“It’s the fastest growing food industry in the world,” says Ricky Raschillo of Glencoe, chef/owner of Valor, an American-French bistro and Open Table Diner’s Choice darling. Two years ago, Raschillo struck out with Culinary Gangster, an epicurean food truck that is garnering a paparazzi following on its own.
In 2012, the food truck industry made $650 million and, at the time, was projected to make $2.7 billion in 2017.
“Just like people don’t want to go to stores anymore and want to buy everything on the internet, that is the wave of the future for restaurants, too,” says Raschillo.
Even staples like Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King are busy building out food trucks to get away from brick and mortar. The transition makes sense. Once the expense of the truck and licensing is handled, sometimes upward of $150,000, there is no more rent, no more overhead, no more burn numbers.
“If it snows a foot in Chicago on a Tuesday and Valor doesn’t open, I lose $4,000 dollars,” says Raschillo of the dreaded “burn number” under which restaurants operate. “Then on Wednesday I have to make $8,000. It’s a domino effect.”
Whereas on Gangster, Raschillo stacks the deck by rotating out his chefs from his James Beard-member restaurant so that the outstretched arm serving up your gourmet burger in the park happens to attach to a classically trained chef.
From chilled lobster to insane grilled cheese sandwiches served up on thick-cut Challah bread, pound for pound customers are getting more than a mouthful from these rolling gourmands.
“It’s become a prestigious thing, the food truck,” says Raschillo, who serves upward of 175 people in a four-hour window per night. “On a Friday (or) Saturday night at Valor I average the same,” says Raschillo. With wait times only 10 minutes, this seems like a no-brainer.
Customers line up in double digits for Raschillo’s popcorn cauliflower (trust me, unputdownable), made with rice flour in a tempura batter, tossed with an aioli, black sesame seeds, and scallions ($11). Bet you can’t eat just one! It just so happens to be a gluten-free option, as well. His juicy burgers are always cooked to medium. Try the gyro burger made with prime beef, Kronos gyro meat, red onion, sliced cucumber, and traditional Tzatziki sauce on a toasted brioche bun ($13), and try not to swallow your fingers.
Here are 13 other food trucks to watch for at the next street fair or Food Truck Friday, all serving up drool-worthy eats that will change the way you think about “fast food.”
Rachel and Benoit Angullo of Wilmette met at the New Orleans fine-dining stalwart Commander’s Palace. The classically trained duo struck out on their own in 2011 with their first food truck, which eventually led to a brick-and-mortar location in the Big Easy. They repeated this process when they moved back to Chicago’s northern suburbs to start a family and now operate two food trucks and two restaurants, the second located in Evanston. All four brands operate under name La Cocinita, which specializes in Venezuelan-inspired street food in prices ranging from $4-$5 for starters to $10-$11 for entrees. While the meats and the salsas are prepped at their restaurant, all plates are prepared fresh on the truck. Try their Arepas Venezuelan made of (gluten-free) cornmeal patties and stuffed with succulent beef brisket, queso fresco, pico de gallo, and cremita seasoned sour cream (2/$11). Their Caribbean bowl is a mouthwatering combination of juicy brisket, black beans, and Latin America’s ubiquitous staple, plantains ($11). “We are trying to appeal to people who are open to trying new cuisines and also to those who are just interested in having some really great tacos,” says Angullo.
Sarah Weitz and Sam Barron wanted to name their place after their beloved city, which just happens to have been called by its Native American founders “The Stinky Onion,” the actual meaning of the name “Chicago.” Wanting to step it up, the duo chose The Fat Shallot to indicate to their diners that they would be getting a mouthful. “We have big, messy, delicious sandwiches. We want to make sure that portions are big and that no one leaves hungry,” says Weitz. The couple struck out with their truck five years ago, expanded to a second after year two, and now also have a space at Revival Food Hall in the Loop. Their Truffle BLT is a towering beauty stacked high with bacon, avocado, arugula, tomato, and a truffle aioli on a thick-cut Texas (Challah) toast ($10). It is served with thick-cut fries sprinkled with homemade rosemary salt and smothered in truffle aioli ($5). “Literally everything is made on the truck,” says Weitz, who operates her truck 365 days a year. Gluten allergy? Not a problem. Any sandwich can be turned into a bowl. On any given day, the truck offers a variety of four sandwiches ($7-$10) and three sides ($3-$5). “Just gourmet sandwiches, which we believe will be the best version you will ever have,” says Weitz.
