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The predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood was once predominantly Czech. Across Chicago, says Juana Guzman of Pilsen's National Museum of Mexican Art, "food is an important cultural anchor." (Tim Klein)

Chicago Eats

From curried catfish to baba ghanouj, Chicago serves up what may be the finest ethnic cuisine going

The people of Chicago, that stormy, husky, brawling kind of town, sure know how to tie on the feed bag. Has any other American city patented so many signature foods? There's deep-dish pizza, smoky Polish sausages, Italian beef sandwiches au jus, and, of course, the classic Chicago-style hot dog: pure Vienna Beef on a warm poppy-seed bun with mustard, relish, pickled peppers, onions, tomato slices, a quartered dill pickle and a dash of celery salt. Alter the formula (or ask for ketchup) and you can head right back to Coney Island, pal. For better or worse, it was Chicago that transformed the Midwest's vast bounty of grains, livestock and dairy foods into Kraft cheese, Cracker Jack and Oscar Mayer wieners. And in recent years, emerging from its role as chuck wagon to the masses, Chicago finally bulled its way into the hallowed precincts of haute cuisine, led by renowned chefs Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless and Grant Achatz, who's one of the forerunners of a movement known as molecular gastronomy. "They hate the term, but that's how people refer to it," says Mike Sula, a food columnist for the weekly Chicago Reader. "They like to call it 'techno-emotional cuisine.'" But does it taste good? "Oh yeah," he says.

Sula filled me in during a Sunday morning stroll through the historic Maxwell Street Market (now transplanted to Desplaines Street) on the Near West Side. We weren't there for the cutting-edge cuisine, but something much older and more fundamental. Call it street food, peasant food, a taste of home—by any name, Maxwell Street has been serving it up for a long time. So it made sense to include the market on my exploration of what may be the richest of Chicago's culinary treasures: the authentic, old-country eateries scattered throughout the city's ethnic neighborhoods.

In 1951, author Nelson Algren wrote of Chicago streets "where the shadow of the tavern and the shadow of the church form a single dark and double-walled dead end." Yet President Barack Obama's hometown is also a city of hope. Visionaries, reformers, poets and writers, from Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg to Richard Wright, Saul Bellow and Stuart Dybek, have found inspiration here, and Chicago has beckoned to an extraordinary range of peoples—German, Irish, Greek, Swedish, Chinese, Arab, Korean and East African, among many, many others. For each, food is a powerful vessel of shared traditions, a direct pipeline into the soul of a community. Choosing just a few to sample is an exercise in random discovery.

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Maxwell Street has long occupied a special place in immigrant lore. For decades, the area had a predominantly Jewish flavor; jazzman Benny Goodman, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, boxing champ and World War II hero Barney Ross, not to mention Oswald assassin Jack Ruby, all grew up nearby. Infomercial king Ron Popeil ("But wait, there's more!") started out hawking gadgets here. African-Americans also figure prominently in the street's history, most memorably through performances by bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Junior Wells. Today, the market crackles with Mexican energy—and the alluring aromas of Oaxaca and Aguascalientes. "There's a great range of regional Mexican dishes, mostly antojitos, or little snacks," Sula said. "You get churros, sort of extruded, sugared, fried dough, right out of the oil, fresh—they haven't been sitting around. And champurrado, a thick corn-based, chocolaty drink, perfect for a cold day."

As flea markets go, Maxwell Street is less London's Portobello Road than something out of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, with mounds of used tires, power tools, bootleg videos, baby strollers, tube socks and lug wrenches—a poor man's Wal-Mart. A vendor nicknamed Vincent the Tape Man offers packing materials of every description, from little hockey pucks of electrical tape to jumbo rolls that could double as barbell weights.

Sula and I sampled some huaraches, thin handmade tortillas covered with a potato-chorizo mix, refried beans, grated cotija cheese and mushroomy huitlacoche, also known as corn smut or Mexican truffles—depending on whether you regard this inky fungus as blight or delight. Sula said he was sorry we hadn't been able to find something more transcendent.

"Usually there's a Oaxacan tamale stand where they have the regular corn husk–steamed tamales, plus a flatter, larger version wrapped in a banana leaf—those are fantastic," he said. "Another thing I'm disappointed not to see today is something called machitos, kind of a Mexican haggis. It's sausage, pork or lamb, done in a pig's stomach."

Sula doesn't fool around.

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