Every Sunday a fog of corn masa vapor and charcoal smoke rises above Canal Street between Taylor and 14th at the Maxwell Street Market
. In addition to powerfully good Mexican eats, you can score old He Man Action Figures and gently used power tools at the epic flea market (where Ron "It Slices, It Dices" Popeil developed his hawking chops before perfecting the $19.99 infomercial).
Whether you're a culinary adventurer, looking to tempt fate with mad cow disease, or a Mexican food neophyte, you can find some of the best examples of Mexican regional street food here, from Jalisco, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Aguascalientes and the Distrito Federal, the heart of Mexico City.
Find the best charcoal fired meats at Manolo's
There's no better place for tacos al pastor, Mexico's answer to the Grecian gyro. When you place your order, a deeply tanned woman pats a masa ball flat and throws it on the charcoal grill, where it blisters and puffs up. She hands it off to a man wielding a machete-size serrated blade, who shaves glistening, spit-roasted pork directly into the freshly grilled shell. Manolo's mole rojo, a garnet blend of roasted ancho and pasilla chilies, toasted nuts, oregano, cinnamon and with a hint of chocolate that blankets hunks of roasted chicken, is also sublime. Wash them both down with a Mexican Coke, served in glass bottles and made with cane syrup that will make you regret ever drinking the canned American stuff.
Go smoothie crazy with the bounty of the Produce Stands
For $5 to $10 you can buy enough fruit to build your own Carmen Miranda hat. On any given week, thousands of cases of strawberries, pineapples, mangos, oranges and melons are stacked chest high for the taking at Roosevelt and Canal. If you wait around until 2:30 p.m., the vendors drop their prices and you can score some sweet deals on whatever produce is left.
Find the best churros in Chicago at Churro's Frescos
Devotees line up 10-deep behind an orange and black bus for cinnamon-sugar-fried heaven. Served piping hot from the deep fryer and infused with your choice of artificial but tasty strawberry or vanilla goop, these churros make the Home Depot or US Cellular field versions taste like stale cinnamon twists from Taco Bell.
For culinary shock and awe, try the Ojo Taco Stand
There's no official name for this stand, but you'll recognize it by the neon cardboard signs hawking ojo (eyeball), lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head) tacos. It generally serves the eyeball version shredded and topped with cilantro, lime and onions, but if you're an unsuspecting gringo, they'll happily throw in a whole eyeball with the milky cornea staring right back at you.
For those who only get their Mexican at Taco Bell, try Green House Steaks
Good bets: The deep-fried gordita shells piled high with grilled steak, sour cream, tomatoes and lettuce; and quesadillas de papa, filled with creamy melted Chihuahua cheese and a side of gooey caramelized plantains. You'll also find the vegetarian equivalent to the ojo taco: the huitlacoche quesadilla. Huitlacoche is an earthy, inky black fungus that grows on corn husks. Sometimes called the Mexican truffle, it's rich and earthy, studded with golden corn kernels, and tastes like a mixture of rare expensive mushrooms.
For airy spicy pork and chicken tamales, try Tamal Oaxaca
Fat dollops of masa are stuffed with hand-pulled spiced chicken and salsa verde, rolled in banana leaves and steamed into a light moist stuffed corn cake. Skip the electric-pink dessert tamale made with strawberries that looks enticing. It's tasteless.
For refreshment, stop off at Deliciosos Cokcteles
The horchata from this stand, a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, almonds and vanilla, is like drinking great rice pudding. If you're looking to cool off from all the chilies with something a little heartier, the camaron y pulpo, a lime-infused ceviche with plump sweet shrimp and tender purple octopus swimming in tomato, cilantro and onions is a great way to temper a hot market day.