By Michael Nagrant
On June 9, the Chicago City Council was expected to introduce an ordinance for the legalization of food trucks. The ordinance got delayed, because Alderman Scott Waguespack needed more time to create a comprehensive bill. No matter, thanks to the work of a few diligent local chefs, including Matt Maroni (chef/owner of the recently opened Gaztro-Wagon), and Phillip Foss of Lockwood, the time of legit roving eats is almost upon us.
I’ve generally been quiet on the subject, but make no mistake, I’m a big proponent. One of the things I’ve been concerned about over the years covering the food beat is the enormous cost and sacrifice it takes to run a restaurant. There are far more talented chefs in the city of Chicago than smart, patient investors willing to endure the ups and downs of a fickle business built on razor-thin margins.
I believe one of the primary reasons we’ve ascended as a food city over this last decade is due to the availability of reasonable rents (as opposed to NYC), thus allowing chefs to take chances, experiment and build a business without burning all their operating capital on lease agreements.
With our current recession, money is tighter than ever. If we are to surge forward in our development as a world-class food spot, we need more incubator-type operations to fuel the next wave of food entrepreneurs. Just as the Green City Market has served that purpose for many successful storefront bakeries like Floriole, Bleeding Heart and Hoosier Mama Pie Co., food trucks will serve as a base of operations for the next generation of restaurants.
While we wait for that day to come, there have been a recent wave of street-food-influenced permanent storefront restaurants popping up around town. I checked out a few and it turns out some of them (and a few old spots too) are serving some of my new favorite things.
Pork Shoulder Naan-Wich: Gaztro-Wagon, 5973 North Clark, (773)942-6152
Owner Matt Maroni literally wrote the book on Chicago street food. He left his job as executive chef at the Mid-America Club and hunkered down, researched and wrote a comprehensive dossier that’s fueling the current street-food legislation. While he gets ready to unleash his mobile Twitter-updating Gaztro-Wagon on the city streets, he opened a tiny storefront on a sleepy little corner of Clark serving upscale naan-wiches. Unlike the pillowy Devon corridor tandoor-grilled naan, Maroni’s in-house fresh-baked wraps are a cross between a flaky pastry and a bubbly griddled Middle Eastern lavash. Choice stuffings include silky chicken thighs and luscious boar belly. My favorite sandwich is the glistening pork shoulder riddled with crispy bits and juicy hunks of fat pork slathered in queso fresco fondue tempered by a limey rosemary and sage herb chimichurri.
Chicken Tinga Huarache: Huaraches Dona Chio, 1547 West Elmdale, (773)878-8470
With the Gaztrowagon twenty feet around the corner, Elmdale and Clark might be the hottest street-food corner in Chicago. Though Dona Chio has been around for a while, a slice of their chicken tinga huarache is always a fresh bite of renewal. Chili-slathered chicken dusted with a snow of queso fresco and scallion perched on a freshly fried crispy corn perfume-wafting hand-patted masa crust is as good or better than anything you’ll find at the Maxwell Street Market.
Taco Koreano, Kim Chi Taco: Taco Chino, 4712 North Kimball, (773)866-1530
If you really want to trace the national street-food movement to its roots, you’d probably start with Los Angeles and Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck. When Choi started serving a Korean/Mexican hybrid of bulgogi (Korean marinated-bbq short rib) tacos, national magazine editors and drunken late-night food bingers went crazy. The hype elevated Choi to a Food and Wine Best New Chef nod. Unfortunately, if you wanted to sample Korean-bbq inspired tacos, you had to hop on a flight to California. No longer now that this tiny Albany Park strip-mall taqueria recently stepped up to the plate with juicy sesame-oil-scented pork tacos topped with a salad of chopped tangy spicy fermented cabbage (kim chi). My favorite taco here, though, is the Koreano, featuring soy-marinated steak nuggets flecked with red pepper.
Banana “Coffee Cake”: Hot Chocolate, 1747 North Damen, (773)489-1747
I’ve been working on a project with Hot Chocolate owner Mindy Segal lately which has served as a wake-up call about how lucky we are to have her. Pastry chefs are never as well-regarded or lauded as their savory counterparts. Heck, many high-end restaurants don’t even have pastry chefs anymore. As a result, few pastry experts develop long careers or have the time to hone their craft. If they survive, it’s usually by slinging cupcakes or ho-hum bakery items. Segal is one of the rare few who transcended that trend. She thinks and works at the level of most top savory chefs working in the city today. She pays attention to texture, taste, flavor and temperature in a way few ever do. While her cakes and shakes are legendary, if you really want to see why you’ve been swindled for dessert at most upscale Chicago restaurants, check out the Banana “Coffee Cake” featuring caramelized bananas, coffee and golden syrup-flavored semi-freddo, banana-muscovado sugar coffee cake, smoked almond toffee, and java-stout butterscotch. I’ll spare you the adjectives and just say it’s as complex and satisfying as anything you’ll eat all year.