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July 2019 View more

Story by Anthony Todd 
Photos by Olivia Kohler

A few years back, every time you opened a newspaper you’d probably read a story about food trucks. Fights with restaurant owners, debates about parking and health codes, and (occasionally) even discussions of the awesome dishes the trucks were putting out were just about inescapable. These days, food trucks have stopped dominating the culinary news around Chicagoland, now that the various regulatory hurdles and controversies that stopped them from operating are (mostly) solved. Unfortunately, this means that it’s sometimes easy to forget that they remain one of the most exciting and delicious sectors of the food economy, with tons of new trucks starting business every year.

One of the most interesting things about food trucks is their diversity. Because the barriers to entry are relatively low (at least compared with a brick-and-mortar restaurant business), all sorts of people make the leap into owning a truck. When exploring the food trucks that frequent the west suburbs, I came across trucks owned by people who had never set foot in a kitchen before, operating alongside trucks owned by 20-year restaurant veterans: a truck owned by a first-generation immigrant looking to share the cuisine of his homeland, a truck concept that (really) came to its owner in a dream, and a truck started by a couple looking for an exciting second career. Just about the only things these trucks have in common is that they are, well, trucks, and that they have all changed their owners’ lives in ways that they never expected. 

The way that food trucks get to customers has also changed in the past several years. While many trucks still stake out high-traffic lunch spots outside downtown or suburban office buildings (one truck even spends thousands of dollars a month constantly paying parking meters in order to save spots) more and more are taking different approaches. Farmers’ markets, weekly or monthly food truck gatherings, private events, and catering encompass more and more of the business flowing into food trucks, and you can never be sure quite where your favorites will pop up. That’s why, whenever you run across one, you should probably try it out—you never know when you’ll get a taste of a favorite again.

Whadda Jerk

Whadda Jerk owner Thomas Brewer serves up his take on an egg roll.

Thomas Brewer laughs a little when he recounts the story of his business, a super popular food truck focused on (as the name implies) jerk chicken. “I don’t know if you ever fell asleep with so much on your mind, you start dreaming about it,” says Brewer. “But one night I did, and as I was asleep I thought up this food truck. I woke up, jotted it down, and wrote up a business plan the next day.” It took two years to finally get Whadda Jerk off the ground, but now it’s incredibly busy, serving jerk chicken nachos, tacos, and quesadillas.

Brewer had no professional culinary background, but as an adult became the go-to cook in his family. He started cooking at 30, learned how to barbecue from YouTube, and started getting constant requests for his grilled treats. “It’s Christmas, it’s 5 degrees outside, and my family is nagging me to put on my winter gear and go out and grill.” Brewer worked in the music industry for years, but eventually decided he was tired of working for other people and wanted to go out on his own, a common theme among food truck owners. 

His menu came, simply, from what he liked to eat: “I love Mexican food, I love egg rolls, and I love making jerk chicken.” His delicious cross-cultural mess combines all of those dishes on one truck. The most popular dish on his menu is a version of a chimichanga, made with his signature jerk chicken, cheese, onions, and cilantro, plus homemade jerk sauce and jerk ranch. Brewer’s whole concept depends on the sauce; which he describes as “sweet and tangy, with a hint of heat on the back of it.” 

You’ll probably find Whadda Jerk at your local food truck festival (“I do any festival I can get into”), hanging around outside a club, or catering lunch at your office building (follow @WhaddaJerk on Twitter for locations), and he’s always looking for more spots. Brewer spends a couple thousand dollars a month to keep a spot in the Loop on Wacker Drive open for his truck. And if it sounds like he’s hustling, he is—he estimates that he works an average of 17 hours a day on the truck. His dream is to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant with some of the same dishes, and, as of right now, he’s got a lead on a space, so you may be seeing a lot more of that signature jerk sauce in the future. 

culinary gangster

Want to get a taste of some of the great food trucks here? Head to the Naperville Food Truck Festival on August 10, starting at 11 a.m. Tickets ($5–$10) are available online through Eventbrite, and Culinary Gangster and Grumpy Gaucho—along with many others—will be at Naper Settlement (523 S. Webster St.) until 7 p.m.

Culinary Gangster ( owner Rick Raschillo’s career in the restaurant business spans 20 years and 26 restaurants, including a brick-and-mortar spot (Valor, in Glencoe) and employs only professional chefs on his truck. “I’ve developed the menu, and my executive chef at Valor has perfected it,” says Rashillo. “Everything is gourmet.” 

Based on how popular the truck is, the approach seems to be working; Culinary Gangster surpassed all of its projected financial numbers by a factor of 10 and is already profitable. 

The menu is an amped-up version of a good burger joint, with a variety of sandwiches, burgers, fries (including Sriracha cheese fries that taste heavenly), and smaller bites like popcorn cauliflower, made with rice flour tempura and aioli. The most popular dish is the signature Gangster Burger (see recipe at right), made with a special blend of brisket, beef shoulder, and ground beef that is made in-house. The burger is topped with a habanero garlic sauce, a sweet chili ketchup, and aged white cheddar.

