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Fort Walton Beach’s Unofficial Chicago Embassy

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Another dog day afternoon with Joe Crespo Jr., Jose Garcia and Joseph Crespo.

By Bruce Collier

 

Drive down Beal Parkway in the 1000-block area, and you cannot miss a bright orange, yellow and blue food truck, parked in the lot of the Mercedes/BMW dealership there. The place is The Franks & Beef Connection, a compact mobile outpost of Chicago cuisine. They opened for business about four weeks ago.

 

On a recent weekend, I stopped by to visit with co-owners Joseph Crespo (from Chicago), and Jose Garcia (from New York), and learn what’s drawing all those expat Chicagoans (and others) truckside at mealtimes. It was baking hot outside, and Crespo invited me into the back of the truck (where the A/C was) to meet his son Joe Jr. and give me a tour of the kitchen. It’s a small space, clean and neatly organized with storage, cooking area, and windows for service. I got there shortly after opening and was able to talk—and sample two sandwiches from the menu.

 

The menu offers 10 items—six hot dogs, a Polish sausage, a hotlink, and two Italian beef sandwiches. The meat all comes from Vienna Beef, a Chicago company founded in 1893, a beloved hometown brand name that instantly evokes a response from Windy City natives. In addition to meat, the company sells condiments, relishes and poppy seed rolls, both to restaurants and retail stores. The website has a photo of Mike Ditka with a hot dog. ‘Nuff said.

 

Crespo saw an opportunity to be the first and only restaurant on the Emerald Coast to serve Vienna Beef. Vienna Beef agreed to ship…to Tampa. The partners travel there regularly to pick up franks and Italian beef, plus relish, condiments, peppers, giardiniera, and rolls. Service starts at 11 AM daily except for Sundays, and continues to early evening, though Crespo has a plan: “We hope to be the first street food vendor to be open until midnight.”

 

I’d planned to order what I figured were the two most representative items on the menu—the Chicago Style Dog and the Italian Beef sandwich. Crespo apparently read my mind—“I hope you came hungry,” he said, and asked Joe Jr. to start me with the dog. Joe Jr. assembled the sandwich on a metal holder, the kind they use for making tacos, and perfectly suited for hot dogs.

 

In addition to the beef dog, there’s mustard, the “neon green” Vienna Beef brand relish, slim sport peppers, fresh tomato and pickle wedges, onions and celery salt. It required balance to keep level in the brief time it took for me to eat. It’s colorful, and the ingredients are a perfect balance of savory, salty, hot, cold, and crunchy. The hot dog has the characteristic “snap,” thanks to its all-natural casing (the traditional way).

 

While I ate, Beachcomber Editor Chris Manson stopped by to visit and place an order to go. Jose Garcia also arrived, so it was a full kitchen. I had finished what turned out to be just my appetizer. “Give him an Italian beef,” said Crespo to Joe Jr.

 

Garcia is retired military, a Vietnam veteran, and founder of Fort Walton Beach’s annual Latin Salsa Fest. He had no direct experience in the restaurant business. “I learned the military way,” he said, “OTJ [on the job] training.” Garcia always wanted to start a business, and after talking it over for two years, he and Crespo took the plunge.

 

My Italian slow-simmered and seasoned beef sandwich was served on French bread, with bell peppers and giardiniera (basically pickled chopped salad) and “baptized,” Chicago parlance for a ladle of cheese sauce. Crespo showed me the authentic Chicago stance, away from the counter, holding and eating it. I made a start, though I had to finish with a fork.

 

Prices range from $6.50 to $10.50, with drink, chips and tax all included. There is no tip jar, so the menu price is what you pay.

 

Customers were coming to line up, so I went outside to the dining area—a picnic bench a few feet away from the truck. One of the customers had a distinct Chicago accent, and voiced enthusiastic approval of the menu.

 

Crespo and Garcia expressed their gratitude to Chris Smith and Keith Morin of the car dealership for accommodating the food truck—“they’ve been awesome.” Long-term plans include eventually placing trucks in Destin and Navarre as well as Fort Walton Beach.

 

“We’re here for the locals,” said Crespo. “We’ll stay as long as we can.”

 

The Franks & Beef Connection food truck is located at 1006 N. Beal Pkwy. in Fort Walton Beach. They are open from 11 AM until early evening (5-7 PM) Monday through Saturday. Credit cards are accepted, and large orders welcomed. Phone number is 850-543-6785.

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