All About Wisp Express: Serving Sushi on Wheels in Jersey City

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America has become a food truck nation. We love the spontaneity and instant gratification food trucks offer. It’s always fun to take a casual walk around Hoboken’s waterfront or Jersey City downtown area during lunch hour, yell orders into the truck window, and eat the food right on the curbside. Plus, the list of dishes and cuisines found on food truck menus are as wild and imaginative as one can think of, running from the “food truck classics” such as tacos and gyros, to more “niche” options such as jerk chicken. Now, enter the new kid in town, Wisp Express, delivering sushi on the wheel.

How Wisp Express Came to Be

“It was super spontaneous,” Bowen, one of the co-owners of Wisp Express, told Hoboken Girl of its “origin story.” He was working at a restaurant about a year ago when the head chef, who is also a good friend of his, approached him one day and proposed “starting a food truck selling sushi.” 

“I love sushi. So I said yes,” he shared. They found another partner, who has nearly 20 years of experience in Japanese cooking, to oversee the menu. A few months later, after “many confusing trips to the housing department, and many mistakes since none of us had any experience operating a food truck,” Wisp Express rolled out as the first sushi food truck in Jersey City.

The idea sounds slightly unconventional, since most people see sushi as a premium product to be consumed in a brick-and-mortar space, often with a hefty price tag and sometimes a sense of ritual. “It certainly takes some courage,” Bowen said, “but we want to prove it’s possible to serve quality sushi out of a truck window.”

Read more: Touch the Heart: Fresh Blooms Meets Dim Sum, Hoboken’s Newest BYOB Restaurant Concept

What to Order

wisp express sushi

{Photo credit: @thefoundrygirljc}

The menu here is inexpensive and interesting. At first glance, it is structured in a similar way as that of many other local sushi restaurants, with plenty of crowd-pleasing options — appetizers {shumai or seaweed salad}, rolls {salmon, avocado}, various sushi and sashimi options, and hot dishes {salmon teriyaki}. But as one rummages through each section, there are more intriguing surprises. There are Japanese classics less commonly found in American restaurants, such as the iconic Osaka street food Takoyaki {grilled puffs filled with small bites of octopus}. More interesting items are the dishes that fuse international cuisines with Asian flavors, such as ceviche. Here, you’ll find an Asian twist on the Latin-American-originated raw seafood mix. Instead of citrus juices, as in traditional ceviche, a yuzu and rice vinaigrette marinade is used, which keeps the acidity but renders a more subtle taste.

“We combine elements from various food cultures in the menu,” Bowen explained to Hoboken Girl. “There are influences from European cuisines, Thai food, and Korean dishes.” 

But of course Wisp Express takes the traditional fare seriously. Speaking of the sushi and rolls, Bowen said multiple factors play into the quality of the food. There is the “fresh fish and well-cooked rice.” Then there’s the condiments. “Good ingredients need to be paired with the right sauces and relishes to get the best flavor and texture,” Bowen shared.  Finally, there’s the assembling. “A good roll can’t be too loose or too tight. You can drop our rolls on the ground and it will not fall apart.” These are all demonstrated in a basic tuna avocado roll. The fish and avocado inside is pleasantly creamy and mellow, and the rice is soft but chewy. And all the pieces are still elegantly in place after more than half an hour of bumpy bike ride in a delivery bag.

Beyond the Classics

wisp express sushi jersey city

Those who are willing to go beyond basic fish and/or avocado should also try the “special rolls.”The recipes are creative and the final products are equally pleasing to the eyes and palate. Try the “wisp special roll, with spicy yellowtail rolled inside, topped with crimson and bright green bands of tuna and avocado, garnished with saffron-colored tobiko {tiny crunchy flying fish roes that pop in your mouth}. The taste is energetic. A tinge of heat balances the richness of the fish. The list of ingredients can even run beyond those traditionally used in sushi and rolls. Soft fruits such as mango and strawberry are used boldly. Paired with spicy salmon or tuna, the tastes are surprisingly zesty and appealing.

“It all comes down to the right combination of ingredients, condiments, and techniques,” Bowen said of the cooking. This also applies to hot dishes. Take the example of salmon teriyaki. The fish must be fresh since “an eater can easily taste the difference between good salmon and cheap frozen ones.” The teriyaki sauce is also critical. Varying ratios of sugar and spice work differently under different combinations of temperature and grilling time. “The chef knows from his experience.”

Making the Restaurant Work on Wheels

Unlike in many other food trucks where only a handful of dishes are offered, the menu at Wisp Express is almost as expansive as that of a brick-and-mortar store. This posed a challenge to Wisp Express, especially during the earlier, inexperienced days, since everything has to be juggled out from the tiny space inside the truck, which is further divided into a sushi bar and a hot kitchen. When asked about the decision, Bowen explained that partly it is to reach a larger audience, but equally importantly, “we believe that brick-and-mortar quality can be delivered from a food truck.” 

Kitchen space is not the only challenge. Another is parking {yes, this is a headache for food trucks too}. Due to a {severe} shortage of legal parking spots, in its first few months Wisp Express was forever vying  for parking spaces, without which it would not be able to open for the day. Worse still, it was never certain whether the truck would actually get a spot before it showed up in Jersey City after picking up supplies and preparing for the ingredients in the morning. “ I would say we were only able to open shop two out of five days,” Bowen said, “which was both frustrating and financially straining.”

Then there’s the coronavirus pandemic, which hit less than three months after Wisp Express opened. “It was probably the toughest two months of my life,” Bowen said. Sales were reduced to a trickle and the only goal was to survive.

But running a business is all about solving problems. Bowen and his two partners took another cycle of financing. In June, a local real estate company extended an olive branch, and the two parties worked out an agreement that allows Wisp Express to park the truck in front of different condo buildings the company manages on weekdays. {The truck’s location, along with the day’s take-out and delivery arrangements are posted on Wisp Express’s Instagram page every day before noon, so make sure to check it before ordering.}

See more: A Guide to + History of Chinese Takeout in Hoboken + Jersey City

The Future of Wisp Express

wisp express sushi

With these problems solved, Bowen and his partners are looking to the future. There are no “grand plans” per se. For a young business, the goal has always been to “gain traction with good food and sincerity,” and make small changes along the way. One recent small change is to offer limited supplies of premium sushi on weekends, such as uni {sea urchin}, toro {fatty tuna belly}, and botan ebi {very plum, sweet Hokkaido shrimp}. The prices are slightly higher than its regular sushi items, but still reasonable and very affordable compared to similar products offered at other sushi restaurants. “It’s our thank-you to the oldest customers who supported us in the very early days.” Bowen said. With the wheels finally rolling, Wisp Express is ready to serve more.

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Yiwei was born and raised in China. She has lived extensively in Beijing and Hong Kong, before finally settling down in New York. She moved to Hoboken after a few years in Westchester and immediately felt at home here. Two years ago, she left her job at an investment bank to travel the world and explore her interests, and has since then taken on a few freelancing gigs in career coaching, college admission consulting, and writing. When she is not wandering wildly in the streets of Europe, Asia, or Latin America, she can be found sipping an espresso in one of Hoboken's coffee shops or trying out restaurants in Hoboken and Jersey City area.