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Feature Fri Feb 19 2010
A few weeks ago, a tragic thing happened. My West Town building was broken into, and my single, prized possession--my bicycle--was stolen. About a week after the theft, I received a miraculous tip that my stolen bike had been spotted at a Back of the Yards flea market.
I called a friend who dropped everything to jump in her car and pick me up so that we could race to the flea market in hopes of recovering the bicycle. It was an early Sunday morning, and we zipped down Ashland Avenue, through the Near West Side, the growing University of Illinois at Chicago Medical District and Pilsen, finally arriving at the industrial expanse that is Back of the Yards, a section of the city still best known as the former home of the Union Stock Yards.
The Swap-o-Rama flea market sits nearly atop a former railroad yard at 42nd Street. The Ashland location is the most bustling of the Swap-o-Rama trifecta of markets, which began in September 1969. (Melrose Park and Alsip are the other Swap-o-Rama locations.) The Chicago market's web site touts "acres" of free parking, which we promptly discovered is very much necessary for the crowds who descend here to buy and sell and browse.
With approximately 500 vendors set up both indoors and outdoors year-round, the Back of the Yards Swap-o-Rama makes my long-time go-to for curios and Mexican snacks and food staples--Maxwell Street Market--seem like a gentrified, single-car garage sale.
Swap-o-Rama reminds me very much of a carnival or amusement park. I spent summers in high school collecting admission tickets at the recently-shuttered Kiddieland Amusement Park, and the entrances of Swap-o-Rama with the ticket booths where shoppers each pay a $2 admission fee brought me back to my adolescence. (One can even get his or her hand stamped if leaving the flea market and returning the same day.) Also just like Kiddieland, there are the prominent signs at the market's entrances that read, "No Outside Food or Drink Allowed."
Swap-o-Rama visitors need not go hungry though. Immediately past the ticket booth at the market's main entrance on Ashland Avenue, a vendor does a brisk business in churros and "elotes." Unfortunately, the churros are of the sad, heat lamp-warmed variety. What are advertised as elotes--typically roasted corn on the cob skewered with a popsicle stick and swathed in mayonnaise, cheese, salt and chili sauce or powder--are technically esquite, steamed corn kernels with the usual elote toppings, served at Swap-o-Rama in tall Styrofoam bowls.
For more sit-down carnival fare, just a few paces inside the main entrance of the market is Snak-o-Rama, a cafeteria-style dining area with about a dozen tables and greasy (though Snak-o-Rama proudly claims that they fry with no trans fats), salty food like fries, nachos with cheese and token jalapeños and personal-sized pizzas.
Early risers can forgo Snak-o-Rama's heat-lamp offerings for morning specials like the Breakfast Burgerama, a 1/3-lb. all-beef patty topped with mayo, grilled onions and a fried egg, served with fries for $4.25 before 10:30am.
For visitors who prefer to snack and shop at the same time, food vendors can be found throughout the market, both indoors and outdoors. Mexican-style sweet (yeast) bread can be found next to stalls selling polo shirts and tube socks. Tamarind-flavored candy, florescent-colored wafers and spicy peanuts are sold next to tables stocked with bar soap and hair gel. One table covered with vending machine-sized vacuum-sealed sausages stands just down the aisle from refurbished laptops. And around the corner and down an aisle from stalls offering quick check-cashing and international calling cards, one can find pickled meat, dried fish and an array of Mexican cheeses.
The most promising ready-to-eat snack offerings are located in the outdoor portion of Swap-o-Rama. Under the watchful gaze of the towering fiberglass cow of Little Village-based Cremeria Santa Maria, one can find a cluster of tables with a spread of whole candied fruit, sweet empanadas (pineapple, strawberry and rice pudding), bags of tejocotes (Mexican crab apples) that have been cooked in syrup, corn muffins and Oaxacan string cheese. Look for the giant cow.
On the early Sunday I visited Swap-o-Rama in search of my bike, I also noted at least two vendors strolling the outdoor aisles selling champurrado, the Mexican thick, hot chocolate-like beverage. The flea market renditions of this drink, unfortunately, were watery and unsatisfying.
Perhaps because of the bright morning sun and clear blue skies of my early February visits to the flea market, I also preferred the outdoor produce vendors to their indoor counterparts. One can find at most of the produce stalls: mangoes, pineapples, papaya, tomatoes, apples and bananas alongside bunches of cilantro, bags of onions, nopales (prickly pear) pads, bundles of guajes (acacia) pods and bins of fresh garbanzo beans and dried shrimp. Rainbows of dried beans, nuts and other fruit and vegetables, spices and candy also line outdoor tables.
Non-edible food-related goods also abound at the market. Peruse handsome cookbooks covering the cuisines of Mexican states like Hidalgo, Morelo, Querétaro and Zacatecas. Pick up some chefs' whites. Indulge in a toy kitchen set, or bring home a bona fide stove and refrigerator. Swap-o-Rama seems to have it all.
I've been shopping at Maxwell Street Market for Mexican foodstuffs on-and-off for more than 10 years, and it is still the more convenient market for me to get to with the irresistible lure of tacos, huaraches and other street food I love. While I arrived in Back of the Yards too late to recover my stolen bike, Swap-o-Rama introduced to me an entirely different, awe-inspiring category of marketplace. It is a Chicago wonder in its own right.
4100 S. Ashland Ave.
Saturdays and Sundays: 7:00am - 4:00 pm (indoors and outdoors)
Tuesdays: 7:00am - 2:00pm (outdoors only)
Thursdays: 7:00am - 3:00pm (outdoors only)
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.