Prepare to have your perception of hotdogs remixed and elevated. The tubular processed meat is primarily associated with dadbod summer cookout fare, and beer-absorbing ballast at stadium sports and arena concerts. In Albert Toh’s hands though, the hotdog is a vessel of culinary creativity and vision. And f—ing delicious.
Toh is the owner and chef behind New South Hotdog & Sushi, Huntsville’s hottest food truck. By transposing sushi’s flash presentation and vibrant supporting ingredients to hotdogs, plus offering well-executed sushi rolls too, New South does what the best food trucks tend to do: Give punters tasty and interesting food that no one else (or at least no one else in that market) does.
At local events they work, New South often commands camping-out-for-Stones-tickets-in-’89 length queues. Such was the case at Panoply Festival of the Arts back in April. Alas, other work stuff beckoned. A few weeks later, I finally got a chance to try New South, at a lowkey midweek event at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.
We eat with our eyes first, especially in the Instagram era. I’d seen pics of New South’s stuff online, and real life did not disappoint. Fresh, clever and colorful, all around.
I checked out three ‘dogs and a roll, which sounds like a Steven Tyler lyric but isn’t. New South’s Volcano Dog jumps with avocado, bacon, cheddar, fresh jalapeno, sesame seeds, wasabi mayo and sriracha. Texture for days, 3D-monster-movie sized flavor, finished off with some negotiable heat. The Mojito Dog with its cilantro, lime, provolone and avocado is the first hotdog I’ve ever had that could be described as “refreshing.” Meanwhile on the Crunch Dog, pork rinds supply the signature adjective, with a supporting cast including eel sauce, spicy mayo, bacon, avocado and cream cheese.
In addition to the bold fixings, two key things about all New South hot dogs: One, they’re served on a toasted gourmet hoagie bun instead of standard issue hotdog bun, so they can physically support the ingredients and don’t get swampy and fall apart, even as leftovers hours later; and two, Toh only uses quarter-pound Nathan’s hotdogs, resulting in juicy, satisfying eats. Each ‘dog is a meal onto itself.
All three New South hotdogs I tried were just seven bucks each. It all makes for solid mobile food value, especially to anyone who’s ever shelled out $14 for two tacos from a food truck. Other New South hotdogs include a Bama Big Dog tricked out with pulled pork, slaw and barbecue sauce ($9). A complete menu and more info can be found at newsouthhotdogandsushi.com.
Sushi wise, I tamed the Tiger King Roll ($10), which debuted last spring around the same time as a certain popular streaming series. Thankfully, New South’s Tiger King is a lot more tasteful than the notorious zookeeper depicted in Netflix’s “Tiger King.” Tempura shrimp, avocado, cream cheese, crab-ish, crunchy onion, spicy mayo and eel sauce. Crunch times crunch. I’d be glad to get a roll that looked and tasted like this from a posh restaurant, let alone a 12 by 6 trailer pulled behind a truck.
About 15 years ago, Albert Toh moved to Huntsville from his native Malaysia to attend college. Like many college students he supported himself by working in restaurants. Gravitating to Asian eateries, including Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese ventures, Toh says, “I always had a passion for learning about sushi.”
Fast forward to a little over two years ago. Now working a solid but soul-crushing job at a university with a 401K, state pension and the whole nine, Toh realized, “I was just not for that kind of lifestyle. I had this idea of doing something for myself.”
Specifically, he wanted to sell hotdogs, because he thought he could get creative with them and also because hotdogs aren’t raw, thus easier to manage in a mobile context. He didn’t want to do a hotdog cart, because of storage and maneuverability issues there. He found a food trailer in Kentucky and plunked down 9,000 bucks for it. He’d soon learn the trailer would need significant upgrades, including ventilation hood, to be street-food legal here.
“Right before I started the truck,” Toh says, “I did a lot of testing. I’d have a taste test party at my house, put crazy ingredients on hotdogs and have friends over to try them.”
When he launched New South, he started off at a Chevron gas station and just hawked hotdogs. “Most of my family and friends thought I’m crazy,” Toh says. “In Asian culture, the expectation of us is like, you go overseas to study and then be in very respected profession. I guess I’m just different. I always loved food.” In person, Toh comes off as genuinely nice and earnest.
As a child in Malaysia, his great aunt Cecilia Xia cooked for him almost every day. “She was the one the sparked my love for food,” Toh says. Since his family is of Chinese descent, the food he ate in his youth often combined cuisines. “Malaysia so multicultural,” he says. “We put things together. We never stick in one cuisine, with one set of ingredients.” His family resided on Borneo, an island where Toh says, “the most famous thing about it are the orangutans.”
Toh’s willingness to crossfade cuisines manifested in New South. His wife Melizza Toh (yes, her first name is built with two Zs), makes recommendations too. She’s the one who gave him the idea to put pork rinds on a dog. “He’s very creative,” Melizza says. Her favorite meal Albert cooks at home is Korean barbecue short ribs. Albert credits Melizza, who frequently helps out on the truck, for being “super supportive” of his dramatic career pivot.
After New South’s 2019 launch, the truck gained early buzz after a big July 4 event at South Huntsville marina Ditto Landing. Toh says they sold out of food that day … twice. New South menu items are labor intensive for Toh, who prepares each order. For example, sushi-style avocado must be sliced to order. That takes a little extra time. But the care put into presentation pays off on multiple levels, including being self-marketing food, and not just on social media. More immediately, Toh says they frequently have customers order from the truck after they’ve witnessed other customers walking around with New South food.
Beyond typical customers, New South has found fans in the Huntsville food community. Jeremy Esterly is co-owner of downtown fusion restaurant Phat Sammy, and one of Huntsville most gifted and creative chefs. “Albert is just killing it,” Esterly says. “They’re doing great business and people are embracing it. A few years ago, hotdogs and sushi on a food truck wouldn’t have worked in this city at all. But it’s so good and so well presented. Hopefully more people will follow Albert’s lead and not just do the same tried and true things over and over. We need more variety.”
Toh is grateful for love New South has received from food bloggers local (RickyHSV) and beyond (BallNine) and says that’s been critical to his business’ growth. That may be so, but as Melizza points out, with all the time he puts in, Albert has made his own luck. “He’s always out there,” she says. Most weeks, New South does between eight and 12 appearances, including corporate and neighborhood gigs. A two-hour service time is actually a six-hour affair, as set-up and breakdown each take another two hours.
“I have to be out there working,” says Toh, who credits his grandfather, a photojournalist, with inspiring his work ethic. “We kind of take the immigrant approach to tell the truth: If we have too much time on our hands, we’re not doing something right.” And since he posts the truck’s schedule consistently early each week on Facebook, it’s easy for people to find him. Employee Matt Sturgis has been with New South about 18 months. “It’s nice to work somewhere that everybody loves the food,” Sturgis says. “People will travel to eat with us.”
Toh doesn’t have much interest in scaling New South up to a brick and mortar restaurant. “Food trucks are a wild game,” he says. “And this is what I love about it, unpredictable.” But never say never. At age 37, Toh feels he has “maybe three more good years to run a food truck because the toll on the body is ridiculous.” Besides being on your feet all that time, like most back-of-house food gigs, there’s also the daily loading and unloading of ingredients, and lugging around equipment, including a hefty generator.
Besides food, Toh’s passions include fishing and watching mixed martial arts. After a busy shift with New South, his favorite way to wind down is to come home to Melizza and play with their three-year-old son and twin one-year-old daughters. “I’m basically just a simple guy that is living an American dream right now,” he says. “Even if it’s just by selling hotdogs.”