Restaurants & Bars

The Mejia brothers and their Morelia-style "gaspacho"

RST | Jun 26, 200803:31 PM     13

I thought that I had posted on this before and searched high and low through the archives for it. Someone then reminded me that I had sent the first notice out in summer 2006 only to my email list and sent me back a copy of that original email. I am copying the entire email below and include an interesting response to it made by Zim. The brothers no longer operate on the ne corner of Touhy and Clark as they did then, but could be found M-F up to early afternoon in front of the Mega Mall in Rogers Park. By 4 p.m. every day of the week (M-Su), Antonio and Victor Mejia would have moved the cart to the sw corner of Morse and Clark where they maintain the rather elaborate set-up which I will describe below. Last summer (2007), another brother, Manuel, ran a third location in Albany Park, on the sidewalk just e of the Kimball Brown Line station, but Manuel's wife is pregnant and he is back in Mexico at the moment and is unlikely to return before the end of the season.

The business deal made with Norka of Cafe Salamera obviously did not work out at all. She ended up selling the business to the lovely owners-warm and wonderful folks!-of what is now Masouleh. Here's hoping that the restless Nori was happy with how it all ended up.

I stopped by Morse last week to say hello and for the "gaspacho" (spelled with an "s" here). Victor prepared this one-with the same precision and care that I described observing in Antonio in the email. Traditionally, this specialty of Morelia (Michoacan) is made with the fine dice of the classic trio of jicama, pineapple and mango (or just jicama with one of the fruits) although it is not unusual to see people requesting a dice of cantaloupe or other fruits to be added in as well. The quality of the dice, both its fineness (no more than about 1/4 ") and its evenness is essential. The brothers squeeze their own orange juice (the small sour ones when in season), and prepare their own chile powder (from guajillo I was told). There is in addition a home-prepared chile sauce (made from arbol and lime juice I was told) that is used to amp up the heat if desired. Even the powdered cheese (of the cotija type) is obviously chosen with care. Because of the popularity of this stall and the volume of business that they do in the summer, one of the women is dedicated to just chopping cilantro and onion (4-5 members of the family man the small cart!) The chopping surfaces and all the work areas are kept meticulously clean and as has been the case for years, the fruit preparers always put on disposable gloves before working with food. In addition, they have managed to rent out a water source this year by extending a very long hose from a nearby house to use for general washing and to leave the sidewalk absolutely spotless after they leave.

Halfway through preparing the gaspacho, Victor or Antonio will hand you a tniy spoonful so that the mixture could be calibrated to your taste (more salt? more lime juice?, more heat?) The end result is a quite astonishing thing: a refreshing hot weather soup-fruity, savory, spicy-that contains none of the classic ingredients associated with any of the many peninsular versions of gazpacho (tender almonds, olive oil, bread, tomato etc), but is clearly reminiscent of it: a purely Mexican riff on the Andalucian idea.

I discovered recently that "Morelia-style gaspacho" (written out this exact way) was, quite implausibly, served as part of the White House menu (along with cranberry jello and other good things) last Thanksgiving (2007)!!! Whatever: gaspacho makes a delicious starter for a summertime supper. A tub of it (the brothers sell two sizes: $6 or $8) could also be divided into shooters to serve as a very stylish and unique appetizer for a summertime party.

The cocteles (cokteles) de frutas ($7 a brimming cupful-choose from a vast range of choice fruits: cucumber, coconut, Altamirano mangoes etc) prepared at this stall is top-notch-without any equal anywhere else in the city-either among ambulant fruit vendors or even compared to storefront businesses that offer this summertime treat. I am referring to the dozens of Mexican ice cream shops or paleterias throughout the city that also offer coktel de frutas (sometimes presliced and then kept in cooler) in the summer e.g. a shop on Irving Park around Rockwell (?), or the helados place on the 56th block of S Kedzie. When the Mejia brothers occupied the old Salamera space, they specialized only in fruits and drinks: aguas frescas, cokteles and licuados featuring very Mexican combinations of fruits and vegetables, often bearing fantasy names ("vampiros" etc), similar to the superb pina/apio/nopales licuado I had in Iguala last year or the blood red beet/orange juice that could be had in the main plaza in Xalapa right by the woman who sells tacos de tortitas de acelga (I buzzed like the Everready bunny after THAT drink!). We are now seeing more of this specialized type of business-so specialized in fact that the few token snacks also offered seem like afterthoughts, and not serious attempts at "product diversification". Cokteles de fruta has also in its own way crossed over and is now offered even in non-Mexican-owned business such as at the new Tiztal (sp?) Cafe on Clark, n of Montrose.

For sheer excellence at what they do, I would rank the Mejias' stall among the very very best Mexican streetfood businesses to be found anywhere in Chicago on a par with Manolo's/Rubi's at Maxwell Street Market, whose tacos I once called (in old posts from 2002) the greatest tacos to be found anywhere in the US (do a CH search using words like "greatest" + "tacos" + "Chicago"). I still stand by that claim BTW and after all these years have not found any taco anywhere quite comparable to these. Another excellent Mexican streetfood business, though very different in character, is the rambling, disorganized so-called double maroon/blue vans business (search the dozens of old posts on this//I need to write update on the extended family that run these vans one of these days) with its delicious and unusual tamales nejos (go to the blue van for this) or atole de ciruelas (maroon van's is better).

Other very good fruit carts that offer coktel de fruta/gaspacho include one on Montrose, as well as the one located at the corner of Thome (which is one block n of Granville) and Clark, right outside Kitty Moon. This cart is run by the owners of El Gallito Mexicano (one business n of Kitty Moon//they're from Ciudad Hidalgo) which makes delicious regional specialties (barbacoa de borrego, carnitas) but which has been closed for three+ weeks now bec of a plumbing problem which the landlord has chosen not to tackle yet. It's very good gaspacho (at $4/$6/$8) but not quite on the level of the Mejias'.

