An Interview with Cassie Adams and Vernon Pajarito

Edible recognizes this group of amazing individuals and organizations for their work to create healthy, sustainable food systems in New Mexico. We determine these awards through reader nominations and a reader poll. The local food movement is a grassroots effort that often involves late nights, backbreaking work, dirty fingernails, and being a generally good sport. In an effort to showcase these individuals, organizations, and businesses for their work to build a stronger local economy and a robust local food system, each issue this year spotlights several of the winners with interviews about the work they do.

From left to right: Vernon Pajarito, Cassie Adams, Lauren Hines, and Kale Carrillo-Beck. Photo by Stacey Mustard Adams.

Dedicated patrons follow My Sweet Basil food truck to breweries and events across Albuquerque. Owners and chefs Cassie Adams and Vernon Pajarito, who opened My Sweet Basil in 2015, explain: “Aina is a Hawaiian word meaning land. Together we are Soulaina, LLC, ‘taste of the land.’ Our passion is not just in the food we create but what we feel in our soul. My Sweet Basil by Soulaina, LLC, is a harmony of that land and soul. The land provides the gift; our desire is to unwrap it and present you its natural beauty. We are all about freshness, color, and the inspiration for simplicity while being conscious of the environment and reducing our ecological footprint.”

What do you love most about local food?

The flavors and the freshness from the most amazing tomatoes at Silverleaf Farms and the sweetest baby turnips at Vida Verde; we can’t even imagine trying replicating the flavors. At that point, we just love to accompany and highlight. We love being a part of the whole experience, from walking the greenhouse and fields to fermentation halls and talking to the local farmers, brewers, cheese makers, and ranchers. You learn so much and see the love and passion that goes into every seed and leaf. We get to meet some amazing local business owners, who we’ve enjoyed connecting with, and be part of one big family of people who love to produce great products.

Share something unique with us about being a food-truck owner versus a restaurant owner.

After arriving at the destination, you open the refrigerator door, and if nothing falls out from the drive, it is a start to a beautiful day. Bungee cords and tape are your most important tools on a food truck. We have never been restaurant owners; however, we both have a lot of experience running a kitchen. Owning a food truck [presents unique challenges and considerations], such as leveling out the truck to make sure there is even frying, which makes all the difference. You underestimate your use of water. You learn very quickly that water does run out. You also can’t just lock up and leave after your shift; securing hot oil, food, shelves, spices, and making the drive are your top priorities. In addition, if the weather is below freezing, you must take extra care and caution to secure the pipes and the water.

How did you get to where you are now? What’s the backstory, and what was the moment that brought you to your current work?

We have worked in big corporations and big restaurants. Their standards, rules, and creative barriers have given us the concept to begin our own adventure to give back to the community, to engage with our customers, and provide a fun mobile restaurant that serves great food.

Cassie Adams says, “The burger is simply called ‘Burger’ and it is always changing—today it just happened to have bacon, cheddar, Silver Leaf Farms arugula, and tomatoes on a homemade bun.” Photo by Stacey Mustard Adams.

What’s your favorite menu item?

Our menu changes frequently; however, we have a few items that are constant, based on popularity, like the Cubano and the nachos. We change the menu based on seasonality and availability, places we visit, themes, holidays, research, and curiosity. We have some amazing regular customers who suggest items based on culture, childhood, or something they have wanted to try. We love knowledge and education, plus it keeps things interesting for us.

What are some of your favorite places to eat and why?

Albuquerque has some amazing restaurants. A few of our favorites are Banh Mi Coda, M’ Tucci’s, The Shop, Burque Bakehouse, and Old Town Pizza Parlor. They are great restaurants and owners who have drive, passion, and love for themselves and their products.

Tell us about your life outside of My Sweet Basil.

Starting this business, we have been so involved in telling our story, we really aren’t involved in much as individuals. As a truck, we love festivals, especially if they benefit the city, communities, groups, education, or fundraisers.

What’s your favorite way to spend a day off?

Taking Basil and Rye (dogs) on long walks and hikes, kayaking, hiking, research, and resting.

Do you have a serendipitous moment?

It may sound cliché, but when we found out that we won the Local Hero vote and were going to be in edible. We are huge fans of the magazine. All moments leading up to this event by having the support of our family and friends and making the decision to create My Sweet Basil, designing the truck and products, creating unique products, finding ways to stand out, and finding amazing people (Chef Scott, Lauren, Barbara, and Kale) to represent us. Knowing our beliefs and practices paid off, and being the people’s choice, is very rewarding.

Fill in the blank:

I love collaboration the most when it comes to my work and my passion because we get to converse with people that produce items that they are excited about. Collaborating with brewers and seeing what they’ve created inspires us to develop something that can pair with their vision.

The question people always ask me is: “What’s the quickest thing on your menu?” Or, “You’re just a food truck. Can’t you just give me a pre-rolled (blank)?”

We would like them to know that we take pride in ourselves and our craft, that we do not serve fast food, and that we serve quality food as fast as we can.

They also ask: “Where’s the basil in your menu?” I would like them to know that we named our truck after our dachshund, Basil. Unfortunately, she is not so sweet.

If you didn’t own My Sweet Basil, what would you be doing?

At this moment, we can not imagine doing anything else.

What are people most surprised to learn about you?

We have degrees and many years of experience working in the restaurant industry. Cassie has a degree in food anthropology and culinary arts, and many years of management experience in the food and hospitality industry. Her passion is to educate customers in culture and food through sharing her Portuguese and Italian roots and her experience in Southern comfort and Caribbean cuisine. Vernon is a member of the Santo Domingo Pueblo, has many years of management experience in the industry, and has won several awards representing CNM and New Mexico in culinary skills. He trained with the Hyatt Corporation, furthered his experience working under James Beard chefs, and became executive chef at Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

We love to do beer or wine paired dinners. So, we are not just a food truck. We love the food truck. However, it does not end here. It’s only our first step. We dream about opening a restaurant and a line of products to feature local artists’ passions and creativity. Thank you from the deepest of our hearts for voting us into edible. (Oh, and Basil says thank you!)

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.