I’ve now lived in Chicago longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, closing in on 20 years, but there are any number of local essentials I’ve yet to delve into. I’ve never taken an architectural tour, for example, and it was only a year or two ago that I went to the top of the Willis (nee Sears) Tower for the first time. I’ve never gone boating on the lake, and until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never been to the Maxwell St. Market.
Granted, the Maxwell St. Market is not what it once was. Formerly a mass melting pot of immigrants, it’s now predominantly Mexican, and even then, anecdotal evidence indicates that since relocating at the city’s behest, the giant flea market has been shrinking. Or at least it’s begun offering fewer food options, which is really its main attraction, not the tables teaming with rusty used tools or lots piled high with car tires. No, the food vendors are where it’s at, where you can really get a taste (so to speak) of what Chicago’s vibrant Mexican community has to offer.
Even then, there are a few must-eats scattered among the maybes. As usual, you can tell by the long lines which booth is worth the wait, and by that standard Rubi’s reputation remains undiminished. After working up an appetite for 30 minutes, making conversation in line with fellow food pilgrims attracted by the unique or unusual (yet all equally turned off by the idea of eyeball tacos), I decided to splurge for three tacos: the squash blossom, the carne asada with cactus and the al pastor, sliced fresh from the gleaming, slowly charring pork on a rotating spit which proved the subject of conversation of many a passer-by. Throw in fresh – that is, cooked to order – tortillas, with a total less than $10, and it’s no wonder that Rubi’s is the one Maxwell St. mainstay the consistently draws in the gringos and Mexicans alike.
There were other vendors worth checking out, too, those selling incredible looking tamales and other regional taco variations, but they’ll have to wait for another visit. My last stop at Maxwell St. before heading home was a Big Gulp sized agua fresca that made my hand look tiny and forced me to chug several ounces right off the bar just to make the unwieldy thing easier to carry around.