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Jun 1, 2003 08:59 AM

Sope-lirious still

  • v

The one person that I knew would follow up on my sope guy, Gwiv, the Ultimo, did in fact try to find him last week. But he prowled the stretch of Milwaukee south of Fullerton and came up deliciousness-less. It was something I worried about when I made the original post.

I went yesterday, to the sacred corner of St. George and Milwaukee (how fitting, I know), and sure enough, a food stand was there. I cannot yet say if this is a weekend only thing or that since Gary tried on a day of poor weather, that was a problem. Each visit, I try to extract a bit more information, but I am so delierious with joy with my sope, I can only do so much. What I did get this visit is that the sope people come from Guerrero.

Yesterday, I was not sure if it was the man who looked like an older Carlos Santana. He had perhaps recently shorn his curls, and besides, was wearing a hat. Still, the set-up was the same, including the large vats of aqua fresca and the prominent green salsa that I knew it was my guy. For the sake of you readers, I ordered a taco as well as a sope, just to try more. The tacos are the crunchy rolled kind, flautas also, filled with chorizo. They get the squeeze bottle drizzle, sour cream, and given that he said he was from Guerrero, maybe this is Gene Bahena making a couple of bucks to support his ever growing need to expand. The sope yesterday was potato. No seeds on top, but again on the side. He did spray a handfull of Mexican grated cheese over the whole thing, and he may have even said bam.

I liked the taco, but cold fried things are only so good. The sope remained sope heaven. If anything it was even better. The masa was more distictively sope shaped, like a coaster or a 60's era ashtray, meaning there was more distict elements of thick and thin. The botton was charred from a griddle in the way I expect New Haven pizza to be. On Friday, one of the chowhounditas and I split the filete con papas at Quebrada. I am not a big fan of the potatoes at Quebrada. There is always something hard and cutting to their taste. Not here, the potatoes were a soft medley of flavors, the best hash browns. The very hot green sauce complemented perfectly, and the pumpkin seeds gave the usual texture.

As I sat around eating my stuff, I saw he also sells tamales and atole. I tried a cup of the latter, but it did not move me. More like drinking a can of corn.

One other note/correction. I reported the grocery store which is just to the north of the sainted sope man as San Luis, it is San Lucas.


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  1. Actually, I was also there last Thursday. There was a cart on the WEST side of the street, just in front of a van parked on the empty lot directly north of Family Dollar and Marianao. I don't know what Carlos Santana looks like and so cannot say if we are talking about the same man. He had one of your standard glass-covered wagons with shelves for cups of chopped-up fruit, a place for the cooler full of tamales and four jugs of aguas frescas. He said sopes is available only on weekends, starting at about 9:30. I had a couple of good (but ordinary) tamales and a glass of perfectly-brewed jamaica (the other drinks were orchata, watermelon, cantaloupe; all looked lovely). I also saw taquitos dorados being prepared for another client: these are essentially (cold, pre-fried) rolled tortillas (like "flautas") smothered with crema, cheese, salsa. He also offers chicharron preparado. I had a chat with this man and he told me that his family is from Taxco in the state of Guerrero.

    I was out of town Friday and Saturday but made it back to that area at 11 today (Sunday). The man and his van/family were NOT to be seen at all on that parking lot. Instead, on the EAST side of the street, directly north of the street sign for "St. George Ct." is a completely different old van (a faded "Burgundy" color) with a completely different cast of characters and what is virtually a mob (all Mexicans, no gringos) lining up for food as well as standing around enjoying them.

    In that van is arguably the greatest single stash/source of Mexican street food to be found in any one "stall" in all of Chicago and perhaps in the whole country. It is also one of the greatest collection of rareties I have ever seen anywhere. The business is limited by the fact that they do NOT cook in situ; they do not prepare food. Everything they sell is pre-made at home and sold out of ice chests (which keep hot things warm). The set-up includes a good couple of dozen of these "coolers" holding not just the food, but also the elaborate array of garnishes, condiments, toppings, sides etc. The drinks (aguas frescas and atoles) and the "coolers" holding the tamales are arranged outside on makeshift stands (milkcrates etc). There is a little table holding three types of salsas + pickled onions/jalapenos, pre-packed cups of salsa in to-go containers, napkins, plastic forks etc. Large garbage bags are "hooked" over the fence of the parking lot for convenient disposal for those standing around to eat (which is virtually everyone: the mood is festive). The main business is handled through the open back door of the van where the long line starts. One orders and the lady crouching inside reaches for the proper coolers to complete the dish (on styrofoam plates) with all the appropriate garnitures (ex: toasted pumpkin seeds on the side etc). But even with this restriction to those food forms that are meant to stay delicious many hours afterwards, there is still such an astonishing range that my heart nearly stopped when I took stock, slowly, of all the treasures that are gathered in this one spot. And I was also quite taken aback by the sheer inventiveness involved in putting together this extraordinary selection and in coordinating it all.

