I usually curse silently at the pedestrians crossing between me and I-290 on my way home from Whole Foods on Sunday, but this time I was one of them. My apologies to the Land Rover, Mercury Mariner and Honda Civic that I held up yesterday and to whomever beeped in disgust as I casually walked in front of them during a green light. I would have never seen the light turn red, had some distant voice not shouted, “Alright guys, hurry up.” Its funny how things change once you’re on the otherside.
Every Sunday on Des Plaines and Roosevelt vendors line the street with tents, tables and a variety of eclectic goods from tires to “fashion bras” for the Maxwell Street Market. This diverse market is well over 100 years old and although its size has dwindled since UIC’s expansion in 1994, it has continued to survive as one of the best places in the city to find a bargain, a taco, and if you’re lucky some of soulful chicago blues that originated here.
With the hot sun beating down on us, we weren’t that hungry when we entered the market. But after passing a tableful of wrenches and plants we found ourselves facing a large blue van advertising “recien hechos”(recently made) churros. My lack of hunger has never turned away a churro, so we ventured up and obtained the freshest churro I have ever encountered. Passing a table of belts, we found ourselves at a white tent with a menu scrawled out in permanent marker fastened to its side. Taco Bernardo’s exotic menu intrigued us, and so we bravely ordered tacos we had never tried before (i.e. beef head and chicharron in a green chile sauce). Sweaty and full, we got up from our table under the white tent and turned to our right, only to find ourselves head to head with with Mama Lula and her Pupusa’s from El Salvador. As I watched her fold shredded meat into some dough and place it on a griddle, I knew this was something I could not pass up. We tried a cheese pupusa and were advised to add pickled cabbage and a delicious red hot sauce to it.
I think I was in love with it before the first bite, but that could be because I operate on the premise that cuisines from all cultures are united by meat or vegetable wrapped in a dough of sorts (i.e. dumplings, empanadas, corndogs, samosas, sambosas, even the french have beef en croute). Satisfied and still full, we meandered away from Mama Lula and her tables, heading deeper into a colorful crowd of people and tents. We walked further into the vast market passing a vendor selling camo and boots, next a table of power tools, and a tableful of jeans. Across from them was another vendor selling herbs to cure every malady, chili peppers and cinnamon sticks as tall as I am. In the shade nearby, a young girl had a few chihuahua pups for sale and on one of the side roads you could find perfumes, tires, bras and panties. Everything you could ever need was here, and I’m sure better priced than the Target or Dominicks up the street (i.e $6 for a case of bananas, kiwis, or strawberries). As the hot sun beat down on my pasty white, unsuntan-lotioned skin I knew I was in desperate need of shade. Although, the bbq ribs looked appealing, G was in the mood for more tacos, so we stopped at Tito’s Tacos to sample a few more and to get some shade under their big blue tent.
The operation these cooks run is amazing. G and I were sweating just sitting there, but these guys were cooking in front of a griddle in the sweltering heat with hungry market-goers circling them, waiting for a seat to open… and they do this every Sunday! The al pastor taco was the best we have had in some time, and when we got up to leave a mild disagreement between patrons erupted over who was next to sit and eat. As we made our way back towards Roosevelt, we stopped at one last stand to try an incredible chicken and green chile tamale, that was made even better by the avocado and tomatillo sauces placed on the tables under the tent. Full from our fruitful taco tasting, we headed towards Roosevelt when I began to hear the sound of a bass guitar amist the car horns, police sirens and the bustle of the market. I couldn’t help but be drawn to the music. So I followed the sound towards Weinberg Hoisery on Roosevelt. Shaded by a rainbow umbrella we found Mr. James Washington playing his red bass guitar. His case was open with a few bucks and change scattered about, and while market patrons walked past barely giving notice to the soulful music that played on the road next to them, Mr. Washington’s powerful bass reverberated off the concrete around him. Beside him a younger guitarist sang the blues, while their only listener, a man with a cane and a hat, set up a chair next to them. Mr. Washington is the last of many blues artists to grace the Maxwell Street Market. So if you hear an electric bass guitar in the distance make sure to stop by to listen to a legend and a sound that is slowly going extinct.
Once a center for blues in Chicago, the Maxwell Street Market has now become better known for the Mexican street food and delicious ribs vendors selling a sample of their culture in a bite of their food. The market has become a constant reminder that Chicago is an evolving melting-pot that even relocation could not destroy. A place where we all mix, regardless of age, regardless of color to support our local vendors and a tradition that continues to live on with the support of each generation.