Shame on Chicago

Slidin’ Thru
Photo: Justin Massongill

Number 2. That’s where the city of Chicago ranks on Esquire food critic John Mariani’s list of the best restaurant cities in America. Mariani sites the town’s “square meal for a square deal” ethos, along with a plentiful scene of gastro-pubs and the best molecular experimentations in the country. What Chicago doesn’t have is a vibrant food truck scene to match those springing up in other foodie cities like New York, LA and yes, even Las Vegas (we’re at no. 6 on Mariani’s list).

It’s not that Chicago chefs don’t want to scrape ice off truck windows before serving their wares or that the idea of spending the day in a chilly gastro-coach has them running for brick-and-mortar locales. Rather it’s Chicago’s restrictive food truck legislation that’s keeping them from the streets. Currently, Chi-town’s trucks cannot actually cook on premises and function more like delivery trucks than mobile restaurants. Forget parking outside busy office buildings and firing up the grill to dish out sliders, hot dogs and fries to the folks in suits. These trucks are forced to hock pre-packed food to their customers. And heaven forbid a prime parking spot is within shouting distance of a stationary restaurant or retail food store. Strict distance restrictions mean that the trucks must sell their wares in veritable food wastelands far from the busy hubs where customers usually go looking for a bite.

Truck supporters, including a city alderman, have proposed changes to the law that would allow mobile chefs to cook in their vehicles. But not surprisingly, some restaurant owners bitterly oppose the changes. So here’s the real question: What are they so scared of? In Las Vegas, a budding food truck scene has taken shape in the last year, bringing sliders, Korean tacos and Asian hot dogs to city streets. Rather than fight their fellow foodies, some restaurants have teamed up with the trucks, inviting them to set up in their parking lots and welcoming their customers inside to buy drinks at a brick-and-mortar bar, as Herbs & Rye did last month for a special event with Fukuburger and guest chef (and Weekly blogger) Jet Tila. It was one big, happy, well-fed party. Even dessert was accounted for, thanks to free cookies and cupcakes from local favorite Retro Bakery.

Take note, Chicago. You may be a venerable culinary destination, but your treatment of food trucks is way out of date. It seems you could learn a little something from good old Las Vegas.

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