Graciela Silva, also known as Doña Chela, has been rising in the predawn hours nearly every day for more than two decades to prepare her tamales, dozens each of five different kinds, for her food cart — she’s one of relatively few small-business owners in Chicago with a permit. Silva, who moved to the Pilsen neighborhood from Mexico City with her young family in 1990, turned to her love of feeding people to make a living. She learned how to cook from her mother, who came from the state of Oaxaca.
Silva considers her cooking style all her own, but when pressed, answers coyly: “My style is the style of my grandmother.” The tamales from the Garibaldi cart are traditional Mexican corn tamales filled with either chicken or pork that has been stewed in either a rojo (red) chile sauce or verde (green) chile sauce, as well as tamales of rajas con queso (peppers and cheese).
Together, tamales and atole (a hot and thick corn-based beverage) are a traditional breakfast throughout Mexico. The combination can easily be found in Chicago, home to the second-largest Mexican-American population in the United States. Food carts along the busy commercial corridors of Cermak Avenue and 26th Street southwest of downtown set up as early as 5 a.m., offering hungry workers beginning or ending their shifts the comfort food of home — nourishing champurrado (atole flavored with chocolate and a hint of cinnamon) and warm, tender tamales.
But Chicago lacks the vibrant street-food culture you’d find in Los Angeles or New York. There are very few kebab carts, taco trucks, and the like. Even hot dog vendors are few and far between — mostly peppered along the lakefront to serve tourists. Street vendors are a rarity due to restrictive laws, the restaurant association’s influence, and what some perceive to be casual racism, as most proprietors of street carts are people of color — the Illinois Policy Institute reported that most of the 1,500 or so food carts are based in lower-income Hispanic neighborhoods.
In 2015, local officials barred food carts in Lincoln Park, an affluent and mostly white neighborhood on the city’s North Side. Some argued the restaurant lobby was fearful of competition and wanted to crush the food cart industry by advocating for the restrictions.
Since the early 1950s, food cart vendors have been found all day along 18th Street in Pilsen, the heart of the Mexican-American community in Chicago. But the colorful carts, brimming with bags of chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and the rainbow of glass barrel jars of aguas frescas (sugary fruit juices), are becoming less conspicuous as the neighborhood, just three miles southwest of the Loop, gentrifies. A 2016 study out of the University of Illinois noted that the Hispanic population in the neighborhood had dropped 26 percent since the 2000 census. In the few years since, the shift from Hispanic to Anglo is visible and continues apace.
It’s not just the issue of gentrification that is impacting vendors. The city’s rules and license fees have been a burden for these small-business owners who have operated in the underground economy, and largely undisturbed, for decades. In 2015, Chicago legalized street food carts, then added enough confusing red tape to kill the celebration, including a $100 application fee and a $350 permit fee. Food cart advocates managed to get the city to reduce the total fee to $100 in 2017. Still, during the first year of the new ordinance, only four vendors were granted licenses. Silva was one of them. Currently, the number is only up to 14. The restrictions are similar to what food trucks in Chicago face. Strict laws prevent food trucks from parking downtown under the guise of safety.
Martin Unzueta, the director of the nonprofit Chicago Community and Worker’s Rights, is an advocate for the Street Cart Vendors Association, which represents the estimated 1,500 street food vendors in the city. In 2017, the association opened a shared commercial kitchen to help vendors meet the new sanitation requirements imposed by the mayor’s office to regulate street food, which includes not being allowed to prepare food in home kitchens. Officials continue to complicate the ordinance. “They put in a lot of obstacles,” says Unzueta, who describes a frustrating process where one fulfilled requirement is met with another requirement.
“They don’t know how to deal with street vendors,” he says. “The rules keep changing.” On the application form, for instance, vendors are now asked to submit diagrams or images of their carts with details about temperature controls and where and how the carts are serviced. Vendors are not allowed to cook food on the carts, striking a blow to the beloved snack of elote (freshly roasted corn on the cob). You can still find elote vendors, but instead of the corn being grilled on the spot in the traditional way, the elote has been prepared in a kitchen hours earlier, wrapped in layers of aluminum foil and plastic, and packed in insulated plastic coolers before it’s wheeled out into the streets.
Community activist turned alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who recently won election in the 25th Ward (which includes Pilsen) put affordable housing at the center of his political platform, citing that changes in the neighborhood have affected the vendors. “Their clientele are no longer around, so they continue to move closer to where the clients are,” he says, adding that many small businesses are also moving out. Sigcho-Lopez wants new restaurants and businesses that open on 18th Street to be friendly to the street vendors and realize they’re an essential part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.
Take HaiSous, a newish Vietnamese restaurant along 18th Street, which welcomes a street vendor named Juan-Luise and his wife. He’s parked on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant with access to its electricity. The proprietors also let him use their ice. During the winter, they plug in a heater and let him warm up inside. They feel it’s one way to be part of the community. In return, he keeps the streets and alley clean.
“He does not work for us, but is treated like family,” HaiSous chef and co-owner Thai Dang says.
Gentrification may have forced some vendors to move, but they have not gone far. Little Village, five miles west of Pilsen, is home to a large Latinx population and has supplanted Pilsen as the port of entry for Mexican immigrants. Since the 1970s, Little Village has been equal to Pilsen in its abundance of Mexican culinary products. Its vibrant commercial district, 26th Street, is the second-highest-grossing retail spot in the city. Food cart vendors also set up along a stretch of Cermak Avenue between Pilsen and Little Village.
Silva owns two carts under the name Garibaldi — a nod to the famous plaza of her hometown of Mexico City. Her tamales can be purchased from a cart in front of La Casa del Pueblo grocery store in Pilsen, and the other cart can be found on Cermak, not far from where she lives and cooks.
Silva’s daughter Estella Silva, who helps out with the business and also owns a small restaurant, Taqueria La Flor de Mexico, says her family is lucky because they have been in the tamales business for 26 years and are well situated, with places to live and work. “The new people coming in can’t afford the rents and fees,” she says.
Silva no longer stands on the streets to sell her tamales; she hires workers to do that for her, but she still prepares the tamales in a commercial kitchen adjacent to her home every morning except Sunday. As far as tamales and atole from carts go, a certain standardization seems to be at play, even when the vendors come from different states. For instance, a vendor from Guerrero situated just down the block from a compatriot from Michoacán offers the same items: Inside steamed corn masa wrapped in corn husks is either pork or chicken simmered in a rojo or verde sauce or rajas con queso. A large insulated Thermos nearby holds champurrado. There may be subtle variations in the flavors of the filling, but the food and drink combo is a given.
“Everyone wants tamales and champurrado,” said Silva.
Where to experience Chicago’s real food vendor scene:
Folks wanting to encounter food carts selling tacos, elote, tamales, and paletas should drive the main streets of Albany Park on the North Side, Gage Park on the Southwest Side, and Little Village/West Lawndale. If you want tamales and champurrado, you can’t go wrong if you search on the sidewalk surrounding the parking lot of Supermercados El Güero on Cermak and Hoyne. The key is to go in the morning, Tuesday through Sunday.
There is also a vendor specializing in tamales Oaxaquenos (steamed in banana leaves rather than corn husks) near the entrance to the store. If you want tacos, elote, or snack carts, hit up the same area in the afternoons and early evening. On 26th Street, west of South Kedzie Avenue, vendors position themselves around the sidewalk of the parking lot in front of the Cermak Fresh Market.
Over the weekends, a few vendors also set up along Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square, another community affected by gentrification. They often serve customers coming in and out of neighborhood bars, offering snacks and more.