Because of its large Mexican community, you can shop for Mexican food at many grocery stores in the Chicagoland area. There are the real supermercados like El Güero or La Internacional in Chicago, but Pete’s Market has been expanding recently. There are several stores on the south side of Chicago, one in Evergreen Park, and one in Calumet City. They’re very successful because they sell authentic Mexican products at low prices, although I’ve heard that they are Greek-owned.
I love their tamales. I used to go the Pete’s Market on 47th and Kedzie early in the morning just to buy tamales because they tasted great and I didn’t have to make them myself. If you love authentic Mexican food, you will certainly find it here.
They also sell Mexican candy and piñatas. Most of the employees speak Spanish. Even in Evergreen Park where you wouldn’t expect to find many Spanish speakers. Actually, I was surprised to see a Mexican grocery store open in Evergreen Park. But then again, Chicago wouldn’t allow a Walmart to open within the city limits, so they opened a store across the street in Evergreen Park, a suburb that always finds new and creative ways to generate tax revenue.
Don’t be surprised if a Pete’s Market opens up near you.
One of my favorite fried chicken places in Chicago is Harold’s Chicken.
The first time I ate at Harold’s was about twenty years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t even remember which one I went to the first time. It was somewhere on the south side, perhaps around 71st and State. I ordered the 1/2 chicken dinner. They literally gave me half a chicken. When they asked me if I wanted hot or mild sauce, I asked for the mild sauce because I wasn’t sure how hot the hot sauce would be or if I would even like it. I watched as they prepared my order. I got my half chicken with French fries on a slice of white bread and a small Styrofoam cup of cole slaw that was warmed by the chicken–I’m used to eating my cole slaw cold. Then the cook put the mild sauce on the chicken, the fries, and the bread with a two-inch paintbrush. Yes, the kind you and I use to paint your house. I suppose it’s sanitary if they only use it for putting hot or mild sauce on chicken. I loved how well chicken tasted that I often went back to Harold’s Chicken to eat. I think the paintbrush added that je ne sais quoi.
The first time I ate at Harold’s, I thought the slice of bread was a rather peculiar addition to the meal. I mean, it was underneath the chicken and the fries, so the sauce dripped all over the white bread. But when I ate the slice of white bread, it was delicious! Now, I look forward to the slice of white bread.
Over the years, I have eaten at other Harold’s Chicken restaurants. And I always order the half-chicken dinner with fries, warm cole slaw, and the one slice of white bread. When I taught at Columbia College Chicago, I often ate at the Harold’s on Wabash and Balbo. You could actually sit down and eat there, but it was always so crowded and homeless people would always ask for money. After a while, they just ignored me–probably because I just ignored them. My only real complaint about this Harold’s Chicken was that they didn’t put the mild or hot sauce on the chicken with a paintbrush.
I think we can all agree that liver and onions is not a very popular dish in America. Otherwise, someone would have opened a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru specializing in liver and onions by now. This will never happen, but imagine the possibilities! For me, this would be great since liver and onions is one of my all-time favorite dishes. Luckily, it’s available at many restaurants. It’s easy to prepare and I’ve actually made it myself a few times.
Even when I was little, I loved liver and onions. My mother prepared it frequently because she loved liver and onions. I guess I inherited her love of liver and onions. Sometimes mother would make just for her and me. Beef liver was usually very cheap. I guess not many people liked eating liver back then, but no part of livestock was wasted. As The Jungle famously quoted one of the meatpacking plants, “We package everything except the squeal!”
Unfortunately, my younger brothers wouldn’t eat liver and onions if they knew exactly what they were about to eat. So, my mother would explain that were about to eat some exotic dish. As we sat down at the table, my mother would always say something like, “Hoy vamos a comer tigre.” “Today we are eating tiger.” “Hoy les preparé algo muy sabroso. ¡Tiburón!” “I made you something delicious today. Shark!” And my little brothers would eat up the liver and onions that they so detested.
Once, we all sat down for dinner and my mother announced, “Hoy vamos a comer ballena.” “Today we are eating whale.” And so we all started eating whale. On this day, I found the whale especially delicious. I was the only one who knew we were actually eating liver, sans onions to create the effect that we were actually eating whale. Have you ever eaten something that was especially delicious and it really hits the spot. Perhaps I was suffering from an iron deficiency that day. Well, on this occasion, the liver tasted especially good despite lacking onions. I asked for second and thirds. My brothers continued eating it. Until I blurted, “The liver came out really good today!” My mother gave me a pained stare. And my brothers yelled, “Yuck, I hate liver!’ And they all stopped eating. My mother yelled at me because my brothers would have kept eating if they still believed they were eating whale.
