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Off the Curb

With nary a pushcart, Chicago’s street food culture walks to the beat of a different and diverse drummer

   Chef and former Chicagoan Michael Baruch says people often tell him how much they love street food in the Windy City. That may raise some eyebrows among city natives.
    “Well, what do you mean by street food exactly?” he usually
responds, despite having written the popular book Street Food Chicago.
    That’s because most people living in Chicago during the current mayor’s reign know that Richard M. Daley doesn’t like street food. Not because he’s completely insensitive, of course, but because of logistics. “Mayor Daley and his fine staff have come to the conclusion that food carts would be a warm welcome to the city’s atmosphere, as long as they practice strict sanitation and regulation rules that don’t infringe on the existing 7,000 restaurants or clog our city streets and sidewalks.”
    That’s according to Baruch, a chef with Polish roots from
Chicago’s Northwest Side, who rose the ranks at four-star
restaurants Le Francais and Le Perroquet, among others, and also
authored The New Polish Cuisine. Baruch is also working on producing more books about street foods in other cities, including in California, now that he’s a San Diego resident.
    In a city with more than 3 million people, 90 different ethnic
groups—well, you do the math. “[Food carts] would open the flood gates,” says Baruch, who often returns to Chicago.
    “It’s technically illegal,” says Veronica Resa, a
spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. That’s
again likely because of the amount of effort that would be needed for enforcing sanitation codes and other regulations.
    But when it comes to true street food, New York has its street
carts, or “pushcarts” as they’re often called, serving hot dogs
and kebabs. Los Angeles has its moving taco trucks, and in San
Francisco, Korean barbecue is cooked up street side. So what do we have? Why do people tell Baruch they like Chicago’s street food?
    Warmer months in Chicago stir up thoughts of beach time
barbecues and ball games and dogs with sweet, caramelized onions and lots of yellow mustard and relish. But the summer is also high time for neighborhood street festivals: Mayfest, Ribfest, Summerfest. Lincoln Park block parties serve up hot perogies, while Taylor Street fest brings in the beef lovers. There’s a festival almost every weekend of the summer, and they attract thousands of taste seekers each year. And there’s the Taste of Chicago, of course.
    According to Resa, private companies can get a permit to, not in her words, but essentially “rent” the space and bring in
restaurants; however, the city still oversees the festivals because
they occur on public throughways, she says. And, of course, all
restaurants that pay to participate must follow health department
sanitation protocol.
    That goes for Maxwell Street Market, another haven of street
food. Rather than using single-issue permits for single days or
weekends, this space has a year-round permit, which makes it legal to operate.
    Maxwell Street Market has gone though its ups and downs over its more than 100 years in existence. Many believe that this is where Chicago’s “street food” may have truly started.
    Fennel-spiked sausage, steaming in a poppy seed bun, hot Italian beef, soaking up a hoagie stuffed with peppers, gyro sandwiches drizzled with tangy and creamy tzatziki. While these Chicago staples may not necessarily be sold or eaten on the street nowadays, they still have that “working class,” down-home Midwestern kind of feel that makes street food simple, but good food. “What’s unique about Chicago is that we’ve always been so ethically based,” Baruch says. “It seems some of the best places for ‘street food’ are the cheaper joints.”
    First, the Germans, Italians and Irish settled in the area,
followed by Greeks and Russians and then Jews from Eastern Europe: Poland and the Ukraine. Now, one sees the influence of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in the Maxwell Street community, noted by the many food stalls serving tacos, burritos, enchiladas and tamales.
    “Back in Eastern Europe, people were used to selling their
wares on the street, so it was only natural that they would look to
do the same here,” Baruch says. “On top of that, back then there
were tenement homes with hundreds of people in a little space, so many would take portable ovens and cook outside.”
    The Maxwell Street area was spared by the Great Chicago Fire, giving birth to a market of pushcarts and street vendors, which officially became Maxwell Street Market in 1912, according to the market’s web site.
    “Then we had the stockyards and everything was being dumped into the Chicago River,” Baruch says. “When we started building again, there was a Victorian philosophy among city officials…‘we don’t want street cars, or pushcarts, it’s not clean, and the water was so dirty that everyone used to drink beer instead.’ There was a feeling among them that ‘we don’t want these German food stalls or cooking on the street or hocking your wares.’ So everything just got pushed to the Southwest Side, out of site, out of mind.”
    While those communities developed into stable, institutional
Eastern European neighborhoods and Halsted became Greektown,

Maxwell Street Market still managed to survive.
    But controversy heightened during the ‘80s when petty crime
overtook the area and in the mid-‘90s when the University of
Illinois’ development plans clashed with residents and strong market loyalists. After some buildup in the area, the market was forced to close or move. It did the latter, thanks to a lot of lobbying, moving a half-mile away near Canal and Roosevelt streets. In the summer of 2008, the market moved again, this time to a more permanent location on Des Plaines, right back in the heart of what is now University Village.
    While the Eastern Europeans and Italians certainly have made
their impact on Chicago’s street food culture, the Mexican community has had just as strong an influence. Aside from the several food stalls at Maxwell Street Market serving up enchiladas, tacos, tamales and more, head down to 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood, and it’s easy to find more of the same favorites. Throw a dart and you’re likely to hit a taco joint—and not just any taco joint, a good one.
    “Even though they’re not selling them specifically on the
street, you could literally walk in any of these places, and in 10
feet, you’re at a counter.”
    So if Chicago can’t have pushcarts, why do we see those
pushcart vendors selling elotes (corn on the cob and smothered with cheese and sour cream) in Latino neighborhoods? Many of the vendors are unlicensed and serving the food illegally. But, oh, the butter, the chili, lime, the crema on that sweetly roasted corn. And everybody who’s had one knows how sinfully delicious a steaming hot tamale is from the “tamale guy” while seated at your local watering hole, especially after a few beers. It’s up to the restaurants or bars whether they let them in.
    Baruch tells a story he learned from Mayor Rudy Giuliani
himself. “Rudi was never keen on the ever-increasing amount of
street carts, but one day he thought he’d give in and take a few of
his pals down to a local vendor to get a hot pretzel and a hot dog,”
Baruch says. “To his amazement, while standing across the street
from a Jamaican vendor, he witnessed about 100 pigeons dive-bombing and attacking this man’s stall. The Jamaican guy pulled out a machete and started wildly swinging at the birds.”

Published: June 07, 2009
Issue: Summer 2009 Urban Living