    The family that runs this is from Iguala and the delicacies on offer in the van is a virtual encyclopaedia of the classic antojitos from the state of Guerrero in general and from this city in particular. Iguala is much discussed on this board bec many of our greatest Mexican food stands are run by folks from this "tierra caliente" region near the river Balsas. The folks from Monica's & Rubi's (the "Masa Madonna" stand) are from this general area of Taxco-Teloloapan-Iguala and either the husband or the wife is specifically from Iguala itself. Iguala is located on the road from Taxco to the state capital, Chilpancingo and is also connected by a major road to Teloloapan. Chef Geno Bahena is of course from around here and Chef Bayless has many deep, very close friendships with people from this area. The owners of La Quebrada are from nearby, as are the owners of El Cabrito on 48th/Ashland and Taqueria Teloloapan. Our Mexican immigrants come from so so many parts of the republic (from Santiago Papasquiaro in Durango, from Nuevo Leon, from eastern Michoacan, from all parts of Jalisco, from Oaxaca, from Zacatecas, from Guanajuato and so on) that I feel bad about privileging one single group over all the others. But based on their extraordinarily high standards (for instance: the finest masa of any group) and their profound, very pure, uncommercialized, unadulterated links to roots-eating, I am almost tempted to declare the immigrants from this part of Guerrero as the greatest fount of the vibrancy of Mexican cuisine in Chicago.

    Here is the list of treasures available:

    PICADAS These are the snacks that VI called "sopes". They are properly called picadas or pellizcadas in Iguala, although they will use the word "sopes" when talking with non-Guerrerense Mexicans. Picar or pellizcar means "to pinch", in reference to the pinched-up sides of the round oh-perhaps-quarter-inch-thick masa cake. The lady also told me that sometimes the word "chalupas" is used but in my experience in Chilapa, chalupa refers to something else. Note that in eastern Mexico, picadas or picaditas are pinched all over the surface (creating little "mountains") to absorb/hold the sauces better. There is a recipe (and picture?) of this snack in Zarela's Veracruz book. The Veracruzan place on 26th has picaditas on the menu, but alas, they use store-bought tortilla and they are picaditas only in name.

    They offer only one kind of picada, which is potato. Mine differs a bit from VI's description of a sope with charred bottom. The seeds on top are toasted guaje seeds (discussed many times on this board). Yes, toasted pumpkin seeds are served on the side. I think this is $1. Terrific!

    TACOS DE CANASTA "Tacos from a basket" These are true street food. In Mexico City, they are usually sold by ladies wandering from office building to office building (floor to floor) or by young guys with the basket attached to the handlebar of a bicycle. The form emerged as an exigency: the need to have tacos that are enjoyable lukewarm. The tortillas are small (4 1/2 inch diameter?) delicate and resilient. These are doubled (for strength) and then folded over to hold the stuffing which is usually in the form of a fine ground (not quite a puree, but no chunks). They are laid one on top on the next in the basket (or the cooler in this case) to "steam" and keep warm while waiting for their turn to be eaten.

    There are five different types of tacos de canasta on offer (I think $.50 each): frijoles, mole with pollo (this is Teloloapan-style mole), chicken on its own, chicharron (I had this too: addictive!) and papas.


    8 Replies
    1. re: RST

      Continued from previous post:

      QUESADILLA DE CEVICHE This is technically NOT a quesadilla as it doesn't have queso in it. I am not sure of the provenance of the usage/name for this particular form: I'll do some digging around. It is a fried (crunchy) taco shell (of high quality: from nixtamal masa, not factory-flipped) perhaps 5 inches in diameter. I'll have to ask next time what kind of implement they use to keep the taco shells folded over but slightly flaring outwards (almost in a V form). The ceviche is spooned into the shell a la minute. (Again, note that all the elements that go into this botana are made beforehand!) In itself, the (four or so tablespoons of) ceviche is one of the most delicious around. There is shrimp (good-sized, but not so large as to overwhelm the shell), tiny mussels, little squid tentacles and crab meat (!) The flavor is bright and vivid with rich fruity acidity (I am guessing cider vinegar or perhaps homemade pineapple vinegar: I'll ask next time). Just stunning! I fell in love with this and just had to have a second one. $1!

