Saturday, December 6, 2008

Maxwell Street Market, Chicago, IL

On a recent frigid November weekend, my partner (in and out of dining adventure) Tamar and I found ourselves exploring Chicago. Due to Pittsburgh’s sad scarcity of quality Mexican offerings, when we get out of the ‘Burgh, we often crave food from south of the border. Hungry for lunch on Sunday afternoon, we set out on foot from our hotel in The Loop to find the Maxwell Street Market, which was alleged by a blurb in our travel guide to have a good selection of Mexican street food. Not the most scenic of walks, we did eventually reach our destination, which was not on Maxwell Street, but on S Desplaines Street between Harrison Street and Roosevelt Road.

We were first bombarded not by food smells, but tables of power tools, used DVDs, sweat socks, and random junk (used juke box, anyone?) for sale from a collection of dodgy-looking flea market vendors. Starving and cold, we made a beeline down the street to the first person selling anything we could eat. This happened to be the churrero slinging his warm dessert fare. Bypassing the versions filled with strawberry or chocolate, we ordered a churro natural. It was homemade, with a nice crisp shell and a soft, chewy core. Slightly sweet from the sugar in which it was rolled, Tam proclaimed it perfect to take the edge off her hunger.

Our next stop was the elote vendor. Ever since eating this hand-held food on the side of a road outside of Puebla in Mexico, I can rarely eat corn any other way. This version was grilled and then slathered in mayo, disgustingly delicious squeezable imitation butter product and sprinkled with grated cheese and lots of ground chile pepper. A work of art! Unfortunately, this is an item that is more enjoyable in warm weather, when the mayo-butter shell does not quickly approach freezing temperatures.

Our appetite was sufficiently whetted, so after exploring our options, our next stop was a taqueria stall where we could sit at the end of a bar and watch tacos being made to order in the outdoor kitchen right in front of us. We were sitting downwind of the barbacoa meat, which was eminating a huge cloud of steam. I’ll gladly take that humid, meaty warmth instead of a space heater on a cold day. Tantalized by the smell, I ordered two tacos con barbacoa, while Tam had hers filled with grilled chorizo. Con cebollo y cilantro? Of course. Bowls of lime wedges, hot peppers, and red and green salsas were on the bars for us to use as we pleased. With a few squeezes of lime juice and a splash of hot salsa, the moist, tender, fatty barbacoa meat made the perfect comfort food.

Shoulder to shoulder with other diners wrapped in hooded parkas, breath condensing in the cold air with each uttered word, basking in the shadows of some of the world’s most famous skyscrapers… it hit me that it’s unlikely that there is any other place in the world where I could have enjoyed this experience.

After a few non-food acquisitions of estate jewelry and some used LPs, we searched for some hot chocolate to try and warm our frigid hands. Our styrofoam cup was nicely spiced, rich, and frothy, but unfortunately felt like it had been sitting outside as long as we had (close to two hours at this point) and was barely lukewarm.

Desperate for warmth, we made one last food stop, which undoubtedly the tastiest of all. We ordered a quesadilla con mole rojo. The tortillas were hand-made moments earlier, the cold balls of masa pressed until flat and grilled on a wide hot plate before being folded over with a thick slab of cheese until nicely melted. To order, our quesadilla was pried open and filled with a thick Oaxacan-style red mole dotted with small cubes of stewed pork. We sat at one of the tables inside the tent set up to keep diners warm and traded bites of deliciousness. The spiciness of the mole was complex and persistent, without being overpowering. Each bite balanced the freshly grilled tortilla, rich mole, and gooey, melted cheese. It was the perfect end to a memorable lunch.

The two of us shared some of the best Mexican street food found in the USA from five stalls for under $20. The Maxwell Street Market is located on S Desplaines Street between Harrison Street and Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL. It is open from 7AM to 3PM every Sunday. Cash only.

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