I’M SITTING ON A PARK BENCH OUTSIDE an industrial building overlooking a river, as cars race overhead and a Metra train blows its horn. Ah, nature! We take the little pieces of it we can find in Chicago, and this little piece belongs to four-year-old Imperial Oak Brewing in Willow Springs, straight southwest of Midway, overlooking a creek that runs along the sanitary canal.

This is the modern version of a classic Chicago experience—the beer garden. A century-plus ago, it was German restaurants carving out a little bucolic gemütlichkeit in the middle of the noisy city. Now it’s reclaiming a bit of industrial-zoned wilderness and filling it with bulky guys in T-shirts, shorts and Civil War beards. And a food truck wildly decorated with street art and the name “The Roaming Hog.”

Eddie Aguilar and Jon Ruiz in The Roaming Hog

I first heard of The Roaming Hog a few weeks ago at Baconfest, where I was a judge. The way judging works is, each of half a dozen judges gets a dozen or so restaurants to taste; you pick your top pick, and then all the judges try each others’ top picks. I knew what I expected from the name Roaming Hog—obviously a barbecue truck. Let me guess, a sweet smoky dish with bacon on pulled pork, probably a slider. Subtlety was unlikely to be on the menu.

And it wasn’t that at all. It was an Asian-tinged dish that wouldn’t have been out of place at Fat Rice or Hai Sous. I would have been less surprised if I’d read the posted description:

Vietnamese inspired Pork belly Clay pot (deconstructed).
Marinated Pork Belly, black garlic Caramel sauce, puffed rice, pickled Thai chili/Sambal sauce, fresh herbs. Sesame seeds. Chili threads.

There’s hardly a word of that any barbecue truck has ever even used, let alone made a whole dish out of. I picked The Roaming Hog’s dish to take to the other judges, though in the end it was nudged out for the Golden Rasher by one from Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar. But I definitely wanted to know more about this not-a-barbecue truck—and how it was making it with Vietnamese-inspired deconstructed food in a barbecue truck world. I contacted owner Eddie Aguilar, and he said I could come try their food for myself—at a brewery in Willow Springs, the next Thursday night.

 

 

 

Brewer “LT” Dayhoff and his son Antonio

PEOPLE ASK ME ABOUT FOOD TRUCKS in Chicago once in a while, and they still exist, but the original idea for food trucks—an incubator for new food businesses, serving hungry Loop workers—has, if not died a death of a thousand bureaucratic cuts, largely been forced to find a different way of surviving. Many, maybe most food trucks now find more congenial, less-likely-to-get-an-expensive-ticket ways of serving captive audiences. For instance, many have regular gigs turning up once or twice each month at medical centers, or college campuses, or tech businesses in areas where there aren’t a lot of restaurants.

Or they show up at breweries. “Some breweries don’t want to be brewpubs,” Aguilar explains to me at Imperial Oak. “It’s more money, more staff to hire, why have the added stress if you’re already making an amazing product” with your beer? Instead, the breweries invite food trucks in to offer food to their customers.

That’s certainly the attitude of David “LT” Dayhoff, assistant brewer at Imperial Oak, who shows me around the place along with his son Antonio, who helps manage operations. “The name Imperial means big beers, and Oak has to do with aging beers in oak barrels,” says LT. “And we found out really quickly that lighter beers sell a lot better. Three or four times as fast, plus wood-aged beers take about a year to age.”

The result was they ended up making more different styles of beer than they originally planned. From there they kept growing: a recent expansion not only opened a second room of tap room seating beyond the original bar, but allowed them to build a mixed fermentation room at the other end of the building from the original brewing facility, so they could create sour beers without the risk of the strains that produce sour flavors contaminating the other styles being brewed. Pointing to the overhead pipe that transports the unfermented wort 50 feet from one end of the building to the other, LT says, “Everything goes west, nothing goes east.”

“Sours are a big thing now,” he says. “And it’s not just men who drink them, women are really drawn to them too. A lot of times women have a sharper palate, they’re more sensitive, and I wouldn’t have thought they be into that, but they are.” Typically Imperial Oak offers around half a dozen sours as well as the dozen or so beers of different styles, from IPAs to stouts, on tap.

General manager Kristian Bonde, next to the list of upcoming food trucks

With all of that, there wasn’t an appetite to also build a kitchen and go into the food business as well. “It’s worked out great. We don’t want to have a kitchen,” says Kristian Bonde, Imperial Oak’s general manager. “Never say never, but with us expanding the way we have, the food trucks have worked out great for us. As soon as we had our grand opening, we had food trucks. I knew they existed, so I looked for them online, and found ones I saw would come this far out.”


I’m Latin, but you don’t see too much of that cuisine in my food because I kind of fell in love with something else.


I ask him what he looks for in a food truck, plainly expecting a food-related answer, but he laughs. “Reliability,” he says. “There’s a lot of issues about reliability. Reliable, the food’s good, that’s about it. I listen to the customer base and what people say about it, but honestly, I’ve never had a bad one yet. Once in a great while there might be something a bit weird, that’s not what they were looking for. But you can’t please ’em all.

“We get barbecue, pizza, taco trucks, empanada trucks. There’s a lot of meat-centric trucks that come out here. But I try to spice it up—I found some Chinese ones, I found a sushi truck. I try to keep some variety.”

Bonde books a food truck for a night at a time four nights a week, Thursday through Sunday. “I’ve created a relationship with all the food trucks that come through, so I keep getting more and more. We have a rotation of 30 or 40, but there’s a few of them like Roaming Hog that are our mainstays, and they’re here a lot more often—2-3 times a month.”

I ask him if they ever do anything more ambitious, like pairing beer with cuisine de food truck. “We just started doing some beer pairings with some food trucks—to see how that will go over. But that’s like a sitdown dinner with food and beer pairings. Nothing too crazy.”

