Chasing Chicago’s Food Trucks

I love the food truck concept: well-made food gets placed into a moving target whose whereabouts are broadcast across social networks and socialized among the hungry masses.

Generally speaking, I “brown bag it” for lunch, but this week I chose to ignore that healthier (and cheaper) option in order to chase down some of Chicago’s meals on wheels. My effort netted me four encounters with three trucks.

On Wednesday, I hoofed it over to Madison and Wells to meet up with The Southern Mac & Cheese truck. Their model reinforces what I understand to be the secret to food truck (and business, I suppose) success: find one thing and do it exceedingly well. In The Southern’s case, they gourmet the bejesus out of one of America’s most treasured comfort foods, (duh) mac and cheese. Their truck menu changes daily, and Wednesday’s offerings were:

  • Sun Dried Tomatoes and Carmelized Onions
  • White Truffle infused Smoked Gouda
  • Italian Sausage, Giardinaira and Mozzarella
  • Bacon, Mushroom, and Blue Cheese

By the time I spotted the truck, the line was easily 20 deep and two of the day’s offerings (Sun Dried Tomatoes and White Truffle) had already sold out. That didn’t bother me; my heart had been set on Italian Sausage all along. Two of my friends were less enthusiastic. One opted to instead buy a salad at a brick-and-mortar fast food place, and the other grudgingly bought the Blue Cheese mac & cheese.

One serving is a steep $9, though that’s essentially what I’d pay for a Chipotle burrito and chips. Furthermore, the serving is deceptively big. This isn’t “lite” cuisine; it’s dense, stick-to-your-belly food.  As for my mac & cheese, the sausage was tender and subtly spiced, while the giardinaira balanced its sweetness with enough heat to draw beads of sweat from the top of my head. Once the oil from the giardinaira properly mixed in with the cheese, the blend of flavors was something just north of fantasy.

Walking back to the office, and no more than one block away from The Southern Mac & Cheese truck, was the Flirty Cupcakes truck. I’ve surrendered to the siren song of the Flirty girls a few times over the past year. Their cupcakes are light to the point of not making me feel tooguilty, and their wide variety of flavor offerings taps on every known sweet tooth (e.g. strawberry with strawberry buttercream frosting, banana chocolate with salted buttercream frosting, pineapple rum with coconut cream cheese frosting).I bought six cupcakes (two butterscotch, two strawberry, and two pineapple), using the excuse that they were “for the family.” Only four cupcakes made it home.

Yesterday, my friend Mike suggested that we get food from an empanadas truck that was going to be parked by the Willis Tower at noon. Despite the raw, cold, windiness outside, we gathered up two more friends and walked over. Not knowing where exactly to wait for the truck (their Twitter account offered no help), we waited at the northeast corner of Jackson and Franklin.  We were way off with our guess; the truck landed at Wacker, just north of Van Buren.

Apparently there were a lot more people in the know about the empanadas truck; there were already 40 people in line when we got there. As tasty as we know empanadas to be, we decided they couldn’t possibly be worth the wait, so we excused ourselves from the line.

We decided to instead go to Wow Bao on Van Buren, arguably the best fast food option on the south side of the Loop. Lettuce Entertain You restaurants are always a safe, consistent, bet.

Back to buying food on the street: The Southern Mac truck landed closer to my office today, using the corner of Van Buren and Wabash as its base of operations.

Today’s menu was almost identical to Wednesday’s, only the Blue Cheese Mac had been replaced with Grilled Vienna Beef Hot Dogs & Cheddar. And heavy cream.

What’s the harm in having one more unhealthy meal this week? I reasoned as I handed over $9 to the Southern guys. I went with the Hot Dogs & Cheddar; how could I not? I was stuffed before I was halfway finished, but the first rule of Clean Plate Club is that you always finish what’s on your plate.

As I type this, it’s 8:15 p.m., and I’m still bloated and full. My belly is distended so as to suggest pregnancy or horrible deformity. Sigh. The second rule of Clean Plate Club is that you don’t talk about Clean Plate Club.

Food trucks remind me of the “old days” of radio van hits, when listeners had to tune in to find out where the station van was going to be in order to win a valuable prize, like concert tickets or even t-shirts. There’s a certain thrill to participating in the food truck frenzy, and the food is likely better than the fast food options on the streets that the trucks park on.

Gaztro Wagon and Meatyballs, you’re next on my list.

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