Social distancing has elevated the kitchen to a new level of importance in America. Loosely defined as the practice of staying away from other people to avoid spreading a virus, it is one of the recently issued federal guidelines that are turning private homes into new favorite restaurants throughout Chicago.
To help keep things tasty and efficient, New Eastside News interviewed food truck owners and cooks to learn how the pros make tasty meals on limited supplies.
Mario Martinez’ Huevos a la Mexicana
“Everybody has eggs,” says Mario Martinez. “Everybody has onions, tomatoes. You can make Mexican Eggs.”
Martinez was born in Mexico City and immigrated to Chicago, where he built Tacos Mario’s, a two-truck restaurant that has been featured on Chicago’s Best for the past two years.
He offered the following recipe while managing one of his vehicles at Clark St. just south of Monroe St.
“It’s sliced onion, sliced tomato, and sliced hot peppers,” he explains. “Fry the vegetables together and, when they are ready, just throw in the eggs and stir it all up. That’s it: huevos a la Mexicana.”
The peppers can be either hot or sweet. “My favorite is Serrano pepper,” says Mario. “It’s tasty. It’s better than the jalapeno. It’s the perfect hot pepper for everything.”
The same fried ingredients can be placed on top of eggs over easy to make huevos rancheros, ideally with a couple fried tortillas underneath it all.
The authentic versions of both recipes call for cilantro, if it’s available, and they can be spiced up with oregano, chile guajillo molido, paprika, and a dash of vinegar. Mario says mushrooms don’t hurt either.
Thomas Brewer’s Roast Chicken
Chicago native Thomas Brewer learned how to cook from watching YouTube at home in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood near 75th and Halsted. He used the skill to launch Whadda Jerk Food Truck — where Jamaican and Mexican cuisine come together in a crunchy taco shell — which can usually be found serving customers across from Northwestern Hospital at 251 E. Huron.
“When I don’t have much stuff,” he says, “I hit the freezer and thaw some chicken thighs or chicken wings, some chicken legs.”
Although his preference is to grill the bird for a couple hours to make it tender, Brewer gave us an oven-friendly version for preparing the meal.
“If I have a whole chicken or hen in the freezer or in the refrigerator, I would season it up with some seasoning salt, pepper, onion garlic, and a little Caribbean spice,” he says. “Dry rub it on, put it in a pot, put butter on top, add a little water, and just let it simmer for about an hour and thirty minutes,” he says.
The chicken should roast at 375 degrees for one to two hours, depending on size. During that time, according to Brewer, “the steam from the water will start tearing that meat apart.”
The best way to serve it is over rice.
“The rice you put a cup in a pot and two cups of water, let it steam until it’s nice and fluffy, maybe about forty minutes,” says Brewer. “I put that at the bottom of the plate, take that chicken out the pot, place it on top, and you have a little feast there.”
Jaime Salinas’ Sopas Aguadas
When asked about simple dishes that go a long way, Mexi-Tacos cook Jaime Salinas remembers the sopas aguadas that he enjoyed while growing up in Toluca, Mexico, about 40 miles southwest of Mexico City.
“It’s soup with noodles and a lot of juice, like a lot of chicken broth,” he says. “It’s not that many ingredients, and it’s not difficult to cook as long as you get tomatoes, chicken broth, noodles, vegetables, garlic, and onion.”
Jaime fries the noodles in oil for a few minutes, then adds the onion, garlic, and tomatoes for a few more minutes. When it all begins to simmer, he adds the broth and brings the pot to a boil for a minute, then reduces it back to a simmer.
“In Mexico, we prepare the simple things,” he says. “It’s very good, and you can feed as many people as you want because, with one pot, it lasts a lot.”
Mario Martinez, Jr’s Rice and Beans
Chicago native Mario Martinez, Jr. developed a knack for cooking from his father, the founder and owner of award-winning Tacos Mario’s. He recommends recipes that include beans and rice because, among other things, they are “easy to stock and won’t go bad.”
“For the rice, first I fry it, actually, with oil,” he says. “You fry the rice and the garlic and the onion and then you want to add some chicken broth.” When the rice and chicken broth starts to boil, add the tomatoes, reduce it all to a simmer, and then just “cover it up about fifteen minutes.”
“You can store it in the fridge,” he adds and use it to complement beef, steak, pork, or whatever Type of protein you’ve stocked up on.”
Curly Adams’ Ham and Eggs
Curly Adams learned his way around a kitchen by growing up with four brothers in Chicago. “My mom made sure we all know how to cook,” he explains. Today he uses the skill in the Harold’s Chicken Shack food truck, often located on Huron across from Northwestern University Hospital. When it comes to quick and easy meals, he prefers the breakfast route.
“Ham and eggs,” he continues. “I have my toast in first. Then I put my ham in the microwave. Then I scramble my eggs. So, ten minutes, breakfast is ready. That’s why you got that microwave.”
As one of seven kids — three boys and four girls — Adams’ coworker Jessica Jarmon not only learned how to make her own food but also to eat it fast. “When we used to be hungry, it used to be crackers, baloney,” she recalls. “Also, we had bread and syrup.”
Her other recommendations for cooking in a pinch include grits, “which is easy,” Oodles of Noodles (a just-add-water brand of ramen noodle), and oatmeal with sugar and butter.
Julio Quilez’ Tacos Autenticos
Julio Quilez is the manager of Mr. Quiles Mexican Food Truck and a self-taught cook. “I just watch and learn,” he says.
Although the truck’s most popular item is chicken quesadillas, he believes that “the easiest thing to cook” is tacos. “Just stock up on tortillas — corn, the best ones — and get some different Mexican spices. Fry them up, add seasoned meat and, for the authentic way, add onion and cilantro.”