The Rib King wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day. A half hour later he slips into his work kitchen in Soquel, and begins a day cooking up some of Santa Cruz’s finest meats for delivery around town. He douses pork ribs with his award-winning barbecue sauces, and then cooks them to a tender texture in his smoker. While the hours tick away as the ribs undergo a delicate and delicious process that will later yield more than a few watering mouths, the Rib King preps the rest of his lunch buffet: chicken salads, monstrous burritos, beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, paniolo pork and other tasty barbecue favorites.
The clock hits 10 a.m. and the Rib King is ready to heat up Santa Cruz with his stash of warm meats and chilled side dishes. While the Rib King does have a real name, Loren Ozaki, people around town know him by his moniker, which is emblazoned on the side of his large, shiny, silver truck. It’s quite a title to pull off, but customers seem supportive and after sampling items off his menu, like the Riburrito and Baby-Back Ribs, it’s understandable why he calls himself the “King.”
By 10:30 a.m., Ozaki and I are on a bona fide lunch truck tour around Santa Cruz. First on the list is a slew of automotive garages on Soquel Avenue. Ozaki pulls up and blasts the horn, while mechanics pour out of a shop. Within minutes, he has sold a few Riburritos (clearly a favorite among today’s crowd) for $5 each. Inside the hefty burrito, which could easily feed two people, are chunks of cornbread, accompanied by scoops of beans and pork, all wrapped in a flour tortilla. Another popular seller today is the tender, juicy Baby-Back Ribs, which sell for $9, and the Panioli Pork plate (shredded pork a lá Hawaiian style), which goes for $7.
“It’s real food,” says one customer, who then goes on to add that “barring a disaster” he’ll buy meat from Ozaki almost every Friday when the Rib King comes through the customer’s neighborhood.
Like children who get excited over an approaching ice cream truck, these adults who dine from Ozaki’s gleaming truck share the same thrill.
Ozaki makes it clear that his food isn’t “fancy food,” in fact it’s pretty simple, home-grown through and through. You won’t find preservatives or other bizarre ingredients in his meats or sauces. Ozaki cooks everything from scratch. And, in fact, his two revered sauces, the Bourbon Barbecue Sauce and the Hot Honey Chipotle Bourbon sauce, which won first and second place awards at the Santa Cruz County Fair, are homemade, with basic ingredients like honey or molasses.
We scoot to another destination, and yet another. And while his flock is predominantly male, don’t be fooled. Ozaki explains that he’s got a definite female fan club that order up the same lunch plates as the men. In fact, he can even boast about converting a vegetarian back to the dark side—where the meat-eaters dine.
“I do catering … for events and I was doing a skateboarding event for the Scotts Valley Skatepark,” Ozaki says. “A guy showed up and was proud to tell me that he only eats what’s out there in that field, a field of grass. As the day wore on, there wasn’t much to eat. He came back and asked me for a hot link. I said that I thought he was a vegetarian, and he said he was but that he was also a survivalist and he had to eat. It had been over five years (since he had eaten meat). A little later in the day he came back for another one.”
While he can chalk up one conversion experience, his followers are, as expected, serious meat eaters, who’ve been faithful to him for the last year-and-a-half, since he started the lunch truck business.
Now 42, Ozaki launched his own business a year ago, and he jokes that he must have been going through a mid-life crisis. But really, he “got tired of working for the man,” he says. So, with plenty of experience in cooking, management and catering fields, Ozaki forayed into making meat for the carnivores among us. Soon, he had a dazzling lunch truck and a daily route that goes from 41st Avenue to Scotts Valley; not long after he commenced a catering arm to his Rib King empire, which drops off food at weddings, anniversaries, small parties and the like.
“I love cooking and eating it,” Ozaki says. “I think what appeals to most guys about barbecue is that you get to play with fire and meat and it smells good while you’re cooking. It’s kind of macho. Fire, good.” Likewise, Rib King, good.
For more information about the Rib King (catering, lunch route, etc.), call 763-2BBQ (2227) or visit ribking.net.