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Neighborhood Tours

Fourteen restaurants in Albany Park

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4748 N. Kedzie | 773-583-0999



One of the spiffier places on a stretch of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants in Albany Park, Al-Khaymeih has a large menu with all the Middle Eastern standards plus a few rarities like sumac-dusted fried cauliflower and sarouj, marinated and char-broiled Cornish hen. The food is always fresh and tasty, particularly standout appetizers. The smooth, flavorful hummus goes light on the tahini; the grape leaves are tightly rolled and bursting with lemony rice and vegetables; the lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs are nicely seasoned and generously portioned; and the pita bread, served warm, is made by Sanabel Bakery, which shares its owner. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Big Pho

3821 W. Lawrence | 773-478-8282



A pho joint in Koreatown seemed an odd thing to me, but juding from the crowds at lunchtime it's a sound business plan. The pho here is geared to the Korean customer base, which apparently prefers a less oily broth than the typical Vietnamese pho; the result is simmered for ten hours with beef bones. It seems to lack some of the heady spices that typify the pho on Argyle Street—I wasn't feeling much star anise—but the broth is clean and fortifying. Among the 12 varieties of soup a full four are seafood based—and include some really pretty green mussels. Much less play is given to organy bits, though you can still get your tripe and tendon flotsam. Considering that Koreans usually don't go more than a day without some sort of soup, I'm betting Big Pho has staying power in Albany Park. —Mike Sula

Brasa Roja

3125 W. Montrose | 773-866-2252



This outpost of Jorge and Jeanette Gacharna's excellent Lakeview churrascaria, El Llano, has one major advantage over the original: pollo rostizado. Every morning the birds start spinning over hot coals in the window of the Albany Park storefront; plump and round, with steadily browning skin, they beg to be tucked under the arm like a football and carried away. In the dining room the Gacharnas have disguised the ghosts of retail past, festooning the dropped ceiling and walls with folkloric gimcracks and posters of South American ranch life. The scent of sizzling flesh precedes the arrival of wooden boards laden with grilled steaks, short ribs, or rabbit, accompanied by a sharp salsa verde and the four starches of the apocalypse—rice, fried yuca, boiled potato, and arepas. Milk- or water-based jugos like blackberry and mango are surpassed by the sweet but oddly peppery passion-fruit variety, and desserts include brevas con arequipe (caramel-filled figs). Doors open at 9 AM for calentado, the traditional Colombian breakfast featuring beans, arepas, potatoes, eggs, carne asada, and cheese-stuffed pastries called buñuelos. There's a third restaurant coming in May. —Mike Sula

Chicago Kalbi

3752 W. Lawrence | 773-604-8183



Considering the great number of Koreans that run sushi bars around town, is it really so strange that a kalbi place would be run by a Japanese-Korean couple? Here there are terrific appetizers of oyster pajun—bivalves individually cooked in eggy batter—and a lightly fried, almost tempura-style chicken. But the varieties of panchan are milder and scarcer than those in a typical Korean restaurant, and the barbecue meats are leaner, shaved from higher-quality cuts—the menu even advertises Kobe beef. Of course, the cooking is done over real wood charcoal, but because the delicate cuts have a harder time standing up to the intense heat, you really have to pay attention to what you're doing. The whole experience is a little more refined and less orgiastic than at most Korean places—it leaves you feeling as if you've eaten more like Sailor Moon than Conan the Barbarian. On the other hand it attracts a great number of local and traveling Japanese pro ballplayers, whose posters cover the wall, and a collection of balls autographed by the likes of Hideki Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and Ichiro Suzuki are enshrined under the register. Though the place is extremely hospitable, outrageously, there's a $2 surcharge for extra lettuce and bean paste. Overall it's less forbidding than a typical kalbi restaurant—our waitress offered to show us the ropes in a flat midwestern accent and the busboy was eastern European. Perhaps as a result there are always lots of white people at the tables. "That's because it's not real Korean," a skeptical Korean told me. —Mike Sula

Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen

4911 N. Kedzie | 773-267-4200



I'm never going to say that Kedzie Avenue has too many Middle Eastern restaurants, especially since some of the best are distinctive. But with the familiar menu of shawarma, kebabs, hummus, falafel, fattoush, etc, what does Dawali have that's going to draw customers from the others? For one thing, every day the alluring aroma of baking bread blasts across the parking lot, issuing like a siren's call from its next door neighbor, the grocery and bakery Pita House. Ordering at the counter and getting our own drinks, we sat down to an appetizer sampler of pretty basic baba ghanoush, heavily emulsified hummus, grilled vegetables (masaka'a), and crispy though oddly herbaceous and wet falafel. Galaya, a tomato-onion-beef saute, was richly seasoned but tasted like it had been held (and arrived fast enough to indicate it), and lamb shish kebab was fine, tender enough and not overcooked, but nothing spectacular. But the shawarma, with very clearly defined layers of beef and fat-streaked lamb, showed some potential, its exterior bits crispy and nicely charred, though despite the aforementioned fat, it still seemed a bit dry. And yes, the bread comes from Pita House—one of the guys at the counter went over for a couple fresh bags during our meal. —Mike Sula