      TAQUITOS DORADOS These are the pre-fried rolled tortillas filled with pollo, papa or longaniza. I am assuming that they are topped/finished with crema, cheese, salsa. I was not able to try any of the three kinds. Next time.

      TACOS DE BARBACOA This is a combination of goat meat and beef (chivo/res). Very good, but I would rather go to one of the barbacoa specialist in town for my barbacoa fix. $1.


      Now this breathtaking collection of atoles/hot masa-based drinks:

      CHAMPURRADO (sometimes called chocoatole) chocolate, masa, cinnamon (canela), milk, azucar/sugar (piloncillo)

      ATOLE DE ELOTE CON PANILE Atole of tender (fresh) corn kernels (also called atole blanco). At the bottom of the styrofoam cup, the man spoons in about 2/3 inch of panile. Then the corn kernel/masa "soup" is poured over it to the brim. Panile is green chile (probably serrano) ground up with epazote. This green sauce mixes with the thick atole "swirling" into a marbled pattern. This atole is very much related to the chileatole from Puebla that we discussed not too long ago, but I think that that one is "greener" (more "about" the chile and herbs) than this one.

      ARROZ CON LECHE (Not tried)

      ATOLE DE FRIJOLES This is another rarety. This is a thick "soup" of beans thickened with masa and sweetened with piloncillo. I did not try this one but the beans seem to be a special variety. The beans have a very bright brown color, seem to be broken into halves (?) giving off a two-shades-of-brown, dappled effect and do not seem to be cooked to mushiness. This is a must-try next week.

      ATOLE DE CIRUELAS DE TLAXMALAC I had a long discussion with some of my fellow-eaters (who filled me in on all the details of this cuisine) about this ciruela pasa(prune). I was told that the ciruelas come the area of Tlaxmalac, which is within the administrative district of Iguala. Tlaxmalac (I think, a village or hamlet) is renowned for these ciruelas (among many agricultural products). They are not big: the smallest ones are just about the size of an extra large Chinese/Korean jujube, with the pit intact. The beautiful yellowish/brown atole is barely sweetened with piloncillo, but does not have the full-blast sugar-sweetness that we expect from our desserts. I really don't know how people will take to this atole bec of this "unsweet" aspect. But it is without a doubt an extraordinary atole and a great great find!


      TAMALES NEJOS Another rarety! Another gem! Tamales nejos, like the corundas of Michoacan, are made of masa cooked with ash (ceniza) to produce a very dense, almost rubbery cake. These tamales nejos are flat as a plate (!), perhaps 1/3 of an inch thick, 7 inches in diameter, so they barely fit into the styrofoam plate. They are wrapped in banana leaf and are then steamed upright in the pot (like plates standing upright in a dishwasher). Unfortunately, I forgot to ask to look at the wrapping before she opened mine, but I will do it next week. The senora places a cooked chicken thigh on top and drenches the dish in a oily, beautifully-textured, pipian sauce. The pipian/oil provides the perfect mouthfeel to serve as foil to the rubbery tamal. Extraordinary!

      In addition, they offer five more of the "regular" tamales. These are longer and thicker than the usual roja/verde we find elsewhere and also seem to be of a much higher quality. The five are verde (with pork), roja (with pork), rajas con queso and two sweet types. The first of the sweet tamales is "rosita", also called "tamal de regalo" (presumably bec it is pink in color and bec it is normally given as a gift.) The second is a tamale de ciruela made from the same Tlaxmalac ciruela. This is one of the finest tamales to be found in Chicago. The only other of these 5 that I tried is the rajas which was also spectacular.

      In additon, they offer 4 aguas frescas. The salsas on the table include a verde, a smooth avocado-enriched one and a chile-de-arbol-based red sauce which they called "salsa Robertina". Have to ask them next week where they got that name. They have most of the to-go amenities, as I mentioned above: inclg pre-packed salsas, styrofoam cup holders (for multiple orders of drinks) etc. It is a very well-thought out operation for this type of business. (Well, perhaps, they could provide more surfaces for people to rest their plates on.)