Why would an established restaurateur get into the food truck business? Simply put: economics. While Raschillo describes the truck as “a lot more work,” he also admits that it’s much easier to make the math work. “In a restaurant, every day you open the door, you have to make a certain amount. If the truck isn’t moving, it doesn’t cost anything.” That said, there aren’t many days when the truck isn’t moving; he has regular stops on weekdays, and does festivals almost every weekend. Private catering events (weddings, graduations, rehearsal dinners, and parties) are booked through September. 

“People are fighting to sit in line and eat at food trucks instead of at a restaurant—we just watch the market grow.”

The Gangster Burger

The Gangster Burger is one of the Culinary Gangster Truck’s signature dishes. It requires a few extra steps to make it that popular, but it’s not overly complex for the home cook to take on. (Plus, your guests are sure to be impressed when your burger is this drool-worthy). Make the two sauces ahead, and then pull them out when you’re ready to grill.


8 ounces ground beef (Culinary Gangster uses an 80/20 blend)

Aged white cheddar

Fried onions

Brioche hamburger bun

Sliced sweet pickles

Sliced jalapeños 

Habanero sauce (see below)

Sweet chili ketchup (see below)

Habanero Sauce

2 cups habanero peppers

4 cloves garlic

2 ounces black pepper

½ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

Salt to taste 

Stem and seed the habanero peppers. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add the peppers and garlic cloves. Reduce heat and simmer about 20 minutes. Using a sieve, drain the peppers and garlic and add to a blender, with all other ingredients, and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until cool. 

Sweet Chili Ketchup

½ cup sweet chili sauce

½ cup ketchup

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

To assemble the burger: Cook the ground beef patty to your desired temperature and top with white cheddar cheese. Butter the brioche bun and toast. Spread the habanero sauce on the top, the sweet chili ketchup on the bottom, then add the burger. Top with sliced pickles, sliced jalapeños, and fried onions. 

Recipe courtesy Culinary Gangster

grumpy goucho

Grumpy Goucho owner Nestor Fortini

Nestor Fortini has always loved to cook. He learned to cook the classic dishes of Argentina—he immigrated to the U.S. in 2001—from his mother and grandmother, and after years of working in a warehouse, decided he wanted to start his own company. 

“One moment I said, ‘I’m 52, my knees are messed up, and I don’t want to do any more lifting,’ ” says Fortini. “Once I started this, people loved it! They keep coming and coming and coming.”

Grumpy Gaucho ( focuses on the empanada, which Fortini describes as the signature dish of Argentine cuisine. “You go to any party with friends, any restaurant, any coffee shop, everyone has a version.” 

Some of the dishes on the truck are based on traditional Argentine flavors, but others involve foods he’s learned about during his time in the States. “I had no idea what barbecue was before I came here,” Fortini laughs. But now, a barbecued pork empanada is one of his most popular. Mole isn’t traditional to Argentina, but Fortini fell in love with it after he started eating Mexican food in the States. “I decided to do an empanada with mole, not because it’s Argentinian, but because I just love mole!”

Grumpy Gaucho can be found at many farmers’ markets—which is where his brand got started, originally selling hot sauces—and food truck festivals, and can regularly be found around Naperville and Oswego. “I always go to the farmers’ markets. It’s the way I say thank you for supporting me.”

Fortini loves introducing people to the food of Argentina, and his success keeps growing and growing. “After three or four years, everyone knows Grumpy Gaucho—the reception has been unbelievable,” says Fortini.  

perk n’ pickle

McCauley, Camryn Cutinello, and Justin Brooks with the Perk N’ Pickle truck.

Justin Brooks takes immense pride in how fresh every item is on his Perk N’ Pickle ( truck, though he jokingly blames the freshness obsession for his lack of sleep. “We get up at 3 in the morning to start prep… but if you’re gonna cook fresh, you gotta do it.” 

Perk N’ Pickle is a slightly different sort of food truck in that it’s only semimobile—the actual kitchen is a towed 22-foot trailer—so rather than roaming the streets, this truck focuses on events and catering. But this means a bigger kitchen, and also means that guests can see their food. “I wanted a trailer with an open concept,” explains Brooks. “I never liked it when someone leaned down out of a little window and an arm came out.”

Grilled brie with fries and blackberry jam.

Perk N’ Pickle’s eclectic menu is always changing as they experiment. But some popular items never come off the list, including a grilled brie with hand-cut fries and blackberry jam, and a poutine with homemade gravy and white Wisconsin cheese curds. The namesake “pickle” is actually a hollowed-out dill, stuffed with jalapeño cream cheese, wrapped in an egg roll wrapper and deep fried—an incredibly crowd-pleasing, decadent treat.

Brooks admits that his food costs a bit more because of his obsession with fresh, quality ingredients. “We weren’t sure people would pay for it, but the opposite happened.” They’ve been operating for a year and the business keeps growing—festivals, markets, events, and catering keep the truck busy almost constantly. 

Poutine with homemade gravy and white Wisconsin cheese curds. 

Since Brooks doesn’t have any formal culinary training, it’s been quite a ride starting Perk N’ Pickle. “The hours I’m working are far exceeding any other job I’ve ever worked,” says Brooks. “But I love it.” 

Catch Perk N’ Pickle at Naperville Ribfest from July 3–6.