The Institute of Chili
While many historians point to the Texas chuck wagon as the precursor to American food trucks, they often overlook the female vendors who used to sell their Mexican fare in the open-air markets like San Antonio's El Mercado. Dubbed the "chili queens" because of their spiced offerings like chili con carne, they "were the original mobile-truck vendors in San Antonio," says Ana Fernandez, a city native and artist who owns the popular Institute of Chili.
Her truck pays homage to the female food pioneers of her state via their spirit and recipes — a fresh take that is attracting the attention of foodies and historians alike.
Fernandez learned her craft by helping out on the tamale line. "My grandmothers were both cooks. They used to make tamales to sell to friends and neighbors," recalls Fernandez. "Cooking wasn't a fancy production. It was a way for women to make a living."
While she considered attending culinary school, she instead went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by the University of California-Los Angeles. She then moved back to affordable San Antonio to paint. Living in the hub of the artist-centric King William neighborhood, she walked down the street during the festive open gallery nights and thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to have an old-school taco truck to sell here."
That thought came to the forefront when she was let go from her part-time job driving riverboats on San Antonio's famous Riverwalk just three days before Christmas. "I had nothing. I was hustling to sell my painting and it just clicked. 'I should do a food truck.'" What she lacked in money, she made up in moxie, borrowing from her mom, aunt and art patrons. She even sold her car to purchase an old 1978 fruit truck (the same type coincidentally used by Jon Favreau's character in the food-truck comedy Chef.)
"I went all in. All I had was my bicycle and my food truck." Lacking the funds to wrap the truck in logos like other fancy purveyors, Fernandez spent $60 and painted it herself; designed the logo; and decked it out with festive tissue-paper "fiesta flowers." To pay homage to the "chili queens," her first recipe was a deluxe Frito pie with chile, pork tamales, chili and a fried egg with cheese called The Roosevelt, after Teddy Roosevelt who was said to have loved the dish when he visited Texas.
In keeping with her modern chuck wagon theme, she added other campfire-inspired things to her menu, like her grandmother's fideo con pollo, brisket tacos and short ribs and waffles made with an 88-year-old waffle iron she found.
Fernandez works seven days a week, selling in a food truck park as well as local parks around the city, and the pace has paid off. She appeared on the travel food series MotoChefs with chef Aaron Sanchez, and her chili was rated best in the U.S. by Food & Wine magazine. This last spring, she launched a new food truck concept called Chamoy City Limits, which specializes in traditional shaved ices, raspas, with fun toppings including tamarindo and homemade chamoys (a pickled fruit condiment).
"Operating this truck is my cultural and culinary heritage. It's hard work, but it's worth it," she says.