      This is what I ate and took home = 2 meals/lunch & dinner):
      Tamal nejo (1)
      Quesadilla de ceviche (2)
      Tamal de rajas + tamal de ciruela (2)
      Tacos de canasta (2)
      Picada de papas y guaje (1)
      Taco de barbacoa (1)
      Atole de ciruela (1)

      The total for this amazing adventure into less-trodden realms of Mexican cuisine is $9.25. Insane!

      In addition, I spent a good hour just hanging out with "everyone" on the sidewalk. Everyone (families, single guys, kids) was all intent and serious about the eating but ready to answer every one of my questions.

      Mumon, if you are reading this and if you ever come back from NYC: this place has your name written on it.

      Shirley, if you are still around next week: this really deserves a stop before you leave us.

      I am so psyched about this place, I am almost thinking of getting a pink bunny suit so that I can lead a board expedition next weekend! Anyone has a disguise I could borrow? ;)


      The HOURS are Saturday and Sunday (only) starting at 7 a.m. until the food is all sold, which is about 1 or 2 p.m.


      I come home, open the Sunday Tribune and what do I read but our food journalists writing about such profoundly trivial, profoundly stupid things such as Mr. Firestone (of the winery) and his "bride" & a recipe for "Saigon-tini". A piece on where to buy foodstuff for a picnic ONCE AGAIN pretends that nothing else in this city exists except the two extremes of chain groceries or Charlie Trotter's. (The two places suggested were Jewel's or Trotter's To Go.) What about some home-cured prsut and Travnicki sir (cheese) from Bosnia from George's Deli. How about fresh-baked crusty bread from Beograd? How about a bottle of Montenegrin Vranac at $5.99? How about a million other possibilities from hundreds of other places in the city that the local food media absolutely REFUSES to see. How long? How much longer does this great city have to suffer this fecklessness, this cluelessness? In an extraordinary city with such rare gems such as this botana van/truck, it is almost a crime to refuse to SEE. It is this same food media that over the last decade has created a city of sheep-like consumers instead of a city of critical, open-minded, adventurous and demanding eaters. How much longer?


      1. re: RST

        Although I agree with you about our food press, calling too much public attention to an operation like this would undoubtedly get the mayor and several aldermen all excited and cause a crackdown on peddling in general and food peddling in particular.

        Speaking of the hygiene fetishes of some aldermen, while in Denver last summer I visited the west side and sampled from several fruit carts. Their fruit carts put Chicago's to shame, I'm sorry to say. They mostly had fruit and vegetable combinations, but in a wider variety than we see here, perhaps because that's all they do; no tamales, no aguas, no snow cones, just fruit and vegetables. Apparently there are also taco carts, but there had been a crackdown on those.

        I digress. Their fruit carts were all equipped with small sinks and little reservoirs of fresh water, so the vendors could wash their hands. I would want to wash my hands if I was cutting up fruit all day in the hot sun.

        Given that we have such a well-developed street food culture, I'm often surprised at the low level of street carts. You almost never see a tamale vendor with a real cart that holds the tamales over hot water, although they are available.

        Perhaps it's because the high cost of the cart in an environment where it's liable to be seized by the state makes it an unwise investment?

        1. re: annieb

          Some how I don't think the city would crack down on the carts if they had good potable water, a sink and a way to keep the food hot and/or cold. Lack of these has been the problem and why the city chases them.

          1. re: Paulette

            I think there are additional reasons the city chases them, as well, that are not chow/health related. Just curious as to why they would need potable water?


            1. re: annieb

              anybody remember when you could purchase roasted nuts on State Street (between Congress and Lake) in the winter and funny styrofoam cups of fresh strawberries and grapes during hot, sticky summers? When I moved here (from Denver) in '94 they had them and then they city wanted to "clean up" the image of State Street and kicked all of them out. It had very little to do with food safety (which Americans in my opinion are way too obsessed with) and more to do with a mandate to get rid of them. I loved seeing the little wooden carts with the heating lamps over the nuts, maybe I just needed some kind of diversion while waiting for the #6 bus on a freezing winter evening, but it did have an old-fashioned feeling. (And funny how we now bring folks over from Germany to sell roasted nuts from a wooden cart as part of the German Christmas Market and that's old world rustic and ok.)

              A few years back when the city started cracking down on elote vendors, there was such a huge protest from the Latino communities and such pressure on the different aldermen that for a while the city took on a don't-ask-don't tell attitude. One interesting thing to come from it was that many of the vendors got organized as the "ambulantes" vendors i.e. mobile/walking food vendors and you will still see hand painted signs on their carts or vans which show their allegiance to this group. I believe this summer was referred to in city council as the "Elote Wars."