From his Toasty Cheese truck, Greg Barnhart and his crackerjack team out of Schaumburg create gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on artisan breads replete with quality meats and fresh, locally grown produce. From the classic to grilled cheese made with house bacon, ribeye steak, chicken, poblano peppers, and applewood smoked bacon, they range in prices from $6-$10. Meat is prepped offsite in their Schaumburg-based restaurant, but everything is browned and melted right on the truck. Try Toasty Cheese’s Chef’s Choice made with duck bacon, provolone, fresh spinach, and fresh baby arugula with Sicilian cherry tomatoes and a house-made aioli on a toasted panini ($9.50). French fries, soups, and vegetarian and gluten-free selections also available. Besides ooey-gooey vittles, the brand also includes other trucks like BBQ, Taco, and Crave Bar Ice Cream, which go all over the northern and western suburbs and are hits at private events.
On the road since 2015, Mothers Truckn Good Food is the creation of John Evans of Riverwoods, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. He insists he has the biggest truck in the state (don’t they all), but his is actually 30 feet long from tip to tail, offering Evans and his crew a luxurious 40-foot kitchen line, as well as three sinks (prep, dish, and hand washing), two refrigerators, a flat top, a grill fryer, an oven, and a steam table. It’s a big truck, alright. That much room to maneuver translates into putting out upward of 350 sandwiches in 4-5 hours. Mothers goes as far as Will County, DuPage, and Kane, as well as Cook and Lake, of course, everything but Chicago proper. Evans wants to be all things to all people by creating one-of-a-kind street food and he encourages his customer to “never stop indulging!” Try his 16-hour slow-smoked pork with sliced ham, aged Swiss, sweet and spicy pickles, and house-made Dijonaise on torta (shortening) Cuban bread ($12). The Bang Bang shrimp tacos are another luscious treat topped with three kinds of peppers, spicy crusted shrimp, apple slaw, and chipotle sour cream ($12).
Classically-trained chef Elizabeth Brown of Grayslake runs her 100 percent women-owned business, Swirl Cafe, out of her 22-foot sprinter van outfitted with an espresso machine. What started with one cart, one tent, and a one-day-a-week operation has now grown into a year-round business celebrating its fourth birthday. “We work Tuesday through Sunday in season and go to a few weeks before Christmas,” explains Brown. “Then we take January off because people are either dieting or out of money.”
Swirl is known for serving gourmet coffee and generous, artisan baked goods. “If people are going to spend $5 on a cup of coffee, it had better be really good coffee,” says Brown. To that end, they source their grounds from a discerning small-batch coffee roaster, Uncommon Coffee Roasters out of Saugatuck, Michigan. They also offer savory breakfast sandwiches ($7.25), fluffy scones ($2.75), a variety of cookies (3/$6.75), and an insane amount of homemade English muffins. Yes, those flat round discs with nooks and crannies, but these English muffins are as far from flat round discs as one can get without actually changing shape. Their English muffins are nearly two inches thick and so popular they sell 1,200 each month, topped with their raspberry cracked butter. A typical event sees them serving between 300-400 people. “Memorable — that’s what we strive for,” says Brown.
A staple in Northbrook since 1967, when it started out as an old-school hotdog stand, owner Pete Weiss added Mexican offerings, wraps, and salads to make the menu healthier when he took it over in 1999. In 2014, with catering gaining traction, going mobile seemed like a natural extension, and so the Louie B. Fresh food truck was born. “People wanted Little Louie’s brought to them, so that’s what we did,” says Jaime Weiss, partner and wife. Fresh has a full kitchen, so nothing is pre-made and the offerings hold promise for kids and parents, alike. From healthy grilled chicken wraps to chicken fingers, and everything in between. “It’s a whole family experience,” says Weiss. Fresh wraps range from $10-$12 and can also be made into salads for gluten-free options. Their signature is the mile-high chicken avocado wrap stuffed to the brim with grilled chicken, thick cuts of avocado and tomato, jack cheese, and smothered in a chipotle mayo ($10). You’ll find everything from Polish sausages to veggie and turkey burgers, Mexican fajitas, and Italian beef.
