IN CHICAGO – ETHNIC CUISINE REIGNS SUPREME
I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.
– – – H. L. Mencken
Although the city is as American as deep dish pizza and hotdogs, Chicago is truly a city of neighborhoods that reflect heritage and ethnic diversity. Similar to major cities such as Boston, New York and San Francisco – people of all cultures originally settled in the Windy City. As immigration continued, each culture brought their traditions and cuisine with them – from Asian to Indian, Italian to Mexican – Chicago is considered a great place to sample original, authentic food. Some of the local restaurants previewed here go back to the 1920’s – immigrating families brought the recipes, and have passed on their famous places to their children and grandchildren.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
In the late 1800s, Greeks began immigrating to this small section South of Chicago’s Loop. Today, what remains is a number of high quality restaurants that keep this area thriving. Greektown – located at Halsted Street between Van Buren and Washington is definitely a place to experience in Chicago. Sprinkled along Halsted, there’s a cluster of Greek eateries all snuggled together. Although menus and ambience are all similar, it’s fun to stop by one place, say Greek Islands, 200 S. Halsted St.., 312/782-9855 for a drink and some saganaki (followed by the traditional OM PA!)
Just move on down the block for dinner; there are more than a few places to choose: Santorini, 800 W. Adams St., 312-829-8820); Parthenon, 314 S. Halsted St., 312-726-2407 and Costas, 340 S. Halsted St., 312-263-0767, are all good bets for gyros, Greek salads, shish kabobs, and the classic moussaka.
End the evening at Nine Muses, 315 S. Halsted St. 312-902-9922 with a game of backgammon and drinks. At 10 pm., the dancing begins! An added bonus at Nine Muses is that you can pop in for kabobs or a snack until 1 am.
The heart of this neighborhood is a stretch of Taylor Street known for traditional, hearty Italian restaurants. One of the “anchor” favorites is Francesca’s on Taylor, 1400 W. Taylor St., 312-829-2828. .Although Francesca’s is part of a local chain that also includes Mia Francesca. – there is nothing “chain” about this food. Trattoria ambience and rustic cooking is the mainstay of Francesca’s. Appetizers include standards such as Bruschette and Carpaccio – served with a combination of added ingredients such as marinated mushrooms, artichokes and sweet provolone that enrich the flavors of these mainstays. There is a full offering of pastas that include Penne alla Paesana – sautéed with Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, and peas in a tomato cream sauce. A non- pasta favorite is Salmon alla Fresca – grilled with tomato, avocado, red onion and olive oil, basil and lemon over a bed of asparagus.
The second “swear by” place clinging to the tradition of filling one’s belly is Rosebud on Taylor, 1500 W. Taylor St. 312-942-1117. The old stand bys are very popular here – Fettuccine Alfredo and Lasagna. You’ll never be disappointed in the Pasta Fagioli, or any pasta dressed with their vodka sauce. Rosebud has also added a location near the Magnificent Mile at 720 N. Rush St. 312-266-6444.
Tucked away in Little Italy is Bruna’s Ristorante 2424 S. Oakley Ave. 773-254-5550, serving authentic Italian food since 1933. This cozy eatery, owned by Tuscan born Luciano Silvestri, is known for signature dishes such as eggplant parmigana and spaghetti carbanara. Bruna’s has an outstanding family house wine, and locally is considered a great place to have a romantic dinner for two.
Although not located in the City, if you are willing to travel suburban Glenview, a favorite is Café Lucci, 609 Milwaukee Ave., 847-729-2268. Owner and wine master Bobby Arnfi selections have won Café Lucci the prestigious Wine Spectator award of excellence – every year since 2002. In addition to incredible wines, Chef Augie Arnfi serves up fresh fish, chicken, veal and pasta specials daily. The sautéed mussels in wine and garlic, veal chop with fungi mushroom sauce, and Portobello mushroom soup are personal favorites. New menu items include Costolette d’Agnello Rosamaria, a half rack of roasted Silverton Ridge lamb in a Cognac rosemary sauce, and Linguini con Aragosta Fra Diavolo — two 6-oz. Brazilian lobster tails sautéed in a spicy tomato sauce served over linguini. The preparation of their Chilean Sea Bass – when available – should never be passed up.
GERMAN FARE IN LINCOLN SQUARE
The commercial heart of Lincoln Square is located at Lawrence, Western and Lincoln Avenues in Chicago. This quaint, old world neighborhood has a charm all its own. Lincoln Square is home to a number of German businesses, notably the Chicago Brauhaus and Lutz Continental Café. Lutz is a popular destination for traditional German pastries.
If you hit the season right, enjoy the annual Oktoberfest celebration held in Lincoln Square. Festivities include a colorful parade and the ability to listen to a variety of German music while watching people and their beer spill out into the street.
For a daily dose of libations, turn to Huettenbar, 4721 N. Lincoln Ave.
773-561-2507 which serves 10 varieties of German beer, and still has a “stampstich” – the traditional large booth where old Germans gather in the front of the bar.
At the Chicago Brauhaus, located at 4732 N Lincoln Ave., 773-784-4444 proprietor’s Harry and Guenter Kempf have been serving up herring, hackepeter, sauerkraut and schnitzel for over 40 years. If you love the music, they’ll sell you singer Gody’s CD to take home as a sticky memory. The Brauhaus is a great place to go with a big group – enjoy a year round celebration of Oktoberfest!
Chicago’s Chinatown is south of the Loop and concentrated along Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue. There are many sights to explore in Chinatown, and Chicago’s is certainly as authentic as San Francisco’s but on a slightly smaller scale. If you are there just to eat, sometimes ordering and language barriers still exist – so pointing to what you want on the menu for any restaurant in Chinatown can be a good idea!
