Don’t ask Roberto Escalante for elotes. Don’t ask him for tamales or tacos or cut-up fruit or any of the other Mexican-style street foods found all over Pilsen and other Mexican neighborhoods in Chicago.
He sells sweet potatoes and plantains.
And yes, that’s a chimney on his cart, and a real wood fire inside it. Neighbors who haven’t seen the cart around Pilsen have probably heard it, since the hallmark of a traditional Mexican sweet potato cart is its long, multitoned steam whistle. Think of a cross between a teapot and a lunch whistle.
“You hear these carts all over Mexico,” said Escalante, who built the cart last August and was immediately flooded with customers who couldn’t believe they were seeing one in Chicago. He serves bright orange camote and golden plantains on little foam plates, with sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the top, $4 each.
A big part of what Escalante is dishing up for customers is nostalgia. After decades of migration from Mexico to Chicago, most Mexican foods and products are here. But there are still some things that haven’t arrived. And finding one of these carts transports people back home.
“I was eating in a restaurant on 18th Street when I heard a sound that made me think of Mexico,” said Liz-Arizbeth Rojas excitedly in a Facebook Live video she recorded after running out of the restaurant to discover Escalante’s cart.
“It’s the first time in all my 30 years being here that I have seen a camote cart,” Rojas declared in Spanish. “With the firewood, the whistle, just like in Mexico! He’s on 18th and Wood right now, if you’re craving a sweet potato,” she said. Her post has 12,000 views.
Even through the winter, though not on the coldest days, Escalante, 44, has continued to hawk his sweet potatoes and plantains, which in Mexico are eaten as an afternoon or evening snack. “What can I give you, amigo?” he says to anyone who gets near enough to ask. “Sweet potato or plantain?”
Across Mexico, but particularly in the capital, camote vendors push their metal carts through the streets, blowing their whistle every few blocks to announce what they’re selling. That’s how Escalante started, pushing his 160-pound cart through Pilsen.
Lately, he’s staked out the northeast corner of Cermak Road and Hoyne Avenue, after customers asked him to stay in one place so they could find him. He posts to Facebook and then waits.
“People come from Waukegan, from Des Plaines, from Addison, and they tell me, ‘There’s a sweet potato cart?’ Yes, there is! ‘I saw it on Facebook!’ they say.”
As a kid, Escalante helped a camote vendor in his hometown of Tizayuca, Hidalgo, about an hour north of Mexico City, which is how he learned to build the traditional cart. It’s fashioned from a metal barrel, set on its side and then put on wheels, like a rolling oven. The chamber for the wood fire sits below the barrel. A chimney lets the smoke out. The sweet potatoes and plantains cook inside a wide stainless steel drawer cut into the barrel. A chamber for water keeps them from drying out. And of course, there’s the whistle, which is made with a pipe that runs through the oven and lets out steam when Escalante opens a valve, which is anytime a customer requests it.
“Everything cooks right in the cart,” said Escalante, who sells about 100 pounds of sweet potatoes and plantains every day he goes out.
Customers are transported. “Ay, chiquitito!” exclaimed one recent customer from Berwyn, in the neighborhood visiting relatives. “Suavecitos, suavecitos!” The bright orange sweet potatoes are tender soft, he said, the hallmark of a good camote.
“Don’t close the drawer yet!” he told Escalante as he readied his phone’s camera and snapped a picture of the golden plantains and still-in-the-skin sweet potatoes.
“Look at that! Just like in Mexico!” exclaimed Carmen Jacobo after spotting Escalante’s cart from the laundromat. “What is it?” her 19-year-old Chicago-raised son asked.
Jacobo said the cart reminds her of evenings at home in Mexico City. “You’d hear the whistle and say, ‘There goes the sweet potatoes! Who wants one?’”
This is Escalante’s second stint in the U.S. His first trip was in 2000; he came to pay off a debt. He started working in a restaurant in Chinatown, but said being inside all day wasn’t for him. “I felt trapped,” he said. That’s when he began pushing a Popsicle cart in Bensenville, where he said one resident hated Mexican vendors so much he’d threaten to call immigration officials on all of them. And worse, Escalante said, he’d go ahead of the paleteros in a truck, and give out free Popsicles, bags of them.
“Sometimes I would hide from him, I’d go between houses to get to the next street over. … A lot of vendors quit,” said Escalante, who chooses to look on the bright side. “It made me a good vendor.”
Escalante said he likes creating his own jobs; he’s not trying to take anyone else’s.
The first time he took his camote cart out on the streets of Pilsen, he was nervous. Sure enough, the police stopped him right away. What is that? they wanted to know, seeing the chimney and the little wood fire going full blast.
“They’re sweet potatoes and plantains,” Escalante told the cops. “Try them!” He said police came to the same conclusion as everyone else: delicious. Escalante has had no problems since. He knows officers who work in the area by name.
Not everybody knows what to make of Escalante’s cart. Nikki Brown, walking along Cermak on her way home, ordered sweet corn from Escalante, asking for “elote.”
“This is sweet potato and plantain,” Escalante told her in accented English. “Everything is good, plantain is good, sweet potato is good.”
“I love it!” declared Brown, trying a plantain.
Mike Lopez lives right down the block and has definitely heard the whistle, but he’s never tried the sweet potatoes.
“It sounds like very healthy food. … But nah, I’m into hot dogs and burgers and fries,” said Lopez. I’m from Chicago — I’ll split a pickle with you!”
When Escalante talks about Chicago, he gets sentimental, his voice shaking.
Lo amo, he said. “I love Chicago. Everything I have I owe to Chicago.”
This trip, he’s saving money to start a taqueria back home, where he has a wife and kids. Asked if he’s concerned that a news report might bring him the wrong sort of attention — like health officials or more police — Escalante said that would just be one more challenge to overcome.