Many roads lead to a Maxwell Street menu

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Characters converge for Chicago’s fuel

The old Maxwell Street Market may no longer be found on Google Maps, but the cuisine spawned by the historic market still is being hustled at sidewalk stands on indiscriminate street corners throughout the South and West sides.

“Where my boneless pork chop at! Give me back my money!” Extreme hunger and more extreme cold do not mix well at the southeast corner of Sacramento Boulevard and Harrison Street where a woman in a bright pink coat emblazoned with “Barack Obama, President of the United States” snatches the brown bag of food handed to her through the window and turns to her car, finally satisfied.

A school’s digital clock across the street flashes 2:21 a.m., a time made worse by what flashes next: 2 degrees.

But judging by the constant sidewalk traffic that shows up by car, by foot and by bicycle, the eats at The Original Maxwell Street Grill are worth even that.

“They good, they good, they good, they good,” Ann says, laughing with hopes the mantra will keep her warm while waiting for a 7-Up and a pork chop. “They fast, they fast, they fast, they fast.”

Two workers grinding through the night behind narrow glass windows speak little English, if they have time to talk at all. “Regular people,” one says with a shrug, thinking about the late-night clientele. Then a car honks and it’s back to action.

Suffering through whiteouts and deadly cold for a slab of greasy meat topped with peppers and onions is a Chicago tradition. The failure of other cities to understand this primal need contributes to Chicago’s brawny image.

The evidence is Henrico, 47, who rolls up on his Trek bike from a few blocks away to order food for his house full of people.

“I ride every day, I ride every year,” he says. He dismisses single-digit temperatures, knowing that the “best thing about riding in winter is you don’t sweat.”

He grabs his brown bags and turns to leave, but his cousin walks up, calls his name and a conversation keeps Henrico another 15 minutes.

The sidewalk is a meeting place. Couples winding down dates, friends between parties and late shift workers going home randomly intersect. On this corner, they share a common goal—ordering food. There is a mediator in this scene—Tommy, 43 and homeless for two years. A former handyman, he chews a Polish dog that a woman bought for him. He is helping people with their orders while waiting to collect bus money to get to Pacific Garden Mission. Having grown up around the corner, he knows most of the people.

As Waldo, 33, a bouncer at the Cubby Bear, orders 11 tacos (“six for myself!”), Tommy explains to him what guacamole is (“that green stuff”). Waldo will have none of it.

Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune

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