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Neighborhood Tours

Fourteen restaurants in Albany Park

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Rapa Nui

4009 N. Elston | 773-478-0175

$

LATIN AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

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

Salam

4636 N. Kedzie | 773-583-0776

$

MIDDLE EASTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

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

Semiramis

4639 N. Kedzie | 773-279-8900

$

MIDDLE EASTERN | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

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

$$

SWEDISH | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | BYO

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

$

ASIAN, CHINESE, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED: TUESDAY

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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