Isla de Cafe
Humboldt Park, North Ave. & Kedzie Ave., Chicago, IL 60651 (map); 773-677-2160; isladecafe.com
The Short Order: Food truck serving up great Puerto Rican sandwiches.
Want Fries with That? Don't leave without a cup of the freshly brewed coffee.
Seats? Sometimes there are some tables set up next to the truck, but you'll have better views if you have a picnic by the pond.
If you want a glimpse of Chicago with relaxed food truck laws, don't fly to Portland or even take the Purple Line up north to Evanston. Just head west to Humboldt Park, the gorgeous 207-acre green space within the neighborhood of the same name. Due to different licensing procedures inside parks, food trucks can actually cook onboard, and a handful of mostly Puerto Rican trucks have been serving the community for years. La Esquina Del Sabor, which I wrote about a few years ago, is probably the most popular example. But in the past few years, a couple new trucks have popped up, including a hot dog truck named Hot Bunz and, most recently, Isla de Cafe in a silver Airstream truck, which on bright and sunny days, shines like a beacon from across the park.
Run by the husband and wife team of Cristina and Juan Ayala, the truck focuses much of its attention on coffee and pastries. And while coffee from a truck might not sound like a winning proposition, no trip here would be complete without a serious cup of cafe con leche. Made with Metropolis Coffee and freshly steamed milk, this carefully made cup is surprisingly smooth, with very little of the bitterness that occasionally afflicts some versions. It's so good that the truck could survive by just serving up solid cups of this to go. But Isla de Cafe also has range, and the same care and attention also goes into the sandwiches.
Take the Mallorca ($3.75), a sweet and savory combination, that sort of tastes like the Puerto Rican answer to the monte cristo. This ham and cheese sandwich is built on mallorca bread, which is slightly sweet, yet tender and light. After being warmed just long enough to melt the cheese, powdered sugar is sprinkled on top. Overkill? Absolutely. After each bite, I convinced myself that that would be my last, but then I'd dig in again, even though I had many more sandwiches to sample. Before I knew it, only some crumbs and powdered sugar were left. So, yeah. This thing works.
If you require something a little more substantial, it's hard to go wrong with the Sandwich de Bistec - Criollo ($5.95). Featuring thin slices of grilled steak served on hefty sobao bread with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and grilled onions. The meat was tender enough, but the sofrito-infused steak sauce helped set this sandwich apart. In fact, I'd have liked even more of it drizzled on top, which I'll specify next time.
The Tuna Brava ($4.00) is advertised as a "tuna sandwich with a kick," and that pretty much sums it all up. I didn't quite fall for this one, finding the thick slices of raw onion a little too aggressive, but this could definitely appeal to those looking for food with a distinct edge.
Sure, many of these dishes can be found at restaurants around the area. But there is something personal about the experience of Isla de Cafe that exists only because it is out in the open. Perhaps everyone was just in a good mood on that particular day, or it could have been the baseball game going on behind us, the men playing dominoes to the right, or the shockingly beautiful spring weather. Whatever it was, it's impossible to replicate atmosphere like this. I wish that more food trucks took advantage of Chicago's natural beauty, but I am thankful we at least have this.