Chef Flo Gutierrez’s father didn’t believe his son back in March when he said he was going to station his taco truck behind their family’s Avondale home. Normally, the truck would park outside of bars where they sold food to pub customers. But COVID-19 had forced a shut down, and so like others in the restaurant industry who rethought their strategies to safely serve customers, Flo’s Kitchen needed to change. It’s worked as since moving the truck back home, chef Gutierrez has seen customers flock to Avondale, pulling up in the alley and picking up some of the city’s finest tacos.
Gutierrez began working in the food industry when he was 15; his father — also named Florentino — worked at Blue Plate Catering and pulled some strings for his son. The entire family brings their own talents to the operation. Gutierrez’s mother, Rosa, insists on making the flautas. These crispy, rolled cylinders are addicting and filled with chicken, beef, or potatoes (the latter is her son’s favorite). The food comes from the Mexican state of Durango where chef’s parents are from.
“The flautas are something you find on every corner,” chef Gutierrez says, adding: “I could like pop 20 of them.”
Rosa Gutierrez takes her time making food, shredding the flank steak for the Durango-style burritos by hand. The beef is also stuffed in a mighty steak taco which ignites glorious flavor bombs with each bite. Chef Gutierrez is in charge of the sauces like a salsa verde that is emulsified to give it a guacamole-like consistency. He also simmers birria for 12 hours. Customers can order a side of that consommé for dipping purposes. It’s handy for the quesadilla made with steamed goat. As for as trends go, 2020 made quesabirria a household term for many Americans. Chef Gutierrez says he began offering quesabirria as part of a social media challenge. He also serves it with ramen noodles, one of the truck’s most popular dishes.
The life of a food truck owner in Chicago has been difficult thanks to notoriously restrictive ordinances that control things like where trucks can park. The policies, championed by Ald. (44th Ward) Tom Tunney (who’s been recently in the news), have hurt small businesses that are especially trying to survive during the pandemic. The policies were a way to protect traditional restaurants from emerging competition.
But the Gutierrezes continue to adjust. Guttierez is a graduate of Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute after attending Carl Schurz High School in Irving Park. He’s worked at many of the city’s top catering companies and currently oversees two student cafes at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Though he’s back working for the school, earlier in the year they furloughed him. He made the most out of temporary losing his day job by focusing more on the truck.
Guttierez’s father purchased the truck five years ago as his retirement plan; his family had been urging him to leave construction. It took four years of repairs before Flo’s Kitchen debuted in 2019. Customers would find the truck outside of bars like the Revolution Brewing taproom on Kedzie Avenue and in McKinley Park where chef Guttierez lives.
Community reception has also been critical. The Guttierez family has lived in Avondale for more than two decades and their neighbors are also their customers. That’s a luxury vendors in other communities don’t have. For example, anonymous complaints earlier this year in the West Loop led to a cease and desist letter sent to Claudio Velez, Chicago’s Tamale Guy.
“They’re really cool,” Guttierez says of his neighbors in Avondale. “No Karens.”
Chef Guttierez never really thought about using a food truck as a launchpad toward opening a restaurant, a common strategy. He’s worked at only one restaurant, Kinderhook Tap, a now-closed bar in suburban Oak Park. But now, after a summer filled with customers, he’s open to the idea of opening a brick and mortar. The post-pandemic world may offer opportunities.
“I never wanted to open up anything,” he says. “But now...I think so?”
Check the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for updates on when the truck is open, but Flo’s Kitchen will serve customers sporadically until Chicago’s weather makes it too cold and snowy to serve customers outside. There are no plans to set up igloos for outdoor dining behind the house at 3335 N. Troy Street.