Restaurants: A Bowl of Red, April 17, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: A Bowl of Red, April 17, 2008

Twenty more places for chili

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A Bowl of Red

Twenty more places for chili

The Brown Sack3706 W. Armitage | 773-661-0675

$American, Ice Cream | Breakfast, lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Tuesday-Friday | closed monday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

It's a long way from Malaika Marion's first Chicago job at Planet Hollywood to her "soup, sandwich, and shake shack" on the western fringe of Logan Square. Most recently a manager at Lula Cafe, Marion's lived in the neighborhood for years, and when she saw the teeny Armitage storefront she knew the time was right to break out on her own. With help from her partner, Adam Lebin—formerly the GM at Red Light—she's turned the space into a sunny, six-table destination for hearty down-home standards like a gooey grilled peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich and beefarific chili laced with head-clearing handfuls of cumin and chile (a vegetarian version is also available). The daunting Reuben—a popular choice based on an unscientific peek at the other tables—comes piled with thick folds of corned beef topped with the traditional Thousand Island dressing and melted Swiss, plus grilled onions. There's also rich mac 'n' cheese, meatball subs, Goose Island root beer floats, and daily soup, sandwich, and dessert specials (one week it was Lebin's grandmother's brownies). —Martha Bayne

Chili Mac's 5-Way Chili3152 N. Broadway | 773-404-2898

$American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Cincinnati chili is traditionally served five ways: one-way is just chili; two-way is chili on a bed of spaghetti; three-way, my favorite, includes a heaping of finely grated cheddar cheese; four-way adds beans or sweet onions; and five-way brings on both beans and onions. At Chili Mac's you can choose your chili too: Cincinnati (mild and sweetened with cinnamon and chocolate), Texas Jailhouse (spiced up with serrano, poblano, and jalapeno peppers), vegetarian (with crushed tomatoes and tofu), and turkey. There's also a Coney dog, a chili-cheese potato, and Frito pie, a house specialty that puts the five-way with sour cream over Fritos. If your stomach's already protesting, take comfort in their take-out menu: "We brown and DRAIN our ground beef of all fat before continuing the cooking process. (It's the fat that gets ya.)" Since 1996 the restaurant's been owned and operated by the Garcia brothers, who've diversified the menu by offering thin-crust pizza; the vegetarian Muscle Mac special is a must-pie. While sampling the corn bread—warm, moist, simple, and good like mom's—I caught a glimpse of Chili Mac's signature drink: a blue margarita large enough to last you a lazy afternoon but equipped with a straw wide enough to allow you to siphon it up in one breath. —Ryan Hubbard

The Depot5840 W. Roosevelt | 773-261-8422

$American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

There's a nostalgic vibe at this newish space occupying a longtime diner—60 years and counting—in the far-west-side enclave called the Island. The menu offers egg creams—the east-coast specialty made with heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, and seltzer water—and other homey standards like open-faced roast beef sandwiches and chicken salad, and blue-plate specials such as meat loaf or grilled pork chops with country gravy. The chicken noodle soup is obviously homemade, with fresh chunks of carrots and celery; the celebrated chili, made with ground beef, chorizo, and pinto beans, is substantial and mildly spicy. The pot roast sandwich is mounted on a bun custom-made by a local bakery and heaped with fried onions. It comes with coleslaw, gravy fries, and a pickle for "$6:59" (in a bit of gimmickry, all the prices are styled like arrival and departure times). Lasagna had a ricotta filling so fluffy it was practically a light pasta dish; a club sandwich was stacked high with fresh roasted turkey and bacon. For dessert the crowd-pleaser is red velvet cake, a mild, not terribly sweet, deep red chocolate cake with cream-cheese frosting ($3.56). —David Hammond

Diner Grill1635 W. Irving Park | 773-248-2030

$American, Burgers, Breakfast | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours every day | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Open round the clock and offering counter service only, the Diner Grill has the grizzled, noirish look of a 70s art film, but the food is great, especially the burgers. Like my buddy John says, it's the decades' worth of grease built up on the grill that provides the flavor. For the true Diner Grill experience, get the Slinger: two hamburger patties covered with cheese, topped with two eggs, blanketed with hash browns, then inundated with a couple of scoops of chili and served with slices of white bread on the side. It's impressive and, best of all, tasty (though I did throw a little A.1. in there just to jazz things up). If you finish the whole thing, the cook will give you a little certificate testifying to your prowess. A bowl of the homemade chili alone will set you back just $2.75. —Chip Dudley

