Paul O’Brien was nearing the completion of his doctorate in physical therapy when he had a life-changing thought.
He liked doing physical therapy, but he realized he didn’t really love it. Talking to his then-girlfriend, he wondered aloud what he could throw himself into that he was truly passionate about.
As O’Brien recalled it, she looked at him and said, “It’s food. Are you kidding me? It’s so obvious.”
She was right, he said. “I’ve had a passion for food for quite a while. It was hiding right under my nose.”
He went on to earn his doctor of physical therapy degree anyway, from the University of Montana in 2014. He then spent a year as a roving physical therapist, plying his trade in different cities while making a study of various street-food scenes. He has been doing PT for Rocky Mountain Home Care for the past year.
In the midst of all that, in 2015, he completed his work on a master’s in business administration, which he also earned from UM. The idea was that he’d use his earnings as a physical therapist to open his own food trailer, and his MBA to do it right.
A week from today, on Saturday, Aug. 20, O’Brien will introduce Billings people to his passion for food when he opens his Noodles O’Brien trailer for the first time, at the Thirsty Street Brewing Co., 3008 First Ave. N. His trailer will be in the parking lot between Thirsty Street and Angry Hank’s brewery, serving food from 4 to 9 p.m.
O’Brien, a 2005 graduate of Billings Senior High School, said his goal is to run a food cart that serves the best, most healthful food available, using fresh ingredients from as close to home as possible. The motto for his business is “Fast food made healthy.”
He will start with four noodle bowls, two with semolina wheat noodles and two with rice noodles. In any of the dishes, he will substitute zucchini noodles as a gluten-free, low-carb alternative.
One wheat dish is cheesy noodles, made with cheddar and cream cheese from Lifeline Farms in the Bitterroot Valley. The other is a chilled Greek noodle salad with red wine vinegar and olive oil, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onion, tomato and zucchini.
As for rice noodles, he’ll have a Thai curry dish and spicy drunken noodles. The curry bowl will be vegan, with peppers, onion and kale, and the drunken noodle dish will be a spicy concoction with coconut oil, chili peppers and onion.
All dishes will come without meat, but you’ll be able to add meat to any dish—chicken, beef or bacon, “because everyone loves bacon,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he loves meat but tries to eat it only on weekends, to avoid overdoing it.
“If I can feed someone a bowl of noodles and they don’t realize right away that it doesn’t have any meat but they really like it anyway, that’s a positive,” he said.
As for the fast part, O’Brien said all the preparation will be done in the Billings Food Bank’s shared-use kitchen. On site, par-cooked noodles will be quickly heated up in hot water. The meat will be pressure-cooked and shredded, then reheated in its own broth.
The Noodles O’Brien trailer has its own internet hot spot and patrons will be able to place their orders on two Clover pads equipped with chip and card readers. People can also pay using Google or Apple and the pads will print receipts. The order then goes to a printer, ready to be filled.
His bowls are made from sugarcane fiber, his forks are plant-based, and the napkins are made out of recycled paper.
“I’m trying to use as sustainable an approach as I can,” he said.
O’Brien worked with established chefs, mainly at the Lilac café, to develop a list of suppliers to provide him with local ingredients.
“You can’t get everything from Montana,” he said, “but I’m keeping it regional.” He will also be using Sysco to supply him ingredients that are not made in the region, including coconut milk and fish sauce.
After the grand opening at Thirsty Street, O’Brien will be serving at the Cherry Tree Inn, 823 N. Broadway, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at the YMCA, 402 N. 32nd St., from 11 to 7 on Thursdays and 11 to 2 on Fridays; and at Thirsty Street from 3 to 9 p.m. on Fridays and 11 to 9 on Saturdays.
O’Brien said he considered a variety of foods when he began thinking of opening a food cart, including waffle sandwiches, nachos, macaroni and cheese varieties, even popcorn. He settled on noodles because he’s always loved cooking pasta and because he wanted something that would be relatively simple, with few ingredients.
And he’s sold on the concept of a food cart. If this venture succeeds, he said, he won’t try to move into a brick-and-mortar location.
“I’d rather expand my footprint in the street-food scene,” he said, possibly by opening additional carts on the West End and in the Heights.