For someone who traffics in sweets, Lily Bui is surprisingly tiny and thin. It’s an occupational advantage, though, since there isn’t much room to maneuver inside her food truck, Sin City Snoballs and Snacks, which can be found most days parked on the northern edge of the Las Vegas Premium Outlets on Civic Center Drive.
“Try this,” she says, her brown eyes smiling expectantly as she holds out a small pink box. “You’re going to love it!” What’s not to love about a half-dozen freshly baked mini-eclairs drizzled with homemade mango, strawberry and chocolate sauces? “Good, right?” she nods, as I sample a mango nugget. Clearly, it pleases her to please her customers.
Bui didn’t grow up cooking or dreaming of future chefdom. Her Vietnamese mother wouldn’t let her or her six siblings help in the kitchen of the Seattle home where they were raised after emigrating to the U.S. as postwar “boat people.” But the family’s culinary culture had a strong influence on Bui nonetheless: “My mom had a garden, and she was used to the old ways, where you went to the market to buy your meat or main dish, and the rest came from your garden. We’d pick out herbs and veggies, and she’d stir fry it all together, and that was our meal for the night.” As an adult who hadn’t taken to college, when Bui thought about what she wanted to do with her life, food kept coming up. She moved to Las Vegas, got a culinary degree and went to work on the Strip. Her background had blessed Bui with a gift for balancing flavors, she says, giving the example of a favorite donut she now makes at Sin City: ginger-sugar topped with strawberry sauce.
Owning a snow-cone truck wasn’t Bui’s dream, either. That idea came from her partner (both personal and professional), Donald Frantum. A business consultant who specializes in the IT sector, Frantum missed Baltimore-style snowballs from his native Maryland when he moved west and found only Hawaiian shaved ice. After Bui had the couple’s first child, she began to feel restless staying at home. So Frantum made a suggestion: What if he managed a snow-cone truck business behind the scenes, and she ran it day-to-day, handling the food preparation and service up front? Bui took it on with verve — but she got bored with just snow-cones. Soon after Sin City launched in 2012, she was experimenting with other fare: pastry, ice-cream cookie sandwiches and so-called Creamy Dreamies. Bui’s signature product, these consist of shaved ice folded into ice cream and topped with (or floated in) naturally flavored syrups and sodas. A popular example: the Super Awesome Rootbeer Float, a vanilla ice cream-snow-cone mashup drenched in a blend of root beer, cola and birch beer flavoring.
The food truck business didn’t live up to its initial promise, Frantum says, but Lily’s creative product diversification — which includes a winter menu allowing her to stay open while other ice truck owners hibernate — helped Sin City survive the increasing squeeze that restaurant owners and public policy put on mobile food operations. Frantum recalls the initial excitement about food trucks at events, whose planners evolved to demand higher prices for fewer returns. “We were really fortunate when (shopping mall developer) Simon (Property Group) reached out to us in October,” Bui says. Having been an anchor food truck at the Premium Outlets for more than six months, Sin City is exploring the possibility of opening a permanent kiosk at the mall. Maybe in Summerlin, too. “I’m glad we started small and simple,” Bui says. “And now, we have room to grow.”