Eppel's554 W. Roosevelt | 312-922-2206

$American, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days

Eppel's is a decades-old constant in a neighborhood that's gone from vibrant garment district to big-box mecca. You've seen the menu 1,000 times: eggs, omelets, pancakes, burgers, club sandwiches, and meat-centric daily specials like beef short ribs. The place never stumbles, but it may not win any races either. Pancakes are light and fluffy but overly sweet; meat loaf is bland. Chili has a bit of a kick but could use more, and the matzo ball soup's too-yellow hue screams "Food Service Provider." On the other hand, while the corned beef sandwich may suffer the inevitable comparison to Manny's around the corner, it's made in-house, half the price, and very good. "What's the secret?" I asked the longtime owner, Frank Patrian. "Secret?" he said. "We boil the beef, let it rest, and keep it away from the heat lamp!" —Peter Tyksinski

First Slice Pie Cafe4401 N. Ravenswood | 773-506-7380

$American Contemporary/Regional, Bakery | Breakfast, lunch: seven days; dinner: Monday-Saturday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Mary Ellen Diaz put in time as head chef at Printer's Row, as chef-owner of her own place, and as a corporate chef for the Lettuce Entertain You empire. But her dream had always been to work in a restaurant modeled on Jane Addams's community kitchens. In 2002 she launched First Slice, a nonprofit that makes hand-cooked meals for the homeless. To fund it Diaz originally used money from her subscription meal service; in 2005 she opened this cafe in the Lillstreet Art Center to further increase the amount. In the tiny space—there are just a few tables—she offers slices of several truly scrumptious pies, from basic apple to red wine and poached pear, plus cakes, cookies, bars, and fair-trade coffee served in mugs made at the center. Savory offerings include simple, hearty dishes such as creamy tomato soup, turkey chili, black bean tamales with pepita salsa, a shredded duck sandwich on sourdough, and a grilled number with goat cheese, roasted vegetables, and poached pear that one Rater calls "the best sandwich I have had in recent memory." —Susannah J. Felts

Golden Nugget1765 W. Lawrence | 773-769-6700

$American, Breakfast | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours every day | Reservations not accepted

Everyone should live around the corner from a diner, especially one as reliable as the Golden Nugget on Lawrence. The service is always quick and cheerful; the food always cheap and ridiculously substantial. Breakfast, served 24 hours, encompasses everything from chicken-fried steak with two eggs to the "all-fruit waffle," each quadrant of which bears a different oozy-sweet compote (apple, blueberry, strawberry, and banana). The lunch and dinner choices include chili, the Grubsteaker—ground sirloin smothered with mushrooms, bacon, an onion ring, and melted cheese—and a few diner standards of yore such as liver and onions. —Anne Ford

The Handlebar2311 W. North | 773-384-9546

F 8.4 | S 7.4 | A 7.8 | $ (24 reports)Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Vegetarian/Healthy| Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, other nights till midnight | Reservations not accepted | Vegetarian friendly

rrr A cyclist hangout—the bar stools are made from chrome rims, vintage bikes hang from the ceiling, and there are specials for messengers on Mondays—this is a theme restaurant that doesn't feel precious. The food is cheap and vegetarian friendly: most entrees are under $10, and the only meat option is fish. The chefs don't do anything flashy, but they do a little bit of everything and do it well—the samosas with tamarind chutney, for example, are on par with any you'd find on Devon. The kitchen also does a bang-up job with comfort food: there's a mean vegetarian chili, and sandwiches come with sides including a respectable vegetarian version of southern collard greens and a totally addictive smoked Gouda mac 'n' cheese I'll crave on my deathbed. —David Wilcox

Huey's Hot Dogs & More1507 W. Balmoral | 773-293-4800

F 7.2 | S 6.0 | A 5.6 | $ (7 reports)American Lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only| BYO

When my girlfriend and I left Andersonville, there were plenty of places to miss—La Tache, Jin Ju, Svea, even Andies—but the place I missed the most was Huey's. They don't do anything fancy—dogs, chili, char burgers, cheese fries, chicken sandwiches, and a couple of salads—but if you stumble in after a long, hard, debauched Friday night, it's like you're dining in the halls of Valhalla. The dogs and the Polishes have a pleasing snap, the burgers are juicy and scored with char, the thick fries cooked perfectly. Even the fountain Coca-Cola seems sweeter and zestier than what you find elsewhere. Walking out clear-eyed and sober, the hangover having been conquered at last, you realize with something close to amazement that you've just had one of the better lunches you've eaten in weeks, for less than $15. —Chip Dudley

