28 July, 2017
TENGO UNA EMERGENCIA! LLAME 5411!
Food excites. Food frustrates. Food bores. But food usually doesn’t move. Unless it’s on a truck, zooming down Michigan Avenue in fantastic culinary splendor.
At least that’s how I feel sitting in the passenger’s seat of the 5411 Empanadas food truck (aka a big blue box of Argentinean deliciousness). Rick, the truck manager, effortlessly parks along on Clark and Monroe, and before the window even opens, a line of hungry customers gathers outside in the frigid cold.
And for good reason too. 5411 empanadas are four inches of pillowy decadence, filled with an assortment of delicious innards such as bacon and goat cheese and individually sealed in a waxed pastry sleeve. They’re baked to buttery perfection, each bite oozing with sinful flavor. In fact, I’d already consumed two by 10am while helping the morning staff prep the empanadas. The deceivingly simple art of molding empanadas is fascinating to watch—although the outer dough remains the same, the staff artfully crafts each flavor into their proper shape: rounded for the ham and cheese, crimped for the beef, rectangular for the banana and Nutella. Although empanadas aren’t exclusively Argentinean, they’re distinctively popular to the country in the same way that tacos and tamales are especially unique to Mexican food culture. According to Rick, who’s Puerto Rican, Argentinean empanadas are the prettiest, most delicate, and baked instead of deep-fried.
Before the food truck leaves for its daily run, the empanadas are cooked on a conveyor oven until the exterior turns crispy and brown. In an effort to distract my hyperactive salivatory glands, I strike a conversation with one of the three workers there, Maria. I discover that all three are actually siblings and have worked for 5411 for nearly three years since the company’s inception. Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, Maria has worked 25+ years in a variety of different industries and can make nearly 100 empanadas per hour. Needless to say, they’re hard workers—they don’t talk much as they fold, cook, and clean, yet I find the silence comfortable. In fact, I think they eventually grow on me. For them, it’s just another day at work, and by 3pm, they’ll be at home surrounded by the comforts of their family.
Meanwhile, I hit the road with Rick and Maria’s sister, Eva. Having graduated from St. Augustine College with a certificate in the culinary arts, Rick left the brick-and-mortar restaurant industry for a more mobile lifestyle. “I love the customers, I love the food, I love being out. It’s something about meeting the customer I really appreciate. After a couple of weeks of going out, you start recognizing people and they recognize you. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m back!’” As I (not-so-secretly) help myself to another empanada, I can’t help but admire Rick’s unfeigned enthusiasm—his down-to-earth mentality and friendly mannerisms are classically American, the same kind of inspirational shit you see on Obama commercials. In fact, Rick eventually wants to start his own food truck and is in the process of developing a menu and artwork.
But he’s got a long way to go. Depending on the appliances needed for handling and storing the food, a typical truck can cost anywhere from 50k to 150k, after painting and passing various health inspections. I ask him why a truck’s artwork is so important.“People won’t go to your truck if it doesn’t look good. If it looks like you spray painted it, you might miss out on two people a day or a minute. The appearance of your truck says a lot about you and the quality of your food.”
In addition to the investment required for acquiring and licensing a food truck (and marketing, labor, etc.), there are constant battles with the Chicago government and established restaurants. For instance, food trucks cannot park within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and they also need a GPS device active during operation. Although 5411 has largely avoided legal hassles, Rick tells me about a smaller truck who got fined $500, a catastrophic blow that almost shut down their business. Rick’s advice? “Try to stay as legal as possible.” Fortunately, Chicago has recently provided trucks with exclusive (and legal) parking spots in the Loop. Still, various brick-and-mortar restaurants remain wary of their mobile competitors. Rick says the biggest misconception about food trucks is that they’re trying to replace restaurants. “We’re just trying to get our food to people and trying to have a better quality of life.” So if you think menu prices are high for food trucks, it may be because their costs are even higher.
Despite a messy legal and financial climate, the Chicago food truck scene is spreading like a delectable venereal disease.
“If you’re able to get a truck, it’ll start the fire in you to get everything out there.”
Rick says that the sheer diversity of the industry lends itself to a friendly and non-competitive environment. “The more, the merrier, honestly.” I ask him how food trucks coordinate. “Twitter. Twitter’s the best thing.”
As the lunch rush dies down, I drift into a philosophical mood. I ask Rick what it takes to be a successful food-trucker. “Simplicity. You have to find something that people recognize no matter what their nationality is. There has to be a connection to what you’re serving.” In other words, food trucks are successful because they provide familiarity. It doesn’t matter if you’re serving an empanada, pasty, samosa, Hot Pocket, or dumpling—some filling enclosed in a dough of yummy goodness means people will love it and more importantly, buy it. I also realized that it doesn’t take a disillusioned investment banker or seriously-accomplished chef to start a food truck. It simply takes someone who loves food with their entire soul and being.
I also ask Rick why there are so many Hispanic workers in the restaurant industry, and why they’re so damn good at cooking all sorts of cuisines. Rick says, “If you need a job you’re going to do it the best you can. We’re always trying to feed our families—we love to cook. Why not do something that you love to do and get paid for it?” So the prep staff is Mexican, Rick is Puerto Rican, a manager that I met earlier is Irish—and they’re all making an Argentinian food product in the United State of America. At that moment, I realized how much I loved Chicago—the multifaceted cultural elements intertwining in the most delightful and subtle ways.
We return to 5411’s store location at 1pm, where I meet up with Nick, one of 5411’s founders. Standing casually at the cashier, he’s serving food at the front of the house. Although I’m tired and on the verge of an empanada coma, I chat with him briefly before I head home. He gives me a brief history of the company—how they started with catering, added a food truck, and then finally built a store front.
In fact, they’ve been so successful that they’re planning to open a second restaurant in Chicago, where they plan to stay for now. I ask him if he ever plans to expand beyond empanadas—add tacos, burritos, some other Hispanic-food stereotype. He shakes his head, saying, “We like the concept of having a simple, clean menu. This is how empanada houses in Argentina do it.” For now, they’re pushing their delivery and catering services, growing portions of their business. 5411 also has a chef experimenting with new flavors and recipes, but the classics (including Beef, Spinach and Cheese) will remain the same.
As I leave 5411 and take one last glance at the monstrous blue truck, I realize just how interesting food trucks actually are if you think about it. It’s a giant vehicle of moving art, advertisement, and food encapsulated in one metal box that drives around a city. It’s a kitchen, it’s a source of income, and if you’re fortunate enough to ride in one, it’s an adventure. But more importantly—it’s a dream, and that’s pretty fantastic.