Every weekday, at lunchtime, the 5800 block of Ellis Avenue becomes a sort of culinary bazaar. Food trucks pour in from all over Chicago, crowding both curbs in hopes of serving the medical and university communities at once. It’s one of the few times in Hyde Park that one has to be careful crossing the street. Amidst the flurry of competing businesses, lunch specials, and colorful displays, the folks at Bridgeport Pasty offer up some edible comfort.
The truck’s owners, Jay Sebastian and Carrie Clark, got the idea for a pasty business back in 2009, after stumbling upon pasty stands on a biking trip in London. They’ve already made a bit of a splash: when Sebastian spotted a listing for the World Pasty Championships on the Internet earlier this year, he sent some pasties over frozen, packed in dry-ice. Of the 12 winners, Bridgeport Pasty was the only entrant from outside the U.K. That makes their upcoming brick-and-mortar location, which will serve up hot, fresh out of the oven pasties to customers at 32nd and Halsted, all the more promising. Still, Sebastian told me, their ultimate aim is simply “to bring a good working-class type of food” to the people of Chicago.
In choosing pasties, Sebastian and Clark have certainly opted for a “working-class type of food.” These savory, semicircular pies first served as hearty miners’ lunches in nineteenth-century Cornwall, England. But they’ve also succeeded in making them taste quite good. With a combination of light, buttery crusts and hardy, flavorful fillings, Bridgeport Pasty provides just the right sort of hearty sustenance. On a cold, hectic day, they make for an ideal lunch break–even for those who mine more data than tin. “I always look for you guys,” one eager customer explained, as he hurried up to the window of the truck.
“Guys” is really just John Shotwell, who bakes the pasties every morning and sells them until he runs out–usually by 2 pm. Young and upbeat, Shotwell passes the breaks between customers by leaning back against his truck with a smile on his face. He’s just the sort of vendor one would hope for in the business of comfort food. “It gets cold sometimes,” he admits, “but there’s a downside to every occupation.”
He doesn’t let himself get bogged down in recording inventory–“sometimes someone will walk up and buy 14 of the same thing”–and if the weather forecast is particularly discouraging, he calls Sebastian and Clark for permission to take the day off. “It could always be worse,” he told me cheerfully.
His customers might disagree. “Why didn’t you do it?” one concerned, elderly woman asked, as she and the rest of her party eyed the menu, noting the absence of a regular item, the “yooper.” The dish in question–a pasty of ground beef marinated in dark beer, with rutabaga, onion, and potato–is the classic Cornish pasty, but the truck wasn’t selling it that day. “You have it every day,” Shotwell laughed, as the woman and her friends contented themselves with the other options.
I, too, was disappointed to miss out on the yooper. But the warm, soothing aroma of awaiting pasties made it difficult to stay disappointed for long. A few hungry friends and I quickly dug into the first of the pasties–the “oinkle.” Baked with pork sausage, apple, onion, potato, and sage, the oinkle strode a pleasant balance between sweet and savory–a sort of carnivore’s apple pie. The sage did not really register, but there were enough other flavors going on to make up for it. Next we moved on to the vaguely named “veggie” pasty–spinach, mushrooms, gruyere, and BÃ©chamel. If I wasn’t so attached to the idea of stuffing pasty crust with a liberal helping of meat, I probably would have preferred it to the oinkle. There was no shortage of spinach, which gave the pasty its defining flavor, with the other ingredients just rich and creamy enough to complement the flaky dough. Our third and final sampling, the “ginger chicken” pasty, came with tomatoes, ginger, cauliflower, cilantro, garlic and chile. The ginger chicken wasn’t too bizarre a filling for a pasty, but it didn’t stand out either. Dry and a bit underwhelming, it could have benefited from the soupy consistency one might find in a chicken pot pie, or else a little more spice.
Nevertheless, for a “no-nonsense” food like the pasty, Bridgeport’s offerings exhibited a remarkable degree of artisan care, and we consumed them without an ounce of regret.
As for the pasty crust itself, it was flaky, buttery, and quite satisfying. The Bridgeport Pasty website notes that in Cornwall, “the crimped edges of the pie made a convenient handle that could be sullied by dirty miners’ finger, sometimes covered with arsenic, then discarded.” To me, that sounds like an incredible waste.