Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Food on the Move

Take advantage of the creativity and convenience offered by Chicago’s most delectable meals on wheels

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Billly Bricks on Wheels food truck
Billy Bricks on Wheels. || Courtesy of Billy Bricks Restaurant Group LLC

Food trucks have roamed neighborhood streets and county fairs for generations, even before the iconic Good Humor ice cream fleet proliferated in the 1920s. Today, these mobile eateries are more popular than ever for events, boosted in part by seasoned chefs who entered the marketplace with upgraded menus and by pandemic-induced preferences for gathering outdoors. The trucks are often tricked out with bodacious branding and serious razzle-dazzle, which only add to the merriment.

In the greater Chicago area, the food truck scene is bustling and varied. Illinois Meetings + Events found tantalizing all-day options, from breakfast through dessert. Among them are American, global, pizza, barbecue, vegetarian, and kosher cuisines. Whether you hire one food truck or a dozen for your event, you’re sure to delight your attendees with a sumptuous menu in a memorable environment.

All Fired Up

Neapolitan-style pizza was barely known in Chicagoland when Billy Bricks opened its first pizzeria in Lombard in 2005. The company, which specializes in thin-crust pizza quickly baked in wood-fired brick ovens, has since grown to nearly a dozen dine-in locations and
two food trucks.

The Billy Bricks on Wheels trucks, launched in 2017, are equipped with ovens that burn at 900 degrees. One truck, named Wheels I, is designed with a glass side so guests can watch the chefs at work while they wait for their orders. However, they don’t wait long—it takes three minutes to make a Billy Bricks pizza, from stretching the dough to handing the finished product to the guest, says Ric Gruber Jr., general counsel and an owner at the
Wheaton-based company.

“With our mobile units, we are able to serve fresh food to a tremendous [number] of people in a short period of time,” he says. “We’ve done up to 300 or 400 people in an hour, and the food is restaurant quality.”

Wood-fired pizza is the menu mainstay, and gluten-free dough is always on hand. With advanced notice, Billy Bricks on Wheels can also provide a wide range of appetizers, sandwiches, pastas, salads, and desserts, along with vegetarian, kosher, and halal selections. “Our spinach-dipped toasts, which are like crostini with our spinach dip on it, are awesome,” Gruber adds.

Right on ’Cue

Chefs D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick of Soul & Smoke in Chicago came into the food truck business with impressive bona fides. Carter attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, and they both have pedigrees in the city’s finest dining establishments. About a decade ago, the married couple and business partners began cooking for pop-up events and underground dinners, which led to high-end catering for private events.

When the pandemic hit, they pivoted. Without the ability to serve face-to-face gatherings, they bought the first of their two food trucks and focused on gourmet, smoky barbecue, reminiscent of the bountiful Sunday dinners Carter helped his grandmother prepare on the city’s South Side. Their successful efforts led to a brick-and-mortar restaurant and two kiosk locations at Time Out Market and at a food hall in the West Loop.

Soul & Smoke’s bestsellers are brisket, rib tips, pulled pork, and pulled chicken, all satisfyingly smoked and accompanied by the chef’s signature barbecue sauce. Side offerings include a creamy, three-cheese macaroni and cheese, plus red beans and rice, collard greens, apple slaw, and cornbread muffins. For non-meat eaters, vegan smoky joe sliders are prepared with a plant-based alternative.

“Brisket is always at the top of the barbecue food chain,” Bublick says. “But we have a full kitchen on our food trucks, so the sky is the limit.”

South of the Border

At a young age, Ramon Torres III could often be found near his grandmother as she taught him the recipes from her native home in Michoacán, Mexico. Those warm family memories inspired him to found Aztec Dave’s Food Truck & Cantina with his father, Ramon Torres Jr., and brother, David Torres, in 2015.

“I always had a passion for cooking, and I wanted to do something we could grow upon,” says Torres. “Helping our grandmother in the kitchen is the story behind everything we do.”

Two more food trucks followed the first one, and in 2021 the Torres family opened a restaurant in Humboldt Park on the northwest side of Chicago. The menu on Aztec Dave’s regular route includes tacos, tortas, burritos, and other traditional Mexican street food favorites with steak, pork, chicken, and vegetarian options. Food truck catering menus can be more extensive and tailored to an event.

“It’s a lot of home comfort food elevated in a modern way,” he says. “It’s all homemade and fresh daily, from flame-grilled meats to original salsas. Our pineapple habanero salsa [is one] you won’t find
anywhere else.”

A.Sweets Girl food truck
A.Sweets Girl desserts food truck. || Courtesy of A.Sweets Girl

Creative Confections

Look for the brightly hued, white-and-pink food truck, and you will find pastry chef Anna Wu. Her mobile catering business, A.Sweets Girl, specializes in cupcakes and other heavenly confections. She bakes everything herself in the wee hours of the morning, always in small batches and made from scratch.

Wu has been at the window—and behind the wheel—of her Chicago-based food truck since 2015. After attending pastry school, she worked for a bakery and a restaurant while freelancing on the side. Her orders mounted up, and she eventually looked for a way to start her own business. Food trucks were becoming more and more popular, and she liked the independence and flexibility they afforded—so she bought one.

On her regular route, the menu lists a dozen different cupcake flavors, including gluten-free chocolate and vanilla varieties. Each one is artfully frosted and decorated with sprinkles, chocolate curls, fondant cut-outs, or other trimmings, depending on the recipe. Her most popular cupcakes are the S’mores, which are topped with a torched homemade marshmallow; and the coffee-laced Caramel Cafe, which is crowned with caramel drizzle. The Matcha Tea cupcake is also a fan favorite. To accompany her sweet treats, she offers coffee, tea, cocoa, and fruit juices.

Wu also caters custom cakes, cake pops, cookies, and other baked goods. She happily tailors meeting planner orders to match a vibe or theme, perhaps with themed colors or sugary corporate logos.

One-Stop Shopping

A full-service event management agency, Chicago Food Truck Hub connects meeting planners with mobile caterers and related services. In addition to guiding their clients through a roster of more than 100 different food truck and food cart vendors and dozens of cuisines, the Chicago-based company can handle staffing, entertainment, furniture rental, lighting, games, on-site management,
and much more.

“Anything that touches on the event that is specific to the client is something we can package under the same contract or invoice,” says Jamie Billow, founder
of Chicago Food Truck Hub.

When Billow started the business nearly a decade ago, he focused solely on the burgeoning niche of food truck catering. He was quickly met with requests for tangential services like cocktail bars, tents, and high-top seating, so he added those capabilities and others to offer end-to-end customization.

“Food trucks are a great opportunity for guests and attendees to enjoy food or a meal but to do so in an environment that is also part of the experience,” he says. “It’s a visually exciting enhancer.” When attendees step up to a truck window and interact with the chefs, they can exercise their preferences for seasonings and portions more than they can with buffet lines or sit-down dinners, he says.   

“Instead of choosing the fish or chicken option, or the fish or steak option, they are able to say, ‘Put on extra giardiniera,’ or ‘Hold the mayo,’” he continues. “Food trucks are most often a made-to-order experience.”