trailer food diaries

Exploring Chicago's offerings: A less than hospitable environment for trailer food

Exploring Chicago's offerings: A less than hospitable environment for trailer food

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Cupcake from Gia Via Sweets Photo by Tiffany Harelik
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5411 Empanadas food truck. Photo by Tiffany Harelik
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Banh Mi from Duck n Roll food truck. Photo by Tiffany Harelik
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Chorizo mac from The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck. Photo by Tiffany Harelik
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Tamales from the Tamle Spaceship. Photo by Tiffany Harelik
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The author standing next to The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck. Photo by Tiffany Harelik
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany_Chicago food trucks_jan 2012_cupcake
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany_Chicago food trucks_jan 2012_empanadas
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany_Chicago food trucks_jan 2012_bahn mi
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany_Chicago food trucks_jan 2012_mackncheese
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany_Chicago food trucks_jan 2012_tamales
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany_Chicago food trucks_jan 2012_mackncheese_tiff

Chicago is known to many as a food mecca, but that isn’t necessarily the case in terms of trailer food. Overcoming city-mandated regulations and harsh winters have left only about 20 fully branded trucks roaming the streets this month. Luckily, I was able to connect with a few gems while I was there last week.

The food truck trend has only recently surfaced in the Chicago foodie scene (within the last year or so), and it's already being thwarted by city regulations. One challenge Chicago food trucks face? A requirement to cook offsite. This means the owner must rent a commissary or kitchen close by in order to cook the food and place it in warmers in the truck before driving out to their location. The local perception of food truck fare can be "less than fresh."

But my recent experience proved this a misconception — I enjoyed literally everything I ate. My only complaint would be that most of the trucks ran out of food before I could try them all. I’m sure there are business-savvy reasons for this, but man I was bummed more than a few times to find a truck serving "what they had left," as opposed to their best sellers. Stock up, guys!

Other challenges for food truck owners include finding parking and then tweeting the location. These trucks do not have a regular stationary spots; they are truly mobile, roaming units that seek out a place to land for the lunch hour. 

The best resource I found to easily locate the trucks in real-time was the Chicago Food Truck Finder, which also shows the user how far away they are from each truck.

Duck n Roll was my favorite street-side sandwich due to great flavor and size. Yes, size. The sandwiches are long and skinny on fresh bread, making for easy bites and no big mess. It’s the perfect size and shape for anyone in business attire who needs to eat and run. I tried the red chicken curry banh mi, as well as the tofu. Both were excellent, but the curry was my personal preference. It contained chicken, coconut milk, cilantro, sugar, salt and sprouty greens with a red curry paste made of shrimp paste, dry red chili, garlic, lemongrass, salt, shallot, galangal, kaffir lime peel and pepper, which gave it an excellent flavor profile. 

Where other cities like Austin and Portland are chock-full of Airstreams and Wells Cargos, many of the trucks I saw in Chicago were Mercedes adorned with well-designed branding identities. Those vendors not in Mercedes were still equally as sophisticated featuring quality design concepts. In other words, no one was dragging a spirited trailer through the Chicago lunch rush. 

All in all, there is great hope among the existing Chicago vendors that they will be able to continue growing their business and overcoming challenges, all in the name of pursuing the American Dream. Stay tuned for more updates on food truck stories across the country.