“2658 North Milwaukee,” I mutter to myself as I look down at the printed Metromix page and walk out of the underground blue line stop. But which direction am I facing? I look at the map and which way I came out of the train. I’m in a hurry. It’s already past nine. I finally choose a direction and start walking. There aren’t many storefronts with numbers and the street is dark here. I pass by a Mexican restaurant and dance club with pockets of young Latinos hanging out around their cars. I reach California and look at the map again. A stocky woman with half a tooth missing in the front, like Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber, asks me if I have any change. I have less than a buck which I hand over. Then she asks if I need help and I tell her I’m looking for Taqueria Puebla and explain that it’s a Mexican restaurant that is supposed to be good, that I’m on a trip for food, etc.
“There’s a Mexican restaurant across from the McDonald’s that way,” she says as she points the opposite direction I’ve been walking. “But I don’t think it’s called Puebla. There’s a gas station over there,” she continues as she points down Sacramento. I thank her and start walking to the gas station. Just as I start to walk off, she asks, “Are you looking for some fun?” It takes me a second before I realize what she’s doing.
You know that scene in every movie set in the third world? Protagonist in the congested city streets narrowly avoiding being run down by rumbling buses and trucks coughing black exhaust. People dressed in peculiar garb. Strange advertisements and signs on storefronts. Exotic foods being sold in every storefront. Well, I am now of the opinion that every one of those scenes could well have been shot on Chicago’s Devon Ave.
From just east of the intersection of Western and Devon to several blocks west of the same intersection, is a tremendous concentration of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, markets, and retailers. Bindi decorated women in their saris and men in suits, some with turbans, fill the shops. Caucasians are a conspicuous minority. There are no 7-Elevens or McDonald’s separating the stores. A friend’s wife can’t walk a block without him needing to take a crowbar to get her face and hands off the windows of the jewelry stores. Each side street contains hidden gems, too.
Devon has become a required destination on my trips to Chicago.
My friend Scott — the guy with whom I first started talking critically about food, the guy with whom I’ve travelled to various places both in and out of the United States in order to eat, the guy with whom I most often email back and forth about my meals — has a mantra: there’s always room for ice cream. And it’s a mantra we’ve invoked often on our travels.
The theory goes that when ice cream breaks down in the digestive system, it fills the crevices between the more solid foods, thus not requiring extra stomach space. Hence: there’s always room for ice cream. For the lactose intolerant like myself, it has a double meaning that might be more accurately understood as: there will always be room after ice cream.
The theory easily extends to other frozen desserts such as gelato, sorbet, granita, shave ice, and Italian ice, a primarily eastern U.S. treat, popular in Chicago. Due to Erik’s generosity and, frankly, dumb luck, I was fortunate to have Italian ice three times on my trip: twice at Miko’s and once at Mario’s. My first taste of Italian ice on the trip was at Miko’s.
“Hold on a sec.” Erik raised a finger as he rapidly fired words into his cell phone and finished his conversation. Scott and I had just come out of Joe’s with some sausage and were surprised he was there. A broker, Erik talks fast and thinks fast. His slight accent betrays his midwesternity, but the clothes, the hair, the sunglasses, the attitude, the wiry build — they’re New York, Vegas, or LA. Scott would later call him the Chicago food scene’s Mr. Pink, but I think that’s unfair. They may share a certain manic passion, but Mr. Pink isn’t cool. Erik isn’t mobster cool, but he’s culinary cool, like a bit of Bourdain without the chain smoking and years of heroin addiction.
“You guys headed to Spoon?” We had set up a lunch with a few LTHForum members at Spoon Thai, one of Chicago’s most well-regarded Thai restaurants. Spoon is known for its “secret” menu, a Thai-language menu that Chowhound and LTHForum patrons, including Erik, had helped translate. I told him we were just heading over there and asked him if he wanted to join us. “No, I don’t want to influence your experience.”
Two days earlier, Erik had set up a special dinner at one of his favorite Thai restaurants, TAC Quick. The day before that, he had generously showed me around town in his car, including a tour of the neighborhood around Argyle and Broadway dominated by SE Asian markets and restaurants.
Just off the Zocolo, on the tight streets of Mexico City’s Centro Historico, you can find CDs for 12 pesos each, five for 50. DVDs for 300 pesos each. Computer software for a tenth of the price you’ll find it at Best Buy. Of course, it’s all pirated. You’ll also find blender parts, toys, lingerie, socks, and sunglasses. Sure, I hover over the CD pile a bit, but the true object of my desire is the food. Tacos, churros, quesadillas, huaraches….
I wasn’t sure exactly what the Maxwell Street Market would entail. But after only a few steps, I realized: it’s a little bit of Mexico City. Socks, sunglasses, CDs — they’re all there. Duct tape, a wall of pink hats, lawn Jesuses (or is it Jesai?), radios, a selection of posters with Al Pacino from Scarface, bras, toys, tools, and, my personal favorite, the table of comic books and porn. But most importantly, Mexican street food.
My mom has a class picture of me in kindergarten when we lived in Sacramento. We lived in a trailer park off of Northgate and Del Paso Blvds. In the picture, there are a dozen black kids, half a dozen Hispanic kids, and me, the only white kid. But when you’re six, you don’t know that you’re supposed to care about such things, that you’re supposed to live in different parts of town, be suspicious of one another, and so on. You just know that Jamal makes you laugh and Maria makes you blush when she tries to kiss you on the bus.
By the time I started taking the red line to south Chicago, I knew better. And they, the African-Americans who live there, knew better. They knew that in 1926 the Supreme Court ruled that deeds could restrict what races could purchase the property in the future. They knew that in the ’30s and ’40s the FHA had encouraged separating “incompatible racial groups”. They knew that in the progressive ’60s and ’70s — and even today — that real estate agents only showed them housing where they’d be “comfortable”. They knew it, and I knew it.
But my belly is no respecter of persons. It knows no race. It knows no history. It just knows good food. So when my belly heard “ribs”, it directed me south.
This trip began like most of my trips: a half-assed attempt to kill as many birds with one stone as possible. A friend from college announced that he’d be in Chicago for an academic conference. He’d be staying with a second friend from college. A third friend from college decided he was going to join them. All of us worked on the same alternative paper and I was the only missing piece of the reunion. The third friend, in the mean-time, ate at Trio and loved it. I must go, he told me. Then I discovered the Maxwell Street Market, a flea market with a concentration of Mexican street food difficult to find elsewhere in the US. That was the straw that broke the cheap bastard’s back, and I gave in.
Chicago inhabits a special place in my belly. I made a trip there several years back with my eating buddy, Scott, and dined at 6 four and five star restaurants in fewer days, along with eating Indian on Devon, Mexican at Frontera Grill, Garrett’s popcorn, and other tasty Windy City delights. I’d eaten at nice restaurants before, even top restaurants in cities like San Francisco. But the concentration of quality gave me a baseline that has informed my palate since.
So, on the way back from a family trip in Michigan, I decided to add an extra 24 hours in Chicago to introduce my little brothers, 9 and 12, to Chicago, including its food.