Maxwell Street is calling

I need to get back to Chicago. This time I’ve got a particular reason, a purpose to visit the Windy City. Read on…

I’ve been there about a dozen times, give or take, even spending a vacation there once upon a time. I’ve seen the Field Museum, cheered on the Cubs at Wrigley Field, seen Buddy Guy at Legends, and had dinner at the top of the Hancock Building. I also did my impression of Ferris Bueller having his day off, and followed in the footsteps of US Marshalls chasing Dr. Richard Kimble downtown.

However, the real reason I want to go to Chicago is to have an authentic outdoor-style Maxwell Street taco.

I got myself a wicked craving. I’ve been dreaming about it. It’s almost becoming obsessive. I thought: “ Self…, if I write something about it maybe the feeling may go away.”

First the setting. The Maxwell Street Market is one of the oldest outdoor markets in America. It’s been around for over a hundred years. In fact, the market isn’t even on Maxwell Street anymore. It’s moved around to accommodate its immense size. Thousands upon thousands of vendors descend on the market each weekend. Millions of people pass through each year.

You can buy fruit, groceries, shoes, electronics, cosmetics, appliances, toys, souvenirs, over-the-counter medications, pirated DVDs, underwear, cook-wear and authentic Mexican cooper pots. Nothing special, right? What’s unique about the Maxwell Street Market, is you can buy all these things at a single vendor!!

It’s barter city, baby. If you enjoy the art of bartering, you’ll enjoy Maxwell Street. By all means, don’t pay face value for anything. Their long-time slogan is: “They’ll cheat you fair.”

I remember one of my fondest visits to the Maxwell Street Market. My uncle Nick, who has some Mexican heritage, knows great Mexican food. He knows good hot peppers too. He’s the only person I know who can consume whole habenero chilis with little to no effect. We didn’t eat in the Market that day, but he explained all the intricacies of Mexican cooking as we watched the vendors do their thing. We walked around all afternoon, just checking out the vendors. We must have walked 20 miles in the market that day.

Back to the tacos.

There are about a dozen different food vendors in the market. Some manage to have cramped sitting areas, while others are cafeteria style. All are good!

It all starts with a homemade, hand-patted, corn tortilla. They actually smash the dried corn right there and add it to the masa de harina. I’m telling you, it’s old school Mexican cooking. You can choose a homemade flour tortilla if the corn is a bit different for you. It’s an acquired taste, as everything in the Maxwell Street Market is.

The tortilla is grilled on their well-seasoned griddle. At the same time, their beef, chicken or pork is grilled with fried onions, cabbage and hot peppers. I can smell it right now. It’s all served in the most decadent homemade salsa you have ever tasted. Oh my god!

Authentic tacos don’t resemble anything you get at Taco Bell or the grocery store.

And all the toppings for the taking: pickled peppers, jalapenos, sour cream, fresh green onion, Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

Huarache, tamales, quesadillas… everything is really, really good.

Ok, writing about it isn’t helping.

For dessert, you have to follow-up the tacos with a homemade churro. These are long, deep-fried, Mexican pastries – covered with honey, sugar or your favourite filling. It’s to die for, especially if you’re diabetic.

One caution, however. I’m not sure if the food is served to any safety standards. I’m not even sure some vendors have running water.

In fact, in researching this blog entry I came across a rather disturbing Maxwell Street image of dozens of raw chickens, with their feet and necks still attached, sitting in a wire bin just like rubber balls in a Toys R Us bin. But they weren’t rubber chickens.

I’m certainly looking forward to my next trip to Chicago, probably in the spring. The Maxwell Street Market is open year round, but the Windy City isn’t a very comfortable place during the winter.

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