Friday, January 28, 2011
Chicago Food Trucks
There has been a lot of press in the local news lately about an initiative by several chefs to lobby the Chicago City Council to modify the city's health laws for mobile food trucks. Unlike many cities nationwide, Chicago's existing restaurant codes prohibit any kind of non-"bricks and mortar" restaurant within the city limits; that is, no vans or trucks with a food preparation kitchen inside. Many chefs elsewhere have embraced the food truck concept in the last year or two as a low-cost way to start a retail food business without having to sink a large amount of capital or overhead into a traditional restaurant; naturally, interested dining entrepreneurs here are fearful of missing out on this trend without the aforementioned legislative change. Rather than wait out the notoriously neurotic and incestuous city council, a few plucky cooks have found an interim way around the restrictions by preparing the food for sale in an approved kitchen, then loading it up in their vehicles for sale around town. It is these trailblazers that caught my attention and caused me to devise a plan to make a run downtown yesterday to sample their wares. The main problem with this scheme was, you might guess, the weather. Why, who wouldn't think that January is the ideal month to spend an afternoon walking around a Midwest city's streets buying food from vehicles while completely exposed to the elements with no place indoors to actually eat what you buy? As always, dear readers, I refuse to let sanity come between me and the desire to gather material for a blog posting. So, with thermal underwear in tow, I headed out into the 25-degree, intermittent snow shower miasma for some tasty vittles.
My first destination was the corner of Dearborn and Monroe, trying to locate the Meatyballs roach coach, which I happened to find across the street from the Inland Steel building. Meatyballs began just a few months ago when local chef Phillip Foss (well-renowned for his work at Lockwood, a fine dining restaurant) left his old job over a dispute with his bosses and decided to attempt to reach the masses with gourmet meatball sandwiches. The chef himself was there to greet me (looked like he was working solo) and give me a quick rundown of his offerings for the day, which included among others a traditional meatball sandwich, a Thai version (turkey, coconut milk, chiles), ricotta balls for the vegetarians out there, and, um, Rocky Mountain oysters (creatively named "Not Yo' Daddy's Balls"). I opted for the "Bouilla-Balls" sandwich ($9), a nice combo of crab/brandade (salt cod)/potato balls in a mild smoked paprika sauce with pieces of zucchini and peppers for texture, all on a very good baguette. For an extra $2, I had him throw in a small bag of truffle chips. Brown bag in hand, I wandered a couple of blocks north on Dearborn and managed to duck into a Starbucks-type coffee shop, where $3 bought me a bottled water, stool spot by the window to watch people dodge snowflakes, a semi-warm place to eat, and a restroom when the time came. All in all, my sandwich was excellent, the truffle chips not bad (mostly good, a few were soggy), and a fine start to the day's excursion was declared.
My 2nd of 3 stops was to be the Merchandise Mart (along the north bank of the river, between Orleans and Franklin), which was about a 10-block walk away from my current location. Given that I'd be consuming more than my usual allotment of lunch calories in order to get the full food truck story, I figured that a nice wintry trek would do me some good, so off I went. The truck I was seeking this time (Gaztro-Wagon) is run by Chef Matt Maroni, whose specialty is naan (Indian-style flatbread) sandwiches. Unfortunately, I had some trouble tracking the van down at first. For those of you not familiar with Chicago buildings, someone telling you to "meet them at the Merchandise Mart" is a little like saying "meet me at Kentucky". I made 2 long loops around the behemoth monolith (which was, in fact, the largest building in the world at some point - thanks, Wikipedia) before falling back on the warm glow of my iPhone and Gaztro-Wagon's Twitter account, which had posted a few minutes prior a change in truck location (now near Franklin and Hubbard a couple of blocks away due to lack of parking). Ah, this was a cold lesson in one potential drawback of eating at food trucks; namely, they don't always stay in the same place like Burger King does. The extra walking was worth the effort, however - I was able to snag a Frisee Aux Lardons sandwich ($10), my 2nd choice after they'd run out of the lamb cheesesteak I'd singled out on the menu (apparently, I was lucky to get even that as the chef posted on Twitter that they were completely out of food less than an hour later). This time, I hunkered down in the Merchandise Mart food court with my naan-wich, which contained pork belly (the lardons), frisee (a type of endive or chicory), and grilled onions, topped with a mustard sauce. Although very good, my preference thus far was Chef Foss's seafood sandwich (not that I'd be averse to doing significant additional research come the warmer months).
Last, but not least, was dessert. For the final course, I hopped on the Blue Line L Train and headed over to the University of Illinois-Chicago campus to find Flirty Cupcakes, a "bakery on wheels" as it were parked near Morgan and Harrison (see Photo #1 above). The nice ladies inside the blue van sold me a sampler 4-pack of mini-cupcakes (see Photo #2 above), including red velvet, Paradise Island (pineapple rum cake with coconut frosting), turtle chocolate, and traditional chocolate, plus a full-size Curious George (banana chocolate with caramel frosting) cupcake, all for about $10. Since it was starting to get late, I decided to start walking back to my car and wait until I returned to the Commissary to eat these delectable treats. By the time I completed the 1.5-mile jaunt to the parking garage and drove home, the frosting on them had solidified in the cold weather so that the impression was that of eating solid butter at first, which was something of a turn-off for me (even I have my limits). Later that evening, when Mrs. Hackknife and I split the remaining samples, the frosting had softened nicely at room temperature, creating a much more pleasant cupcake consumption experience (that is to say, they were absolutely awesome).
At press time, there are several other local food trucks (tacos, mac and cheese, etc.) that are in the works for when Spring arrives. Check back here for the latest on the burgeoning mobile cuisine scene in Chicago (I've got more work to do).....