When Chris Gonzalez and his wife, Nicole Samela-Gonzalez, were living and working in Maui, Nicole's Hawaiian coworkers repeatedly told her that she and her Philippine-born husband "would have the most beautiful hapa babies someday." She learned that the term was used to describe a person of mixed racial heritage, and commonly among people of part Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
The word stuck with her, and when the couple returned to the East Coast inspired by their year on the island, they decided to start a food truck with the tastes they'd come to love — fresh, spicy and intriguing dishes with a variety of ethnic influences. As they were ready to name the truck, Hapa seemed fitting for the menu highlighting Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian and other Asian flavors.
"It's classic American street food with a Pacific twist," Samela-Gonzalez said.
The couple teamed up with longtime friend George Calvar, whom they'd befriended when they worked for the China White restaurant in Purchase, N.Y.
Calvar, who is also of Filipino heritage, was eager to join the project that "represented our culture," he says. "It's been a dream for us to do something like this. We've always thought of doing something together; we just didn't know what platform to do." When they decided they'd go into business with the truck, "everything just kind of fell into place."
Since May, Hapa has been building its presence in Stamford, parking regularly at the Beer Garden at Shippan Landing and at office buildings, such as AmeriCares or Indeed, during lunch hours. Popular items include the tacos on corn tortillas with Korean short rib and Philippine chicken adobo, which is slow-cooked in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic. The best-selling Hapa burger with grass-fed beef, pork belly, cheddar and caramelized onions is served on an ube bun, its eye-popping color courtesy of the purple yam used in the bread dough. Rice bowls with chicken adobo or roasted vegetables are flavored with rice vinegar and furikake, a dry Japanese seasoning with dried ground fish, seaweed, sesame and salt.
That same seasoning is used to flavor Hapa's signature shoestring fries, along with a drizzle of spicy Korean gochujang aioli. The savory creation happened by accident, Gonzalez says, when, at a previous restaurant job, he accidentally knocked a bag of furikake into a batch of fries.
"I said, there's a million-dollar idea right there," he said.
The flexibility of the truck allows Gonzalez and crew to experiment, too: Taco specials have featured lobster and octopus, and when he can find fresh tuna, he'll serve it seared rare on an ube roll or as a Hawaiian-style poke bowl.
"The biggest obstacle for us is that everything is made so fresh, people have to wait a little bit longer for the food," Samela-Gonzalez says. "But they're willing to wait because they're getting a really great product."
Hapa's owners are eager to bring Filipino food — as diverse and varied as it is — to appreciative audiences in Connecticut, where it's rare to find the cuisine.
"We want people to understand there's more to your traditional Asian food than Chinese and Thai," Calvar said. "…They're very well-represented. And it's time for other Asian cultures to kind of get noticed for the foods that we do."
Look for a profile of a new food truck each week through summer in Thursday's CTNow section, and follow the series, with photos and video, at ctnow.com/foodtrucks.