Stepping up to order from the Balo’s Foods trailer, you’re met with an image of a colorfully cool octopus wearing sunglasses surrounded by shrimp, squid, oysters and other sea creatures, all of which you’ll find on the menu.
Inside, you’ll see chef Balo Alvarez meticulously preparing a ceviche, combining perfectly tender shrimp, baby octopus and squid with fresh tomatoes, jalapeños, onion and lemon juice to add bright acidity. He grabs a handful of micro cilantro, tearing pieces of the tiny herb for a pungent, peppery garnish before serving it all up with homemade chips through the window.
The logo on the side of his trailer lauds his seafood “stuffies” as famous, and the dish has put Alvarez on the map.
He started making and selling ceviche as a side hustle more than five years ago while working as a chef at Southold Fish Market, partly because it offered a taste of home he couldn’t easily find locally.
“My dad used to take me to the river to find caracoles around the rocks, come home, break them and chop tomatoes, onions,” Alvarez said, recalling a childhood memory from his native Guatemala. “He’d make ceviche out of it.”
On the North Fork, word spread among his friends and he was soon asked to prepare batches for various parties and get-togethers. One Christmas, he decided to take holiday orders. “I made 100 pounds, packaged it in pint containers and sold out that same day,” he said.
Alvarez, 38, first came to Long Island at 16, trailing his parents, who had left their three children under their grandmother’s care while they sought work in the area’s burgeoning vineyards and restaurants. His first gig was washing dishes at the Old Barge.
“When I was 16, I didn’t want to go to school,” Alvarez said, recounting how he wanted to join his parents to work and provide for their family. “I guess they thought that bringing me here and working hard would make me think, ‘No, I want to go to school instead.’ But I liked it.”
He went back to Guatemala for just one year before returning, this time to live with a cousin in San Francisco, where he honed his passion and skills as a chef working at Woodlands Market in Kentfield under chef Ira Meyer.
“My mom raised me to help her cook, so I knew how to chop onions. I used to help the chef and I think he saw I had some potential,” Alvarez said. “So he dropped me straight into the kitchen.”
While working at the market, Alvarez enrolled in ESL classes at a nearby community college, primarily to learn how to read. “The chef started giving me recipes and I was trying to figure out how to read them,” he said.
The first recipe he tackled was beef stew.
“They used to make fun of me because it would take me four hours to make beef stew. But they had patience.”
While working at the market, Alvarez also began working for Meals of Marin, a nonprofit that provides healthy meals to people battling life-threatening illnesses like cancer, HIV and AIDS. “Every day was a challenge,” Alvarez recalled, explaining that his menu relied on whatever donations came in. One day, it could be an excess of bread he’d turn into stuffing. Another day, 10 cases of Swiss chard. “I think that helped me learn how to improvise,” he said.
Eventually, Alvarez made his way back to the North Fork, settling in Cutchogue and working for Southold Fish Market for 12 years. In 2018, he left the market to pursue Balo’s Foods full time, working in kitchens around the North Fork to make ends meet.
He officially launched the food truck in November after purchasing the trailer and installing all of the equipment himself.
The seafood-forward menu is described as “North Fork seafood with a Latin flair,” and Alvarez sees it as a way to share his culture with others. For influence, he looked not only to his Guatemalan roots but also to the vast culinary sphere throughout Latin America.
He hopes to expand to offer different ceviches that capture the nuances of Mexican or Peruvian style and things like tuna tartare tacos. “No matter what you make, you can put your own spice into it,” Alvarez said.
The menu offers shrimp, mozzarella and jalapeño empanadas with chimichurri, fried shrimp, breaded Peconic Gold oysters, Aguachile, fish tacos with tropical mango slaw, ceviche — and, of course, the famous “stuffies.”
That secret recipe is a riff on the basic stuffing formula Alvarez learned out west. Several years ago, for a friend’s birthday, he decided to pull out all the stops, combining lobster meat, shrimp, scallops and clams into the mix and stuffing that into a lobster shell. Then, it dawned on him that the mix would be delicious in any vessel, so he began packing it into clamshells and was making 2,000 a week at the fish market.
“It was a hit,” he said. “The ‘stuffies’ became a big hit.”
Since launching the trailer, Alvarez has concentrated on private parties and catering as well as festivals and other events. “My main focus is to make some food that makes people happy,” he said.
His ultimate dream, though, would be selling packaged, ready-made stuffies in supermarkets.
Though Alvarez is based on the North Fork, he’s got a big vision.
“I have a whole island to go to,” he said.