 

 

THE FOOD ITEMS I TRY THAT NIGHT AT IMPERIAL OAK fit the profile of what you’d expect for a food truck—porky, a little gloppy, easy to eat and keep eating (too much of) while drinking. There’s some international flavor to what they offer, especially the Pork on Naan, which besides being served on an Indian-style bread, has a subtle mix of cucumber and cilantro and Asian-esque flavors. Still, I know from Baconfest that The Roaming Hog has more to it than this comfort food, enjoyable as it is.

Eddie Aguilar is half-Mexican, half-Guatemalan; he was born in Chicago but moved to the western suburbs after culinary school at Robert Morris College. One good choice he made as a young cook was taking a job at Vie in Western Springs, where he credits Paul Virant and Nathan Sears with opening his eyes to farm to table. Another was going to work at a now-closed Vietnamese restaurant in Naperville, Cuisine de Saigon.

“I’m Latin, but you don’t see too much of that cuisine [in his food] because I kind of fell in love with something else,” he says. “What I’d been taught was farm to table, nose to tail, using the whole animal.” At the Vietnamese restaurant, “they were speaking another language so I didn’t fit in at all, but it let me try to learn another language, at least the words for the menu, so that when they shouted it out, I understood what to make.

“The restaurant owner’s mother lived in Ho Chi Minh City, and she came over and taught me a little bit of the cuisine. So I manage to say, my food is almost authentic. It was an amazing experience learning a new cuisine, new ingredients, learning something different.”

Pork on Naan

So when he had the idea of opening a truck, he didn’t want to do a barbecue truck or a taco truck, but something that represented all his influences. “We are not a barbecue truck. More of a pork-themed truck,” he says. “I love barbecue, anything with hogs, anything with pigs, anything with different breeds.We use a lot of naan bread, for a vessel, but there’s also a lot of Asian ingredients. So we put them on a vessel, a hamburger bun, a 7″ hoagie, and let the food speak for itself.”

So why give it a name that sounded like barbecue? “I wanted to hone in on one animal when I started a truck. If I order so many different animals, then I have to butcher them, marinate them, put them on the menu, and what happens if one of them doesn’t sell as much as the others?”

He approached a friend he’d worked with, Jon Ruiz, who was working at Nomi in the city, about working with him, and he agreed. They found an old library truck, and Aguilar spent a year working two jobs—one of them at Paul Virant’s Vistro—”One to pay my bills, and one to put into the truck, so it’s my own money, if it doesn’t work out, hopefully I can sell it and get my money back.” He asked Virant for his advice on starting a business, and what he got was pretty basic but impossible to argue with: “He said ‘hard work.’ I took that and ran with it.”

Graziano prosciutto

 

 

AGUILAR DIDN’T HAVE A PLAN FOR WHERE his truck would go—but he was at Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, where he knew the staff, one night. “I was having a beer, and doodling, and I said I may be thinking about opening a food truck,” he said.

And so, day 1 of operation, The Roaming Hog was at Solemn Oath for the new beer release they do every Tuesday. “The suburban breweries are really open minded. Everybody knew me, they said you can bring your truck to brewery this many days,” he says.

Is it really that easy? I ask. The suburbs are no monolithic entity, unlike the City of Chicago, and Aguilar says it varies how welcoming they are to his kind of business. “The town wants a piece of the pie. Some, they say give us $50 for the whole year, and that’s fine,” he says. “Some get too greedy—they want $250, fingerprinting, background checks, the whole shebang. We don’t go to those towns. I mean, do the ice cream guys get the same treatment? Because who knows who’s selling ice cream to our kids?”

Another concern is how far you’re willing to travel. “We try to keep it to 45 minutes or less” from his homebase in Naperville, just for wear and tear on the truck. “We try to book up thirty days in advance for breweries, and for lunch stops at hospitals and schools.” Others in his regular rotation includes Werk Force Brewery in Plainfield and Alter Brewing in Downers Grove. But he’s game for traveling further for the right venue—he’s at the new Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Chicago this week, and after meeting the owner of Wicker Park’s Links Tap Room at a recent event called Sausagefest, they’re planning a collaborative event this summer.

Stuffed tots—classic beer-drinking food

So he’s found a way to make it work and support a small staff. But his ambition doesn’t end there. Late in our conversation, he makes an offhand reference to a second truck. A what? He’s just acquired a 1966 Ford Grumman camper, to serve as a catering truck, maybe a coffee and doughnuts operation as well as a backup Roaming Hog truck—there’s time to figure out exactly what it’s for while it gets fixed up.

He also clearly has the farm to table, nose to tail food bug after working for Paul Virant. A food truck could get away with any old pork, and he doesn’t make a big point of advertising it, but he buys good quality midwestern pork shoulders and produce from local farmers, and grinds all the pork himself. As he puts it, “When they taste it, I want them to say hey, I didn’t expect this from a food truck.”

HP

But a food truck can only have so many vendor accounts. Ultimately his goal is to get to a restaurant and commissary, which will make running two trucks easier, let him buy from more farmers in the Wisconsin-Illinois-Michigan region—and serve food that makes the leap from comfy food truck food to more sophisticated dishes, like the one I tried at Baconfest. “We’re getting ramps in next week,” he says, like any farm to table chef does this time of year. “Soft shell crabs are coming—I know that’s not pork, but they’ll be on the menu with bacon on top.”

“It’s just having fun,” he says, from the window of The Roaming Hog. “It’s a great business to start up—if you have a good work ethic, because it is stressful.”

The Roaming Hog will be at Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, 1750 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, evenings through Sunday, May 13th.

 


Michael Gebert keeps on truckin’ as editor of Fooditor.


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