Food trucks have transformed our region’s culinary scene, and they’ve given us all a little bit of magic. Meet a few of Rockford’s top trucks and learn what it takes to make the magic happen.
Since they rolled onto the culinary scene, food trucks have transformed the foodie landscape, providing delicious and diverse dining opportunities. Culinary trends may come and go, but with their versatility and variety of gastronomical delights, food trucks are here to stay.
We spoke with the chefs behind some of our region’s most popular food trucks. They shared some food for thought about what it takes to create a food truck, what a day in the life of a food truck looks like, and the magic that’s found in the truck and behind the scenes.
When Patrick Alberto opened his Philippines-influenced food truck in 2021, he was reasonably certain Kabao! would stand alone in the food truck world. His suspicions were confirmed by a quick Google search.
“We’re the only bao bun food truck in the state of Illinois,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘Who is dumb enough to do bao buns but me?’ I found no one.”
The customers who crowd Kabao! at local events like Food Truck Tuesdays at Nicholas Conservatory are proof that Alberto’s idea is as big a hit as the Jack Kirby-esque comic book punch that inspires its name.
Kabao’s menu also packs a punch, serving up garlic caramel fried chicken, fried cauliflower in a Sriracha buffalo sauce and the Spam musu-bao, which features a spicy fried Spam. The offerings are all delivered in the same soft, steamed bao buns that are a favorite at Octane, Alberto’s restaurant at 124 N. Main St. in Rockford. For Alberto, it’s a great way to introduce Filipino cuisine to Rockford.
“The truck is a good barometer of what we can get away with,” he says.
Alberto advises budding food truck owners to keep it simple, say yes to as many gigs as they can, and stick to a small menu of tried-and-true items.
“People are in a hurry to hang out,” he says. “They want to grab a quick bite and be on their way.”
He also advises new food truckers to stay within their budget, like he did when he purchased the Kabao! Truck: a converted 1984 GMC Yukon.
“It has good bones,” he laughs. “I didn’t know I’d be a mechanic, but the truck and I are one now.”
Rustic Oven Wood Fired Pizza
Bob Miller and his wife, Heidi, were such big fans of La Fortuna’s wood-fired pizza they bought the company. Or at least the oven.
“We fell in love with their wood-fired pizza in New Glarus. We became groupies and followed them around Wisconsin,” says Miller, who lives in Winnebago, Ill. “When they got out of the business, we asked what they were going to do with their oven. They were happy to sell it to us.”
After about six months of practice, the Millers hit the road as Rustic Oven Wood Fired Pizza. What seemed like a spur-of-the-moment decision turned out to be a great fit.
“We didn’t even own a truck to pull the oven when we started,” laughs Miller. “We just knew we loved it.”
The couple now haul their oven, lovingly named Salena, around the region as they prepare a wide-ranging menu of wood-fired pizzas for corporate and private events, street markets and festivals.
“The oven never gets cool, so we can be set up in 15 to 20 minutes,” says Miller. Once the pizza-slinging is underway, the Millers start mixing and matching ingredients to create a wide variety of pies.
“We have a huge advantage,” says Miller. “Who doesn’t love pizza?”
While searching for a space to open a music venue, Paul Sletten saw a text that changed his trajectory.
“A friend shared a text about a food truck for sale,’” he says. “It was a pretty nice little truck.” Thus began the mobile extension of Sletten’s longtime local restaurants, Abreo, at 515 State St., and Social, at 509 E. State St., in Rockford. Today, Sletten also maintains three food trucks: Disco Chicken, Vee Dubs and Bad Humor.
Disco Chicken’s main jam is sandwiches, which are made with fried buttermilk-marinated boneless chicken breast on a brioche bun. The menu includes chicken tenders and tater tots, which can be added as a side or loaded up with a variety of sauces and condiments. Disco Chicken appears at a myriad of events, including City Market, Food Truck Tuesdays and the Rockton River Market. On Thursdays it heads to Timber Point Golf Club in Poplar Grove, Ill.
“We started in 2019 and we’ve had a blast with it,” says Sletten. “Figuring out the food truck world is different. Owning a restaurant, you have a max capacity. With a food truck, you could have a thousand people show up. Everything’s an adventure.”
As for the name, it started out as a joke.
“We wanted to serve a nice chicken sandwich with a bold flavor and some fun ingredients,” Sletten says. “Since music was a starter for the idea, my chef said, ‘What about Disco Chicken?’ I thought it was a fun name.”
Music and Disco Chicken have stayed intrinsically tied. The truck has been part of a few music events hosted by Sletten. While the dance parties are on hiatus for the moment, Sletten isn’t ruling out anything in the future.
“Music has always been at the heart of it,” he says.
Sizz N Fizz
Prairie Street Brewing Co., 200 Prairie St. in Rockford, debuted Sizz N Fizz in July 2022. It became an instant hit.
“We feel like we’ve really hit the mark,” says Mike Ryan, general manager of Sizz N Fizz and Prairie Street Brewing. “This summer has been crazy. We’ve been everywhere with this thing.”
