Seasoning the Day with Downtown Food Truck El Azteca

Hot chiles and chilly horchata are specialties of food truck El Azteca, which has found a home in a very convenient spot for students — right outside Regis Hall.

Under a line of trees just beginning to bloom sat a bulky, chalk-white truck. Wisps of smoke twisted from the grill to the darkening sky. A neon “open” sign flickered bright orange, blending in with the nearby intersection’s traffic lights.

This is El Azteca, a food truck that used to park outside Regis Hall but has now moved to East Monroe Street, bordering Millennium Park. Owner Mariela Hernandez said she started the truck in July, parking it downtown during the summer and by the lake the rest of the year.

The truck offered a convenient spot for Loyola students while the business’ permanent location at 5011 W. Fullerton Ave., which opened in 1979, has a larger menu and seating area.

Hernandez, 21, runs El Azteca with her boyfriend. The name comes from the Aztecs, a Mesoamerican people who lived in what is now Mexico, according to National Geographic. They also lend their name to the truck’s quesadillas aztecas, which come with cheese, guacamole, crema, salsa verde and any meat of the customer’s choice.

First-year Sean Hernandez, who is not related to the owner, said El Azteca gives him a taste of home, reminding him of the Mexican food his parents would make. He ordered the burrito suizo, or “Swiss burrito,” which means the tortilla is covered with melted cheese. 

Hernandez said he only has enough money to eat out about once a day, so he wants to make the most of each meal.

“It gives you a bang for your buck,” he said. “When I see a food truck like this, and they make all this stuff and fill it to the brim, it’s good.”

She said she came to Chicago one year ago from Jalisco, Mexico, and the restaurant’s menu is based on the state’s cuisine. One Jalisciense specialty is quesabirria, or tacos with cheese and beef served with consommé, or meat-based broth, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Printed on the side of the truck is the menu, a colorful cluster of photos and labels in both Spanish and English. Main dishes include tacos, tortas and burritos, while drinks include Coca-Cola bottles and cans, Jarritos soda and horchata — the latter being a sweet, rice-based drink which El Azteca serves iced.

First year students Mia Anderson and Lilly Howard said they like El Azteca as an alternative to the university’s meal plan.

“If I don’t want to eat at the dining hall, I come here,” Anderson, 18, said. “It’s kind of expensive, so I don’t come here often, but when you’re talking about food, you’re willing to spend more.”

Howard said she’s a picky eater, so she usually sticks to plain quesadillas. She ordered the small quesadilla, which is a kid-size version of their quesadilla azteca but packs just as much flavor.

Howard said food trucks sometimes have worse reputations because they offer street food.

“Even though it’s a food truck, I feel like it’s got more quality,” she said. “Dining halls make food in large amounts, and it’s not as much care into it.”

Opening a food truck in Chicago is not an easy feat in the first place, with duties including paying application and license fees, acquiring permits and attending fire safety classes, according to the city’s website. The sidewalk outside Regis is public property, so El Azteca was within their rights to park there, but has now moved to their summer location in Millennium Park.

Loyola spokesperson Matt McDermott said the food truck’s spot is located on a city street not owned by Loyola and that University Facility Policies prohibit catering external food or beverages on campus.

Like the rest of the menu, the quesadillas can come with a variety of meats ranging from al pastor, carne asada and chorizo to beef tongue and tripe.

The truck also offers gorditas, or masa stuffed with cheese and meat, and plenty of sides like rice, beans and plain slices of avocado. The avocado is only $0.50, much cheaper than the steeper guacamole prices of chains like Chipotle, whose costs vary by location but can be between $1.95 and $2.65.

Chipotle had no comment on the food truck’s recipe and price, Chipotle representative Erin Wolford wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

Portions are plentiful, with the quesadilla azteca being bigger than a head, and the styrofoam boxes that come with the food lend themselves to be the next day’s leftovers.

“I’d say they know what they’re doing,” Hernandez said. “I trust them.”

El Azteca’s food truck is open at Millennium Park Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to midnight.

Featured image by Hanna Houser | The Phoenix

Mao Reynolds

Mao Reynolds