Editor's Note: This story appeared in the December 2015 ORANGE Issue IV.
Charles Hall, owner of the nainai food trailer, has established himself as the new face of great Singaporean eats in the Austin community. His trailer brings the flavors and style of Singapore cuisine in the form of three generously-portioned menu items, all thanks to Hall’s grandmother.
By Felicia Rodriguez
“Nainai means grandmother in Chinese, and as for inspiration, it is all in the name,” Hall says. “To be more specific, the inspiration comes from the real nainai, my grandmother Mimi, and the many meals I had at my grandparents’ house growing up as a kid.”
Hall's grandmother, Constance "Mimi" Schnatter, was born in Eerie, Pa., in 1931. After marrying Hall's grandfather at the age of 17, they traveled around the world, and Singapore was one of the places they called home for almost a decade. They moved back to America and settled in Fort Worth, Texas, where Hall’s grandmother created her own version of Hainanese chicken rice.
Hall has always had a love for his grandmother’s chicken rice soup, but when he started school at UT in fall 2010, he noticed no other food could fill the void he had for his favorite dish. It was because of this very absence that the journey to create the nainai food trailer began. “I would always make time to have dinner with my grandparents,” Hall says. “But when Mimi told me she was making chicken rice [soup], I'd skip lunch to save room for that fourth bowl.”
Hall had an interest in cooking since a young age but became truly fascinated with the science and art of cooking when he watched “Mind of a Chef” with David Chang on PBS. “One year of work for a restaurateur who specializes in franchises and a couple of downloaded culinary school textbooks later, and I was set on the idea of bringing Singapore chicken rice to Austin just like my grandma made it,” Hall says. “The food trailer was just the most readily available vehicle to allow me to share my love of chicken rice.”
In Singapore, the chicken rice is served on a plate with a mound of rice, topped with chicken and sides of spicy sauce and soy with a small cup of soup. “At my grandma’s house we had a big pot of soup, a rice maker and all the trimmings laid out on the table,” Hall says. “It was only natural to put it all in the same bowl, and in the process nainai's chicken rice came to life.”
The aromatic chicken broth and the jasmine rice are some of the interesting flavors that came from the favorite chicken rice meal Hall grew to know and love. Add in some chile garlic sauce, and the spice absorbs itself into the broth, taking the soup to a new level. Hall considers the nainai chicken rice the “star of the show” at his new trailer. “It’s served exactly as my Grandmother would at dinner at her house, and as a result it’s actually a bit of unintentional Asian-American fusion,” Hall says.
The “star of the show” also comes in a second form, known as the Hainan chicken rice. This dish is served the traditional Singaporean way with soup on the side. “We use the same fresh ingredients as our nainai chicken rice to give you a similar experience as if you were eating at a hawker stall in Singapore, only you don’t have to take a transcontinental flight,” Hall says. “Basically it’s got all the flavors of our soup just without the broth in the bowl for those people who are looking to get a dry rice bowl.”
The last menu item is the chicken wing confit, which Hall created from his love for chicken wings and an evolution of an old recipe. The citrus and ginger pepper dry rub adds a crispy coating to the chicken wing dish that packs a crunch through every peel-off-the-bone bite. “For two years in a row, [I] was a participant in a cooking competition for charity, and I used a recipe where we battered the wings and was always disappointed with how they came out on the actual day of the competition,” Hall says. “The breading was uneven, too thick in spots that it was like a fried Panko ball and not enough to encase the chicken in others.” The chicken wing confit — a French recipe for duck confit applied to a chicken wing and combined with house-made lemon ginger pepper dry rub — was the solution.
Hall says he only offers three meals on the menu in order to deliver fresh food to all customers. He says the focus is on doing the best job possible and making everything fresh every single day in order to serve as many people as possible. This allows for quality meals that will make people come back for more and possibly allow him to expand in the next five years. “If the demand is there, I would definitely extend the brand into a full-fledged restaurant,” Hall says. “With the right space and equipment, we could be serving hundreds of people a day.”
Hall’s current focus is on the present and waiting to see whether the nainai food trailer will attract Austin locals and non-Austin folks alike. With the support from his family and friends, he says he has many people to thank for where he is now. “I’ve gotten all kinds of support from my family and friends,” Hall says. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my grandparents, who not only introduced me to all these exotic cuisines but also invested in the business to get me to where I am today.”