Category Archives: Markets

Maxwell Street Market: Tires, Tacos and Fashion Bras

Maxwell Street Market Tires

Tires at Maxwell Street Market

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.

Best Churros in Chicago

Maxwell Street Churros

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.

Salvadoran Pupusa

Mama Lula's Pupusas

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.

eye ball, goat and pork tacos

Eye Ball, Goat Barbacoa and Al Pastor Tacos

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.

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Images from the Green City Market

Green City Market Radish

Genesis Growers Radish, Spinach and Lettuce

I love the farmers market.  There… I’ve said it.  My first memory of a farmers market stems from the small local market in West Allis, Wisconsin.  Although, we had our own cherry trees, raspberry bushes and vegetable garden in our backyard, every summer my mother would take me and my brothers to pick pints of pickles and tomatoes from local farmers, which she would use to can pickles and salsa all summer long.  And even though my most vivid memory of the market is of my brother getting stung by a bee, it was here that I began to realize the importance of the farmers and where our food comes from.

The second farmers market that played a significant role in my life, as well as many other UW-Madison students, was the Dane County Farmers Market.  Every Saturday students from all over campus flocked to the capital for one of the largest farmers market in the country. Going from tent to tent we would select tomatoes, honey or cheese curds from farmers or producers who were passionate about their vegetables, bee hives, or dairy farm.

Tiny Green's Radish and Onion

It was here that a squeaky cheese curd made an impression on me.  Its almost impossible to find a squeaky cheese curd in a big box grocery store, and why is this? Because the squeak is an indicator of freshness that is lost in the time it takes to go from the farm to your grocer’s refrigerator.  This was an epiphany for me, a poor college kid whose only sustenance was the processed foods of her dorm.  I vowed that once I had the money and kitchen to do so, I was going organic, sustainable or the next closest thing.  It took several more years and a bout of professional school until the final realization of my goal.  I shopped predominately at Whole Foods for the past three years. And oh the price I paid for going organic, but I wanted to support a corporation that promoted both farmers and the environment.  But when I moved to Chicago last summer, I found that there were few other places that I would rather be than the Green City Market in Lincoln Park.

Beckerlane Pork

Beckerlane Organic Pork

The 12 year old market is a model for the sustainable food movement where local farmers and artisans share their craft every Wednesday and Saturday from 7 Am to 1 Pm from May to October.  This market is a constant reminder that we as consumers have other options than our big box grocer.  We can go straight to our farmers where their produce will always be ripe, seasonal and maybe even less expensive.  Here all your questions about what is laid before you are easily answered.  Where was this grown?  When was it picked?  What is in season now?  When was this beef slaughtered?  How are the lives of your hens?  Do your pigs live a happy life?  How long are these eggs good for? What is a CSA?  Here you can find the pork they serve at Publican, the beef they serve at The Four Seasons Hotel, or produce used at Frontera Grill. The market operates on the premise that you should, “know your food.  know your farmer”, a motto that challenges Chicago to become more aware of where our food actually comes from.

Chives Radishes and Rhubarb

King's Hill Farm Radish, Chive and Rhubarb

The market’s influences can be seen all over the faces of the patrons roaming through the grass, passing and stopping at each tent.  We want to know our food!  We want to know our farmer!  We are here because sustainable practices and preservation of the environment are important to us, and we know what we do here has an impact elsewhere.  With a look of content I wander the market knowing that my tiny purchases here show my support of local farmers, my daily attempt to save the earth, and my appreciation for farms that truly do have happy cows, pigs and chickens. After perusing around the market we found ourselves with bags full of spring garlic, micro greens, potatoes, Berkshire pork, goat cheese, a fig tree, and a few too many plants.  When we went home, I put on my green gardening gloves, pulled out some potting soil and began to plant the lavender, chives, fig tree, sage, and grape tomato from the market.  You see I have my own makeshift farm on my balcony. Hungry from all the planting, I went inside to see G had created a Green City Omelette.

Green City Omelette

Our Homage to the Green City Market

Our omelette consisted of sauteed spring garlic, Fromage a Trois goat cheese from Capriole, inc. topped with onion micro greens from Tiny Greens and  green garlic.  And the eggs we used were from TJ’s Free Range Poultry.  We liked it so much, we decided to make another!

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Mitsuwa Marketplace

Had it not been for two very special patients of mine in Wisconsin, I may have never known that this wonderful market existed.  It’s located in Arlington Heights and worth the short drive from the city.  It has large selection of Japanese groceries, fruits, veggies, waygu beef and and most importantly sushi grade fish, and that’s just half of it!  The rest of the market consists of about 15 vendors including multiple restaurants, a book store and my favorite pastry shop.

The restaurants are situated like a food court in the mall, but with a lot more people in little less space.  Week-end lunches can be busy.  So come prepared to search out your vendor, identify food item, execute purchase, grab your order number, and glance toward your potential table.  Since the week-end is busy we tend to divide and conquer. My fiance does the ordering and I turn scout to stake our claim.   I identify the slowing movement of chop-sticks, the swift napkin to the face, and the eye flicker towards the garbage before I grab my table.  I have also seen the hover and strike technique successfully executed. Oh and the udon noodle bowls are good, but make sure you save room for dessert. Pastry House Hippo has one of my favorite things at Mitsuwa. Sweet coffee bread.  And if you are not a fan of coffee try one of the other eclectic pastries or other bread selections.

On our past trip we had a mission.  Goal: Donburi.   So we carefully selected our fish. Salmon and Kampachi. I grabbed some wasabi tobiko too.  Easy enough, but then we were seduced into the aisles where I snatched up some sweet dried crabs, seaweed, and sweet sesame candies.  Unnecessary?  Yes. But far too intriguing to pass by. Near the fresh produce we spotted some fresh wasabi and the vendor persuaded me to try some prepared dried fishes.  Then home to create our dish.

Salmon Don Buri Bowl

My bowl consisted of some fresh grated wasabi, salmon, one part dried seaweed, one part fresh seasoned seaweed to the left and some small prepared dried fish to the right.  Oh and sushi rice!  I added some additional wasabi tobiko and a splash of soy sauce and suddenly achieved the elusive fifth flavor… Umami… Well… not quite. I think it may have just been MSG.

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