Jeff Wang created the Yum Dum truck almost four years ago on the background of sister restaurant MAK (Modern Asian Kitchen) in Wicker Park. Yum Dum’s specialty is the bao bun, an Asian bread made extra fluffy through its wet steam heat method, which truck manager Anthony Moore then stuffs with roast duck, pork belly, and other savory meats (2/$7). They also do beef, chicken, or Korean gogi bowls ($10-$11) and rockin’ sides like the uber-popular Kimcheesy rice balls made from house-fermented kimchee and Colby cheese that is then rolled in rice and dusted with panko breading (3/$4). Everything is made on the truck in prices ranging from $4-$7, and combos up to $16. They stay mostly in Cook County, though you may catch them doing an event in Ravinia, or perhaps a wedding up in Michigan.
Chicago-native Francesco Abate has owned his truck for four years and was even featured on “You & Me This Morning” on WCIU, the U’s “Food Truck Friday.” How far does his truck go to please its customers? “We go as far as you’re willing to pay,” says Abate. And his specialty? “We serve pizza. That’s it.” Focus is important and yields treasures like his brick oven-style Margherita made with hand-stretched dough, fresh Grande mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil (half-moon/$7). Lunches offer diners specialty plates ranging from $7-$12 and dinners from $10-$20, all in personal-size pizzas of approximately 13” half moons. There are also Arancini fried rice balls ($5), Polpetta meatballs ($10), and even a breakfast version called Sunday Morning made with over-easy eggs, bacon, sausage, and green peppers ($8).
You no longer have to jettison to the East Coast to satisfy your hankering for a proper lobster roll; Da Lobsta Truck, from founder Jay Wolf, can hook you up right in your backyard. With three steady locations in Chicago’s River North, the French Market, and Lakeview, this sea-shanty-on-wheels is out 365 days a year serving top-of-the-line seafood without top-of-the-line prices. The delicate seafood is flown in daily, then flash boiled and served chilled, with dry ice on board the truck ensuring freshness. Rolls come in 6-inch or foot-long sizes: lobsta (6 inch/$19 or 12 inch/$32), shrimp rolls (6 inch/$13 or 12 inch/$24), and crab rolls (6 inch/$16 or 12 inch/$26). For the really adventurous (and hungry), go for the whole enchilada — or Da Monsta Roll in this case — which offers a double portion of chilled lobster, shrimp, and crab meat dotted with garlic butter, a generous pat of truffle mayo, and celery salt. Imagine this atop a toasted (on both sides) New England bun that is first rubbed down with tarragon mayo and sprinkled with lettuce for color ($40) and I bet you’re droolin’, aren’t you? Well I am. Of course, there are sides like hush puppies, coleslaw, and pickles, but did we mention it’s lobster?!
Whitman Kam saw a lack of mobile Asian food in Chicago, as one naturally would, but for Kam it, er, Kame naturally. He’d had the benefit of having previously had two brick-and-mortar eateries: Ho Ho Chop Suey and Kam’s Chop Suey in Chicago. Feeling stifled by having to always be in one place, Kam took his wok on the road in April of 2018. “Mobile Chinese food is very rare in Chicago and Chinese food itself is concentrated on the south side. So I concentrate on the suburbs and the north side of Chicago,” says Kam. Ninety percent of everything served by Big Wang’s is made on the truck, including all the mis en place (preparation). Wang’s boasts a fully-functional wok, which aids his team in creating ethnic delicacies like the vegetarian tofu chow mein ($8) or a three-way combo of General Wang’s (Kam’s proprietary version of General Tso or orange chicken), beef and broccoli fried rice, and egg roll ($12.50). Most days, hungry patrons can find Kam parked by the U of C campus in Chicago, but check ahead online.
