorite) and the red, green, Massaman and Penang curries he rotates each week. The lattermost was running when I visited, and it had a voluptuous coconut richness that has me on pins and chopsticks for the 14-seat Thai BYOB Ophaso has planned. Will he be the guy to silence whiny Philadelphians who love to lament our lack of good Thai food? Now that would be heroic.