This reminds me of something that happened recently with my son Alex recently. We were at Old Country Buffet and he came back to the table with what he thought were chicken fries. He said they were really good. When I went for seconds, I saw where he got the chicken fries. He was actually eating calamari. I love calamari, so I got some for myself. Alex was surprised that I would eat chicken fries. I told him that he really ate calamari. He insisted on knowing what exactly calamari was. When I told him it was squid, he stopped eating his chicken fries!
I guess sometimes you’re better off not knowing what you’re eating.
One thing I love about teaching Spanish at UIC is the food! Students will use any excuse to bring food to the classroom. Spanish students learned to bring food in high school, and they keep right on bringing it in college. I love it! If I could, I would design a Spanish course dedicated solely to comida de la cocina hispana.
My Spanish 104 class had to do oral presentations last week and some students found a way to prepare a dish that would highlight their proyectos. Of course, I never complain! I usually teach in the morning and most students are very hungry when they come to class. Okay, I’m hungry, too. So, the food is always a very welcome visual aid for the student presenting. I’m looking forward to the next set of proyectos!
I went to Al’s Beef with my sons today. Why? Because my sons asked me to take them. Why? Well, I was wondering the same thing myself. They heard about Al’s Beef from the Travel Channel, a restaurant TV show, that showcased Al’s Italian Beef. When they first mentioned going to Al’s Beef, I said okay, nonchalantly. They probably thought I wouldn’t take them because I didn’t sound that enthusiastic. They even doubted if I had even ever heard of Al’s Beef. But, nay, I had stories to tell them about Al’s Beef. And told them, I did. Hesitantly. I really thought they would cut me off. But they didn’t. In fact, they kept asking me for more details. This was the longest we had talked in a long time. Luckily, it was about a subject that was near and dear to my heart. Chicago food!
Ah, the memories! I have been going to Al’s Beef since the 1970s, but I couldn’t tell you the exact date. They may be getting a lot of television exposure now, but Al’s Beef is a veritable ghost town in comparison to when I used to go in the 1980s. The place used to be packed, especially in the summer. I remember going there with my friends Jim and Vito. Sometimes I went with my running friends after track practice. We would eat in the parking lot and go across the street to Mario’s Italian Ice for dessert. Then, we’d sit in the parking lot drinking beer! Those were the days.
Al’s Beef is a little different today. It’s the same building. It still has the same charming decor. And, for as long as I can remember, they always have someone working behind the counter who speaks Spanish. It is a universally acknowledged fact that Italian beef tastes better when it’s served by a Spanish speaker. I remember my friend Jim had a crush on a Mexican girl who used to work there. As single men, we often ate at restaurants. But when he discovered this Mexican girl at Al’s Beef, we ate there at least three times a week! I must admit that she was pretty and she had this really cute Mexicana accent. I asked Jim, “If you married her–” “Do you really think I have a chance with her?” he asked me hopefully. “Let me finish! If you married her, would you really enjoy her coming home smelling like Al’s Italian Beef?” He smiled so I could see a sweet pepper stuck in his teeth and said, “That would be like dying and going to heaven!”
Well, I was watching the ABC World News the other night when the announcer told me not to go away because the next segment would feature the latest space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble space telescope. Of course, I continued watching because I have always been fascinated by space stories and not because I was merely obeying the announcer’s order to stay tuned. So they talked about how the astronauts trained for the mission and how they picked different foods over the course of a year. The astronauts got to choose foods they liked, but the foods had to be practical. I was extremely surprised that one food to make the trip to outer space was the tortilla, which the astronauts really liked. And it was practical because it didn’t leave many crumbs and they take up less space than bread. I really didn’t think the NASA would be all that concerned about space since they can fit the Hubble space telescope, the size of a school bus, in the cargo bay. Bread wouldn’t take up that much space. Besides, they were going to outer space that extends to infinity. Or even further. But tortillas beat out the bread anyway. Knowing the average intelligence of the average American, I would be surprised if any Americans even know that tortillas are the staple food of México.
I’m hungry. But I’m on the way to the doctor today to get an echo something or other to kind of test on my heart when I realize that I’m hungry because I forgot to eat earlier. I pull into a White Castle because it’s the only “restaurant” near the doctor’s office. Well, since I’m going to the doctor anyway, why not have a few sliders? The reason the doctor recommended the test was because I went for a physical and he recommended an EKG in his office. That was quite painless until he read the results–you know, that chart that just has a bunch of squiggly lines. He spotted an “event” in those lines. He said it could be nothing, but I should take another test just to be sure I was healthy. I wondered if my diet contributed to my “event.” I only worry about these things whenever I go to the doctor. However, I haven’t worried about this for years because I couldn’t remember the last time I went to the doctor. I know I stopped going when my family physician died of a heart attack.
