June 6, 2021, at 9am, Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market reopened for business after being shut down for the many months of the pandemic.
The very first time I visited the Maxwell Street Market was sometime in the mid-sixties. It was in the dead of winter, and a friend’s dad took us to the market to look for a used carburetor to drop into a vintage Ford. My one clear memory of that day is standing in an empty lot next to an oil drum filled with burning wood scraps, at the southeast corner of Maxwell and Halsted, looking across the street at Jim’s Original, the birthplace of the Maxwell Street Polish. Sweet onion-scented steam was pouring out the windows of the rickety building that housed this classic street food joint, and to be honest, the whole scene—flames and smoke, ice-covered sidewalks, guys sitting at card tables selling junk—looked to my young eyes like a desolate urban hellscape. Now, of course, I have nothing but good memories of this classic Chicago market, which was soon to be pushed out.
The city of Chicago moved the Maxwell Street Market to Canal Street in 1994 to make room for the growing University of Illinois. The corner of Maxwell and Halsted, where Jim’s was located, is now in the middle of University Village, an upscale residential and commercial area. To build University Village, the University of Illinois arranged for the demolition of the Maxwell Street Market, much to the dismay of local preservationists. Some of the facades have been retained, but for the most part, the old market neighborhood has been transformed into a twenty-first-century student enclave.
On Canal Street, the Maxwell Street Market evolved to become a hub for some of Chicago’s most outstanding Mexican cuisine. In 2008, the market moved again to Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt and Harrison. At each of these latter locations, I remember hearing vendors say, “it ain’t what it used to be,” and they were absolutely right. The Maxwell Street Market is always evolving, never like it was, always changing… But surviving.
When we returned to the market last weekend, we were not surprised to see that many vendors had not yet returned—but we were delighted that many of our favorites had been first to jump back in. If you’re thinking of visiting the market—perhaps for the first time—here are a few places that are open and that you’d do well to visit.
Tamales Oaxaquenos. Corn meal masa, enfolding shredded chicken, steamed in a banana leaf, dressed with red and green salsa and crema—that’s a tamale in the style of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. In the dozens of trips we’ve made to the market since the early aughts, we have never visited without getting one of these tamales, and no one we’ve introduced them to has not been knocked out. The nice lady at the counter recognized me, and we both said, almost simultaneously, “It’s good to see you again.”
Xurro. You know those fried brown dough-tubes you see sitting in greasy plastic boxes, sold by street vendors in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods? You don’t want to eat one of those. The way you definitely want a churro, or any fried food, is moments after it’s been lifted out of the hot oil. At the Xurro churros truck at the Maxwell Street Market, you can have the fried tube freshly filled with vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry creams, and you will probably never taste a churro so good.
Rica Nieve. There are a number of refreshing frozen confections at this small stand, usually found at the corner of DesPlaines and Polk, and the one you want is the mangonada, which we’ve featured in these pages. If you’ve never tasted one, it’s served in a clear plastic cup, coated with chamoy (a sweet Mexican catsup), filled with fresh mango and mango sorbet, splashed with fresh lime juice, dusted with Tajin (chili salt), and dressed up with a straw wrapped in tamarind paste. It is a mighty mouthful of flavor.
Jim’s Original. Still in business, even it’s no longer located in the Maxwell Street Market, Jim’s Original is now about a half-mile south, on the other side of I-90. “Our top-selling item is definitely the Polish sausage,” says Jim Christopoulos, grandson of the founder of Jim’s, Jimmy Stefanovic. At Jim’s Original, twenty-four hours every day, people pass their money through the front window and receive bulging brown bags, each splashed with a Rorschach of grease, just as back in the day. Jim’s has been serving the Maxwell Street Polish since around 1939, when Stefanovic, a Macedonian immigrant, took over his aunt’s and uncle’s stand in the Maxwell Street Market.
“The Halsted Street bus stop was right in front, so we had lots of traffic,” says Christopoulos. “The Polish sausage was convenient, cheap, quick, filling and delicious. I love hot dogs, but the Polish has a much more complex flavor than a hot dog. Our Polish sausage is mostly pork with beef. The Polish sausage has some garlic in it, and you can see the pepper. And it’s a one-third pound sausage, so it’s a sizable meal.”
The Maxwell Street area was not destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871, even though the fire started just a few blocks away at what was once 137 DeKoven. The market has survived the expansion of the University of Illinois, the move to Canal Street and now the move to its present location. It’s going to take more than a worldwide health disaster to wipe it out, though there’s no doubt it’s been weakened in the past year. Some vendors have probably left the business. A few of the best vendors, however, have returned, and if you’re interested in picking up on the oh-so-Chicago vibe of walking the market looking for weird curios, Frida Kahlo t-shirts, tube socks and fantastic Mexican food, stop by the Maxwell Street Market this summer. It’s open for business on the first and third Sundays of every month, from 9am until 3pm, on the stretch of DesPlaines between Roosevelt and the Eisenhower. It’s a big bite of Chicago history.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org