A tradition since 1927, Won Kow, 2237 S. Wentworth Ave. 312-842-7500 is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Chinatown. Won Kow also has a full bar – noted because most of Chinatown’s restaurants are BYOB. The calling card for Won Kow is dim sum and very reasonable prices. The menu contains of over 100 items, which makes it difficult to make a decision. Won Kow also has a special menu section for those who love their food spicy! The customer can order up their spice in degrees. Other house specialties include Mongolian chicken and duck with seafood.
The China Café 2300 S Wentworth Ave, 312-808-0202 is not a destination for décor – it displays simple plastic tablecloths and only embraces 20 tables. However, this is considered a classic Chinese restaurant in every sense: affordable, fast service, and features a variety of fresh seafood.
BEST OF THE BEST MEXICAN
Chicago is home to Rick Bayless – the famous chef known for his love of authentic Mexican dishes. Bayless has published several successful cookbooks and has his own show on PBS. One of the chef’s unique traditions is to close down his restaurants for two weeks each year. He fly’s the staff to the nooks and crannies of Mexico to immerse everyone in the local food and cooking methods. His restaurants – Topolabamba and Frontera Grill (both are located at 445 North Clark Street 312-661-1434), are well known as a destination for many tourists and business people landing in Chicago and seeking high end Mexican cuisine.
A lesser known place that’s excellent for upscale Mexican dining is Salpicon 1252 N. Wells, 312-988-7811. Mexico City born chef/proprietor Priscilla Satkoff fills the menu with authentic flavors that were originally inspired by her grandmother. The balance of flavorful dishes with one of the best fine dining wine lists alone would make this a good choice. The decision becomes easier for any connoisseur of Tequila. Salpicon has one of the largest collections of tequila and offers tasting flights ¾ oz of 4 tequilas (Blanco’s, Reposados and Anegos, for example.)
Pancho Pistolas, 700 W 31st St 312-225-8808 is located in the heart of Chicago’s historic Bridgeport neighborhood – very close to U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. If you are willing to venture outside of the Loop for great Mexican food, consider the short trip. Pancho Pistolas is famous for their skirt steak carne asada, vegetarian burritos, and they definitely pour a good margarita! In the summer, the Garcia brothers open the patio so you can sip the tangy concoctions outside.
ASIAN AND THAI
Arun’s 4156 N Kedzie Ave. 773-539-1909 is the city’s gourmet interpreter of Thai cuisine. For a fixed price, try their unique Chef Design Menu – which features a 12 course offering, Arun’s also allows their patrons to “dial up the heat” on any dish. The service is excellent and the wait staff takes special care to be aware of any food allergies. The portions are elegantly presented, but small. This is a fine dining establishment and the prices reflect that…
Red Light, 820 W Randolph St. 312-733-8880, is the creation of Chef Jackie Shen. The fusion offerings incorporate Asian, Chinese and French ingredients and cooking methods. Located in the trendy market district, consider their $70, 6-8 course chef tasting menu that allows patrons to sample a variety of dishes. Recommendations include the spring rolls, Black Tie Sesame Shrimp, Shogun Hanger Steak as an entrée and anything on the desert menu (as they have an outstanding pastry chef – Susana Castillo at the helm). If offered, try the coconut-banana cream pie. The heavenly accompaniment is a dollop of coconut sorbet.
If visual and avant-garde are your passion, try Moto Restaurant at 945 W. Fulton Market 312-491-0058. Famous executive chef Homaro Cantu (formerly of Charlie Trotter’s) is a master of science and a magician in designing experiments in food chemistry. Cantu’s multi-course menu changes daily. He has appeared on TV Food Network’s Iron Chef – mesmerizing viewers with a variety of invented gadgets and unusual cooking approaches. Don’t be surprised if you are presented with an edible menu when dining at Moto. Extreme science is Cantu’s culinary platform – so eating at Moto is truly experiential.
MORE TO EXPLORE
A La Turka, located at 3134 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-935-6101, is one of the best places in the city to explore Turkish fare. As an appetizer course, they offer a variety of Mediterranean delights from eggplant to hummus. Their lamb shank dinner entrée is moist and flavorful. Dinner experiences can also include a visit to their hooka bar or a belly dancing session. These are professional belly dancers, but feel free to stand up and work off dinner.
For some of the best Swedish morsels Chicago has to offer, try Ann Sather, 929 W. Belmont Ave.773-348.2378. Owner Tom Tunney bought the restaurant at age 21 from Ann Sather. In addition to managing this business, Tom is also the Alderman of the 44th Ward, where Ann Sather’s resides. The classic breakfast menu includes Swedish Pancakes with Lingonberries, Swedish waffles, and their famous cinnamon rolls. Ann Sather is only open for breakfast and lunch.
For a taste of India, consider Klay Oven, 414 N Orleans St, 312-527-3999. It’s a surprise to be able to enjoy authentic Indian cuisine in the heart of Chicago’s River North district. Owner Prem Khosla serves up vegetarian delights such as Vegetable Biryani (Basmati rice pilaf with sautéed vegetables, cloves, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, fresh coriander.) Their Tandori Grill includes dishes such as Chooza Kabab, boneless chicken cubes marinated in yogurt, fresh lemon, crushed black pepper laced with saffron threads. Klay Oven is authentic and dishes are created with passion.
There are many more opportunities to explore Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants. Each of the neighborhoods mentioned have many more little cafes, bistros, diners, and breakfast places to discover. One of the best feelings is to find a gem, that serves food with care and little fanfare – that can become one of your “favorite” places to dine in Chicago.
It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago-she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.
– – – Mark Twain “Life On The Mississippi,” 1883