Deals, Dares & Reviews To Help You Savor Your World.
Ham and I took the Red Line south today to Roosevelt, and hopped a bus west a mile or so to the Maxwell Street Market. It was a glorious Sunday morning, and we were starving.
“This is actually more of a flea market, not a farmer’s market,” Ham told me as we rounded the corner and entered the bazaar. “They’ve got excellent food here.” I looked at him with one eyebrow raised, and he laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll love it!”
He was right — I was immediately smitten. This was no corporate-sponsored suburban street fair, but a huge, multi-cultured outdoor marketplace, if on a slightly smaller, cleaner scale. There were vendors and shoppers from every continent and corner of the world here: Africa, Vietnam, Guatemala, India. An old black man played blues guitar for coins on one street corner, and a white man with long, dirty dreadlocks and a clear, sweet voice sang out Mexican love songs on another. Children ran between parents pushing strollers, shrieking and laughing and pleading. Old ladies frowned and haggled.
We walked past stall after stall of marvelous flea market stuff on display: cheap handbags, tacky sunglasses, plastic jewelry, used tires, hand tools, shampoo, baby clothes, designer perfume, mattresses, even a stall selling gilt-framed portraits of The Virgin Mary and another stacked with piles and piles of colorful shoestrings. Mexican Ranchera and Cumbia music blared from loudspeakers every third stall — we’d walk out of one song just to walk into another.
Now and then we spied some real finds among the clutter: a lovely hand-blown glass pitcher, some beautiful hammered-copper pots. I still regret not picking up that beautiful hand-woven rug from Turkey? Pakistan? We talked the man down to $70, and it would’ve looked great in our dining room.
We browsed a few produce stalls stacked with bushels of peppers, ears of sweet corn and pyramids of delicate peaches that perfumed the air as we walked by. We picked up some of each, as well as some luscious little cherries. Down one side street was an enterprising stall where two men were selling thirty different varieties of dried fruits and roasted nuts in front of an old painters’ van. We scored a generous bag of savory pistachios for five bucks there — I’m munching on some even as we speak.
I’d like to think we picked the little food stall where we ate completely at random — it looked like every other one we had passed: humble and sprawling, festooned with hand-lettered signs touting tacos, quesadillas, flautas. But truth be told we were promised good things by the smell of searing meat on the grill and the small crowd gathered at the counter, watching as the man behind it added a squirt of crema and a pinch of grated cheese onto something that looked fried and fabulous. He handed it to a waiting customer.
“Senor, que es?” I asked in my tentative Spanish. “Gordita,” he replied. “You want?”
I did want. “Everything?” “Si, todo.” The man smiled at me and nodded in obvious approval. He split another bun and piled the bottom half high with chopped carne asada, a touch of shredded lettuce, and a bit of the afore-mentioned crema and cheese. Then he placed the crown of the bun on top and gave it to me. I plucked a cold Jarrinto orange soda out of an open trough of ice, paid, and looked for a place to sit. We got lucky — there were two rickety folding chairs left at one of the long vinyl-clad tables under the stall’s canopy. I sat down but Ham disappeared with a quick “be right back.”
I discovered two plastic bottles tied to the table with long strings, one containing a spicy red chili salsa, and the other a chunky homemade salsa verde with bits of avocado. I squirted a little bit of both onto my gordita and dug in. It was incredible. The meat was seasoned perfectly, and the heat of the salsa nicely balanced the cool crema. They had obviously fried the bun, turning it from a cheap little breadstuff into a golden, crispy wafer and elevating this simple little sandwich – something I wouldn’t normally order — into something divine. Ham soon came back carrying three tacos — two of chicharrone (fried pork skin in salsa verde) and one stuffed with a succulent chopped lamb with red pepper. They were all excellent. A woman behind me chirped to her friend, “You know, Rick Bayless did a thing about this place on tv.” I could see why he was inspired by the flavors here – it tasted like we were back in Mexico.
Later, we came upon a smoky little stall selling barbecue. A woman with a small bullhorn called out “Free samples of ribs, free samples of chicken.” Ham, not surprisingly, was drawn in as if on a tractor beam. He bought a small order of rib tips and we nibbled on those, making a little pile of discarded bones and gristle off to one side. The tips were decent, but Ham was a bit disappointed that they had boiled them first before finishing them in the smoker. The sauce was rich and sweet. A healthy layer of grease was left at the bottom of our container, which we admired, then threw away.
We walked on, licking our fingers. Ham worried at a piece of ribmeat caught in his teeth. “Sure wish I had one-a those toothpick thingies,” he complained. He glanced at the stall we were passing, and — I’m absolutely NOT making this up — they were selling toothpaste, toothbrushes and bags of “Dentek” floss-picks. He bought some and we strolled on, happily picking our teeth. I told him to wish for a billion dollars — he seemed to be on a winning streak.
The last treasure we found at the Maxwell Street market were delightfully sweet churros, served by a smiling young woman behind a warped card table. Ham chose strawberry filling, and looked at me. “Chocolate?”
“Of course.” The churros were warm and obscenely heavy, and we ate them as we walked past piles of used books, cheap t-shirts and gaudy jewelry toward the market’s exit. They sparkled with sugar and cinnamon as if they’d been sprinkled with diamond dust. They tasted like spun gold.