a doodle of a face taking a bite of a coconut ice pop on a stick
Amber Huff

It’s a common refrain in the city: Chicago summer is so worth the wait. Newbies and transplants can feel the buzz of opportunity in the air when the weather starts to turn. Visceral summer memories fuel locals through even the coldest, darkest months. And many of those memories involve food and drink—cookouts, summer cocktails, farmers’ markets, patio dining, the list goes on. In the minds of Reader staffers, when asked to consider their favorite Chicago summer food memories, stories about Mexican street vendors emerged as a surprising thread. It’s a good reminder to carry cash, to indulge in a spontaneous treat, and to always support your neighbors pushing carts or manning tents when the summer sun’s blazing its hottest.

Beachside coconut paletas

At Foster Beach in the summer of 2001, I enjoyed a melty coco paleta from the purveyor with the jingly La Michoacana cart. I exchanged one dollar for ten minutes of sweet and icy goodness, milk and coconut on my tongue, forgetting the hot drama of my life. I stood on the shore, toes dug into clumpy sand, and slurped dreamy perfection from a smooth wooden stick. As I yanked out occasional crunchy coconut flakes with my front teeth, the busy stage play of beach life unwrapped before me: stinky smelts washed up, children dipped in and out of waves in sodden diapers, and the lake produced its distinctly lakey smell—the one that screams “home” to me.

I had never heard of paletas before—though I’d seen the cart—until my friend and messy crush object, Girl-Poet E, purchased one for me. It was sophistication. Something I’d never thought of and something that felt at once mature and fitting of my new decade.

Coco paletas are comforting and kind. They were the creamy balm and an antidote to my life of self-created turmoil, artistic frenzy, and passionate love for City, for Art, and for Girls. —JT Newman

Amber Huff

Fantastik Fruit’s colorful gazpacho

It’s definitely summer in Chicago if I’m in line at the fruit cart at Clark and Morse in Rogers Park. I never mind the wait, because the vendors routinely offer everyone pieces of mango, melon, or pineapple to tide them over. I love listening to their patter, and even when I can’t see their Olympic-level knife skills in action, I can hear the soothing tap-dance of their blades on the cart’s cutting boards. I love soaking in the pool of citrusy perfume pouring from dozens of freshly squeezed limes and oranges, feeling the first cool evening breezes sneak into the muggy humidity of the day, and watching the sky go purple after sunset. 

This particular cart, run by Victor Mejia and his family, says “Fantastik Cokteles y Gaspachos” on the side, but I’ve only ever ordered the gazpacho. It’s a specialty of Michoacán’s capital, Morelia, but Fantastik offers much more than the traditional mango, jicama, and pineapple: depending on the day, you can get papaya, honeydew, kiwi, strawberry, cantaloupe, coconut, watermelon, and more. Each cup is so tightly packed with fruit, all finely and precisely diced before your eyes, that it leaves little room for the “soup” part of the gazpacho. For liquid Fantastik uses orange juice, not tomato, and toppings include lime, salt, chili powder, chili sauce, onion, cilantro, and crumbled queso fresco. It’s sweet, tangy, salty, and spicy—and probably the healthiest street food anywhere in Chicago.

When Reader food writer Mike Sula interviewed Mejia in 2011, he remembered how the police had given him a hard time when he got started. “No more,” he said. “They nice now. Because now they shop with me. They like the fruits.” —Philip Montoro

Sweet and sour peppermint in a pickle

It’s not like I was used to fine dining at age six, but I was still set adrift when Brian handed me the plastic bag with the pickle in it. Brian was a teenager, a son of one of my father’s friends, and the de facto gang leader for a group of us that ended up shuttled together in a random backyard as the dads worked out the finer points of some auto repair. “Here,” he said. Brian insisted I take the crinkling and messy bag. (How can a dark green pickle spout off neon green juice?) “Now shove the peppermint in,” he instructed, and I watched the others unwrap peppermint sticks from their sticky plastic and then push them through the pickle. “Now you just eat it,” Brian told us while chomping. When you bite into a peppermint in a pickle, there’s a fresh tang of mint that mingles through the acidic pickle, but then it’s just a rush of sugar and salt. It’s an acquired taste. It’s possible that the tradition isn’t native to Chicago (some food historians say that it’s a southern thing that moved up here with Black migrants in the early 20th century), but the sweet/sour mix can always push my brain straight to a Chicago sidewalk on a sticky summer night and kids yelling at each other just to be loud. —Salem Collo-Julin

Amber Huff

Elote off the Blue Line

I was looking to move into the city in the summer of 1999, and my friend Jean knew that, so she invited me to live out the last three months of her lease on Division. I packed the station wagon and fled my high school bedroom at my parents’ house in Wheaton (which had become my post-collegiate bedroom for one year) and moved into the city proper.

I had visited her place previously on the rim of Wicker Park. Stepping out of the Blue Line station, amid the hustle and bustle of the street, she asked, “Do you want an elote?” She had to explain this phenomenon to me, as there were no Mexican food carts in Wheaton: an ear of corn, slathered in mayonnaise, drizzled with melted butter, and sprinkled in parmesan cheese and red pepper. It was the taste of summer. Sweet, savory, messy, round molecules of utter pleasure on a stick.

I got one every day after work. I slowly gained confidence in my ordering skills. “Sin chile,” I would sheepishly blurt, much to the elotero’s amusement. That fraction of language mastery helped cement in my mind my status as an actual Chicagoan. And before long, when approached on the street by a Lincoln Park couple asking for directions, I uttered, “No hablo Ingles,” and walked on, minding my own business. Thanks, corn! —Kirk Williamson

Joong Boo’s discount sashimi platter

There are very few things worth walking three miles in the sticky Chicago summer for, and Joong Boo’s discount sashimi platter is on the top of that list. I first tried the Korean grocery store delicacy in my friends’ backyard, after walking up Milwaukee to their Logan Square apartment, my feet aching from shoes more aspirational than practical.

I hadn’t been to their house in months because of the pandemic lockdown, so I relied on music in the alley to guide me to their gate, where I was greeted with beer and long overdue hugs. We slowly filled the picnic table with fixings: matchsticks of cucumbers, a fan of avocado slices, scallions cut at an angle that I can never quite replicate. Finally, we placed the cold palette of sliced fish (only two of which we could collectively identify) at the center of the table.

We spent the afternoon assembling rolls in our hands together, laughing and talking. Each bite was a little more satisfying than the next, like the last perfect bite of a meal over and over again. I was still new to Chicago, and when the lockdown hit, it felt like any feeble sense of community I had built just disappeared in an instant. As steam from the bowl of rice mixed with the hot air and the crinkle of breaking nori mixed with the buzz of cars and cicadas, I finally felt the relief of that community coming back. —Savannah Hugueley

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid, and he’s also split two national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and one in in 2020 for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.