Chi-Mex: Mexican Food in Chicago
As day breaks on Sunday morning over downtown Chicago, Clementina Flores, a native of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, stares out her 58th-floor window, watching the sun find its way through the crevices between the buildings. This conservative, middle-aged Mexican woman, born in a small, rural town, awakes each morning to a panoramic view of America's third-largest city. To the north and east, she sees the monumental Wrigley Building; then there's the lake, of course, offering up the sun's pale new promise every morning; and to the south and west rises the Sears Tower, whose shadow stretches far enough to embrace a well-defined half-mile of frenetic activity along Canal Street just south of Downtown. This is New Maxwell Street Market, where Señora Clementina often shops. For many Chicagoans, the market embodies the ingenuity and practicality for which their city is known. Confident enough to swagger through urban streets, vital enough to re-create itself with each new wave of immigration, it has proven resilient enough even to have survived a forced relocation—from which it emerged vibrantly Mexican.
By some estimates, Chicago has the nation's third-largest population of Mexican immigrants (after Los Angeles and Houston). The origins of the community date back to 1910, when Mexicans began coming to Chicago to work in the city's meatpacking, steel, and railroad industries. The Maxwell Street Market is officially almost as old, having been recognized by the city in 1912—but it evolved out of an aggregation of Italian, Greek, Czech, Bohemian, and eastern European Jewish vendors' stands and pushcarts that first gathered along Maxwell Street in the 1870s. Two waves of migration from the South, in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, added an African-American presence. There may have been Mexican merchants on Maxwell Street 70 or 80 years ago—and by the 1970s, vendors from the nearby barrio of Pilsen were selling steaming-hot tamales, fruits, and vegetables there. Five years ago, Maxwell Street Market was run out of its historic home, largely to make way for an expanding University of Illinois at Chicago campus. It reopened a week later three blocks east on Canal Street as the New Maxwell Street Market, and today, Mexican merchants are in the majority.
I like to enter the market—open only on Sundays—near the southern end, at 14th Street, and go straight to one of the best produce stalls, which in the summer and fall features locally grown vegetables: tomatoes; tomatillos; shell beans; tan-skinned pumpkins for Mexican soups, stews, and sweets; purple-tinged, three-foot stalks of huanzontle, a wild green whose seed heads are poached, battered, and fried; and a rainbow of chiles. (The piles of mean-looking cactus paddles and spiny chayotes—cousins of the smooth chayotes now common in supermarkets across the country—come from Mexico.) Regina Quezada and her family, from Guerrero, have had this space for five years now. Though she can be polished and cordial, this lively marchanta—as produce vendors are often called in Mexico—can swing into loud, hard-nosed haggling at the bat of an eye, and then calmly continue stringing up decorative clusters of freshly dug jicamas, top-on beets, and bunches of serranos on the stem, ripened to the color of fire.
Across from Señora Regina's stall, the smell of a classic Mexican broth saturates the air with the gaminess of goat and ground chile. There, vendors are assembling tacos of fork-tender birria de chivo (braised goat), wrapping the meat in floppy corn tortillas with salsa, onions, and cilantro. It's the braising broth, though, the consomé, that transports the crowd. At this very moment, all over Mexico, their compatriots are participating in the same early Sunday ritual of consomé de birria—elixir to the Mexican soul.
The scene so throbs with life—as many as twenty thousand people pass through the market on an average Sunday—that the Sears Tower, even the Chicago River winding along the market's east side, seem distant, blurred into soft focus. Latin music, drifting from bootleg cassettes, are the market's sound track—with lyrics like ''¿Cómo va el mundo?'' (''How's the world going?''), ironically suitable background music for huddles of men all having the same conversation: how to stretch a dollar, how to get more hours at work. Shoppers circle and swoop, making their way past heaps of chiles; around racks of First Communion dresses and warm-up suits; past stacks of duct tape, boxes of hand-rolled cigars, and hundreds of baseball caps proclaiming regional affiliations from Aguascalientes to Zacatecas and from northside to southside Chicago. One guy always shows up with hand-hammered copper cauldrons from Michoacán for making carnitas (slow-cooked pork). Many of the nonfood vendors simply lay out garage-sale paraphernalia. Or tools—loads of tools, thrown out like Pick Up Stix. Middle-aged men sort through them while their sons eye free weights hawked by youths whose bare torsos advertise the efficacy of their wares.