Izakaya (bar) Yume (dream) food truck started as an actual restaurant in Niles. Nowadays, the truck allows chef/owners to go to “Cook County, Lake County, and any other county that asks for us,” says Alexander Park, son of founder Sang Tae Park. The Parks offer a thrilling combination of a sushi burrito, which isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Instead of tortillas, Yume wraps their fresh sushi fare like fatty tuna, salmon, or even red snapper in “burritos” made of seaweed paper and rice. They also offer vegan options that have straight-up vegetables, or marinated Korean-style beef because, although they have a Japanese concept, the owners are Korean. Prices range from $5.99 for small appetizers like Shumai steamed shrimp dumpling (5 pieces) to $11-$15 for main dishes. On any given day, patrons have five sushi burritos, six rice bowls, and four sides to choose from for their vittles. Prep is done at their permanent location inside the Asian grocery store H Mart in the Loop and everything else is made to order right on the truck. They tweet out their location daily at @yume_foodtruck or follow along online.
David Antonio Torres of Pilsen worked as a line cook, learning French and Japanese culinary methods before striking out with his brother in the food truck business in 2015. “It was a family decision,” explains Torres. “My father just told us to make sure we make the money back and it’s been great.” So great that the family now has two trucks and they’re in the process of buying a restaurant. Their specialty is freshly made tacos and so Torres recommends the triple threat of steak, chicken, and al pastor variety with chille ancho, tomato paste, onion, garlic, and the (not-so-secret) ingredient of pineapple juice. Don’t worry, most of that cooks out leaving a zesty finish (three tacos/$8). They also offer burritos ($9), tortas ($9-$10), and quesadillas ($12 for two proteins). One truck is always at Adams and Wacker across from the Sears Tower; the second goes to corporate events and food truck socials, like Ravinia.
Quite possibly the very first food truck in Chicago, the Beavers’ humble beginnings date back to December 2011 when Chicago native Gabriel Wiesen, president of the Illinois Food Truck Association, and James “Jimmy” Nuccio parked their first Beavers Coffee + Donuts food truck in the parking lot of their friend’s restaurant. Their concept was simple: Made-to-order donuts created onsite. Period. It was an instant hit. Today, the company has grown far beyond its Chicago origins, leading to the new name and national brand, The Dapper Doughnut. Over the past year, they have opened up a new flagship store inside the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and have more than 30 franchise locations. Though their sizes are “mini,” they pack a mighty punch with Loco Coco with chocolate sauce and coconut; chocolate powdered; Turtle, made with caramel, chocolate, and pecans; Strawberry Bella with strawberry sauce and Graham crackers; Smoores with marshmallows, chocolate sauce, and graham crackers; and (my personal kryptonite) the Nutella Dream, with strawberry sauce and Nutella. Betcha can’t stop at just one. Luckily there is a size for every appetite and budget: 4/$3, 9/$5, 15/$8, and 35/$16. Follow their handle on Twitter to see where they’ll pop up next @BeaversDonuts.
There’s limited time left to get jonesing on your summer gourmet-on-the-go! Savor Highwood’s food truck offerings every Wednesday at the Gourmet Market in Everts Park (111 North Ave., Highwood) through Aug. 29, and at Food Truck Thursdays at the Ravinia District of Highland Park through Sept. 13. Missed it? Check out chicagofoodtruckfinder.com for the latest on where to find these yummy treats.
Because You’re Not the Only One Who’s Hungry…
We hope you’ll get the chance to check out all of these incredible local food trucks, but the next time you do, take a moment to remember how fortunate you are to be able to enjoy such fabulous food. Feed your stomach, then your soul by paying forward your good fortune and supporting one of these food-centric nonprofits.
Erstwhile columnist/photographer for the Daily Herald and currently 22nd Century Media, for the past 12 years Lee A. Litas has likewise been a dining and trend columnist and photographer for Pioneer Press, first under the Chicago Sun-Times and now under the Chicago Tribune umbrellas. Hailing from a half-Greek/half-Russian family where “filoxenia” was the way of life, Litas now makes it her business to find the juiciest morsels, both newsy and edible, wherever she travels. Graduate of The American Graduate School of International Management-Thunderbird and Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism; polyglot, all-around gadabout, and Argentine tango dancer — not all at the same time, mostly.