By Monica Eng | ChicagoTribune.com
While dozens of Chicago chefs sit waiting for the city to legalize cooking on food trucks, others are working under existing rules that require all food to be pre-packaged and kept warm on the truck.
But at least one restaurant group has decided to break all the rules and operate not just without a license but beyond what a current license would even allow.
Big Star chef Justin Large says that after letting the restaurant’s taco truck sit idle for months (and failing a Department of Health inspection last month for having cooking equipment on board) he’s decided it’s time to start cooking tacos on the streets, as reported in Time Out Chicago earlier today.
Nobody knows the time or place where this will happen, but Large advises fans to stay tuned to social media (@BigStarChicago and @paulkahan and Facebook) because it’s going to be very soon and “we will announce it only minutes before we start serving.” And, he says, the truck will not set up near other restaurants.
The chef says he and his partners (in the Blackbird, Avec and Publican family) aren’t doing this to cut in line or even make money (the tacos may be free) but rather “as a way to stand up for freshly prepared food” and to get some movement on legislation plodding through City Council. Preparing and selling food from trucks is already legal in many U.S. cities.
Under current Chicago law, Large said, “You technically can’t even dispense a cup of coffee or even let customers squirt salsa on the taco themselves.”
Plus, he argues, when it comes to food safety, fresh hot preparation can be much safer than simply keeping food warm as required in the current ordinance. The Health Department counters that “keeping products at the correct temperature would minimize bacterial growth.”
Large shoots back that “When you have a truck out there where food has been sitting at a certain temperature for a long time, it can fall into the danger zone (40 to 140 degrees) and you run a much greater risk of having an outbreak. But when you are cooking food to order and heating it to the proper temperatures and you have good refrigeration, you eliminate a lot of that danger.”
Safe or not, might these renegade taqueros end up scuttling prospects for passage of the revised mobile food ordinance still under consideration?
Matt Maroni, who penned the original legislation, doesn’t think so.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said Thursday. “To have someone like Paul [Kahan] and Justin behind this, who can afford to pay the tickets just helps push the issue even more.”
But will they get tickets? And what exactly would the city’s health and licensing authorities do if they stumbled upon truck searing a small batch of rich pork belly, nestling it in a hot tortilla and then topping it with freshly chopped cilantro and onion?
“Until there’s a new ordinance in place they run the risk of receiving a citation ($200 to $1,000) or cease and desist order if an inspector saw them operating,” said Efrat Stein representing both the Department of Health and the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
So does that mean the departments will be glued to the truck’s Twitter and Facebook posts?
“No,” Stein said. “It’s not like we are monitoring their every move. We have a lot to do.”
Large notes that despite his failed inspection he harbors no “ill will toward the Health Department; they enforce the law and that’s all we can expect out of them. This is an issue with the city and with some of the bricks and mortar restaurants here in town.”
Because of all the taco tease today, we thought the Big Star truck might be gearing up for an appearance at tonight’s Food Truck Thursday at Ethyl’s Beer and Wine Dive.
But Maroni, who helps organizes the event, says, “No, tonight is Steph’s (Stephanie Izard) book launch and she will be cooking on the Lilly Q truck, which is kind of in the same boat as the Big Star truck but can legally operate on private property.”
Still, Maroni says that he’s invited Big Star to the event when they’re ready.
When the Big Star truck takes to the street, Large says he’ll cook restaurant favorites including pork belly, fish and pastor tacos, washed down with horchata and limeade. Further on down the road, he envisions dishing out tortas, burgers and even some hot champurrado (like cinnamony drinkable oatmeal) in the winter months.
Why Large and partners have decided to challenge the law now is still unclear. But we think it might have something to do with the pro-food truck sentiments wafting out of the fifth floor of City Hall lately, and the mayor’s new mandate to help promote food access.
Large didn’t comment on the theory, but did note that the mayor “has eaten at a lot of our restaurants and we would love to see Rahm out at the Big Star truck.”