A bartender from Orland Park walks into a Brookfield Irish bar and walks out with its bartender, who becomes his girlfriend. She’s from County Meath, 20 minutes outside of Dublin, so when the two marry shortly after, they travel to Ireland. And then France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland, with a detour to Peru. Mike Maloney and Elaine Toner turned the typical honeymoon into months of backpacking, sleeping in tents or the occasional hostel, all the while eating street food wherever they found it. When they returned to Chicago, both went back to working in pubs, but the idea of opening a restaurant dedicated to global street food had been planted. So while Toner took a few classes at Kendall College and worked in the pastry department at Blue Water Grill, and Maloney managed the Grafton with a poli-sci degree in his pocket, they made plans to start a food truck. “We went to the food truck conference in San Francisco in 2010 and were really inspired,” Maloney says. “It was this fun idea that fit in with what kind of people we are, which is to do something difficult and just say, ‘Let’s see how this works out.’”
They located a utility truck in Wisconsin, drove it back to Chicago and immediately got to work (with the help of Toner’s uncle, an engineer) renovating it to meet current regulations (which don’t allow for cooking or prep on the truck), leaving slots for cooking equipment in hopes of a new ordinance. Maloney took on the operations role, while Toner began fiddling with the food, bringing in former Blue Water Grill coworker Mike Conti to help assemble a menu that reads like a Globe Trekker “best of” episode. Since Homage Street Food rolled out in August, they’ve featured South African bunny chow, a chickpea or chicken curry sold in a paper cup with buttered nan; Peruvian butifarra, an egg roll of sorts stuffed with tender roasted pork and red onion salsa criolla; vada pav, a curried potato patty that is one of India’s most beloved street snacks; and sweet and salty popcorn, which defies origin but is spiked with Peruvian aji chili and frosted with gingery-soy glaze.
“We make our food fresh every day, but it’s not as pretty or as vibrant when it has to go into the truck wrapped under the current regulations,” Toner says. To counter that, the couple recently moved into a kitchen space in back of Lizard’s Liquid Lounge in Irving Park, where bar patrons will soon be able to pair their beer with a side of bunny chow, served in its full, authentic glory (that is, served in a bread bowl, the way they do it in South Africa). An expanded fall menu includes Korean stews known as jigae, Thai-style chicken with rice and broth (khao man gai) and the Brazilian bean stew feijoada. “Here we’ll be able to have fun with it, have guest chefs and serve dishes how we want to as opposed to adapting them for the truck,” Toner says.
But the truck isn’t going away. “Now we’re part of a community,” Maloney says. “So it will always be a part of Homage.”