Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

life on the street

Every great city has a reputation for having great food. Chicago is the epicenter of a culinary revolution in the US, thanks to chefs like Grant Achatz (Alinea/Next/The Aviary), Graham Elliot (graham elliot/Graham’wich), Stephanie Izard (The Girl and the Goat), Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless (Topolobampo/Frontera/Xoco), Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia/Cafe Spiaggia/The Purple Pig), and Paul Kahan and Brian Huston (Blackbird/avec/The Publican), among others. They create art with food and bring us pleasure that few things in life can rival.

Any city with an international culture like Chicago’s has incredible ethnic food to go with its diverse ethnic population and neighborhoods. Humboldt Park’s Polish food makes the Polack in me wonder why we haven’t taken the 72 bus out there yet. Pilsen delivered a bit of a road block to us in the form of an allergic reaction, but the food we did experience was authentic and amazing. There’s more for us to try in this city, and we’re both looking forward to those experiences, of which there will be many.

But we aren’t just looking for fine dining or neighborhood restaurants here. One of my favorite types of food is the kind served off the back of a truck.

First, I have to explain something. Chicago has an ordinance within the city limits that prevents food trucks from preparing food on site. Therefore, each truck must prepare the food in their own respective USDA-inspected kitchens (a couple are actually satellite options for restaurants, like the Southern Mac and Cheese truck and the More Cupcakes truck) and then it can go out to the masses. There’s a street-level movement circulating to repeal the ban so trucks can cook and serve curbside. Until then, we have to deal with it.

My first experience with a food truck happened by coincidence in Bakersfield, California, where I lived for a little while, about 3 years ago. I was hungry after work and nothing sounded good. I was driving through a neighborhood between my apartment and Mt. Vernon Road, when I saw a taco truck in the parking lot of a convenience store. I stopped and ordered a pair of steak tacos and a Coke, which set me back all of four bucks. They were the best tacos I’d ever eaten, and they were simple: carne asada steak dressed with diced onions, cilantro, and queso fresco on a pair of warmed white corn tortillas, wrapped in tin foil.

Michonne kept telling me about this cupcake truck, Flirty Cupcakes, that would park every Wednesday night in Printer’s Row and serve. I’d always wanted to try it, so one night after I moved in, we went. I ordered the McDreamy (chocolate cupcake filled with white cream and topped with a white frosting and chocolate chips) and it was one of the best I’d ever had. I’m not huge on cupcakes, but this was exceptional.

There are literally almost two dozen trucks in Chicago (last count was 23, though Flirty Cupcakes has two vehicles), and I’ve only tried four of them (Flirty, More, Adelita Tortas–killer choriqueso torta, and one I’ll review shortly), but one of them may have taken the best street food title away from that unnamed taco truck in California. It’s called the Tamalli Space Charros truck. A tamale truck run by a guy wearing a Mexican wrestler mask (think Rey Mysterio) and a sombrero. It won the “Best Food Truck” award in the “Best of Chicago” issue of Chicago Magazine, and they earned that prize, damn it. Loud mariachi music, the guy in the mask and sombrero, and the smoothest, most perfectly spiced tamale I’ve ever had was all it took for me. It was just a Yucatan-style pork tamale in a yellow corn shuck with a tomato-habanero sauce (which actually made it better), but the simplicity, flavor balance, and perfect texture made it the best street food I’d had yet.

If you live in Chicago, you need to find these trucks. They’re small businesses that depend on regular people like us to stay afloat. (They meet every Tuesday from 4-7 at the CB2 parking lot at North and Clybourn, and again on Thursday at Ethyl’s Beer and Wine Dive on Van Buren in the West Loop, off the Racine Blue Line stop. They also post their regular weekly schedules on Facebook, Twitter, and their websites.) And from what I’ve heard from other people online through Twitter and other feeds, these trucks are at the top of the game in the Chicago food revolution. If you aren’t from here but want to experience real Chicago food and culture, go to the Michelin-starred restaurants and tourist traps, of course, but find the food trucks too. If anything, you won’t remember the mean waitress at Ed Debevic’s or the seafood at L2O. You’ll remember the guy in the mask and the sombrero who served you the best street food in Chicago.

-Adam

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