4053 N. Kedzie | 773-478-0819



Peru is preeminent among Latin American countries when it comes to pollo a la brasa, rotisserie chicken, but until recently this was the only Peruvian polleria in Chicago. But that's not all there is on offer from the father-son team of Luis Garcia Jr. and Sr., who also feature lomo saltado, beef marinated, sauteed, and served over rice, and ceviche topped with red onions lightly pickled in lime juice, widely regarded as the Peruvian national dish. What's striking about many of the dishes is their vividness. Peruvian riffs on fried rice—beef, seafood, or chicken, with brilliant chunks of red and green pepper, crispy scrambled egg, and green onions—are Technicolor to the black-and-white of your average greasy cardboard-container takeout. Chicha morada is a winey-purple sweet drink made from boiling ears of purple corn with cinnamon and clove. And the chupe de camarones is a deep bowl of milky red soup highlighted by deep red sprinklings of ancho chile and loaded with shrimp, poached eggs, blobs of chewy melted cheese, peas, carrots, and rice—it looks like the surface of Jupiter. The tallarin verde con bistec is a slab of beef atop a mound of bright green spinach-basil pesto; aguadito, a brilliant green chicken soup the Garcias serve on weekends, gets its color from cilantro and spinach pureed into the broth. And then there is the aji, the most distinctive accompaniment to Peruvian pollo a la brasa—a creamy pastel yellow mayo-and-mustard-based salsa, cool and tangy, with a hint of heat from the aji de amarillo chile and an herbal note from huacatay, Peruvian black mint. A spicier version, pale green in color, is made with jalapeños and served with the restaurant's other dishes. It's particularly good with the anticuchos, marinated, skewered veal heart, which anyone thinking about dabbling in offal for the first time should consider as a gateway organ. —Mike Sula

Great Sea

3254 W. Lawrence | 773-478-9129



Great Sea phones in unremarkable Korean-Chinese—Chinese food with nods to Korean tongues—and one remarkable thing: Hot and Saucy Chicken Wings. Frenched, battered, deep-fried, and slathered with a sweet, dark, oily chile sauce, this version of a classic Chinese snack is the reason for the perpetual train of pilgrims that stomp through the drab dining room to collect Styrofoam boxes heavy with lollipop poultry. If you really need something else, there are a handful of interesting departures from the codified wok glop. Cha chiang mian—a deep bowl of noodles in a thick black bean sauce—distinguishes itself. So does chow ma mian, a seafood-and-pork noodle soup with a rich, fishy red broth. But Great Sea knows its strength. They even sell jars of the wings' sauce at the register—it's terrific on salmon. They could easily cut out the overhead and make a fortune selling their miraculous drumettes from a lunch cart outside some sports bar. —Mike Sula

Kang Nam

4849 N. Kedzie | 773-539-2524



When a meal starts with a man wearing flame-retardant hand gear bearing a blazing bucket of coals from the kitchen, it conjures all sorts of enjoyable medieval associations, as if he'd just taken a break from pounding out broadswords and horseshoes to provide fuel for your feasting. Kang Nam is one of the handful of Korean barbecue houses around town that offer that sort of spectacle (unlike those that use gas burners), and among them it's probably my favorite. The little accompanying bowls of panchan at this most generous of kalbi joints are plentiful, varied, and bottomless, and the glistening morsels of lean seasoned pork, beef, and cephalopod sizzling over the flames at the center of the table taste like you bagged them that morning. The primeval pleasure of eating such food with your hands is contrasted with the civilizing possibility of wrapping it in circles of pickled daikon or fresh red-leaf lettuce. Off the grill there are other good possibilities: the dolsot bi bim bop is particularly well-executed, with crispy raspa on the bowl's bottom, and rich gamy goat soup is robust with bright greens. Other bowls and soups are amply sized and aggressively seasoned. Food here is given individual attention, as the occasional sight of workers gathered round a table stuffing great piles of dumplings testifies. —Mike Sula


4661 N. Kedzie | 773-279-9309



Mir Javad Naghavi, chef and co-owner (with his father Amin and sister Parvin) of Albany Park's Noon-O-Kabab, says he makes his koubideh, skewers of ground beef and lamb, with a marinade of "ingredients your body needs"—salt, pepper, and onion. He takes a similarly elemental approach to all his cooking, relying on simple marinades and classic techniques to produce the menu of grilled meats; hearty vegetarian entrees like a stew of deep-fried baby eggplant, tomatoes, saffron, and sauteed onions; and traditional Middle Eastern dishes like hummus, baba ghanoush, and kashke bademjan, a delicious appetizer of pureed eggplant, onion, garlic, and mint. Noon-O-Kabab has a separate location for pickup, delivery, and catering at 4651 N. Kedzie (773-279-8899). —Laura Levy Shatkin

