Austin in a Pocket: Kreyòl Korner
Chef Nahika Hillary brings island flavors and hospitality to North Austin through modern Haitian street food
By Regine Malibiran
Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Kreyòl Korner, which opened in 2017, is the first Haitian food truck in Texas. Brightening up North Lamar Boulevard, just south of Koenig on Stark Street, the truck’s colorful menu is inspired by Haitian street food and includes traditional dishes like paté (baked patties filled with meat, fish or veggies), griyo (pork shoulder marinated in citrus then braised and fried) and pikliz (spicy pickled vegetable relish made of cabbage, carrots and scotch bonnets that elevates every bite).
Nahika Hillary, chef and owner of Kreyòl Korner, moved to Austin in 2015. Within two years, Hillary went from a career in science, education and medicine to becoming a self-taught entrepreneur and food truck owner. The drastic transition was an unexpected, serendipitous turn of events that sprouted from Hillary’s move to the city and the realization that there isn’t a lot of Haitian—or even Caribbean—cuisine options in Austin.
“Where I’m from, you can find Caribbean food at every corner,” shares Hillary. “I was really surprised to [learn] that there was such a limited amount of Caribbean food here when Austin’s considered to be one of the food capitols.”
Hillary grew up in Boston, heavily steeped in Haitian culture. Her childhood home was known as “the spot” for many of her neighbors and community members. Every Thursday, her mother would prepare a feast for the family and friends gathering in their house. On Sundays, Hillary would look forward to going to the local Haitian bakery to pick up some paté after church services.
Though Hillary grew up with constant access to Haitian cuisine, she didn’t start cooking until she was in college. She remembers calling her mom for guidance while following recipes and being able to pick cooking up quickly.
“[At the time] I made a joke about how cooking in our family is hereditary,” Hillary recalls. “Literally everyone knows how to cook.”
After Hillary opened Kreyòl Korner, she knew that she wanted to take her skills and her business to the next level. She attended culinary school, starting off in a class of about 25 people and graduating with only seven other students—all men.
“I stepped my game up. I made sure I could handle all the challenges that they could handle. I was the only one in the class that was also running a business,” reflects Hillary. “I had to be able to stand next to them as an equal.”
Hillary often feels like she has something to prove, not just as a Black woman in a male-dominated industry, but also as a Haitian-American trying to represent her experiences and culture. When she first started, it was difficult not to take criticism about the authenticity of her food to heart. Eventually Hillary called her father, doubting whether or not she was “the right ambassador to represent Haitian culture the right way.”
Her father imparted wisdom that Hillary still leans on today: “Do what you have to do to highlight the culture the way you know it. You don’t have to doubt yourself. You know you’re Haitian.”
One of the main staples of Haitian cuisine is epis, the savory seasoning base. Hillary develops the layers of flavors in her epis with a long list of ingredients, including: garlic, parsley, bell peppers, onions, vinegar, lime juice and Caribbean spices. Meat preparation is also unique in Haitian cuisine. Hillary cleans all of her meat with vinegar and lime sauce before setting it to marinate overnight.
One of Kreyòl Korner’s most popular dishes is their paté, a pocket food that can be fried or baked, depending on the diner’s preference. Hillary and her mother also have a pocket food concoction of their own: bannann peze bowl, otherwise known as stuffed plantain cups. Hillary refers to this dish as “a quick taste of Haiti.” She uses a lemon squeezer to mold plantains into cups before frying and filling them with shrimp, beef, pork, or veggies.
“My mom is the creative genius behind everything that we create,” Hillary shares. “What we did is just refined the menu. Not necessarily in a fusion aspect, but more like street food versus gourmet food.”
When COVID-19 shut down over $50,000 worth of catering gigs this past spring, Hillary took the opportunity to “calm down, stay home and really focus on safety.” She took a break to be present with her family and rest from the regular 80-hour weeks she had been pulling. After revising her business plans for new, more restrictive pandemic circumstances, she found an opportunity to open up a second space in Houston this fall.
“I have an opportunity as a Haitian ambassador to represent my culture through food wherever I go, especially among demographics that are not really exposed to Haitian cuisine.”
The World in a Pocket is dedicated to exploring the world through the lens of a dumpling. From mandu to empanadas, spanakopita to gyoza, pierogi to Pop-Tarts, this is our love letter to pockets worldwide and the stories they tell. These beloved staples all share a similar food-inside-of-food structure, while providing a delicious way to understand our world. We are excited to bring TRIBEZA readers Austin in a Pocket, where Regine Malibiran has teamed up with TWIP co-founder and photographer Mackenzie Smith Kelley to shine a light on local pocket makers.