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A Cult Fave Reopens in the Southwest Burbs

Starting Over

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Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe

5579 W. 79th, Burbank708-229-8700

When he reopened Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe last month, Chuck Pine tried to do it quietly. Smoke and water damage from a fire in September had forced him to close the Burbank restaurant for eight long months, and fans of his eclectic but unaffected cuisine--a mix of southern, Cajun, and Mexican dishes with followers from all over the city--had been clamoring for his return. "Pace yourself," he warned his regulars. "Don't come in the first day, or we're gonna get killed." It didn't help. "It was a train wreck," he says. "The phone was off the hook. The kitchen couldn't keep up." For three days he had to stop accepting phone orders altogether.

It's still busy, but the eight-year-old restaurant has settled into its groove since then. Many of the place's attributes remain unchanged: the casual booths, the pig tchotchkes, the couple hundred hot sauces for sale. Most of the old favorites--beef brisket, gumbo, churrasco, and Pine's famous Cajun green beans--are still around. So is the slow-smoked hickory barbecue and house barbecue sauce, available in mild, hot, and a new honey-chipotle version. But Pine has streamlined his offerings a bit. "The whole concept is a smaller menu and more specials," he says.

Pine's specials have always been a draw, so popular that the daily voice-mail message he records listing them have made him something of a celebrity. People tell him that when they call from work they put the message on speakerphone so the entire office can hear. "It's got the craziest following," he says. "I'm not a stud guy or anything, but I'll go in these offices [to make a delivery] and the women will be like, 'It's the guy from the voice mail!'" His fiancee, another fan of the voice mails, contacted him on Match.com when she recognized him in his bio as the guy from the restaurant. (Daily specials for each month are also listed on the restaurant's Web site, chuckscafe.com.)

Pine's offerings range from Chicken Curry a la Paul Prudhomme and smoked duck etouffee with andouille to cochinita pibil (achiote-seasoned smoked pork) and turkey with mole manchamantales (a red fruit mole). He's also known for his monthlong extravaganzas celebrating Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo. Sophisticated Mexican regional cuisine might seem surprising at a place that also serves fried mozzarella sticks. But most family restaurants don't have a chef who cooked under Rick Bayless.

In the early 90s, fresh from the culinary program at Joliet Junior College, Pine was eating at Frontera Grill and asked the waiter if they were hiring. "Well, there's Rick. Go talk to him," was the answer. Bayless ended up hiring Pine for his first cooking job, as appetizer chef at Topolobampo, where he spent about three years before moving on to a six-month stint at the now shuttered Red Rock Grill. In 1998 he opened Chuck's just a few miles south of Midway in Burbank, where he's lived all his life. He still caters Bayless's annual staff party.

"The main thing I learned from Rick was proper seasoning," Pine says. "You shouldn't have to add any salt and pepper to anything when I'm done cooking it."

Since the reopening Pine has started offering weekend breakfasts as well--the restaurant now opens at 6 AM on Saturdays and Sundays. True to form, alongside the standard omelets, pancakes, and biscuits and gravy, there are Cajun eggs Benedict (made with andouille), chilaquiles in a roasted tomato-chipotle chile sauce, and pain perdu, French toast New Orleans style.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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