As a kid on an island in American Samoa, co-owner and head chef Tap Gaoteote Jr. would climb trees with his machete to cut down coconuts and bananas — ingredients he started cooking with at an early age.
“It’s just how we were raised in the islands,” he said. “You became a man now, you’re gonna search for food for the family.”
Gaoteote’s mother taught him to cook, the same as her father before her, and his father before him.
Men traditionally cook for their families on the islands, Gaoteote said, but his mother was very close to her father and was one of the oldest siblings in her family. “So of course somebody gotta cook.”
By age 12, he had learned to cook an entire pig in a fire pit called an umu. Later on in life, he volunteered to cook for his unit in the U.S. military.
Soon he and Michele Mejia, his business partner, were feeding their first customers from a makeshift food truck at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 2014. Then they opened up a brick-and-mortar location in 2016.
Gaoteote serves the exact dishes his mother taught him, save a few tweaks he’s made over the years.
“You’re gonna get your plate just like we do in the islands,” he said. “Like [at] home on the beach, grilling.”
He doesn't cook pork in a fire pit anymore but he still wraps it in banana leaves before cooking it overnight in the oven.
The fried rice dishes he serves are what his mom called “must-goes,” meaning everything that’s in the refrigerator must go into the frying pan.
“She’d just chop up whatever we had in the fringe,” Gaoteote said. “It’s so simple but so effective.”
At Solid Grindz, these ingredients include green onions, yellow onions, carrots, eggs, and bacon, with a choice of Spam, Portuguese sausage or shrimp. And it’s all topped with sesame oil and Gaoteote’s house-made soy sauce.
He fries the rice in bacon fat to reduce the need for oil, he said. It’s a strategy he added to his mom’s original recipe.
“I [didn’t] like putting oil on my rice because it became too oily,” he said. “Not only that, the bacon smells so good, it kinda ties up with that flavor of the rice.”
The Bang Shrimp dish on the menu is inspired by Gaoteote’s mother’s garlic shrimp but it’s his own creation. He wanted a recipe that was easy enough to make in a food truck but would still deliver a flavor that people love.
He breads the shrimp with the same batter he uses for his Chicken Katsu. Then, he tosses the shrimp in his house-made Bang Sauce, which gives it a sweet, creamy flavor with a light kick.
“Bang Sauce is mayo based,” Gaoteote said. “A little bit of Sriracha and other good stuff goes in there.”
Mayonnaise-based sauces are featured in several dishes at Solid Grindz. “Mayo is like a number one big thing,” Gaoteote said. “Island people love that stuff.”
The Creamy Spicy Poke, for example, is raw Ahi tuna topped in another mayonnaise-based sauce that’s spicier than the Bang Sauce. It’s different from the traditional Hawaiian poke, which is also on the menu at Solid Gridz and is seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Soy sauce was expensive when Gaoteote was growing up in the American Samoan Islands. So he often ate fish dressed in coconut milk, lime juice, cucumber, and onion. It’s called Samoan Oka.
All six sauces at Solid Grindz are house-made. And their customers seem to love them. So much so that Gaoteote and Mejia have had to change how they serve them. Too many people have stolen entire bottles of the stuff.
“We did away with putting the bottles on the table,” said Mejia. “We started charging for sauces.”
They’ve made a few other adjustments to their business model, which include mixing the Teri Beef, BBQ Pork Ribs, and Tiki Shrimp.
It’s part of their strategy to provide faster service to their customers. Lunch is especially busy, Gaoteote said. “We have lines out the door.”
Solid Grindz has come a long way from its humble beginning. At 6 feet and 4 inches tall, Gaoteote couldn't fit into the first food truck they considered buying. So they hired a local welder to build something resembling a food truck. “It was like a big ol’ metal box,” Gaoteote said.
Since then, they’ve bought a new food truck, which still serves food at the air base. In July 2017 they moved their restaurant to 2027 S. Craycroft Rd. and they hope to expand to another location, possibly near the University of Arizona, within the next two years.
Operating hours are 10:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Monday and Saturday and 10:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. Tuesday - Friday.
Solid Grindz is located at 2027 S. Craycroft Rd. Keep up with Solid Grindz on Facebook or call (520) 867-8040 for more information.