Shyam Shepard has been making his Bruce Lee Bahn Mi — a Korean BBQ beef sandwich topped with pickled vegetables, cilantro, jalapenos and Sriracha sauce — for friends and family for more than a decade. But last year he decided it was time to take the sandwich public.
So Shepard and his wife, Amanda Castro, purchased a food cart, named their business Pachamama Street Food and are now serving the Bruce Lee Bahn Mi and other internationally inspired dishes to the greater Kalamazoo community.
“An old friend of my parents was the one who introduced me to that dish when I was a kid,” says Shepard of the sandwich, which is one of Pachamama’s top sellers. “If people haven’t tried this food before, that’s the one that’s going to bring them in and really turn them on to those flavors.”
“It’s like a sweet and savory beef. It’s really tender, and having it with the bahn mi toppings is a good way to ease into this style of food because it’s just really tasty.”
Shepard and Castro’s time spent traveling to many foreign countries, especially in South America, and living in Portland, Oregon, and San Diego has influenced the couple’s food cart venture in many ways. They say their favorite part of traveling is seeking out street food and becoming immersed in the culture. Eating food brings people together, Shepard says.
“Language is going on around you that you don’t understand,” he says, “but it’s a way to connect with people when there’s a language barrier — to eat the food that they’re eating. Nine times out of 10 it’s something delicious.”
The name Pachamama was also inspired by their travels. Shepard says it is a “catchall word” in South America that means “Mother Earth.” Since they wanted to serve global street food, he says, they thought it fit.
“I thought the title ‘Mother Earth food’ would open it up and allow us to do any food that we wanted to do,” Shepard says.
A year ago, “the stars sort of aligned” for Shepard and Castro to launch their business. Creating the menu came easy because the couple already knew what they wanted to offer. Finding the right food cart was the most challenging task, Shepard says.
After looking at numerous models online, none of which suited their needs, Shepard reached out to Dock Dawgs in Detroit, a family-owned business that designs and builds custom food carts. Shepard says Dock Dawgs built a cart for Pachamama that not only fit what they wanted but cost less than many of the used models they had considered.
“I added a fryer, grill and utility rack to the cart,” he says. “I knew I’d need these things to serve the menu we wanted to offer. The crew at Dock Dawgs excels at packing a lot of options into a small package.”
Shepard operated Pachamama part time in 2017, selling food at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, food truck rallies, special events and festivals. It went so well he made the leap to full-time operation in 2018. Castro, an environmental scientist with Energy Environmental Group, works the cart with Shepard on weekends and during the week as her schedule permits. Castro’s job with Energy Environmental Group is what brought the couple to Kalamazoo in September 2016.
One of Pachamama’s most popular menu items comes from Shepard’s mother’s own recipe box: Lita’s Favorite, a slow-cooked chicken adobo sandwich topped with red cabbage, pickled onion, cilantro, jalapenos and Sriracha. His mother, Julieta “Lita” Francisco Shepard, is of Filipino descent and taught Shepard to cook this traditional Filipino dish and other meals when he was a child.
Another crowd favorite is Castro’s Crab Rangoons, which are filled with cream cheese, crabmeat, vegetables and spices. Shepard receives endless orders for the rangoons at the Thursday night Kalamazoo Farmers Market.
“We sell hundreds of crab rangoons,” Shepard says. “We can never make enough of those.”
Pachamama also brought to Kalamazoo a dish prepared in many forms in the Andean countries of South America: choripan, which simply means “chorizo on bread” in Spanish, Shepard explains. Pachamama serves it with a homemade chimichurri sauce.
Selling at the farmer’s market is working for Pachamama, Shepard says, because it has “built a fan base with the market’s excellent attendance.” Pachamama Street Food is also often sold at Lawton Ridge Winery, in Mattawan, sometimes during the winter. When customers return each week with praise for the food — and to try weekly specials — it feeds the couple’s passion for food.
“I think the most rewarding thing is turning people on to different types of cuisine that they haven’t experienced before,” says Shepard, “especially when they really enjoy it.”