Standing Room Only: Maxwell Street Depot in Bridgeport
Maxwell Street Depot
411 West 31st Street, Chicago, IL 60616 (map); 312-326-3514
The Short Order: Classic Maxwell Street Polish and Pork Chop Sandwich.
Want Fries with That? Pass on the frozen fries.
How Many Seats? None.
Of all the streets in Chicago, none has the same culinary cachet as Maxwell Street, which is kind of odd considering the street doesn't really exist anymore—at least not in in any recognizable form. Once home to the legendary Maxwell Street Market—a freewheeling, open-air bazaar, which is also credited as being the home of the electric blues—the stretch was long ago carved up into a few half-block segments on the near South Side to make way for University of Illinois Chicago. (In fact, the current Maxwell Street Market, which features some of the best Mexican street food in the city, is actually held a few blocks away on S. Des Plaines.)
But when you mention Maxwell Street, most Chicagoans have one food in mind—a massive Polish sausage in a bun topped with mustard and caramelized onions. Jim's Original (reviewed here) is considered the originator of the dish, and it is still the most famous practitioner in the city, but it is definitely not the only one.
Maxwell Street Depot, located in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, looks much the same as Jim's, with a long counter and absolutely no seats. Plus, its menu focuses on just a few key items, including the aforementioned Polish sausages, along with hot dogs, burgers, and pork chop sandwiches. As for toppings, forget about Chicago-style; everything here is topped with mustard and heaps of caramelized onions—a blunt and straightforward combo that works wonders for two of the items and less successfully on others.
But how does it stack up to Jim's?
The Polish sausage ($2.50) features a crispy natural casing and great beefy flavor. It's an absolute feast, but one that doesn't feel quite as ridiculous as the one at Jim's. That's a good thing. You can eat one of these and not feel too bad about yourself. This stacks up as one of my favorite versions in the city.
The pork chop sandwich ($2.70) is a completely different beast. In fact, it's mostly famous because each chop comes with the bone still attached. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a sandwich where authenticity requires one to carefully chomp around a hunk of bone, which you can't see unless you peek under the bun. (Only in Chicago, I believe.)
Eating one requires a healthy dose of fear and trepidation (you could easily need dental work if you're not careful), and I'd swear the whole silly sandwich off if it didn't feature a perfectly caramelized exterior that is enhanced by sweet onions and tart mustard. It's surprisingly good, and definitely the best thing at the Depot. Just be careful.
If the pork chop sandwich looks hazardous but tastes delicious, the burger ($1.90) is just the opposite. Sporting a gorgeous caramelized edge and what looked like an ideal burger-to-bun ratio, I was hoping for some kind of sleeper hit. But the pre-formed patty was tough with almost no juiciness. Such a shame.
The hot dog ($1.70) was better, but not by much. Considering the Polish is so good, it's kind of sad to see the Depot uses a skinless hot dog. Also, the mound of onions seems to hide the flavor of sausage.
The fries, frozen and bland, aren't really worth discussing. Though, I have to admit I am a sucker for the old school bag.
While Jim's Original has the history and an ideal location near downtown, Maxwell Street Depot is more than doing its job of keeping the historic street's name alive.