In the light of day, a spoonful of Midnight Chili’s stew may make you do a double take. Instead of the usual red tomato-based chili, this food truck makes theirs in a Mexican-inspired mole sauce so dark, it’s remarkably black.
“I’ve always loved chili. I love stews. Chili is a stew with a few more spices. The mole adds a whole other dimension,” said Greg Tomkiel, who started Midnight Chili with his niece Melissa Tomkiel and the truck’s general manager and communications director Luke Dubbelman.
Greg grew a taste for diverse flavors as a native New Yorker who studied at the Culinary Institute of America and settled in Los Angeles 15 years ago. Having worked for companies in the food industry throughout his career, he long contemplated running his own food truck. Then three years ago, while recovering from a stroke in the hospital, he mustered the motivation to switch gears. With few other trucks dedicated to chili, Greg saw potential for his original mole-based chili recipe to find its niche in LA.
“It’s delicious. It’s something that you can grab and go,” he said. “It nourishes you and hugs you from the inside.”
To control the flavors of the mole, Greg toasts and grinds ancho chilis and mixes them into his own robust spice blend to bring a heat that isn’t too spicy. “Mole is really a melange of spices, and every one is different. I have all different spices from anise seed to cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and little different things,” he said.
Midnight Chili isn’t colored with squid ink or activated charcoal like other visually trendy black dishes. Greg’s mole recipe calls for a type of unsweetened cocoa powder that’s alkalized to reduce acidity for a smoother taste, which also happens to darken the powder. The black cocoa not only enriches the flavor of the mole, but also cloaks the chili in its distinctive dark shade–hence the name, Midnight Chili.
The truck’s signature mole is the base for three varieties of chili: Classic (beef with no beans), Con Frijoles (beef with kidney beans) and Vegan (bulgur wheat with kidney beans). Like many soups and stews, the Classic chili is thickened by a roux made with cornbread mix, while the Con Frijoles uses crushed Fritos. The Vegan chili is thickened by the bulgur wheat.
Dark red kidney beans add dabs of color and a satisfying texture to the Con Frijoles and Vegan chilis. “We could have added black beans, but we added kidney beans to have some contrast. And the flavor of kidney beans is buttery and nice,” Greg said.
For a finishing touch, each serving gets a splash of apple cider vinegar to cut the spice. “That acid helps with all of the earthy flavors, which makes it pop,” Greg explained. If you need help deciding which chili to order, Midnight Chili gladly provides samples upon request.
The chilis are ready to serve when the truck arrives, so you won’t have to wait long to receive your order. Greg wanted his chili to be easy to carry and eat, whether you’re bringing it back to the office or roaming around at an event. So your order comes in a wide cup that you can hold in one hand, sized in either a reasonable 8 ounces or a weighty 16 ounces.
To challenge your cup’s capacity, you can also add an unlimited number of toppings, including shredded cheddar cheese, avocado, cilantro, chopped cabbage, jalapenos, and minced radishes. You’ll also find salted peanuts as a topping option, included by popular demand from customers who like peanuts with their mole. “You can have it any way you want it,” Greg said. “We’re very responsive to our customers and what they want.”
For a heartier meal, you can even enjoy chili as a topping itself. The Chili Dog ladles your choice of chili over a Boar’s Head all-beef hot dog on a bun. The Frito Pie serves it over a plate of crunchy Fritos. And for the Chili Fries, it’s layered over pommes frites cooked to order in beef tallow to ensure you get a hot, crisp batch.
“We’re not a chili-on-everything truck. But those specific things, people want, and we do them well,” Greg said.
Another creation unique to the truck is the Chili Handpie, which tucks chili inside a flaky pastry pocket. The Classic chili is thickened with pulverized Fritos, wrapped by hand with pastry dough into an empanada shape, then deep fried and served with a drizzle of Sriracha cream.
For a more traditional pairing, add a side of Midnight Chili’s cornbread. To make these corny muffins, Greg again developed his own recipe, mixing cornmeal with a sauteed puree of fresh corn caramelized in browned butter. “It’s a very deep, intense corn flavor,” he said.
On the sweeter side of Midnight, several items are made in the shadow of Greg’s affinity for black cocoa. The Dirty Caramel Corn is a handily packaged sweet-and-spicy snack mix of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts seasoned with a “dirty” dusting of black cocoa and chili spices. Black cocoa also deepens the darkness of Mo’s Midnight Mexican Cookies, named after Greg’s sister Maureen. These crisp, thin cookies can be baked to order on the truck within 7 minutes, exuding a rich cocoa aroma with hints of Mexican spices.
And for the ultimate chocolatey experience, ask for a Midnight Brownie. It’s a quadruple force of bittersweet chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, black cocoa, and milk chocolate chips. The brownies take more than two hours to bake and are prepared a few days in advance to allow the chocolate to mature and achieve a dense texture. “It’s a real classic fudge brownie,” Greg declared.
The one dessert that doesn’t contain any cocoa stands out for its quirky name: the Banana Roseannadanna Pudding. Named after Roseanne Roseannadanna, a Saturday Night Live character played by Gilda Radner, it contains vanilla custard layered with Nilla wafers and fresh sliced bananas. It’s then topped with freeze-dried banana crumbles and a drizzle of salted coconut caramel. For every banana pudding sold, Midnight Chili donates $1 to Gilda’s Club, a charity that offers social support to cancer patients in Radner’s memory. Greg’s connection to the charity also hints at his New York roots.
For both Greg and Luke, the labor involved in manning the Midnight Chili truck is rewarded by positive customer feedback. “It’s been really cool to see the reactions on the street. Their eyes light up,” said Luke. “It’s exciting when they share how their family does mole.”
Greg added to the sentiment, “A lot of love goes into the food. That’s really the most important ingredient. I love what I’m doing. I love feeding people.”
On the streets of Los Angeles, you’ll recognize the Midnight Chili truck by its thematic logo, which Luke sketched out as a crescent moon holding up a steamy bowl of chili. This illustration is emblazoned across one side of the truck over a black, starry background, with a pair of deep purple chili peppers on the other side, all hand painted by local artist Carlos Chavez. To track down the truck, check their schedule on Midnightchili.com or Twitter, and follow their Facebook and Instagram pages for other updates.