Kader is not shy about sharing his beliefs: they are proclaimed from signs that affixed to his scrappy blue food truck. Credit: Anna Mindess Credit: Anna Mindess

Eating lunch at The Royal Egyptian Food Truck in Berkeley is like dining with a cherished uncle who can’t wait to share his homemade sausage, the fresh fish he just grilled, his spicy sauces, plus a side of sage advice.

“My joy in life is to feed people,” said Chef Elmy Kader, 71, who grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. “I’ve traveled the world, and the best food is street food. My philosophy is very simple. If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t use it. If it is longer than five syllables, it’s man-made and I don’t touch it.” 

Kader is not shy about sharing his beliefs: they are proclaimed from large signs that affixed to his scrappy blue food truck.

“Precooked food is unfit for human consumption, it should be piping hot, freshly prepared,” reads one.

In recent months, Kader has parked his trusty truck and set out four tables on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays on Folger Avenue, near Ashby and Seventh Street. His schedule is always subject to change, however, for example, when he caters private events or it rains. So check his Twitter feed where he posts updates, plus advice such as: “Make sure you bring your appetite, your sense of humor and time. Perfection takes time.”

Whatever you order, you will not leave hungry

Royal Egyptian Cuisine’s menu is changeable but always includes a vegetarian soup, plus variations on pita, kofta, gyro, falafel, marinated chicken and perhaps beef or halibut burgers. 

Chef Kader is nothing but enthusiastic about his offerings. He delights in the magic of his fresh fish and seafood, extols the joys of his sautéed liver plate for “liver-lovers,” and is equally thrilled to cook for non-meat eaters. “If you are vegan/vegetarian, just say ‘Veggie me up’. I will bring tears of joy to your eyes.” Modest is not an adjective that describes this chef.

You get what Chef Elmy chooses to dish up if you order the seafood feast at Royal Egyptian. On the Fourth of July, to celebrate the food truck’s 11th anniversary, that included a giant fillet of red rock fish, plenty of shrimp, halibut cakes, homemade lamb sausage, pickled peppers and heapings of orzo and rice. Credit: Zac Farber

Because he cooks every dish to order and serves it piping hot, it is quite possible that on a busy Saturday your order may take a while. But Kadar will not let you starve while you wait. He’ll greet you with a craggy smile and a small plate of chopped-vegetable salad, perhaps topped by a sweet mango or a spicy dressing. After several minutes, you may also be handed an ear of sweet roasted corn in a paper towel, a plate with a few slices of his homemade sausage flanked by a pair of green mussels, or a satisfying nibble of piping hot, deep-fried okra balls.

You may want to bring along your favorite beverage, as the only drink available is bottled water. His bright yellow and red sign screams, “Soda is poison.  I don’t serve anything that would poison you.”

Despite the food truck’s name, the revolving menu does not claim to be a full representation of Egyptian cuisine. You may sometimes find classic Egyptian dishes such as ful (slow baked fava beans) and koshari (a comforting bowl of lentils, rice, chickpeas, and pasta). But Kader loves to create new combinations and is quick to add, “there is life beyond gyro and falafel,” although those dishes regularly appear on his menu. On a recent Saturday, he touted “this incredible pita – you’ve never had it before, ‘cuz I just created it.” And a “shrimp wrap from three continents, spices from India, coconut milk from Thailand and methods from Japan – I just took a few things and then added my personality to it.”

His reasonable prices range between $12-$25, depending on the dish, but, whatever you order, you will not leave hungry as he adds a soup or salad, and often assorted side dishes. With that generosity, it’s hard to believe that the chef actually makes a profit, but he claims to do all right, thanks to no overhead and his superior bargaining skills with fishermen and other sources.

If his Twitter feed announces a big catch of fish, that may be a cue to visit the truck as it will likely produce a feast, as Kader has relationships with several fishermen ( “I do not touch farm-raised fish.”). “When [the fishermen] go out, I buy everything they catch.” This could include red snapper, halibut, crab, lobster, octopus, mahi mahi, red rockfish, crawfish, cod, shrimp, sardines, perch, or calamari, which he may sauté, steam, bake, or grill.

Elmy Kader is not shy about sharing his beliefs: they are proclaimed from large signs that affixed to his scrappy blue food truck. Credit: Anna Mindess
Credit: Anna Mindess

I spoke out then couldn’t stay in my country

Kader’s life story is as multifaceted as his menu. He grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, where he studied to become a mechanical engineer, then was drafted, and served in the Egyptian Green Berets. His father was a well-respected businessman. But Kader was outraged at the inequities he witnessed for those Egyptians who were not as well-placed as his family. “I started to see the country going in the wrong direction,” he says. “So, I spoke out. Then they told my dad, ‘Tell your son to shut up.’  My father said, ‘Son, I know you always stand up for what’s right, but if you speak out, they are going to destroy me and destroy your family.’ I couldn’t stay in my country. A week later I left Egypt.” 

He landed first in Marseille, France, where he worked in a restaurant kitchen then, after months of traveling, eventually moved to Berkeley at age 29. He sold clothing at a brother-in-law’s shop and added his own business selling at weekend flea markets in San Jose. After he married the “love of my life,” he opened a deli, called Bumblebee, on Durant Avenue in Berkeley. But after a year and a half, his mother-in-law insisted the couple move to Connecticut and Kader declined. Divorced, and in pain, he bought a motorcycle to travel around the US. 

To further his cross-country travel explorations, in 1985, he got a trucking license and bought an 18-wheeler truck. Later, he added a flatbed truck and eventually expanded that into a successful trucking business.  

When he reached the age when most people slow down, he just switched gears. “When men in my family retire, they die,” he said ominously. Kader started his food truck business as a labor of love in 2012.

It’s not an easy life, but the chef says he has never been happier. “I get up at 4am, shower, make a power drink with egg yolk, yeast, garlic, strawberry, and coconut milk.” After he has his coffee, he heads to his commercial kitchen to take over from an assistant who comes in early to prep the vegetables. 

Although he does all the cooking in his truck, he is not working alone, but with support from his “best friend, and confidante” Sharon Cooper, and his sister, or a good friend. 

A new truck to be unveiled

At the end of summer, an exciting change is coming: the unveiling of a 26-foot-long, new, improved food truck. Kader has been working on it himself three days a week for five months. “It has a smoker to make brisket and smoked salmon that will make 4-star chefs drool and cry,” he says proudly.  Stay tuned for new hours and new items. 

Chef Kader clearly loves his work. “My customers are awesome,” he says. “I make friends every day.” On a recent Saturday, several first-time customers thanked the chef profusely using terms such as “amazing” and “incredible” and promised to return with their friends. Families with toddlers were thrilled that the chef made food especially for their kids. And if you order as a couple, there’s a good chance that the giant aluminum pan you are handed may be heaped with some combination of fish, chicken, sausage, pickled beets, eggplant, pasta, rice, pita, shrimp, mussels and whatever else is fresh that day. It will provide you with a second or even third meal at home, all thanks to “Uncle Elmy.”

A recent tweet sums up the chef’s philosophy: “Today is a happy day for me because I’ll be with you, so come hungry and leave the rest to me. Love you all unconditionally.”

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.