The Streets of Chicago

10 Jan

Happy New Year! (I can still say that, right?) It looks like this is the week to start emerging from the year-end hibernation/food coma that is the holiday season. I can’t believe it’s been almost a month since my last post. Most of that was spent with friends in family in Michigan and Chicago, eating familiar, much-missed foods (cheese! Beer! Real bacon!), rather than trying anything new. But you can’t keep a good sneukeltourist down, so I did do a little food adventuring — this time on the chilly streets of Chicago.

The rare and elusive Chicago food truck

Chicago is way behind places like New York, LA, or even Honolulu with the food truck movement, owing to the city’s rather draconian laws regarding mobile food stalls. (Food trucks in Chicago are not allowed to do any actual cooking onboard, nor are they allowed to park within 200 feet of an established restaurant — a tall order in a city that seems to have an eatery on every block.) A few intrepid food truckers have started making the rounds, however, including 5411 Empanadas, which specializes in the stuffed pastry. (These are the Argentinian type, with a pastry casing, rather than the Cuban or Mexican type.) I came across the truck on my way to take advantage of the Art Institute of Chicago’s free weekdays for Chicago residents (most of my stuff is still in Chicago, so that counts, right?), and couldn’t resist trying it out.

The Art Institute's fluorescent lights don't do much for photo quality

I caught them on the tail end of the lunch hour, so all they had left was the ham and cheese. This is where I discovered the downside of food trucks in Chicago, at least in the winter: it’s too cold to plop down on a street corner to eat, like one would in Asia. So I ended up tucking it in my purse and eating it almost two hours later. It was still pretty good, and I’m sure it would have been delicious hot. What I really liked, though, was the homemade hot sauce, which was really more like a thick salsa. It was the kind of condiment that made me wish I had a spoon, or more empanada, to finish it with.

Many of Chicago’s best street vendors don’t rely on fancy trucks, or licenses, to ply their wares. A summer in Chicago wouldn’t be complete without the tinkle of the paletas (Mexican popsicles) cart, or the elotes (corn off the cob, eaten the Mexican way with mayo, cheese, chili, and, uh, Parkay) vendor. In the winter, these treats morph into tamales and champurrado, the better to warm you on a chilly Midwest day. (The tamales are actually available year-round, but  usually in the morning or very late at night.)

The tamale and champurrado uncle

Tamales aren’t particularly exotic to anyone familiar with Mexican food, but champurrado was new to me. It’s hot chocolate thickened with corn meal and spiked with cinnamon, and has a consistency similar to Cream of Wheat. The version the tamale guy on my corner was hawking was a bit too light on the chocolate and way too heavy on the cinnamon, unfortunately. Plus, the 18-ounce serving size proved to be more champurrado than I could handle. (Imagine a large soda cup filled with porridge, and you’ll see what I mean.) Champurrado is a comforting drink, but it’s not going to replace horchata as my favorite Mexican beverage.


2 Responses to “The Streets of Chicago”

  1. Megara January 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    R, do you happen to know if tamales were indeed invented in Chicago? My Chicago-born mother seems convinced of this.

    • rgautz January 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

      According to Wikipedia, tamales predate Chicago by a few millenia. However, the machine-extruded, paper-wrapped tamales (allegedly) sold at ball parks is a Chicago invention. I do hope for your mom’s sake that those aren’t the only tamales she’s had.

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