Chicago: Southern Mac Hits the Road

Southern general manager Evan Traub (right) and special guest Matt Maroni from the Gaztro Wagon on the Southern Mac & Cheese Truck's maiden voyage. (Photo by James Lasky)
Southern general manager Evan Traub (right) and special guest Matt Maroni from the Gaztro Wagon on the Southern Mac & Cheese Truck's maiden voyage. (Photo by James Lasky)
On the evening of Feb. 8, The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck announced on its Facebook page that it’d be outside the Aon Center the next day—forecasted to be one of the coldest of the winter. Despite the forecast, Nancy Russo, who works less than two blocks from the locale, promised, “I’ll bundle up and be there.”

Russo followed through, and she wasn’t alone. The truck, an offshoot of Wicker Park restaurant The Southern, had drawn some 20–30 people by the time Russo got there soon after 11:45 a.m., but the line moved quickly. Russo ordered the crawfish-and-andouille mac and cheese and was not disappointed.

“At $13, it was a splurge for me to spend that much for lunch, but it was dee-lish,” she said. “The portion was a generous serving”—10-12 ounces of pasta and about 8 ounces of sauce—“and they did not skimp on the crawfish.”

The mac and cheese at The Southern, elbow pasta drenched in a creamy, smoked-gouda sauce, has been a fan favorite since the restaurant opened in February 2010. One Yelper wrote it best: “It might not be as flavorful as some cheddar macs in the city; but its more sedate, leisurely gouda fills my mouth (and heart) with joy. It’s listed as an $8 appetizer, but don’t be fooled. It’s a full meal of lightly breadcrumbed (the best bites contain the topping) bliss. And underneath is a moist, drippy cheese sauce that is so good they’re taking it on the road with a food truck.”

That reputation must have gotten around, because on the truck’s Feb. 7 maiden voyage, the 100 servings Chef Cary Taylor cooked in the Southern’s kitchen that morning sold out in less than 30 minutes. Behind the wheel of the hard-to-miss Mercedes-Benz Sprinter—painted as if a giant bowl of mac and cheese had been dumped on top of it—were Taylor, restaurant owner James Lasky and general manager Evan Traub, plus “special guest” Matt Maroni of Chicago’s Gaztro-Wagon.

Maroni was one of the people who pushed Taylor and Lasky to start up the truck. Those two (who worked together at The Southern’s predecessor, Chaise Lounge) had wanted to do a mac and cheese solo venture for a while. They looked at a spot downtown, but it ended up not being what they wanted. But Maroni, who lives near The Southern and spends a lot of time there, had another suggestion. “We ended up starting a conversation about” mac and cheese, Taylor said, “and next thing you know, we had a food truck.”

The food-truck scene in Chicago is up and coming. “I think it’s got a lot of potential,” said Taylor, adding that the process is made difficult with the city’s ordinances. For example, trucks can’t park in one place for more than two hours. And space is limited in downtown Chicago. In cities known for their food trucks (Miami and Austin, Texas, for example) the mobile restaurants often camp out in sort of trailer parks, Taylor said.

And with more food trucks starting to ride around Chicago (for instance, the More cupcake truck), Taylor is worried about logistics.

“If you had 20 more food trucks running downtown, it’d get a little tight,” he said.

Taylor avoids food truck hotspots such as 600 W. Chicago Ave., where Groupon and the Big Ten Network have their offices, when the Gaztro Wagon or Chef Phillip Foss’s Meatyballs Mobile is parked there.

Chicago law also prohibits cooking on the truck. Taylor prepares all the mac and cheese at The Southern in the morning, storing them in insulated boxes. So far he’s made at least 100-200 orders per day and has four flavors on the truck at a time, which he announces on Twitter.

“I think we’re gonna always play it pretty conservative,” Taylor said. “We can’t use it at the end of the day, so it’s got to go in the garbage. That’s not only throwing away food but throwing away money. I’d rather sell out and have a couple people that are hungry for the next time we come back.”

He’ll also team up with other local chefs, like the Bedford‘s Mark Steuer. The former Hot Chocolate sous chef will be on board the truck March 22–24, serving three kinds of mac and cheese to give customers a taste of what he’ll be serving in his restaurant, set to open in April.

Taylor plans to be on the truck whenever it goes out, at least for a little while. He and his wife are expecting a child at the end of April, which means he won’t be on the truck then. And once the busy summer hits, Taylor’s not sure he’ll be able to commit to the daily ride. But the truck will go out with or without him, he said, even if they have to bring somebody else on staff. He knows he doesn’t have to be on board to keep the customers coming back: “Everybody loves mac and cheese.”