Dining adventures at Maxwell Street Market

June 17, 2011 8:36:48 PM PDT
The Maxwell Street Market has been a fixture in Chicago for at least a century. In the 1900s, it was home to Eastern European Jewish immigrants; after the great migration, African Americans dominated the market. More recently, Mexican residents have set up shop. Each time, the food options have changed right along with the crowds.

There has always been merchandise for sale at the Maxwell Street Market. Whether it's clothing or shoes or even hardware, the market offers a little bit of everything. But over the past century, it's the food that's changed the most. First though, a geography lesson.

The original market's nexus was at Halsted and Maxwell. Pork chop sandwiches and Polishes were the norm. But over the past decade, with U-I-C's campus expansion, the market moved across the Dan Ryan, and now runs along Des Plaines, between Roosevelt and Polk Streets.

Bill Harkness has one of the two barbeque stands at the Market. It's a protein-palooza including ribs, tips, hot links and brisket. But nearly every other stand features Latin flavors.

La Paz does a brisk business in sandwiches and quesadillas. The masa is pounded before your eyes in a tortilla press, then griddled and filled with a bit of cheese; optional fillings like zucchini squash blossoms or huitlacoche - the prized inky-black corn mushroom - are delicious, nestled in with fresh cilantro and onions.

"It's just like Mexico, you don't have this type of food in regular Mexican restaurants. So that's why I like it a lot because it's a different type of tortilla and they make it fresh and you can see it right here in front of you," said Edith Sanchez of Chicago.

Just South of Taylor Street, the Mama Lula booth features the flavors of Central America, with their pupusas and tamales. The pupusas are essentially corn masa dough stuffed with cheese or beans.. then formed into bulging discs and griddled until barely blistered; they come with a side of crunchy cabbage.

Just across the street, the churro truck offers the warm, Mexican fried dough sticks, either stuffed with fillings or simply dredged in cinnamon sugar. There are also plenty of taco stands - featuring al pastor pork straight off the spit or tender beef barbacoa. Regulars say walking along this stretch of Des Plaines is almost like walking through a Mexican village.

"I actually just came back from over there, so it kind of brings you back home," Sanchez said.

After eating all of those tacos and quesadillas and tamales you're going to want to have something a little bit sweet.. fortunately there are a couple of Mexican ice cream vendors - one right here at the corner of Taylor and Des Plaines - great flavors like tamarind and guava and one of my favorites: mango with chile.

Maxwell Street Market
Along Des Plaines, from Roosevelt to Polk St.
Every Sunday, 7 a.m. - 3 p.m.


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