Maxwell Street Market

August 21 2009 - 4:58 PM

My first encounter with the Maxwell Street Market, I am ashamed to say, came in the heat of road rage. What on earth is going on, I said to myself, why did they block off traffic for this ridiculous display of dilapidated pick-up trucks and pirated DVDs? I fumed silently. A man with a walker surpassed me.

Later, I was informed that the mysterious road closure was due to the long-running Maxwell Street Market. Despite not being located on Maxwell Street for quite some time now (the market is now in its third location), the market has kept its name and stayed close to its original roots as Chicago’s premier open-air bazaar and flea market. In over 100 years of operation, the market has always been a hotbed of immigrant vendors who will gladly “cheat you fair.” This is the one place in Chicago where you can buy bouncy castle for sale cherries, used books and a washing machine, all in one location.

Today, the vendors are heavily Hispanic, and besides the assorted sundries, you can purchase fresh produce for very reasonable prices. This is an excellent place to pick up Latin American ingredients like avocados, spices, chilies and the like. Though their English proficiency may be limited, the vendors that I spoke to were long on friendliness. One seller even gave us samples and an impromptu lesson on the usage of the guajillo chili. Plus, while shopping for electrical wiring and sneakers, you can sample some authentic Mexican street food. This alone is reason enough to investigate the Maxwell Street Market.

The market contains a dozen or so food vendors, each with a set-up of varying sophistication. At some stalls, tables and tents are set up so that you can relax while eating your meal, while other stands are of a more limited scope, with wires running out to adjacent pick-up trucks to power equipment. Food stands and faces tend to fluctuate week-to-week, so I generally choose vendors at random and have never had issues with quality. Menus are usually in Spanish, so you may want to quickly brush up so that you can differentiate your carnitas (pork) from your chicharrones (pork rinds).

On this occasion, I tried a quesadilla al pastor (spit-roasted pork) and a carne asada (steak) huarache. The latter is a sort of Mexican flatbread, made of a fried masa oval that came sprinkled with beans, lettuce, tomato and cheese. It was a tad ungainly to eat, and I wasn’t sure whether it’d be better to use a knife and fork, or attempt to fold it somehow. Either way, the huarache was delicious. As an added bonus, a tub of pickled jalapenos, habaneros, onions and carrots was sitting in front of us, available to add some extra zing.

One of the more eye-catching sights at the Maxwell Market was watching the churro-making machine in the back of a truck. Dough was carefully fed into the top, then pressed through the machine and out the other end in a long, ridged strand. The churros were immediately fried and dusted with sugar, a lip-smacking treat sure to put a smile on your face. If the line hadn’t been so long, I would have gotten a second. Pictured below is a strawberry-flavored churro ($1.25); vanilla was available as well.

Though the Maxwell Market runs year-round, it is best to check it out during warmer months. Street parking is available in the area but very limited, especially by mid-day.

Maxwell Street Market
Desplaines, between Harrison & Roosevelt
Sundays, 7 am – 3 pm, year-round