I'm In With The In Crowd...

I've never been one of the cool kids, ever since I started school at the ripe old age of five. I've always marched to my own drum, been a little bit nerdy, and generally eschewed things that were popular solely because too many other people liked them. Take Harry Potter or Twilight for example; my logic is that if they appeal to so many people on a broad level, then I probably won't like them. However, there has been one insanely popular trend taking the city by storm lately, and I've been by turns jealous and bitter that I haven't been able to participate -- food trucks.

Mobile restaurants serving affordable, upscale street food have been sweeping the country lately, so much so that the Food Network even had a reality show last season dedicated to the phenomenon, The Great Food Truck Race. The trend has been slow to flourish in Chicago the way that it's taken off in cities like Portland and L.A., largely due to the stringent guidelines imposed on them by the city government. Chicago food truck operators are not allowed to cook on their trucks, and therefore must prepare all their food in advance, load it onto their trucks, and not unwrap or alter it in any way before they serve it to customers. Furthermore, they are not allowed to park within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Still, despite these restrictions, a dedicated cadre of chefs is using Twitter and other social media platforms to gain a cult following around the city.

Given my interest in the local food scene, I've been dying to give one of these trucks a try, but I've been thwarted so far by virtue not working in the Loop, where most of the trucks can be found catering to the office crowds at lunchtime. They can also be found at Chicago's ubiquitous summer street festivals, which I am loathe to attend, and at sporadic meet-ups that either seem to fall on days when it is a) miserably hot, b) raining buckets, or c) I have other plans. Just when I was starting to think that the mobile dining experience was not in the cards for me, however, the stars aligned and the trucks came to me instead of me having to hunt them down.

This afternoon, I got copied on an email from our marketing department that a group of the city's best known food trucks were staging a flash mob in front of the museum! Even though I wasn't hungry, I grabbed my purse and booked it across the street to seize on this unexpected opportunity. Meatyballs (a truck featuring gourmet meatball sandwiches), Haute Sausage, Taquero Fusion, Sweet Miss Givings Bakery (whose to-die-for scones I've sampled at the French Market in the past), and a couple cupcake vendors in whom I wasn't interested were all there, along with perhaps the best-known truck in the city, the Gaztro-Wagon.

Since it was the end of the day, I decided to turn the food truck flash mob into my dinner. I picked up a lamb gyro "naanwich" from the Gaztro-Wagon and a cajeta brownie from Taquero Fusion and took them back to the air-conditioned comfort of my office for a late-afternoon nosh. The naanwich (i.e. a sandwich nestled inside a piece of naan, an Indian flatbread not unlike a pita) was okay, but not exceptional. I felt like the description of it as a gyro was a bit misleading; it was more a pile of tender, braised lamb meat without even the expected Greek-inspired seasonings, topped with onions and tomatoes. I was expecting tzatziki sauce, but there was none to be found. Instead, the sandwich was dripping with its own grease.

I think most of the sandwich's flaws (aside from my unmet expectations about its resemblance to a gyro) can be traced back to the fact that Chicago's food trucks must prepare all their food in advance and keep it hot for customers. If they were allowed to cook it fresh on the spot and add sauces and condiments on demand, I think the quality would be much better.

My cajeta (dulce de leche caramel made from goats' milk) brownie was also a bit of a let down. It looked delicious when I took it out of the package, but it was dense and had a bit of a mass-produced flavor to it that I wasn't expecting from a mom-and-pop outfit. Basically, the confection was a Latin-influenced turtle brownie, and I actually think the ones I made from a Ghirardelli mix last week were tastier, not to mention more cost effective.

I don't know if it's all the hype that's been surrounding the burgeoning Chicago street food scene that created unrealistic expectations in me for the actual experience, or if the food really could be a lot better if chefs were allowed to prepare it to order inside the truck. The current set-up had the advantage of being quick; at the very least I was able to get my food super-fast and dash back inside to escape the 100 degree temperature. I would gladly trade convenience for flavor though.

Still, I'm very excited that I finally got to experience the food truck scene myself, and try some of the food for myself. Now that I know that I'm not missing out on much, I won't grouse quite so much about being trapped outside the Loop at lunchtime. I'll be able to sit back and watch the food truck trend unfold in Chicago with a bit of knowledge under my belt, but I think I'll wait and see if the city reduces the restrictions on how the chefs may prepare their food before I make another concentrated effort to track one of the trucks down. I'd certainly be open to sampling food from the other outfits cruising the city should I find myself in another serendipitous situation where the trucks come to me, but I don't think I'd go out of my way to locate them as long as the existing laws are in place...

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