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Is BurntZilla a match made in food-truck heaven?

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From left, Phi Nguyen, Paul Cao, Martin Tse, and Minh Pham, at their restaurant, Burntzilla, in Irvine. Tse started the Dogzilla foodtruck and Cao started Burnt Truck. The four friends recently opened Burntzilla in Irvine, serving hits from both trucks.

(Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles Times)

Two popular Irvine food trucks have pooled their resources and creativity to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant that serves up a mix of comfort foods and new recipes.

Burnt Truck and Dogzilla have become BurntZilla, which is already gaining attention for its best-selling hot dogs and signature sliders.

But before opening the doors to their first restaurant, off Culver Drive and Walnut Avenue in Irvine, in February, Dogzilla owner Martin Tse and Burnt Truck founder Paul Cao and business partners Minh Pham and Phi Nguyen sacrificed their secure jobs in the corporate world to pursue their passion in the culinary field — much to their families’ chagrin.

They remained on the route, undeterred.

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“This is it,” said Cao as he spread his arms wide, proudly showing off the 44-seat capacity at BurntZilla. “We’re happy to be here.”

Getting to this moment was no easy feat.

Cao, who graduated from UCLA with a degree in business economics, was employed at professional services firm Deloitte right after college, making $50,000 a year. His friends Pham and Nguyen graduated from UC Irvine and began making good incomes.

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But corporate life wasn’t living up to their expectations of what a work life should offer. When

Cao’s father unexpectedly died, the then-23-year-old was spurred to follow a truer path.

“It was life-changing,” Cao, 36, remembered. “The more I worked in the office, the more I wanted to go to culinary school.”

His mother said no. How could he get health benefits, a retirement plan and paid vacations? she asked.

His aunt, who owns a sandwich shop in Little Saigon, tried to steer him away from the restaurant industry, advising him that the responsibility wasn’t worth the small profit margins.

Without his family’s permission and unwavering in his decision, Cao enrolled in culinary night classes at The Art Institute of California. He’d work from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Deloitte, in Costa Mesa, and then commute to the Santa Ana campus, often staying until 10:30 p.m.

Six months later, he quit his corporate job.

“The schooling made me realize this was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I loved it.”

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Without any kitchen background, Cao applied for a position at Opah Restaurant and Bar in Irvine — five times. The chef finally relented and hired him.

He earned $8 an hour making salads.

After discovering that the credit for some UCLA classes didn’t transfer to the art institute, and being offered a sous chef position at Opah with a $38,000 salary, Cao left culinary school without graduating.

Two years later, he moved on to Stonehill Tavern at St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, working under celebrity chef Michael Mina.

Though he made only $12.50 an hour, the job at a prestigious restaurant proved rewarding, he said.

He followed the Tavern’s chef to a cafe in Marina Del Rey. One night, while working a particularly busy shift, Cao asked a cook what he could eat on break.

The only option: $10 sliders served on a brioche bun and garnished with salsa verde.

“They sucked,” Cao said. “It was bun and meat and no one dressed it up.”

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The idea of perfecting a slider took hold. He suggested to his friends that he’d make the food for their weekly poker game. He bought two cans of Manwich and discounted King’s Hawaiian rolls.

It was his first open-faced sloppy-joe, topped with Brie and pepperchinis.

In 2010, Kogi BBQ Taco Truck and Catering was gaining fame, and Cao thought selling sliders from a food truck could become successful.

He pitched the idea to Pham’s cousin, an entrepreneur, and borrowed money to lease a truck. With Pham onboard, Cao had to persuade Nguyen, who was then working at Stonehill Tavern, to join the team.

Nguyen wasn’t so convinced.

“I told him, ‘Give it a year,’” Cao said.

Five years later, Burnt Truck boasts such clients as Oakley and Best Buy. It was awarded OC Weekly’s Best New-Age Food Truck in Orange County honors and has appeared on the Cooking Channel’s “Eat Street” and the Carson Daly morning show.

“Telling me I can’t do something served as my motivation,” Cao said with a smile. “My mom got off my case.”

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The Burnt Truck guys initially disliked Dogzilla.

It was part envy.

The latter’s food truck had a better set up, with a refrigerator and generator, and its food was as good as the Burnt Truck’s.

But one day the food trucks parked next to each other at a commissary park in Irvine, and the owners struck up a conversation. Cao, Pham, Nguyen and Tse grew to respect each others’ business and decided that they could attract larger crowds if they worked together and promoted each other.

“I had a support group in these guys,” Tse said. “We’d work alongside each other and sweat. We just had different food. We were like students going to the same class.”

Pham agreed.

“When we showed similar struggles, we could appreciate each other’s work ethic,” he said.

The four even joked of opening a truck called BurntZilla.

Cao, Pham and Nguyen proposed a brick-and-mortar to Tse and he agreed. But the entrepreneurs had seen successful food trucks launch restaurants and fail because the establishments didn’t differentiate themselves from the mobile kitchens.

So they decided to offer 40% of the options the public had already seen on the trucks and 60% new entrees.

Favorites such as the Mini Dogzilla — an all-beef hot dog with grilled onions, avocado, Japanese mayonnaise and bacon bits — and a fried chicken slider that comes with garlic potato spread and gravy are still on the menu, priced at $3. New items include a pulled pork slider, buffalo chicken hot dog, salads and a $9 Golden Combo named in honor of the building’s previous tenant, Golden Spoon.

“We grew up in this neighborhood and it can’t get any more local than this,” Cao said, adding that the four all live within a few miles of each other and the eatery.

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The businessmen aren’t close to being done. In October, the four will open BurntCrumbs in Huntington Beach. The concept will feature deli-style sandwiches made from scratch.

And they’re still relishing serving the community they grew up in. Today, relatives and friends head over to BurntZilla to catch up with the founders, who have become like brothers in their business adventure.

Cao’s mother stops at the restaurant almost weekly to get her fried-chicken slider fix.

“We’re very proud of our food and confident in what we do,” Cao said. “We’re family.”

If You Go

What: BurntZilla

When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays

Where: 14413 Culver Drive, Irvine

Information: (949) 392-5995 or burntzilla.com


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