Rapa Nui

4009 N. Elston | 773-478-0175



Billed as the "House of Empanadas," Rapa Nui (formerly the Latin Sandwich Cafe) is the place to go if you've got a hankering for Chilean chow. Authentic Chilean empanadas are made here of pino, a savory blend of ground beef, raisins, chopped egg, and olives, all baked in a wheat-flour shell. Baking is big here, and rolls made fresh on the premises are used for the sandwiches, including the chacarero, a Chilean specialty featuring tender steak, tomato, green beans, and mayo. Humitas are Chile's version of tamales; "blind" (no filling, just sweet cornmeal), they benefit from a little salsa. The dish that captured my heart (and most of my stomach) was pastel de choclo, a baked bowl of masa with ground beef, onion, olives, egg, and a chicken leg: the cornmeal was caramelized and crisp around the edges, while in the center the casserole had the consistency of corn pudding. Pastel mil hojas, a cake of a "thousand layers" and dulce de leche, is so good you forgive the hyperbole. —David Hammond


4636 N. Kedzie | 773-583-0776



I have oceanic reserves of nostalgia for this once-grotty neighborhood stalwart, so I was nervous when it underwent a major face-lift and expansion under new ownership. The bright new spit-shined Salam—complete with massive full-color portraits of Middle Eastern monuments and mannerly female waitstaff—is certainly more presentable than it used to be. But the open kitchen's move into a neighboring abandoned Quizno's (whose red neon toasted slogan remains suspended from the ceiling) means the rough, chummy banter between cooks and customers has been silenced. Somehow that makes it harder to forgive occasional consistency problems, like spun-dry shawarma or falafel that have clearly spent too much time outside the fryer. All items on the once-minimal menu remain—shawarma and kebab entrees (downsizable to sandwiches), variations on chickpeas such as fatah and mossabaha, and an organ trio of liver, heart, and kidney sauteed with onions and lemon—and still arrive as nearly insurmountable heaps of food, accompanied by bright pink radishes and preceded by a teaser of superbriny olives. There's still fresh-brewed mint tea, fresh-squeezed orange-carrot juice, and rotating specials including grape leaves, zucchini, massef (a soup traditionally accompanied by lamb and rice), and a Sunday wild card that ranges from string beans to Cornish hen. And the menu's expanded along with the space and now features more Arabic dishes, including spinach pies, house-made labneh, and a few of the tomato-onion sautees known as kalaya. But the ominous addition of generic fast-food items—chicken wings, gyros, burgers, rotisserie chicken, and fries—makes my heart hurt. —Mike Sula


4639 N. Kedzie | 773-279-8900



The semilegendary Assyrian queen Semiramis supposedly ordered her posse of fanatical drug-addled priests to tear King Nimrod limb from limb, eat him raw, and put her illegitimate son on the throne in his place, but don't read too much into the name of this spot in the space left vacant by the semilegendary Shawerma King. Joseph Abraham, late of ZouZou and Leo's Lunchroom, offers a wide assortment of dishes, beginning with nine vegetarian mezes, most notably tabbouleh done Lebanese style: heavy on the parsley, light on the bulgur. Elaborate kebab, falafel, and roast chicken sandwiches reach a pinnacle in the lamb and beef shawarma combo—a textural marvel of juicy, caramelized meat wrapped in thin lavosh with roasted eggplant, red cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, hummus, and harissa-spiked tahini. The shawarma and skewered meat entrees include a marinated roasted chicken resting on a huge blanket of lavosh beside a cup of cool glutinous garlic mousse called toum. At $7 per bird it could be the take-out deal of the neighborhood. And Abraham has reintroduced the sumac-sprinkled french fries that were so popular at ZouZou. The broad front window is a perfect spot to take a pot of strong, sweet cardamom-laced coffee. —Mike Sula

Tre Kronor

3258 W. Foster | 773-267-9888



Every morning the kitchen at Tre Kronor turns out their legendary Danish, cinnamon rolls, and a number of cheese-filled omelets, each packing enough points to top out your Weight Watchers quota for the day. Most of the foods are of Scandinavian stock, though there's one quisling burger on the lunch menu; other offerings include quiche and Norwegian meatballs on limpa bread. Tre Kronor's herring, made in-house, is a superbly moist and meaty version, and Swedish meatballs here are light, delicate, and deliciously dressed with sweet-tart lingonberry sauce. In line with the robust Viking tradition, you won't find a salad here without cheese or bacon or both; the menu is full of the kind of fortifying food you'd want to eat before heading out to herd reindeer or invade your southern neighbors. There's backyard seating under a canopy of trees. —David Hammond

VIP Restaurant

3254 W. Montrose | 773-588-2727



For Koreans cha chia mian—wheat noodles in thick, inky black bean sauce with chopped vegetables and meat—represent the very definition of familiarity and comfort. They're the Asian analog of chicken noodle soup or meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. One of my favorite places for the dish is Albany Park's VIP Restaurant. Haiben Chin, who manages the restaurant for her mom and dad, says the family, which once operated a place in Seoul, opened V.I.P. in the mid-80s when the neighborhood was primarily Korean. Up until about ten years ago her dad, Sgu Yung Chin, used to hand-pull noodles. "He says he's too old," she laughed. "His elbows hurt too much to do it." Still, he makes some mean noodles. Try the gan cha chiang mian in a double-sided bowl with spicy champong, a spicy seafood noodle dish. —Mike Sula

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