Standing Room Only: Iyanzé Truck
"If I've got one gripe with Chicago, it's that there aren't enough food carts."
North Park Drive between East Illinois Street and East North Water Street, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday
The Short Order: West African truck serving insanely spicy stews.
Want Fries with That? No fries, but make sure to get the intense jollof rice.
Want Ketchup? Your tongue will be too stunned.
If I've got one gripe with Chicago, it's that there aren't enough food carts. We are way behind New York and Los Angeles—and we're not into that tweeting food cart madness either.
The ones we do have tend to be hard to find and notoriously flaky with their schedules. I've trekked out to supposed locations for food trucks on more than one occasion only to find the street corners empty. Were people making up fake reviews? Luckily the Iyanzé Truck is very real.
While carts in New York vie for the busiest positions possible, the Iyanzé truck sits on a relatively quiet street that only survives for one block in the condo-crazy neighborhood of Streeterville. It's all of two blocks away from the busiest parts of Michigan Avenue, but over here it's calm and placid. Foot traffic is at a minimum, and despite ample seating—thanks to some charmless office plazas—each time I went I ate alone while a few skaters who used the benches as obstacles.
Most people eat in their car. See, the truck caters to a specific crowd. On Yelp, the truck is referred to as the "African Truck," both because it serves African-style cuisine (in this case West African countries like Nigeria and Ghana) but also because it caters to cab drivers who tend to be African as well.
The cabs line up in front of the Sheraton Hotel, and the truck serves up a quick meal while they wait for customers.
The truck is more like a delivery truck than a food cart. They don't actually cook the food there. Everything is made ahead of time at the restaurant Iyanzé, packed into plastic containers, and then slung into the oddly small truck.
The only odd bit is that there isn't a menu, which makes ordering a strange experience. I'm not terribly familiar with African cuisine so none of the names looked familiar, and I've often resorted to pointing at various containers, hoping for the best. I've never been disappointed.
Start with the spicy tomato sauce, which gets ladled onto different types of meat and rice. The first time I had it with goat, and the second time with fish. The tomato sauce is fresh and feisty. You can get plain white rice or jollof rice. When the spicy tomato sauce meats that rice, strange things happen in your brain.
The rich and dark green dish called Egusi Stew contained, I believe, bits of goat, tripe, and salted fish. The tripe and goat parts were definitely chewy, and if you're not exactly into that texture, it can take some getting used to.
The taste is hard to discern because of the blanket of heat that envelops your tongue. It's enough to set off nearly every pain-receiving receptor in your brain. But if you like spice, that pain eventually turns into brain-dizzying pleasure. To think this is a block from the Magnificent Mile!
Like the best ethnic restaurants, the truck pulls no punches. Both times I went I was warned the food would be "very, very spicy," and it surely was. If you happen to be bored by some of the tame offerings in the loop and on Michigan Avenue, this is a great sojourn for the brave.
The truck is parked from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekend.