Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
With all the great restaurant selections in the Loop, I can't forget that food trucks are quickly becoming part of the scene. A good number of them have quietly been making the rounds, parking in regular locations throughout the week. Still, right now our food trucks have the deck of cards stacked against them: they can't cook aboard, they have to park 200 feet away from any restaurant, and they can't sell food for more than two hours in a row. That means the food is cooked at a separate location, loaded on the truck, and kept warm until it's handed to a hungry person in line, like me.
The Haute Sausage Food Truck (I should say trucks, since there are two of them) serves creative sausage concoctions that really remind more of Franks 'n Dawgs than the unstoppable wiener juggernaut of Hot Doug's. They all start with a toasted New England-style bun, feature a particular sausage, which is then paired with an assortment of toppings.
My favorite was easily the Wild Boar and Fennel ($9), which comes with braised porcini mushrooms and fennel. The sausage itself has a distinct liver profile, which adds a mineral-like taste (in a good way), the mushroom adds a funky bite, and the fennel is soft and sweet. It is garnished with a fennel frond, which at first glance looks like cooked dill, but it is indeed fennel.
The Phuket Duck sausage ($9) is a sherry duck sausage paired with caramelized pears and onions in a Thai red curry sauce. You'd think this one would be spicy, but there's hardly any heat from the curry—it is quite mild and more sweet than anything. The gently cooked pears still have a little crunch to them, which adds welcome texture, and the sweetness from the onions is a good parallel to the fruit. The problem in this case is the sausage. If I hadn't known it was duck from the menu, it could have been anything.
The Boerewors Chakalaka ($8), which I still can't pronounce, is a beef and lamb sausage with a stewed blend of tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and beans. It's advertised as spicy, but the one I received wasn't spicy at all. It's almost like an Italian sausage with tomatoes, onions, and peppers, but instead of fennel seed, think curry. Again, the meat was a bit nondescript aside from the curry flavor. And the major flaw with this sausage was the bun. The moist tomato mixture beneath the sausage disintegrated the bun into an impossible mess, rendering it difficult to eat.
Out of the four I tried, the Truffle Cheddar Dog ($8) was the one I liked the least. It's a hefty kosher char-dog split down the middle to accommodate truffle-mustard relish, which is stuffed inside the dog. The hot dog rests upon a thin layer of Merkt's cheddar spread, which I usually love, but the synthetic flavor of the truffle oil blended with the mustard and cheese spread made for an unusual combination that was almost metallic in flavor.
The idea of food trucks, as a happy and hungry little man, excites the hell out of me. But there is a fundamental problem, which is the inability to cook food on the actual truck. The problem is that since all the dogs are kept hot and wrapped, they steam inside the bun, and the normally delicious New England bun has no choice but to fall apart. It's disappointing, considering they aim so high in terms of flavor and creativity.
The price point is expensive. These sausages cost $8 to $9 (granted, there are half-sized dogs that cost $4). I realize that some of the sausage concoctions at places like Hot Doug's and Franks 'n Dawgs cost about as much, but they're made to order, which makes a big difference, and there's more variety at those places. I imagine the operating costs of a truck, coupled with the limitation on selling times, difficulty in parking, and newness to the food scene drives the prices up a lot.
But that doesn't stop me from being excited anyway. It's undoubtedly a tough market in Chicago, but I really hope that perseverance will take our street food to an entirely new level.