10 August 2011

Chicago Food Trucks

Food truck fever has been sweeping the US by storm. Whether it's down to a general revival of street food, a hankering after simpler and cheaper fare in these economically challenging times, or just the plain novelty-factor, it seems no city in the US is without a cavalcade of trucks serving food to its hungry residents. If you can think of a type of food, you'll probably find a truck that serves it.

I love the idea of food trucks; they democratise food by allowing easy access to a huge range of cuisines, which can be sampled in several locations across a city. So when I was in Chicago recently, I made sure to check out some of the city's food truck offerings.

The mobile food scene is a relative newcomer to Chicago, but more and more food trucks are now appearing across the city. However, in Chicago there's a major obstacle that food trucks have to face: it is currently against the law to prepare food in a truck and serve it on the city's streets.

Yup, that's right. In the Second City it is currently against the law to cook food in a mobile kitchen and sell it to someone on the street; everything has to be prepared and packaged in a licensed kitchen beforehand. You cannot so much as slice a tomato and put it on one of the city's famous hot dogs on board a Chicago food truck.

It's a huge restriction, which limits the whole appeal (for me, at least) of food trucks. I mean part of their raison d'être is to serve freshly cooked food. If you can't cook it on-site, you're effectively turning your business into a meals-on-wheels service with a Twitter account. Chicago food trucks are also handicapped by not being allowed to park in the same location for more than 2 hours or park within 200ft of a restaurant, and are not permitted to serve food after 10pm.

In spite of these draconian restrictions, there are plenty of delicious foods that can still be served a few hours after they are made. So, here's a glimpse of a small handful of food trucks that drive round Chicago:

Tamalli Space Charros (Twitter: @tamalespace101)
This totally bonkers, but brilliant, food truck serves piping hot tamales. The Tamalli Space Charros is run by three friends who worked in the restaurant industry: Jesus, Pepe, and Omar. Inspired by luchador films (a classic genre of Mexican cinema that involves wrestling/sci-fi/horror) and the avant-garde stridentist movement of the 1920s, the trio set up what is perhaps Chicago's best-known food truck.
Tamales are of course a classic Mexican dish made from masa (corn dough) filled with a variety of things such as meat and vegetables. They are typically wrapped in corn husks and steamed. This sort of preparation means that tamales don't really suffer in flavour or texture if they have to hang around for a short while before being eaten, and as such they are the perfect sort of food to be served from a Chicago food truck.
The Tamalli Space Charros serves a variety of tamales and all are priced at $7 for two. All are served by a scary-looking, but friendly mask-wearing luchador and there's a terrific sense of fun around the truck. The tamales are outstanding too. I tried a "picturesque tamal de puerco", which consisted of a wonderful Yucatecan-style roast pork filled tamale with tomato-habanero sauce and purple pickled onions. There are five other tamales available, including their "complicate tamal de carne" made with flank steak and a 27-ingredient Oaxacan black mole sauce.
Tamalli Space Charros on Urbanspoon

The Southern Mac and Cheese (Twitter: @thesouthernmac)
This mobile food van is part of Bucktown's The Southern restaurant and bar. It serves a variety of mac and cheese priced at $5 for a small portion and $9 for a large one.
The blue cheese, bacon, and mushroom mac cheese tasted fine, if a little heavy on the blue cheese. Much better, though, was the white truffle, grilled asparagus and white cheddar, which had a deliciously pungent white truffle aroma to it, while the grilled asparagus was crunchy and fresh. However, both suffered from being pre-packaged and the pasta was overcooked and congealed as a result. Being pre-packed also means you don't get that lovely crisp breadcrumb topping that any good mac cheese should have.
Southern Mac Truck on Urbanspoon

Haute Sausage (Twitter: @hautesausage)
Hailing from South Africa, Rich Levy created the Haute Sausage food truck to serve a variety of African and Middle Eastern inspired sausages. For $7 you can choose from flavours such as bison sausage with blackened corn; beef and lamb sausage with chakalaka; and Moroccan lamb, all served in a bun.

The Meatyballs Mobile (Twitter: @fossfoodtrucks)
Phillip Foss used to be Executive Chef at Chicago's plush Palmer House Hilton Hotel. He gave it all up, however, to start a food truck offering meatball sub sandwiches and double entendres galore. The sandwiches range in price from $7 to $9 and you can try things such as "BBQ balls" made with pulled pork, or "schweddy balls" made with spicy Tunisian-style lamb and chicken meatballs. There are now three Meatyballs trucks rolling around Chicago, and Foss has also opened a permanent BYOB restaurant called EL Ideas.
Meatyballs Mobile on Urbanspoon

Sweet Ride (Twitter: @sweetridechi)
This Chicago food truck started rather opportunistically when owner Lupita Kuri had thought of the name in her sleep. On waking she Googled it and found out that it was a cupcake food truck in San Francisco. She called them and, rather fortuitously, it turned out they were looking to sell their business. So Sweet Ride Chicago was born, and their hot-pink converted mail van can be spotted around town selling cupcakes that are baked fresh each day. A box of 3 delicious mini-cupcakes costs $5 and you can choose from the usual suspect of flavours (sorry about the photo above, I was a little too enthusiastic in carrying the cupcakes back to the park).

It's clear that Chicago is at a major disadvantage when it comes to food trucks, and the sooner vendors can start cooking on-site, the better. Last year a proposal was put before the City Council to change the food truck laws, but nothing seems to have come of it. However, there is a glimmer of hope. The city's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has tentatively outlined plans to allow food trucks to prepare food on board, but whether the notoriously murky City Council approves it is another matter entirely. So it could still be a while before you're eating a freshly made taco from a food truck in Chi-town.

It's such a shame the city can't embrace the food truck scene the way places like New York, Austin, LA, and San Francisco have. Chicago is rapidly becoming a must-visit destination for food lovers, yet its street food offerings are sadly lacking. Until the laws change, it seems the Chicago food truck phenomena will always be stuck in first gear.


  1. Food trucks are such fun. I really, really think you should visit Portland, Oregon. You would be in food truck and foodie heaven (the restaurants are divine, as well as the food trucks). p.s. Thank you for posting about the fish & chips at Fiskeriet in Oslo - we're going to try them soon. I was curious why a city on the sea was missing fish & chips. So thanks!

  2. Why don't we have food trucks in Oslo?

  3. Good question, Oslovert! I guess there just isn't the demand here to make the economics of food trucks work. The food trucks I've seen in the US tend to congregate near offices at lunchtimes, which is obviously a key market for them. Here in Norway, office workers tend to bring a packed lunch or eat in the canteen. Also, food trucks in the US are relatively cheap, which is one of their key attractions. I don't think we'd see the same low prices in Norway.

    I’m not holding my breath, but I for one would love to see food trucks on the streets of Oslo.