Apr 14, 2024 - Food and Drink

Swap-O-Rama is the new hot taco spot

A play of two tacos.

Steak tacos from a stand on Marshfield outside Swap-O-Rama in Back of the Yards. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

I've been bummed to watch the once vibrant Maxwell Street Market lose dozens of vendors in recent years — especially the astonishing array of taco stands that used to line the Sunday market.

Why it matters: For a couple of decades, the scent of sizzling meat, freshly griddled tortillas and rich moles wafted through the famed market, attracting thousands of locals and tourists for one of the best Sunday brunches in the city.

Two people pour corn masa on a griddle.
Two cooks roll out fresh corn masa on the griddle and sear mushrooms for a mushroom quesadilla. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Between the lines: Sources in the neighborhood who asked not to be quoted said the Maxwell exodus was driven by the market's yearlong pandemic shutdown and its new, shorter May-October season set by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

  • City officials tell Axios they have tried to lure back vendors with lower permit fees, but with little success.
  • Plus: Attendance still hasn't rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
Van with sign in the back listing different foods for sale.
A small tent sells gorditas and tacos on 43rd Street near Swap-O-Rama. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

The intrigue: I recently asked Gilberto Ramirez of Rubi's — once Maxwell's most-popular stand and now an award-winning restaurant on 18th Street — where all the market's taco vendors went.

  • He told me to check five miles south on the streets near Swap-O-Rama market on Ashland and 41st in Back of the Yards, open Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

The find: On a recent Saturday, I was flummoxed to find almost no hot food inside the huge flea market, but a taco bonanza once I stepped onto 43rd Street between Ashland and Hermitage.

  • I felt like I was back at the old Maxwell Street Market.

If you go: Start by browsing the miles of new and used goods at the indoor-outdoor Swap-O-Rama (admission costs $1-3) to work up a good appetite.

  • Then explore the streets — especially Marshfield and 43rd — to survey the options and zero in on choice meal spots.
  • Most display signs, some offer tables, many prefer cash.
Tent with sign that reads Gorditas Dona Lola.
A stand on 43th Street that specializes in Durango style gorditas near Swap-O-Rama. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

On the plate: Eats tend to range from $3 to $12 and feature familiar but also niche regional dishes including:

  • Hot Jalisco-style birria soup served with plates of stewed meat and handmade tortillas.
  • Gorditas (meat stuffed in masa pockets) in the style of Durango.
  • Guatemalan tamales, featuring ultra-smooth masa and fatty stewed pork in banana leaves.
  • Tacos filled with everything from cheesy stuffed chiles, steamed cow head meat and corn fungus to offal, mushrooms and squash blossoms. (Also steak, chicken and pork.)
  • Freshly griddled Mexico City-style quesadillas filled with cheese, cactus salad and more.
  • Fiery red and green salsas dispensed from squeezy bottles.

In the cup: Beverages available include hot, thick, porridge-like champurrado, Jarrito sodas and drinks ($3-7) flavored with tamarind, cucumber, watermelon, pineapple, hibiscus (called jamaica) and rice-pudding-like horchata.

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