              Anyhow, I hope the "illicit" vans of Chicago teeming with regional culinary gifts keep on keeping on . . . someone once said, I believe it was Wendell Berry, that "eating is a political act" and it's true in Chicago in more ways than one.


        2. re: RST

          Richard, I was intending today to reveal the maroon van of wonders accross from Marianao, but I'm glad I didn't, since you clearly spent some quality time there and have the knowledge to explain it all.

          The cafe con leche and pan y mantequilla at Marianao is so good, that I now have to go there every weekend. (The cafetero with the handle-bar mustache is a genius. But I feel a warning is due: the place is authentically hectic, rude, and possibly intimidating for the unfamiliar; the countermen are characteristically stoic, thick-skinned, or aloof; speeak up, use your elbows, or you will never be served.) The last few Saturdays I've stopped by the maroon van, parked in front of the Max Gerber parking lot (great, great store BTW if you're in the market for high-end bathroom/kitchen stuff) for the chicharon tacos, which I settled on by asking first, what's for sale (which elicited an endless, breathless recitation of things I'd never heard of, and laughter) and then "what's the best." The masa/chicharon mix surely began as a way to stretch the meat (ok, fat/skin), but the end result is better than more meat. Tastes like tamal en cazuela. Also, the pepitas that come with the four-bit tacos are some of the best I've tried. If you are driving, you can pull into the Gerber lot and transact your business through the iron fence.

          I regret not being able to get to Maxwell St. on Sunday. 9 am is insane, however. My family instead spent the afternoon walking around Humboldt Park, sampling the pork trucks. La Esquina de Sabor is by far the most popular, with long lines and causing traffic jams on the street in front. Speaking of chicharon, theirs is some of the best, esp. with the homemade hot sauce (basically vinegar with peppers and garlic floating in it). Good seasoning and the right skin-to-fat-to-meat ratio. The lechon was very solid. Mofongo was delicate and crumbly as you noted. I was impressed by the innovation of battering and deep-frying the (fried) platano/chicharon mixture to hold it together. They should consider deep fried Snickers bars for desert. Pasteles were ok, but a bit small. Maduros, the only low spot, were not maduro. Great people watching at the nearby picnic tables as well, salsa provided by the sound systems of well-maintained shorts, Schwinn Lowriders, and a very high level of weekend softball and bseball.

          1. re: RST

            QUICK NOTES:
            I was there shortly yesterday and had the chance to try a number of things once again. Didn't have a lot of time to verify ingredients etc. These folks have set up a white tent right on the sidewalk and so are very visible from the street. Since they pack up in the early afternoon, I wonder if a different family takes over that space and sets up a different food stand in the afternoon? This is a normal rhythm in a Mexican market btw, where a tiny circle on the market floor might see a morning vendor and an afternoon one.

            The quesadilla is much smaller than I made it out to be above. The filling is more correctly, about 3 tablespoons. It's a really tasty creation. In the ceviche, I also found what seems to be bits of fish (bacalao?) that has been fried (!?) golden first before being tossed in the ceviche. I know that sounds strange but whatever it was, it added a delicious different dimension to it.

            The frijoles in the atole are not "halved" but broken up. These tiny bits are left al dente and provide a marked textural contrast to the rich, smooth, comforting gruel.

            TAMAL DE ELOTE Failed to mention above that they also have tamal de elote. This name always refers to tamales made, not with masa, but with crushed fresh corn kernels. This one is a very characterful, rustic, quite unforgettable version.

            All of their tamales and atoles are of the highest quality. I adore that atole de ciruela. The tamal nejo is a little masterpiece.

            (Have been very busy this past week and have not been able to proofread my posts for mistakes, typos etc. Will try to go through them today.)

            (bjt, thanks for your post and for recalling the Elote Wars. I'll try to respond today, here or on another thread.)


          2. re: RST

            I have seen this family on Milwaukee, they do have teriffic food. Thanks for the background. The first time I saw them they had an awning out over the table and piles of food, they were just north of the Osco on Milwaukee. It was on a Sunday, and I tried back several weekends and was unsuccessful, then bumped into them again by accident. Both times they were mobbed, pretty exclusively Mexicans. That, and the elaborate set-up, are what caused me to pull up short, even though I wasn't that hungry. I'd like to find out their regular schedule.