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Best suburban Chicago restaurants: South/Southwest

Middle Eastern soul food, an artist at work in a rib house, and pierogies made by mom well into the wee hours


Almawal Restaurant | $$

10718 S. Harlem
Worth, IL

Bridgeview might be known as our region's mecca for Middle Eastern food, but I'd rather go to Worth. Following a split from the acclaimed Al Bawadi, the Dyab family—including chef Majed Dyab, a kitchen veteran with decades of experience—opened this outstanding spot three miles south on Harlem. Majed executes a number of unusual dishes including a complimentary eggplant salad and torshi relish tray; piping hot, fried-to-order falafel stuffed with caramelized vegetables; the bracing whipped garlic and potato dip muthawama; fruit cocktails layered with candied nuts, cream, and floral syrups; cheese- and meat-stuffed arayes (kind of like a pita quesadilla); and for the gutsy, a spleen sandwich. The everyday items—smoky baba ganoush, whole-chickpea-studded fateh hummus, orange-scented merguez sausages, and the wood-grilled chickens and kebabs—are pretty special too, made with the kind of love that's evident when a family puts its soul into a menu. —Mike Sula

Cavalier Inn | $

735 Gostlin
Hammond, IN

There's no shortage of good Polish food in the city, but I wouldn't dream of heading to Gary for a Railcats game ($10 or less!) without stopping at Hammond's Cavalier Inn first. A landmark to the northern Indiana Polish community, the Cav was founded in 1949 by the late, beloved Wally Kasprzycki; it's now run by his son Wally Jr. and his mother Mary, who still makes the pierogies twice a week into the wee hours of the morning. Mammoth portions of fried chicken livers, stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes, and Polish sausage, preceded by a gratis trio of bean salad, coleslaw, and cottage cheese, are mostly priced under $10, many closer to $5. And you couldn't find a friendlier spot to dive into them. —Mike Sula

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Cunis Candies | $

1030 E. 162nd
South Holland, IL

Viewed from the strip mall parking lot next to a combination lottery ticket and Chinese-takeout counter, Cunis Candies has all the charm of a Baskin-Robbins. But the old-timey ice cream parlor, opened by George Askounis in Chicago the same year as the Century of Progress, is an original. While the regular flavors of dense, American-style, house-churned ice cream are pretty good (rum raisin being a personal favorite), come summertime fresh peach and blueberry are essential picks. Sundaes drizzled with a dark chocolate sauce hint at the quality of the huge variety of hand-molded and/or -dipped chocolates, everything from almond bark to coated Oreos, green meltaways to cherry cordials, dixies to turtles. —Mike Sula

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket | $$

645 Joliet
Willowbrook, IL

If you've paid a lick of attention to the Dell Rhea's fried-chicken debate over on Yelp (sample bitchiness: "I guess if you are using Chick-fil-A, KFC and/or Popeyes as your points of comparison for what defines good fried chicken, you probably enjoy this place," "What it lacked for me was spice. I guess it is to be expected for northern fried chicken") you've done yourself the disservice of overthinking what's best left to blissful simplicity: superjuicy, just-salty/briny-enough flesh inside a crispy, never overbearing shell. That divine balance is true of Dell Rhea's signature battered bird and everything else we sampled. The buffalo wings were expertly fried with a delicate proportion of batter—which allowed the buffalo sauce to interject without interrupting. Gizzards were remarkable in their juiciness, swaddled inside a slightly more substantial cornmeal batter that better suited its inhabitant (think fried oysters). Velvety catfish also benefited from a slightly higher batter-to-flesh ratio. Dell Rhea's decor is legitimately kitschy—the operation has been housed in the same neon-lit building on Route 66 since 1946—and high on charm. That—and the adjoining cocktail lounge (with a beer list featuring American craft and Belgian brews)—make the 30-minute fried-chicken wait tolerable. —Mara Shalhoup

George's Rib House | $$

168 W. 147th
Harvey, IL

A delicious-smelling haze wafts across George's parking lot. Inside all signs indicate an artist at work who cannot abide distractions: "Please do not use cellular phones in the rib house," it says on the bulletproof glass barrier. Behind the counter, owner George Rogers keeps a plastic elephant—a replica of a brass model he says Ronald Reagan sent him as thanks for the large orders of pork his staffers regularly picked up. His ribs and tips are in fact luscious. All the elements of crispiness, fattiness, and juiciness are in perfect proportion, and accented by the salty rub he uses. There's just one thing missing: smoke. George openly admits that he uses only lump charcoal—no wood—for the following reason: "Logs got worms and insects. I don't want to bring 'em in." —Mike Sula

Exsenator's Bar-B-Que | $

3349 W. 159th
Markham, IL

This yellow-and-red-trimmed shack brazenly belches sweet, porky, hickory fumes from its smokestack, mocking the health food store across the street. While ribs and tips are delicately rendered, they still maintain a satisfying, tooth-tugging chew. Appropriately, the sauce is an afterthought—too sticky-sweet and maybe a better summertime treat, frozen on a stick. But the finely ground hot link, a sausage rarely worth going out of the way for, is bravely peppered, intensely clovey, and by rights should make this lonely stretch of the south suburbs better traveled. —Mike Sula

Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery | $$

1035 Sterling
Flossmoor, IL

  • Natalia Wilson

Located in the historic building that once housed the Flossmoor train station, this brewpub is adjacent to the Metra stop—close enough that if you time things right you can be on the train five minutes after taking your last swallow of beer (ideally with a growler for the road—it'll be a good 45 minutes before you're back in the city). The sprawling space is matched by an equally sprawling menu of close to 100 sandwiches, wraps, pizzas, salads, soups, and pastas. It's standard but well-executed pub fare: fries were suitably crispy, artichoke dip sufficiently cheesy, and a pulled pork sandwich nicely tender, though it could have used a little more "beer-b-que" sauce. About ten beers are always on tap, but less well advertised are the half-dozen seasonal beers, which are also the more interesting ones; recent selections included a smoked porter, a barleywine, and a chocolate-vanilla stout. A sampler of all 16 provided not only liquid nourishment but also entertainment, since the server mixed up a few of them and we had figure out which was which (not difficult since the IPA tastes nothing like the saison). Flossmoor Station doesn't get a lot of attention from beer nerds, maybe because most of its brews are fairly traditional, but it deserves more. —Julia Thiel

Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In | $

8801 S. Indianapolis Blvd.
Highland, IN

Do you have 699 large? If so, you can own the perpetually for-sale Blue Top, a pristine, early-60s-era, neon-gilded drive-in (the original opened in '36) that griddles a typical Indiana-style hand-formed, smashed, and lacy-edged burger (see also Schoop's) superior to one at the also-picturesque Miner-Dunn up the street (which has better, fresh-cut fries). The menu is crowded and varied with signature burgers (nacho giardiniera), flavored Cokes (vanilla, cherry, rum), hot dogs (kraut, Thousand Island), and sundaes, but the most appropriate course of action is to take a Big Ben double cheeseburger with butter-drenched garlic fries and a house-made root beer black cow, either in the turquoise-bedecked dining room or under the Jetsons-style carport from a living, breathing teenage carhop. While warm Friday nights look a lot more deserted than they must have in the age of the hot rod, classic-car clubs still congregate, and free wieners for canines bring in the dog lovers. Cash only. —Mike Sula

Petey's Bungalow Lounge | $$$

4401 W. 95th
Oak Lawn, IL

Sometimes you want to eat well. Sometimes you just miss your grandparents. Petey's is a midwestern-supper-club-style time warp with flashes of Greek-American when the flaming saganaki appears. From the gorgeous neon martini sign at its Oak Lawn location (there's a nonretro outpost in Orland Park) to the blast of garlic bread gusting from the front door, Petey's harkens to a time when men ate their steaks in sport coats, and wedge salads were as big as their wives' bouffants. The food, alas, is seasoned and prepared to suit that era's indiscrimination—congee-consistency Greek lemon soup; huge, industrial-grade steak and chops; textureless rib boilbecue; etc. But the thick burgers are decent, and meals begin with massive complimentary relish trays, heaps of canned beets, and scoops of cottage cheese and macaroni salad, and end with ice cream, rice pudding or Jell-O. The real draw is the lifer waitresses, quick with the "hons" and "sweeties," and the swinging senior set that packs the place on weekends. —Mike Sula

Schoop's | $

215 Ridge Rd. (and 19 other locations)
Munster, IN

This 20-strong northern Indiana burger chain (with a few Illinois outlets) is probably the best-known champion of the smashed, Indiana-style burger, duplicated to much better effect at Evanston's Edzo's, but not necessarily so at more classic indie joints like Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In and Miner-Dunn. The Mickey, with two slices of American cheese, mustard, ketchup, relish, and onions, sets the sloppy standard. It's a style I'm not particularly fond of but I do see its merits, particularly in the lacy corona of meat that crisps around the edge of the discus-size patty. —Mike Sula

Sheeba | $$

9052 S. Harlem
Bridgeview, IL

Brothers Anees and Ismael "Smiley" Aljahmi operate one of two local restaurants to feature authentic Yemeni cuisine—which includes hulba, an ethereal fenugreek froth used most often to top simmering stone bowls of salta, a tomato-based vegetable stew best accompanied by blistered, toasty, charred discs of naanlike bread. They do a lot with lamb. You can get marinated and broiled chops; sauteed liver or kidney; segar, minced lamb sauteed with tomatoes, onions, cumin, turmeric, cilantro, and garlic; chunky gallaba cooked in a currylike sauce; shredded lamb stewed in fahsa; and heaping platters of rice with lamb on the bone roasted (masloog) or slow-simmered (haneeth). They also do typical Middle Eastern sides—hummus, fasolia, ful mudamas—but the Yemeni dishes predominate, including mushakal, a spicy stew of potato, celery, zucchini, and okra that simmers from open to close. —Mike Sula

Three Floyds Brewpub | $$

9750 Indiana Parkway
Munster, IN

Three Floyds has long been a destination for beer aficionados, but the food, while serviceable enough, used to be standard-issue pub grub. Enter Mike Sheerin (formerly of Blackbird and Everest), who's been a consulting chef at Three Floyds since late 2010 and has elevated the offerings with some fancy touches. There's still a burger on the menu, but now it's a short rib version with bearnaise sauce on a brioche bun; pizzas are topped with chorizo and fresh mozzarella or ricotta salata, goat, and gremolata. Menu items change frequently, and on a handful of visits over the past year or so, everything has ranged from decent to very good. My last trip out was during a period of construction that put the kitchen out of commission, leading to an abbreviated menu heavy on items smoked or grilled in-house (or out back, to be more accurate). Jumbo smoked shrimp were sweet and snappy, if near impossible to peel; the smoked baby octopus in a cold salad was tender and sweet, complemented nicely by grapefruit and greens but inexplicably drowned in oil. Pickled eggs and onions were jazzed up with turmeric, giving them a beautiful yellow hue. But while the food is more than respectable, the beers, many of them available only at the brewpub, remain the best reason to visit. —Julia Thiel

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