Of course Zim was quite right in his response when he pointed out that I was underestimating the number of summertime street food businesses. On a recent ride south on the Kimball bus on a weekday afternoon, I counted no less than 12 carts between Diversey and North (and this is not even including the carts on Milwaukee, Armitage etc). A recent weekday afternoon survey of 26th street yielded a count of 20+ vendors: eloteros (who double as esquite vendors in the winter), paleteros, those who make diablitos/chamoyadas (the best of which is Senor Guadalupe from a town near Xalapa, more on him some other time on a separate post: he deserves it), boys who sell bags of home-fried potato chips (bottle of chile sauce on hand to dress your chips), the sellers of "prepared" chicharron, then the Mexican hotdog sidewalk grills. East of Cremeria Santa Maria, the sidewalks are dominated by aguas frescas specialists offering a large range of juices: pepino, tamarindo etc even homemade tepache (with the pineapple still floating inside) in the case of one vendor at I think Sawyer (?). On weekends, this number increases with the addition of vendors of homemade sweet breads or tamales (specially in the late afternoon)! Beyond La Villita, there's Lawrence, Montrose, stretches of Armitage/ North/Fulleton, Cermak, S. California, South Kedzie, S. Ashland, diff stretches of 47th, 51st, 59th, 63rd etc, the parks, the football fields etc But all of this is best left for a separate discussion on another day...


-----Original Message-----
> Sent: Wed, 27 Dec 2006 10:37 PM
> Subject: Norka and fruit vendors
> Of the dozens and dozens of street food vendors in
> Rogers Park, one of my favorites, summer after
> summer, is the fruit stand called Fantastic #1. Ran
> by the Mejia family (today, Antonio was manning the
> cart at the corner of Touhy and Clark, and brother
> Victor was at Morse and Clark, just north of Dona
> Lolis), this is one of the best of the Mexican fruit
> stands in the entire city, which boasts at least 8
> on the stretch of Clark St just south of Howard
> alone this afternoon! (If one estimates another 12
> or so such vendors on 26th between say California
> and Pulaski, plus one in many of the parks
> frequented by Mexicans, one might imagine as many as
> 50 in the city on any given Sunday afternoon in the
> summer.) There is one reason why they stand apart
> from the rest: scrupulous attention to details and
> the sheer quality of the fruits that they serve-the
> crunchiest jicamas, sweet mangoes from Altamirano,
> Michoacan whenever possible, the best coconuts from
> Acapulco. Each fruit is swiftly and precisely
> chopped using razor-sharp knives and then carefully
> arranged in a plastic cup before being dressed with
> chili powder and lime juice. The Mejia brothers
> come from Zitacuaro, Michoacan, which I have written
> about extensively online after my visit in early
> 2003 (Diane Kennedy lives in the mountains outside
> Zitacuaro), but it is the vendors of the famous
> cocteles de frutas of the capital city of Morelia
> that they are trying to emulate. Even more
> specifically associated with Morelia is the
> so-called gaspacho (or gazpacho) which can be
> related to its Andalucian namesake only through the
> loosest association. It was fascinating to watch
> Antonio prepare the fine dice of fruits in the
> gaspacho I ordered, which in this case, consists of
> a classic combination of mango, pineapple, jicama,
> although most Mexicans will request other fruits
> (cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber etc) to make up
> preferred combinations. Thin perfect rounds of
> pineapple are sliced off in one easy stroke before
> being chopped finer. Mangoes, skewered on a stick,
> have their two plump ends sliced off before the pit
> (and the bit of fruit clinging to it) is presented
> to the client to nibble on-an anticipatory lagniappe
> to keep him distracted and happy. The juice of two
> small oranges is pressed right into the cup of diced
> fruits, while Antonio slowly stirs in a sprinking of
> chili powder. The movements are slow and meticulous
> and reminded me of a great bartender stirring a
> martini into being; like an engaging bartender,
> Antonio keeps up a banter, takes orders, explains
> his creations. The juice of two limes, cebolla, cilantro,
> salt go in as well. Cheese of the cotija sort
> finishes the fruit "soup".
> While chitchatting with me today, Antonio casually
> mentioned that they have just moved to a storefront
> recently-within the last 15 days or so (I was asking
> him what the family does for a living in the
> winter). He told me that the shop is located on
> North Shore and Clark ("las muchachas estan alli" he
> is referring to the wives). But that drew a blank
> from me until he said that the space is quite
> beautiful and used to be a Peruvian restaurant!!!!
> It turns out that Norka of Cafe Salamera had
> established a partnership with them at the
> storefront that she had so carefully refurbished at
> great expense. She would have forfeited a lot if
> she had turned back on her lease and this seems to
> be her best way forward. What a shock! So this is
> what she is up to now!
> ***
> Reply from Zim:
> thanks for the update on Norka, I'm hoping that she
> and the Mejia brothers are more successful with the
> new place than salamera was.
> It's interesting about the mango pit being given out
> -
> In India, the flesh around the pit (in hindi
> "gutli")
> for eating mangos (as opposed to those you just suck
> the juice out of) is the most prized piece. You
> mention that they try to source mangos from
> altamirano
> - what variety are these?
> As far as fruit vendors, yes there are a number
> along
> clark, but it pales to the variety down 26th street,
> last time I was down there in the summer for jury
> duty
> I am sure that the number was upwards of 20 - though
> I've never thought to do a comparative tasting.

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