Sebastopol food truck blends Thai, Vietnamese cuisine with a California twist
Jamilah Nixon of Sebastopol, chef/founder of the Jam’s Joy Bungalow food truck, was literally born in a ? barn in Freestone and grew up with the sound of the ocean in her ears.
“I’m a California girl,” said the mother of Lucia, 9. “I love being near the ocean, and I love all the old hippies in West County. It feels good to raise a kid in a community where we all know each other.”
Unlike many students who spend a semester abroad in Europe or South America, Nixon headed west over the vast Pacific Ocean and spent her senior year of high school living in the Chumphon province of southern Thailand, where her host family ran shrimp farms about 30 minutes outside of the tiny town of Sawi.
“They would leave in the evening, and it was very lonely,” she said. “Eventually, after crying a lot, I got them to move me to the shrimp farms.”
There, she spent most of her spare time with the young women who went to the market, cooked meals for the workers and ran a noodle shop and a little market.
While bonding with the women, Nixon fell head over heels in love with Thai food, a refreshing cuisine that created a big blast of fresh flavors in her mouth. She learned to cook almost by osmosis.
“I was immersed in truly authentic Thai food,” she said. “Everything was big, spicy, sweet and acidic. Ingredients were picked or caught daily. The level of freshness and intensity of flavors was mind-blowing … and my palate was changed forever with the introduction of fish sauce.”
Nowadays, with her festival-going food truck and a new grab-n-go cafe opening soon on the Sebastopol Plaza - also called Jam’s Joy Bungalow - Nixon tries to recreate the warmth and love that she felt sitting around the table with the Thai women who were cooking for their families.
“I love the surprise and the joy that comes when someone tries something really amazing for the first time,” she said. “I want people to feel all the warmth and intention and love that I felt everyday from those ladies.”
Jam’s Joy Bungalow, whose motto is “vibrant food for spirited people,” grew out of Forchetta Bastoni, the Asian Noodle Bar and Italian Trattoria Nixon opened with two partners in 2011 in what is now Ramen Gaijin restaurant in Sebastopol.
After Forchetta Bastoni closed in 2015, Nixon cooked Thai and Vietnamese food for private clients, then went to work for a few years at Rocker Oysterfeller’s in Valley Ford.
A friend of hers, Damian Clopton, proposed they open a food truck together, and they launched Jam’s Joy Bungalow after the Tubbs fire in April 2018. Clopton lost his home in the fire and now serves on the board of Coffey Strong to help his community recover and rebuild.
Since that time, the food truck has served Southeast Asian fare at brew pubs such as HenHouse and The Block in Petaluma, festivals such as Bottle Rock in Napa and concerts from SOMO in Rohert Park to Trione Vineyards & Winery in Geyserville.
“I call it California-?influenced Southeast Asian cuisine,” Nixon said. “I grew up here, and a lot of my ideas come from traditional Thai and Vietnamese food, but I change it up a bit ... it’s all the stuff I like to eat.”
Fish sauce, of course, is her go-to condiment, popping up in dressings, marinades and in Italian dishes in place of anchovy paste.
“I love sauces, so for me, it’s important to get different flavors,” she said. “ I have six or eight different sauces on the truck at any given time, and they’re all different - Thai Chile Sauce, Sweet Honey Sauce, Three Flavor Sauce and Fancy Sauce (aioli).”
Although her Fried Chicken Sandwich is popular - brined in coconut milk and turmeric, battered and fried, then served with soy sauce pickles and Sweet Honey Sauce - she is best known for her extra-large, extra-loaded Bahn Mi sandwiches.
“We do it (the banh mi) with barbecued pork or tongue or tempura-fried avocado for vegetarians ... and a garnish of quick pickled carrots, jalapeños, cilantro and cucumber,” she said. “I use pork butt, because I like a little more fat.”
The bread is also key to her sandwich’s success, and Nixon sources her buns from Franco-?American or a Mexican bakery.
“They need to be crispy on the outside and airy on the inside,” she said. “You could also use a baguette or a rustic ciabatta.”
Another popular dish - perfect for summer picnics and al fresco dinners - is her refreshing Peanut Noodle Salad with raw cabbage, pickled carrots, pickled shiitakes, herbs, peanuts and fried shallots.
“It is gluten-free and vegan, but you can add chicken or pork or tofu,” she said. “You can make it with anything you have in your fridge - peanut butter or sesame butter (tahini) ... and you can buy the fried shallots at the Asian grocery store.”