In our first article in a series on lakeside eating, street food blows everyday hot dogs out of the water.
Two distinct styles of food service converge on the northernmost tip of Chicago’s lakefront. The first, more official, brand is the permanent beachside cafés, most of which are run by the Chicago Park District. But these concrete eyesores are an expected and staid counterpoint to the other style of food found in these parts, which consists of temporary, makeshift restaurants fashioned out of bicycles, pushcarts and folding tables. Street food, in other words. Only better, because here, there’s no street to be found, just soft grass and warm sand. Here’s what the carts are pushing.
1 Border Crossings, a trailer on Hollywood Beach, is open sporadically on the weekends, and that’s as much in the way of operating hours as you’ll get from these folks. When it is open, it slings the typical lineup of hot dogs, tacos and chips, and—perhaps most interestingly—volleyball, Frisbee and horseshoe rentals.
2 Cafe D’Piers dot the lakefront and are identifiable by their identical offerings. Off their generic menu, the double dog—that’s two dogs in one bun—was the only thing that came off as original. We thought it was a fine dog (or, um, dogs), but the pink, icy drink that we ordered alongside it was a horrid, chemical-laden excuse for a smoothie.
3 Cart pushers tend to make their rounds between Foster and Wilson Avenues, with more of them popping up the closer to Wilson you get. They peddle chicharrones, tortas and other savory things. (If you find the guy pushing a cooler with the word “Tamales” written crudely on the side, order one stuffed with pork and salsa verde—and ignore his warning that it’s too spicy.) But most of them stick to ice cream, like uncommonly creamy mango-leche paletas and luscious coconut ice (from the numerous carts marked “Ricas Nieves”) rich with coconut milk.
4 Somewhat stationary is a family-operated booth (look for a large, rainbow-colored umbrella) hawking gazpachos—cucumber, watermelon, mango and pineapple, peeled and cut to order, then doused in lime juice, salt, cayenne pepper and orange juice. The small costs $4 and looks as if it could feed a group of four. That is, if it weren’t so delicious you’ll refuse to share.
5 The exception to the rule of boring snack stands is O.P.S.S. (On Point Skate Shop), the tiny shack at the entrance of the Wilson Skate Park. A big sign outside touts pizza, candy, soda, etc., and indeed, that’s all you can get to eat here. But if you’re skating, this place is a lifesaver, selling trucks, wheels, bearings and decks—anything you’d need to build or fix a skateboard. The staff will even lend you the tools to fix it with.
A little inland from the lakefront path sits a cluster of soccer fields, and on game days the best action is not so much on the field but on the sidelines. There, vendors erect impressively complex setups and serve street food, the likes of which you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. The heftiest of these options is the ham torta 6 slathered with mayo and topped with pickled jalapeño. You can get premade pupusas here 7 for $1, but it’s worth the extra Washington to go across the field and get one that’s griddled to order 8 (though both come topped with a piquant, jalapeño-spiked coleslaw). Farther down the field, 9 women fry fresh gorditas, stuffing them with chorizo and crema. And farther down from that, under the shade of low-hanging trees, Santos Contreras and his family work a hot griddle, offering a full menu of elote, tamales and tacos. 10
11 By the time you reach Irving Park, the street food has grown scarce, leaving a beachgoer with nothing to eat but more hot dogs. Sure, Juicy, a small café fashioned to look like an orange, looks to have potential—it’s certainly cute. But its tiny glasses of mediocre and overpriced lemonade will only serve to remind you that the best beach eats in these parts are quite literally behind you.