Power tools and tamales
Gringo gourmands find Chicago's most authentic and cheapest Mexican food at the Maxwell Street Market
If you thought the Maxwell Street Market sold nothing but construction tools of dubious origin, bootleg videos and ten-packs of tube socks, you're missing the edible element. My friend Mike Gebert and a bunch of our food fanatic friends have spent countless Sundays exploring the Mexican food stalls at the Maxwell Street Market (recently relocated to Canal Street, from Taylor Street to roughly 16th Street). Though justly famous for the Maxwell Street Polish, the market now serves up a panoramic selection of regional street food from many states across the Mexican nation.
We chronicled this great grub in a DVD titled "Gorilla Gourmet/Maxwell Street Mexican" that ran on some cable stations last year (buy it online for $9.95 at http://dchammond.com/gorilla). TOC's editors asked us to reprise our efforts for this story, singling out the stalls that serve the best regional dishes. They handed us each about ten bucks for the mission, challenging us to prove we could find authenticity on the cheap that beats the pants off any Mexican sit-down spot in town. We accepted, and, having stuffed ourselves silly, here's our report:
Starting at Roosevelt, we walk south on Canal to Tamal Oaxaca for its namesake Oaxaca-style tamale: a soft, sweet cornmeal rectangle stuffed with chicken and steamed in a slick, green banana leaf for $3. We ask for extra red and green salsa and sour cream for a magnificently rich, sweet and spicy combo. A 75-cent strawberry tamale serves as dessert.
We shuffle south past a few more stalls to Calvillos Birrieria, where we get a bowl of terrifically piquant birria (lamb soup, though it's traditionally made from goat) for $4. Made in the style of the Mexican state of Aquascalientes—with maguey (a cactus-like plant in the agave family), tangy salsa, fresh onions and cilantro—it's not an overly spicy stomach shocker like some birria can be, but it packs a lot of flavor.
Next, we get in line at Rico's Huaraches. Praised by local Mexican-food guru Rick Bayless in a 1999 Saveur magazine article, these $4 huaraches are killer: griddle-fried tortillas, packed with black beans and sprinkled with beef nibbles, aged cow cheese, and red and green salsa (colors reminiscent of the Mexican flag—hence this dish's other common name, bandera). At the adjoining Deliciosos Cokcteles [sic] we pick up shrimp and octopus in spicy lime/avocado broth for $5; using tostadas as spoons, we "street grunt" our most expensive dish of the day, standing and eating just as you would in the D.F. (a common nickname for Mexico City, the Distrito Federal).
Near the southernmost end of the market (near 16th Street) are Rubi's and Manolo's, brother/sister operations with handmade tortillas that are moist and flavorful and will put you off of machine-made varieties for life. We choose Manolo's for $1.50 steak tacos—maybe the best tacos you'll find on the street—as well as tacos filled with grilled pork chunks in thick red mole for $2.50. One bite transports you to the state of Guerrero. We slug down a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola for $2. Made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup, it's what all Coke used to taste like. We also fork over a buck for an horchata, a cool rice drink that ideally complements the spicy food we're wolfing down.
Just north of Rubi's and Manolo's, you'll find the "elote stand"; it has no signage, but you can't miss the sight of massive, grilled ears of corn. The coals magnificently caramelize the kernels, and we order our corn con todo: with mayo, Parmesan-like cheese, a squeeze of lime, chile powder and squiggles of Parkay—a fine, flavorful mess for $1.50.
We head for the "Stand Wrapped in Saran" (always shrouded in plastic, it's at the northwest corner of Canal and 14th and has no sign) to grab a huitlacoche taco for $1.50. Known as "corn smut" to Illinois farmers, and prized centuries ago by the Aztecs, huitlacoche is a bluish-black, pasty fungus that grows under the husk of corn. A little pico de gallo beautifully accents the deep, earthy mushroomy must (but it easily overwhelms, so don't lay it on too thick).
Nearing stomach capacity, we stop at a stand advertising "Fresh Churros" ($1). These long, fried pastry tubes are remarkably fresh. Crispy hot from the fryer, and filled with liquid chocolate, vanilla or strawberry, churros are a climactic finish to our gastronomic adventure.
We devoured nine unusually delicious dishes, none costing more than five bucks. Better yet, I've got change to spare. So before heading home, in need of a nap after our gorge fest, I load up on an 11-pound box of asparagus for five bucks, 40 Fuji apples for $7 and a case of blackberries for $10. Everything's such a bargain here that the only way you'll really drop some dough is if you get a ticket from Chicago's finest for parking at the nearby Dominick's.
Maxwell Street Market, along Canal Street from Taylor Street to roughly 16th Street, is open Sundays year-round from 7am to 3pm.