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Sebastopol food truck blends Thai, Vietnamese cuisine with a California twist

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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.”

As a twist on the Italian classic, she makes a Thai-Style Caesar Salad with fish sauce instead of anchovies in the dressing.

“I took the traditional Caesar dressing and switched it up with lime, sambal and Pickapeppa sauce,” she said.

“I still add garlic and Parmesan cheese, but we use fried chicken skin instead of croutons.”

As a nod to her love of the ocean, she also gives her own twist to the simple yet tasty Thai Seafood Salad, poaching shrimp and calamari and blending it with grilled tri-tip beef, then dressing the surf-meets-turf with a tangy mixture of fish sauce, garlic, Bird’s Eye chile, Thai chile jam, lime juice, jalapeños and shallots.

Her Black Rice Pudding, often served for breakfast in parts of Southeast Asia, also makes a delicious dessert, especially when topped with caramelized bananas and salted coconut milk.

“I’m a big sucker for texture and the combo of salty and sweet,” she said. “The rice pudding is really beautiful.”

Jam’s Joy Bungalow in Sebastopol — located in the former Doghouse and My Friend Joe coffee shop at 150 Weeks Way on the Plaza — will open Sunday, July 21.

Hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. The menu offers a handful of breakfast and lunch items — baked bao rolls and jook (rice porridge) for breakfast, a daily curry and sandwiches for lunch — along with Bella Rosa espresso, Vietnamese coffee and Thai tea.

“We want to hit the morning coffee crowd,” she said. “People want quick, delicious food that’s affordable.”

For more information, go to jamsjoybungalow.com

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The following recipes are from Jamilah Nixon of Jam’s Joy Bungalow. She suggests the fish sauce from Megachef or Three Crabs, available at Asian Markets.

Thai Caesar with Chicken Skin Croutons

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For dressing:

½ cup Parmesan plus more for sprinkling

1/2 cup fish sauce

3 tablespoons Dijon

¼-½ cup lime juice, freshly squeezed

3 tablespoons Pickapeppa sauce

1 tablespoons Sambal Oelek (ground fresh chili paste)

3 tablespoons sugar

1 large garlic clove smashed and chopped

— Black pepper to taste

½ cup grapeseed oil (or light flavored olive oil)

For salad:

1 large head Romaine lettuce

— Chicken skin

For dressing: whisk together Parmesan, fish sauce, Dijon, lime juice, Pickapeppa, sambal, sugar, garlic and pepper. Slowly add oil until incorporated. Keeps in fridge forever.

For chicken skin croutons: line a baking sheet with parchment paper, lay skin flat, top with parchment paper and a second sheet tray. Bake at 300 degrees for about 30 min, or until crisp, season with salt.

For salad: Chop romaine, dress, toss with extra sprinkle of Parmesan and top with chicken skin croutons.

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This is a casual recipe for a salad, where you can add as much tri-tip and seafood as you want, with a suggested serving of 1/4 cup per person.

Spicy BBQ Tri-Tip, Seafood & Green Mango Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For dressing:

½ cup sugar

¼ cup water, warm

½ cup lime juice, freshly squeezed

½ cup fish sauce

¼ cup Sambal Oelek

For salad:

1 green mango, thinly sliced

½ cup mint, rough chopped

½ cup cilantro, rough chopped

¼ cup red onion or shallot, thinly sliced top to bottom

1-2 jalapeños, thinly sliced

— Rare tri-tip, thinly sliced

— Prawns, scallops, squid (any or all, barbecued or poached)

For dressing: dissolve sugar in the warm water, mix with lime juice, fish sauce and Sambal Oelek.

For salad: toss mango, onion, jalapeño, herbs, thinly sliced meat and seafood in the dressing. Adjust with additional lime/sugar as needed.

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This is a casual recipe for Peanut Noodle Salad that calls for 1/4 cup noodles, cabbage, veggies and protein per person. Nixon recommends the Mae Ploy red curry paste (Thai Kitchen for vegan) and the Chaokoh coconut milk.