Anyway, a man–I didn’t even know his official title–did an ultrasound of my heart in the doctor’s office. He wanted to know why I was having this test done and I told him about the “event” that could be nothing at all. Well, he told me that a cardiologist would look at the pictures of my heart and then determine if I had any problems. This ultrasound guy gave me his unofficial opinion; he didn’t see anything wrong with my heart. So I worried for nothing about taking the test. I probably took it for nothing, but I felt comforted by the fact that I have health insurance. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so guilty about eating those sliders.
What I love about going to Mexico is all the attention I receive from my relatives who are genuinely happy to see me. They ask me many questions about my life in particular and life in general in America. The only problem with this is that they tend to ask me these questions while I’m eating. So I was always the last one done eating.
I’m a slow eater anyway, but answering questions slows me down even more. And they ask rather personal questions, too. But everyone is so honest when speaking that I feel compelled to answer their questions honestly. And no one judges anyone about each other’s behavior. At least not that I noticed.
So, how did I enjoy a good home-cooked Mexican meal with everyone insisting that I answer their questions? Well, I didn’t want to be rude, so I answered all question immediately. Of course, sometimes I answered with my mouth full of food because I was caught off guard by the timing of the questions. I guess I was being rude by talking with my mouth full just because I didn’t want to be rude!
In Mexico, whenever I sit at the kitchen table, the first female who sees me immediately asks me what I want to eat, whether I’m hungry or not. As an American, I feel guilty. No matter whose house I visit, the same thing always happens. As a guest on vacation, I don’t really have a schedule to follow, so I spend a lot of time in the morning just hanging out, which I don’t mind at all because I’m vacation to rest up for when I get back. And I just plain like hanging around doing nothing anyway. Usually, I don’t sit in the living room. Most Mexican living rooms resemble museums because they are on display, but they are not meant to be entered except on those very special occasions when the entire family is present. So, when I wake up at my host’s house, I tend to go to the kitchen to talk to an uncle or cousin. If we make a mess in the kitchen, no one really cares. If the living room gets messed up, heads will roll!
Well, in Mexico, the woman is responsible for many of the household chores. So if I’m sitting in the kitchen with my uncle, the first female who enters the kitchen fires up the stove and asks what we’d like to eat. She then looks in the fridge and lists the possibilities for breakfast. I usually don’t eat breakfast, so I always say that I’m not hungry. But no one ever seems to believe me and they continue cooking anyway. I must admit that I did enjoy all this attention and I actually started to like eating breakfast first thing in the morning. I was served breakfast at every house I visited. One cousin once served me breakfast, but forgot to give me silverware. The kitchen was full of hungry guests, so I got up and got my own silverware. When my cousin sat down, she saw me eating my soup with a spoon. She suddenly realized that she forgot to give me silverware. She apologized profusely and wondered how I got my silverware. I said, “I have feet and I have hands. I got my own silverware.” Everyone stared at me in amazement!
Then came all these questions about my life in Chicago. Everyone knew I was divorced and lived alone. Who prepared my breakfast? Who cleaned my house? Who did my laundry? They were amazed when I told them that I did most things for myself. This idea was so foreign to them. A man taking care of himself? How could this be? I don’t think any of the females really believed me.
Well, now it can be told. First, you must admit that you have a problem before you can solve it. My problem? I like to retrace my steps all the way back to my youth.
So tonight, I went to El Gallo de Oro, bought a steak burrito, and parked in Marquette Park by the Rose Garden to eat it, as I am wont to do. I used to do it all the time, but tonight I compared scenarios.
The first time I bought a burrito at El Gallo de Oro, I lived down the block at 3006 W. 64th Street and I only paid $2.25 with tax. But that was twenty-seven years ago. Today, I paid $6.06 with tax. Today, I barely finished my burrito, but twenty-seven years ago, I would also order two or three tacos or tostadas on the side. I would practically inhale all this food and I ony weighed 140 pounds, compared to my 180 or so today.
And Marquette Park isn’t the same, either. No one cruises through the park like in days of old. This used to be the place to hang out, to see and be seen by everyone. I don’t think anyone even noticed I was there tonight. Not even the police car that drove past me driving the wrong way.
On the plus side? I felt very safe there in my solitude reminiscing about my days of old when I was young and naïve and wouldn’t realize that the grease from the burrito had dripped on my shirt until the person I was trying to impress would point out the grease stain. Okay, I don’t miss the dripping grease all that much. I’m much older and wiser now.