3175 W. Madison
On a recent visit to Edna's I watched a middle- aged woman in a smart blue suit walk in carrying a cane. A waitress greeted her by name and asked if she'd have the usual. Apparently, every Saturday afternoon for the last 25 years Miz Bluesuit has eaten a plateful of stewed pork neck bones, a saucerful of dressing, a tall, cold glass of sweet tea, and a stack of corn cakes. It's easy to see why. Fried chicken at Edna's is cooked to order, juicy, crunchy, salty, and fresh, the kind of bird I dream about. Side dishes are a greatest hits of southern lovin': fresh-baked short biscuits, pickled beets, mac 'n' cheese, collard greens with optional onion and tomato on top. When Edna dropped by my table to say hello, I told her that I'd been here for a 6 AM breakfast with a crowd of white people a few years ago. "I remember you all," she crowed. "Welcome back!" She vanished into the kitchen, and one by one, unbeckoned, more side dishes came out--we sampled nine out of the ten on the menu that afternoon. The pork-neck lady looked over as I picked at my sweet potatoes: "You stuffed? Edna, she stuffs you, that's how she gets you," she said. "Now you're hooked, just like me." --Seth Zurer
Harold's Chicken Shack #36
1361 N. Milwaukee
There were a few gusts of media hyperventilation when a sign heralding the arrival of Harold's Chicken Shack #36 went up in Wicker Park a few months ago, well before its actual opening. The vaunted local chain's outlets have opened and closed all over the south side and suburbs for over half a century, and how much ink was spilled over them? Anyone new to Harold's needs to know that #36 doesn't represent the best that can be had among the 35-some stores within the city limits. True, this place is spotless, and there's no bulletproof barrier separating the patrons from their birds, but some of the brightest and busiest shacks sling the most manky, discouraging poultry outside of a crab trap. Chicken at #36 was puny and overfried; any traces of birdlike flavor evaporated in the grease. Gizzards and livers were similarly overdone, and the hot sauce--the most important accessory to any Harold's bird--was impossibly salty. Many shacks differ day to day, shift to shift even, so I never write one off completely, but I encourage neophytes to visit some in neighborhoods the lifestyle guides pass over before pledging allegiance to #36--see the accompanying listings for a few suggestions. --Mike Sula
4608 N. Western
It's not like there's been a revolution against boring Thai food in Chicago, but there's certainly a healthy resistance, and it was born in Chai and Vanna Gumtrontip's little Lincoln Square restaurant. Spoon was the first place in the city willing to serve farang--authentic, fully flavored Thai food. It began in the summer of '03 with the discovery of the Thai-language "secret menu" by a handful of obsessive chowhounds, who had it translated and began plumbing the depths of its aggressive, brilliantly seasoned dishes. Word spread, and though waitstaff sometimes had a hard time believing that non-Thais had the stomach for the real stuff (some servers still do), eventually they stopped blinking and began relinquishing funky Issan sausage, rich boat noodles, banana blossom salad, one-bite salad, incendiary papaya salad sprinkled with dried shrimp or pickled crab, and the miraculous Thai-style fried chicken (kai thawt), deeply penetrated with lemongrassy, peppery flavors and served with a tamarind dipping sauce. These dishes are now practically mainstream compared to the treasures on Spoon's greatly expanded Thai-language menu translated at lth forum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?p=74762#74762. I'm a long way from reaching the bottom of this seven-page odyssey, but so far some of my favorite items are naem khao thawt, a tangy, crispy fried rice salad with peanuts, cilantro, and pressed ham; phat phrik sa-taw muu sap, minced pork and bitter beans; and Issan-style minced duck salad. --Mike Sula
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.