When you approach the South Side Street Foods food truck, you’re likely to hear Motown pouring out of the windows. The inviting warmth of old school soul music could be a metaphor for the appeal of both South Side’s food and the man who makes it.
Daniel Velasquez wears a classic black fedora and has an open friendliness that puts you instantly at ease. Ask him about himself and he’ll gush about his wife and four children. Ask him about food and he’ll tell you that he wants people to know that Native food is delicious. His self-described food journey has spanned two decades and many locales, including Arizona, Chicago, Oklahoma and now Iowa. South Side Street Foods is a manifestation of his mission to learn more about Indigenous foods and share that knowledge with others.
Mr. Velasquez is a member of the Yaqui tribe, an Indigenous people native to the Rio Grande Valley who have cultural roots on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. These roots are present in Mr. Velasquez’s food, from ingredients like chorizo, homemade salsas and nopales to the execution of the dishes. South Side Street Food’s signature dish is fry bread topped with chorizo, pico de gallo and beans.
When I asked Mr. Velasquez how he would describe fry bread to someone who wasn’t familiar with it he called it rich, fluffy and said that it was a summarization of Native culture in a food. He pointed out that fry bread was born of deprivation and necessity. Herded onto reservations where they didn’t have access to their traditional foods, Indigenous people had to learn to make use of commodities provided to them by the government. Flour was combined with salt, sugar and oil, then fried and topped with whatever was on hand. Recipes and even the name for this food vary by tribe and region, but it can be found in Indigenous homes from the American Southwest to Canada.
South Side’s name is also informed by chef Velasquez’s experiences and background. He and his wife chose it to evoke the kinds of neighborhoods that are often considered “bad,” like the South Side of Chicago or South Phoenix, where Velasquez himself grew up. He notes that the area where he was raised could be considered rough but it was also teeming with cultural diversity, amazing people and delicious food, often found at small mom-and-pop establishments. Iowa City’s own South District is home to culinary hidden gems, too often overshadowed by the area’s reputation for crime.
Indigenous food is very much about making the best use of what is around you, and to that end, Mr. Velasquez is also rooting his cuisine in Iowa by sourcing his ingredients locally. The meat he prepares comes from Thoma’s and as Iowa’s growing season begins, produce will be sourced from local farms and farmers markets. His goal is to use as many local ingredients as possible.
I had the opportunity to try South Side’s fry bread during a soft opening in April. Though there is nothing else quite like fry bread, the crisp exterior that yields to a melt-in-your-mouth velvetiness will be familiar to people who love funnel cake. The toppings are reminiscent of what you might find on especially good tacos: silky beans, chorizo, crisp lettuce and bright, zingy pico de gallo. The flavors are ones many of us have had before, but placed on fry bread the eating experience is something entirely new.
You can find South Side Street Foods’ truck parked in a lot on 1927 Keokuk St in Iowa City. Hours will vary somewhat depending on the weather, and the best way to know when you can find the truck and what Mr. Velasquez will be serving is by following him on Instagram at @southsidestreetfoods. Chef Velasquez is focusing on fry bread to start, but burgers and tacos will be rolled out in the coming weeks, both tweaked with his signature Southwest touch and served with his signature enthusiasm.