Peanut Noodle Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For curried peanut sauce:

¼ cup red curry paste (for non-spicy, use yellow curry paste)

1 can coconut milk, full fat

½ cup water

¼ cup white vinegar

½ cup sugar

1 cup peanut butter, smooth

— Salt to taste

— For pickled carrots: (see directions below)

For salad:

— Noodles: cooked soba, glass or rice (¼ cup per person)

— Cabbage, thinly sliced (1/4 cup per person)

— Grilled or roasted veggies of choice (¼ cup per person)

— Peanuts, dry roasted and chopped

— Fried shallots (already packaged from an Asian market)

— Cilantro, mint, basil, rough chopped

— Protein of your choice, optional (¼ cup per person)

For the peanut sauce: Bring to a simmer coconut milk, water, vinegar and sugar. Add peanut butter and curry and whisk to incorporate, be careful not to let it stick to the bottom and burn, simmer for a few minutes and remove. This sauce is best served warm.

For the pickled carrots: Dissolve ¼ cup sugar and 1 teaspoon salt in ½ cup white vinegar. Pour over 1 package shredded carrots or 2 to 3 julienned carrots. Let sit at least 1 hour. (Make extra, you won’t be sorry!)

Dissolve sugar and salt in vinegar and pour over carrots. Let sit at least 1 hour and store in refrigerator. (Make extra, you won’t be sorry!)

For the salad: Assemble cooked noodles of choice, pickled carrots, cabbage and grilled or roasted veggies and top or toss with the peanut sauce. Place on platter or individual bowls, top with peanuts, shallots, herbs and optional protein of your choice.

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Franco American Bakery in Santa Rosa sells banh mi buns, or use a baguette sliced into shorter lengths.

Banh Mi (6 sandwiches)

Makes 6 servings

2 pound boneless pork butt or pork loin

1 cup hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon white pepper

2 teaspoons 5-spice powder

1 lime, juiced

— Pickled carrots and daikon (see note below)

— Jalapeños, thinly sliced

6 banh mi bun (or cut baguette)

— Mayonnaise, to taste

— Sriracha, to taste

1 cucumber, sliced

2 jalapeños, sliced

1 bunch cilantro

For the pork: Mix hoisin, white pepper, 5-spice and lime juice. Cover pork in hoisin mixture for at least 2 hours, up to 24. Oven roast at 350 degrees for about one hour, until internal temperature reaches 143 degrees. Rest and slice into ¼ inch slices, let marinate in juices until using.

For the pickled carrots and daikon: Dissolve ¼ cup sugar and 1 teaspoon salt in ½ cup white vinegar. Pour over 1 package shredded carrots or 2 to 3 julienned carrots and 1 to 2 julienned small daikon. Let sit at least 1 hour. (Make extra, you won’t be sorry!)

For the sandwich: Toast buns in oven until crispy outside, slice and assemble. Slather buns with mayonnaise and Sriracha; add cucumber, jalapeno and pork slices; top with pickled carrots, daikon and cilantro sprigs.

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Purple Sticky Rice Pudding with Brown Butter Bananas

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For pudding:

2 cups purple sticky rice

1 can coconut milk, full fat (preferably Chaokoh)

2 cups water

½ cup white sugar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise

For bananas:

2 bananas, sliced

1/2 stick butter

For salted coconut cream

1 cup coconut cream (from can)

2 teaspoons salt

— Sesame seeds, for garnish

For Pudding: Add sticky rice, 1 can coconut milk, 2 cups of water, ½ cup sugar, cinnamon stick and star anise to a medium sauce pan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Let simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally and adding water if becomes too thick. (It should be the consistency of thick porridge.) Serve immediately or reheat with added coconut milk or water when ready to eat.

For the bananas: melt butter in large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally until browned. Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar and melt. Add bananas, cook until caramelized on one side and flip (should take 3 to 4 minutes.)

For salted coconut cream: Whisk salt into coconut cream.

To assemble in bowls: Add a generous scoop of warm rice pudding, top with bananas and brown butter, drizzle with salted coconut cream and garnish with sesame seeds.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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