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Munching Down Maxwell

Chicago's big, bad Mexican street market wows.
Monday Sep 26, 2005.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Attempting to dodge the throngs of buzzing crowds is just about the only thing I can manage when exploring the Maxwell Street Market (especially with the charred meat and earthy maiz smells distracting me every which way I turn). With an amazing view of the Chicago skyline dominating the background, I decided to simply start at the top of the southernmost "hill" and weave my way in and out of taco vendor after gordita vendor after tamale vendor; eventually I'll end up at the end of the mile-long line.

The question of the moment was: Which taco hut do I lay claim to on my very first foray into the coordinated mess that is the legendary Maxwell Street?

If you've never been to Maxwell Street (like me), the first time is like being slam-dunked into the middle of Mexico City. The vendors squawk, the smoke wafts up from the grilling meats, boom boxes blare Spanish techno and the crowds run deep as a river. I loved it immediately. How I managed to live in Chicago all these years and not hit this famous landmark, which runs Sundays from 7 a.m.-3 p.m., is beyond me. (I guess I just get caught up on my North Side walkabouts and forget this gem exists.)

This past weekend, I was determined to make my way through every single stand, searching for the best looking (and smelling) street food. I'm a huge fan of that style of eating no matter what country I'm in, and I've never had a bad experience by taking a chance on the locals quick dollar goods (save for the time in Greece when I ordered a goldenrod chicken kabob that tasted just like raw fish...).

Switchbacking through the rivulets of regulars, I was hit with booth after booth of authentic Mexican street food (along with some snazzy flea market finds). I dove in wholeheartedly, without restraint.

There were so many things to sample: Crispy fried gorditas stuffed with oozing white queso and bit of peppers fought for my attention along with pan after pan of rich taco dressing (pork, chicken, peppered beef, goat). I didn't even take time to write down which vendor was which because everything I tasted was just as good as the next (though I will say I heard the booth under the bridge on the south end has some of the best carne asada in the USA, but the line was insane and, at the time, I couldn't deal).

There were crispy little fried potato chips drenched in lime and bright red hot sauce; whole corn on the cobs smothered in crema, cilantro and salt; plates full of grilled whole peppers with big hunks of blackened onions; chilled cups of slivered watermelon and cucumber (I'd never seen those two keeping company like that); caramelized bananas covered in onions and crema; brightly colored corn tamales stuffed with pork and chicken; cases full of just-made-minutes-ago caramel and chocolate packed fried churros (they are quite addictive, so make sure to grab a handful); mini-fridges full of chopped fresh ceviche; and bottles of tart sangria-flavored soda, thick horchata (rice milk) and homemade pina coladas to wash it all down with. What a glorious find, this Maxwell Street.

Every food vendor was Mexican and most of the patrons were chatting it up, spitting out orders for platters of tacos and gorditas quicker than I could point and say "uno." I didn't feel out of place at all, though. Maxwell Street is so easy to embrace, grabbing a seat at a table under a particular taco vendor's tent with a guitarist is strumming in the background: There is no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, especially if you are hankering to get out of Chicago for a day. This is like the biggest, baddest Mexican street market you'd find in any town in Mexico. Plus, watching the young girls deftly craft dozens of homemade tortillas in less than a minute is pretty dang amazing.

The Final Rave: The produce booths are my favorite part of the market. Full of dozens of varieties of chilies, peppers, onions, potatoes, herbs, squash, tomatillos and dried goods, I can only imagine what the little nanas are cooking up with their thoughtful choices. Remember: Everything is negotiable.

Keep It Going:

Read it: Harold Washington Library
You could chill all day in this gigantic landmark library, scouring the shelves for Mexican cookbooks and travel tombs. It also has Learn Spanish CDs if you want to bone up on your Espanola and be able to hardcore wheel and deal at the next Maxwell Street market.

Drink it: La Unica
Sit in the back (where you order off the affordable menu) at this Cuban grocery on Devon Avenue and slurp down a couple of the tiny Cuban coffees while mowing on a platter of sweet fried plantains. This is the perfect breakfast and another amazing find.

Eat it: Green City Market
This almost all-organic farmers market perched on the corner of Lincoln Park and North Avenue may be pricey, but the produce is better than anything you'll ever find at a supermarket. Plus, there are some mean mushroom-and-cheese-stuffed crepes being made-to-order.

Get crazy with it:
Every week, this site features some of the cheapest round-trip tickets out of the city. Usually, there are less than $300 fares available to Mexico City. With prices like that, how do you not roll a.s.a.p.?

Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.


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