Everywhere includes the Boone County and Dane County fairs. The truck is a mainstay at Rockford City Market on Friday nights, while Tuesday and Thursday nights are spent at home for Prairie Street Brewing Company’s Truckin’ Tuesdays and Dinner on the Dock, respectively.
The truck itself is custom built and one of the largest trucks locally. Inside, the kitchen was specifically designed by chef Josh Tourville.
“Josh did a phenomenal job,” says Ryan. “Other truck operators in the community come in and check it out, and they’re amazed at our layout.”
Tourville also designed the menu, which features an assortment of smash burgers, cheese curds, waffle fries and seasoned chicken bites, known as nuggz.
“We spent a lot of time on research and development,” says Tourville. “We tested all the best meats and cheeses, then we went back and tested them again.”
Sizz N Fizz also carries its own sauces, along with the usual condiments for burgers, fries, chicken and cheese curds.
“The Savory Sweet sauce is targeted for the chicken and the Sizzy Sauce is for the burgers,” says Tourville.
When it came to designing the layout and menu, the name of the game, for Tourville, was speed.
“We’re extremely fast,” he says. “Sometimes we hand a customer their food right after they’ve finished paying.”
A food truck or two can make any event special. Add a drink truck to the mix and it’s a party.
VeeDubs, owned by Paul Sletten, has become a popular fixture that’s hard to miss. The green-and-black 1975 Volkswagen bus that opens into a mobile cocktail bar was inspired by a vacation in Mexico.
“We were walking down a beach and there was a rusted-out, junky VW bus that they hacked the top off and were serving crappy margaritas out of,” says Sletten. “I thought, ‘That’s awesome. I can totally do that better.’”
Once he was stateside, Sletten put out feelers for a VW bus of his own and found one sitting on bricks at Seward Speed Shop, 3898 Blackhawk Road, in Rockford. The shop’s owner, Adam Kottke, was fully onboard.
“He was such a cool dude,” says Sletten. “We just went to town on it.”
After a prolonged period of measuring, experimenting and engineering, the mobile bar was ready to roll. It made such a splash that Sletten and Kottke embarked on a second one.
“I didn’t know I needed another one, but yeah, I needed to do another one,” Sletten laughs.
The new van features a canning machine that seals drinks in a 16-ounce plastic tallboy.
“They’re really convenient,” he says. “People can just walk around festivals and parties with them. They’re party drinks with quality ingredients and fusions.”
In addition to festivals, the VeeDub vans appear at weddings and other private functions. The truck also shows up at music events and alley parties held by Sletten.
“It’s still a baby brand,” he says. “But it’s so much fun to roll up, pop the top and start pouring.”
Christina Perez opened Wehpah in 2019 with a mission to share the delights of Puerto Rican food with the Rockford area.
“There was a lot of curiosity. A lot of eyebrows raised,” says Perez. “I felt it was my duty to show people what Puerto Rican culture, heritage and the food are all about.”
Four years later, Wepah’s success continues to grow, with more than 5,000 followers on Facebook and crowds of hungry customers. Its menu, which consists of slow-roasted pork, traditional Puerto Rican rice, savory empanadas and stuffed avocados, tends to draw a line.
Also on the menu are Cuban sandwiches, which get rave reviews.
“Our Cuban sandwiches are not pressed because they’re so huge,” says Perez. “I’ve been told by many Cuban customers that they’re the best they’ve ever had, including sandwiches from Miami.”
With a passion that was further fed by a lifelong love of cooking for friends and family, Perez’s hard work made her foray into the food truck world a success.
“It was mind-blowing how well it took off,” she says. “I had a lot of help from friends and family to get everything started.
While the pandemic forced a stutter step, Perez kept her eye on the prize. “We followed the regulations and kept it moving,” says Perez.
Whether she’s driving the Wehpah truck to a local festival or serving up patrons at a private, catered event, Perez is grateful for the opportunity to share her food and her knowledge of Puerto Rican culture.
“It’s been a great adventure,” she says. “I feel blessed.”
Ice cream trucks are a childhood staple, and their gentle, tinkling tunes still whisk us back to our formative years. This ice cream truck’s owner, Paul Sletten, is familiar with the whimsy and enchantment ice cream trucks create. And he’s turned it on its ear.
“Last year, we bought a 1958 Divco milk truck and started serving ice cream sandwiches,” he says.
This is the first full year Bad Humor has been making the rounds and turning heads with its uniquely distressed look and manhole-cover-sized rims. As it travels to private events and public gatherings like City Market, the truck dazzles tastebuds with ice cream sandwiches made from locally sourced ingredients.
“We’re just having a lot of fun with it,” says Sletten.
As Bad Humor ice cream wins hearts, minds and stomachs, Sletten and his team have begun reaching beyond the confines of the truck, selling it in places like West Rock Wake Park and Social, Sletten’s bar and restaurant in downtown Rockford. He also sells Bad Humor ice cream out of his Disco Chicken truck and is preparing to push it into even larger markets.
“We’re ramping up production to start getting into retail,” he says.