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Feature Fri May 27 2011
The Chicago food truck debate has been approaching a fever pitch within the last few weeks, between Heather Shouse's recent book and the National Restaurant Association show last weekend. It occurred to me, ever-present as this issue has become, maybe it's time for me to start caring about it. And then it occurred to me that, while I tend to offer blanket support for anything that reduces the Byzantine nature of Chicago's food laws, I have no experience with which to back up my food truck support. And then it occurred to me that that was kind of...strange.
I do not now, nor have I ever, considered myself a professional, investigative journalist. And I allow myself a certain amount of leeway on knowledge regarding Chicago food issues, if for not other reason than the sheer volume of them. Foie gras, dogs on patios, trans-fats, CSAs, croissant-gate. I mean honestly, who can keep track of it all? Food trucks have been around for a while now, yes, but I realized I hadn't actually seen one in person until about four weeks ago. And herein were sown the seeds of my food truck doubt -- if I haven't even experienced one of these things, is it really deserving of my full-throated, unquestioning support? Does it really matter?
I know what you're thinking. Blasphemy! Of course it matters! Food trucks are about a freedom from the strictures of where and when we enjoy our food! They're the vanguard of the gourmet avant-garde, bringing their edgy, adventurous wares directly to the skeptical diner and broadening horizons from the collar counties to the lakeshore! They offer young chefs an opportunity to experiment with the model! But is that all really, you know, true?
Claim by claim, I would offer the following rebuttal: Food trucks serve lunch and dinner -- it's not like they're out there offering commuter breakfast or late-night snacks (though THAT would be awesome). Food trucks tend to hug the contours of the prevailing trends as closely as any other struggling small-scale eatery -- the most prevalent mobile food is cupcakes, for goodness sake. It's not like they're doing pre-packaged molecular gastronomy for the masses in those re-purposed delivery vehicles. And food trucks aren't exactly making inroads into the city's food deserts, which is where they'd perhaps have the greatest impact and provide the most welcome service -- they tend to congregate in the Loop, or in a few select north neighborhoods. (This notable exception isn't exactly a food truck by mainstream standards, though one could argue it's must closer to the mobile food mission than its trendy peers.) And in terms of upending the model and mitigating the risk of novel food, when the bi-coastal asian food taco trend hit town, we got the newly remodeled Del Seoul storefront, not copycat Kogi and Kimchi Taco trucks.
All right. Let's say that all of that is a given. Food trucks should still be right up the alley of a young, cuisine-conscious, working professional such as myself, right? Well therein lies the other rub. Does anyone else have a hard time actually finding these things? I don't know about you, but my experience with trying to actually eat from a food truck can be categorized into three, consistent scenarios:
- I pass a food truck in my car, en route to someplace I need to be, without either time or parking access to stop.
- I pass a food truck on foot, but already have my pre-packed home-lunch with me, or am en route to meet someone for dinner or lunch plans I've already made elsewhere.
- I am on foot, without pre-packaged home-lunch, hungry and ready to go! And then can't find the food truck.
The third case was my experience last week in trying to search out the Southern Mac and Cheese truck. I was working downtown, had deliberately not brought a lunch from home, and after 20-30 minutes of scouring Twitter and the web schedules of several likely candidates, it seemed the Southern truck would be descending upon Lower Michigan by the Wrigley building right around lunch time. Perfect!
Now, part of my struggle here arises, no doubt, from the fact that I am smartphone-deficient, and until two weeks ago when I started trying to track a truck down in earnest, Twitter-invisible. So after leaving my office, I had no way of knowing if a more specific location was detailed (though that didn't seem to be the case), and no ability to make sure I had correctly remembered the location stated. So I marched over and wandered around Lower Michigan between the river and Grand a while, and other than a faint cheese scent in the air, and a mail truck which I began decisively walking towards until it came into better focus, I found nothing. No truck. And more frustrating, no lunch.
Finally, earlier this week, I finally caught the Gaztro-Wagon. It was a spur of the moment decision -- I was on my way to my dinner plans, and had already had a large late-afternoon snack, but I was undeterred by my lack of hunger when I saw it parked on Fullerton, a block or so west of the Red Line. So I sidled up and ordered me a pork cheeks and sweet potato hash naan-wich. It was cold, I was the only person in line so there was no service- or wait-time. And I will say, being handed a brown paper bag full of toasty, anticipated goodness goes a long way towards shifting a cranky attitude.
Working the window, Matt Maroni told me that people often sit on the curb or any available patch of grass when it's nice (which it wasn't), or just take their bounty home -- which is what I did. And for me, home was 9 train stops away, plus a 5-minute walk from the CTA to my front door. The naan-wich survived the trip well, and the foil wrapper was still warm when I peeled it back to reveal its contents. A warm, doughy smell of yeasty bread and pot roast washed over me. And this was exactly how the Chipotle burrito-sized 'wich tasted. Like pot roast on bread. No, not terrible. But good enough for its $9.99 sticker price? Sigh.
Don't get me wrong. It was a warm, juicy sandwich, great for a cold evening. But the flavor was disappointingly one-note -- I kept re-reading the label and trying to find any discernible hint of the leeks and fennel the hash supposedly contained. The bread seemed like naan in name only, reminding much more strongly of a Cosi flatbread than of the strong, stretchy fluffiness of its namesake. It was all just, well, fine. The next day, I grabbed a shawarma schrock from Nesh, a shoebox-sized Mediterranean spot a few blocks east of the Fullerton Red Line. And for about half the price (I had a coupon, but the normal ticket would be about $7.50), I got a comparably sized sandwich with infinitely more complex flavors -- seared, juicy steak enrobed in creamy tzatziki and hummus, counterposed against the crunch of red cabbage and dill pickes, all wrapped in a thinner but more textually layered flatbread. And I didn't even have to check Twitter.
My point here is not to capsize the argument that Chicago food preparation and serving laws are unfair and restrictive to food trucks, and deserving of reform. Chicago food laws in general are unduly conservative and overly suspicious of anything that stretches the legal expectations of the norm, to the detriment of all sorts of well-meaning food service professionals and their constituents (CSA shares might be terrorist bombs! We don't understand shared-use kitchens!). And while the recent tour bus episode of Top Chef Masters doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, I say if people want to cook on a truck, let 'em -- or at the very least make it easier for them to try.
For me, though, food trucks raise as many questions as they attempt to address -- and few others seem to be asking them in their place. What's the carbon footprint on these things? Is it better, environmentally speaking, to operate out of a fossil fuel-dependent vehicle than a small store-front? And how much does the price of gas impact the price of the food, anyway? (Should we anticipate a fuel surcharge, similar to Chicago taxis, when gas prices climb above a certain point?) What is the virtue of departing from the street food ethos of serving the working people, in favor of a higher-end market segment? Who's really being served? What is the real service, the real, worth-fighting-the-man, civic service these trucks are providing to us, as a city?
It may be a worthy fight, but I'm not sure the grievances of food trucks' particular struggle outweigh those of entire neighborhoods all over the city (and especially those neighborhoods that see the least food truck traffic), of city employees caught in the vortex of the incoming administration's churn, or even some of the Chicago food issues that continue to plague our neighbors and our children? I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid yet, I guess -- and I'm not convinced I would be even if I had easy, dependable access to the nearest Kool-Aid truck. Not without a heaping side of skepticism.