Centre County food truck specializing in ‘eats made with love’ from various cultures gets rolling

While Melissa Flores and Mike Gonzales’s latest business venture might be a brand-new undertaking in a long list of brand-new undertakings — after the pandemic forced the two to close their party rental and catering business, they moved from New York City to Pennsylvania, where they became homeowners for the first time, and even flipped a property — this new opportunity has been a long time in the making. It all started with Gonzales’s grandmother, Hilda, and the culinary influence she had on her family.

Flores and Gonzales’s food truck, dubbed Hilda’s Just Good Food, has just started serving Centre and Clearfield counties. The business’s tagline is “New York-inspired, Latin-flavored eats made with love,” but when they say “New York-inspired,” don’t think bagels and pizza. Hilda grew up in Harlem in the Great Depression, and her food reflected the city’s melting pot of the 1940s-1960s.

“I get most of my cooking and inspiration from my grandma,” Gonzales said. “She was an amazing cook. ... She not only knew Puerto Rican cooking. She knew how to cook Italian food, German food. ... I learned from her at an early age. People always came up (to her) and said, ‘Hey, you should start up a restaurant,’ but she never had the opportunity. Because of our construction business, I was able to afford a food truck and I’m trying to live a dream I’ve always had.”

Just like his grandmother, Gonzales cooks a variety of cuisines from various cultures. While, yes, the Latin flavors will come in via Gonzales’ Puerto Rican roots, he doesn’t want to be held to one style of cooking. From Caribbean to Italian to Asian to regional American offerings, he and Flores envision a little bit of it all.

“I want to surprise people,” he said. “I’m starting off with a subtle menu just to pull people in. I’m definitely getting tacos on the truck. I’m going to have Puerto Rican-inspired dishes. I’m going to have empanadas. I’m going to try to do chopped cheeseburgers, Philly cheesesteaks ...”

Flores noted that, while there are plenty of Mexican restaurants in Centre County, after talking with other residents, the two realized there’s a lack of Caribbean-style cuisine in the area, even though there’s interest in a business that offers it. As such, they plan to always include at least one traditional Latin dish on their menu.

“Tacos and quesadillas seem to be what everyone is used to with Hispanic cuisine,” said Flores, “but then there’s more traditional Puerto Rican dishes like the empanada ... and then our rice bowl with rice, beans and some sort of protein would be more of a traditional dish. (Gonzales) is half-Cuban, half-Puerto Rican, so I’m pushing for a Cuban sandwich. Hopefully that’s added to the menu soon.”

Beyond just his grandmother’s flavors, though, Gonzales is also trying to replicate a feeling, something that reflects the love Hilda brought to her food and family, but also that’s tied to the “feel-good food” you can’t get in just any restaurant.

“Where we lived in New York, you could find good food on any corner, and it was usually in the smallest shop,” he said. “You’d never walk in there unless you knew the place. That’s what we’re trying to give — that good, New York-inspired food.”

“She was an amazing woman,” Gonzales summed up about Hilda — and when you talk to him, it’s clear that naming the food truck after his grandmother isn’t just a branding or business decision, but a gesture of respect and admiration for a woman who greatly influenced his life.

And as for Gonzales’s personal favorites from Hilda’s culinary repertoire? Asian-inspired chicken wings and oyster sauce served with white rice.

“She would make a hundred of them — there was only five of us living there, and she couldn’t make enough,” he recalled. “And then the second favorite was a fried chicken cutlet, very simple, and she would make a mushroom and onion sauce, with mashed potatoes on the side and whatever vegetable she had too much of that she needed to get rid of. One time it’s corn. One time it’s broccoli, but she always put a little love in everything. That was the secret.”

Flores and Gonzales hope to appear at regional events and spots throughout State College, Bellefonte and Clearfield.

For more information about Hilda’s Just Good Food, including where to find the food truck and the most current menus, visit the business on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/hildasjustgoodfood.

Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at holly.ridd@gmail.com.