Sun-kissed days, warm salt air breezes and a seaside-setting make the perfect venue for al fresco dining along “Airstream Row” on 30A. Local boy Tommy Stein has returned home after a decade away to showcase his food truck concept called Sóng, where he shares his passion for Southeast Asian-inspired cuisine with locals and tourists alike.
In the fast passed high-end kitchen of Johnny Earle’s former famed restaurant Criolla’s is where Stein cut his teeth in the culinary arena, working for six years until graduation. At the age of 19, he struck out for San Francisco to work with his aunt and uncle’s catering business, and by age 22 he was ascending the ranks as sous chef for Aqua, a two Michelin-star Bay area restaurant. “I attended the California Culinary Academy, but learned the most from the talented people I worked with and for over the years,” Stein explained.
Growing up in South Walton so close to the water’s edge, Stein also found his passion for surfing. From San Francisco he was drawn to a job offer in Australia, where he could ride the waves during the day and show off his cooking skills at night, while also dipping over to Asia on occasion to enjoy its lively street food scene.
Along his journey, he met and married wife Patty, a Vancouver native, and they most recently added son Kato to their family. The new addition brought many changes, but most of all a longing to return home to the beaches of South Walton, where the couple decided to raise their family.
Driven by flavor and spice, Stein approached Seaside founder Robert Davis in January about the lack of Asian food options near Seaside. He cooked for Davis, who then made the offer to join Airstream Row, saying, “Let’s do it!” By February, Stein was the proud owner of a 1975 Airstream and spent many months and countless hours with family and friends retrofitting it by hand, opening Sóng in July to rave reviews.
Onsite daily, Tommy and Patty Stein relish being in their unique family-run business and chose the name Sóng, meaning wave in Vietnamese, for their return home to the Gulf Coast and Tommy’s love of surfing. The accent over the ‘O’ was chosen to be a Blue Heron, as it is a native bird to the area. With the help of Marcus Walton and Fred Sawyer, the Heron flies strong, high and proud above the eatery.
Serving his fun and fresh Florida version of Asian street food, with five menu choices updated daily on the exterior blackboard of the truck, Stein sources his seafood from third-generation Buddy Gandy in Panama City and hand selects the produce from local farmers and those at the Seaside Farmers Market.
Layered beautifully with pickled cabbage, beets, fresh Gulf grouper and kimchi ketchup, I was moved by my first taste of the Korean fish tacos served on fresh-griddled corn tortillas. The bright flavors popped against the delicate fish and spicy (not hot) sauce. “Our food is about creative simplicity, as well as integrity and flavor,” he explained.
As a big fan of the Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich and having tasted many over a lifetime of travel, I was more than happy to bite into the one at Sóng. It did not disappoint, with its bold flavors exuding from the luxurious heritage free-range black pig that had been slow cooked over night and then stuffed in a fresh baguette created specifically for Stein by the Santa Rosa Beach bakery, Crust. The texture of the pork is extra tender due to the short muscle fibers that have earned it a place in some of the most exclusive restaurants in New York and Europe. The pickled farmed vegetables and herbs from the onsite garden added the perfect acidity and balance to the sandwich. While most Bahn Mis are known for their thin layer of liver pate spread on the bread, I really enjoyed the refreshing layer of avocado-lime aioli used instead.
Other noteworthy menu options are the made-to-order Thai green mango and papaya salad with Gulf shrimp that I found so refreshing with its ginger, tamarind and cilantro root salsa, and the Vietnamese cold coffee. The Seaside community employees and those running beach chairs are lining up to get a refill, as it is brewed dark with a touch of condensed milk, energizing them for the day.
“The ingredients are the stars of each dish,” Stein said. “I want to serve a product I believe in, and create good things.”
When in Seaside just look for the Airstream with a Blue Heron on top. Gluten-free options and a children’s menu is available. For more information, find them on Facebook or call (850) 231-1815.
Susan Benton is a food and travel journalist, the owner of 30AEATS.com and partner in GulfCoastRestaurant.com where she shares her passion and her commitment to promoting local farmers, fisherman, chefs, artisans and restaurants along the Gulf Coast.