Hot Box Pizza is serving up comfort at Zocalo Food Park

There’s a new pizza business turning out wood-fired pies and comfort food staples at Zocalo Food Park, 636 S. 6th St. in Walker’s Point.

Hot Box Pizza, a food truck which debuted last October at 1st and Mineral (in the lot across from the BP Gas Station) transitioned over to Zocalo as a pop-up truck for the month of January. But they are extending its run at the local food park the end of February (and potentially longer, if given the option).

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Behind the family-owned and operated business is Terrell Turner, a longtime chef who spent years of his career cooking in both Milwaukee and Chicago, and his partner Suzanne Pham-Banh, who grew up in a family that operated restaurants throughout the Milwaukee area.

Suzanne Pham-Banh, Terrell Turner and their daughterX

After working at a variety of restaurants from low-key establishments to spots like the Michelin-starred NAHA in Chicago, Turner says that a few years ago he took a position with a corporate restaurant group to earn some extra cash.

“At some point along the way, I just felt like a body,” he says, “So I walked out of my job and worked in construction for a while. During that break, I cooked at home and I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do next.”

Like most chefs, he’d dreamed of having his own restaurant. And – while he had plenty of concepts in the back of his head – he says he wanted to focus on something that Milwaukee simply didn’t have. At the time, he says, there wasn’t yet a mobile wood-fired pizza business, so he decided to focus there.

“Pizza is a connection for people,” he says. “It hits everyone differently; but everyone loves it. And you can always meet someone out for pizza.”

With hope of launching a new truck in spring of 2020, Turner bought a trailer and built it out so that he could retrofit it with a wood-fired oven. But thanks to delays in the truck’s build-out and shut-downs due to the pandemic in March of 2020, plans for Hot Box Pizza were delayed for almost an entire year.

But Turner says he used the time wisely. While he’d already developed the dough recipe he wanted to use, he says he really used the time to dial in his recipe, including getting a feel for cooking with a wood fire.

“Ultimately, I set out to create something different that I really thought was delicious,” he says.

Turner in the kitchenX

“I love pizza, and for me, the ideal dough has a really great flavor, a nice crispness and a chewiness at the same time. I also wanted a sauce that was delicious, with plenty of texture, so I developed a chunky sauce that I really loved.”

And that’s a pretty good description of what customers can expect from Hot Box, which serves up a collection of 10” wood-fired pizzas built with Turner’s housemade dough, which is brushed with a mix of herbed butter and oil before being slathered with rustic tomato sauce, covered in toppings and served with a piece of wood-fired garlic bread ($12 each).

Signature pies include the four cheese (mozzarella, parmesan, asiago and cheddar); pepperoni; sausage; veggie (mushrooms, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, black olives and spinach); supreme (all the vegetables, plus sausage); Margherita (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil and balsamic glaze) and BBQ chicken (chicken, pineapples, spinach, onions and honey bbq sauce).

Or, for +$2, you can choose the Custies Choice (build your own) pizza with a maximum of four toppings (extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, bacon, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, pineapple, spinach, basil, black olives, green peppers); or the Dealer’s Choice (a randomly topped pizza created especially for you by Turner).

This Dealer’s Choice pie sports chicken, pineapple, spinach and pepperoni.

Dealer's Choice wood-fired pizzaX

But pizza isn’t the only thing you can order up from Hot Box Pizza.

“The really awesome thing about our truck is that we don’t just make pizza.” says Phamm-Banh. “It’s a big munchie mobile. We offer comfort food, late night food… all sorts of things, including foods that appeal to people with families.”

That includes offerings like smoked chicken drumsticks (three for $11) featuring Turner’s secret dry rubbed chicken that’s smoked low and slow for 12 hours, then quick fried and tossed in garlic butter.

Smoked chicken drumsticksX

You can also find smoked mac and cheese, a creamy, cheesy pan of housemade goodness that’s been smoked for 8 hours and then cut with a bit of cream and some unsmoked cheese to give it a rich, balanced flavor profile ($12).

And yes, you can get them both together in the Mac’nOnChix featuring a full serving of smoked mac & cheese, plus two drum sticks ($14).

Mac'nOnChixX

Turner also serves up freshly made doughnuts – made from the same versatile “uni-dough” he uses for his pizza – which are tossed in cinnamon sugar, drizzled with caramel, chocolate and raspberry sauce and served with whipped cream (three for $6) or the dessert of the moment.

Currently, the truck is serving up what Turner calls a high end gas station dessert: the Banana Twins Foster featuring Banana Twins served with caramelized bananas, caramel sauce, whipped cream and Nilla wafers ($8).

Banana Twins FosterX

“I put my heart into everything that we make,” he says. “I have an extreme passion for food and a desire to keep on learning and growing. I also really love Milwaukee, and my goal is to give it what I think it needs.”

That means staying creative in the kitchen, Turner says, and coming up with new dishes and ideas for the food truck. In fact, in the next two weeks, guests can look forward to at least one new addition to Hot Box’s offerings; A fish fry pizza featuring a rye pizza crust, lake perch and green goddess tartar sauce.

“That’s all I’m saying about it for now,” Turner says, “But it’s going to be delicious.”

“In so many ways, Hot Box has felt like coming full circle to me,” Turner says. “I’d spent so much time cooking in restaurants, and then I decided to take on a full life change, learn a new skill and start completely over again. And here we are.”

Turner says he couldn’t be happier with where his business has gone in just a few short months, and that they had the opportunity to build an audience at Zocalo Food Park.

“I think it’s awesome here at Zocalo,” says Turner. “Anybody can be in business to make money, but Jesus and Sean immerse themselves right along with you and push you forward. They truly support the entrepreneurs who are here… and I really appreciate what they do, and that they’ve brought a community of people together here.”

Turner also says he’s appreciative for the growing support that he’s seen in Milwaukee for businesses owned by people of color. But he says he doesn’t just want support because of the color of his skin.

“I’ve worked really hard to get where I am,” he says. “But I’m not stopping here, and I don’t want people to eat my pizza just because I’m Black. I want people to eat it because it’s good fucking pizza.”

Hot Box Pizza is open at Zocalo throughout the month of February with hours Tuesday and Wednesday from 4 to 10 pm, Thursday from 11 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday from 11 am to Tavern close; and Sunday from 11 am to 8 pm

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