John's Place1202 W. Webster | 773-525-6670

F 6.0 | S 5.8 | A 6.0 | $ (8 reports)American | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Raters love this neighborhood spot for brunch and lunch, but it's a cozy place for any meal. John himself may seat you, and even learn your name if you come often enough. The earthy menu boasts chemical-free chicken, whole-grain breads, and wonderfully fresh fruit. But John's is as much about comfort food as natural ingredients. The fabulous vegetable soup and vegetarian "Los Alamos Chili" are especially noteworthy, as are the French toast with fresh strawberries and hearty breakfast omelets. —Rachel Klein, Rater

Kafein1621 Chicago, Evanston | 847-491-1621

$American, Coffee Shop | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | Reservations not accepted

Despite the influx of chain coffee shops in Evanston, this cozy storefront has remained popular with locals

and students alike. The room is a hodgepodge of mismatched couches and art-covered wooden tables, and there's a raised area up front for open-mike nights. Its proximity to the Northwestern campus works in its favor, as does the nice assortment of soups, salads, sandwiches, and ice cream floats, shakes, and sundaes. The many vegetarian offerings include chili, a garden burger, and a hummus sandwich. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Kevin's Hamburger Heaven554 W. Pershing | 773-924-5771

$American, Burgers, Breakfast | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours every day | Reservations not accepted

Kevin's Hamburger Heaven is a 24-7 "city that works" diner in a light-industrial area a few blocks south of Sox Park. Early morning you'll find steel-toe-shod working stiffs fueling up on good-size portions of crispy hash browns, nicely spiced (though somewhat dry) sausage, three eggs over, and toast. Those needing a little extra to stoke the engine opt for hot-off-the-griddle pancakes or creamy grits with dollops of butter winking up at you in defiance of future cholesterol checks. Burgers rule at lunch, and these are juicy, rich, flavorful patties, roughly formed and sizzled on the grill. Topped with pickle slices, grilled onions, and a toasted bun, they satisfy in a way that'll make you swear off drive-through McQuickies forever. But it's nighttime—more specifically, the hours after the bars close—that's given Kevin's its citywide rep as the ne plus ultra of greasy spoons. The sotted and soused come from far and wide for coffee, chili burgers with mounds of fries, or steak and eggs served with Kevin's house-label steak sauce; late one evening I heard a guy say blearily, "Gimme one of everything on the breakfast menu." The late-night security guard sits at the counter as unobtrusively as a man tough as nails and armed can. —Gary Wiviott

Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli1141 S. Jefferson | 312-939-2855

F 8 | S 7 | A 6 | $ (6 reports)American, Kosher/Jewish/Deli | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

rrr Some things are never as good as they used to be. The delis of yesteryear were palaces, serving sliced meat a mile high for $1.98. Now? At Manny's the latkes are very good, light and crisp, fluffy and flavorful—you don't need a side of applesauce to enjoy. But you should have had them before! They were potato ambrosia, splendor in the grease. And these prices: $9.95 for a sandwich in a cafeteria? A strange one too: instead of paying at the end of the line like G-d intended, you pay on the way out, after you eat. But Manny's has been here since 1942, and they know what they're doing. They serve brisket, roast beef, corned beef, very lean, and pastrami, fatty in all the right places, piled high on rye. Too high! How are you supposed to eat all this? So share or get a doggie bag. What else are you going to order at a place like Manny's—a veggie burger? The turkey chili? And look, they have all the condiments right on the table: mustard in both colors, your salt, your pepper, sugar and ketchup, a napkin holder, very useful. Years ago all the big shots ate here; now it's all hoi polloi. But you can still get your choice of Tums or Rolaids at the register. Like I said, at Manny's they know what they're doing. —Jeffrey Felshman

Mellow Yellow1508 E. 53rd | 773-667-2000

$American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Opened in 1976 by a former insurance salesman, this place still serves 70s faves like crepes, quiche, and potato skins in a room with brick walls, wood-beamed ceilings, and plenty of green plants and lava lamps. The vegetarian chili—a five-time award winner, according to the menu—comes five ways, and a sign out front boasts about the rotisserie chicken. There are options like fajitas and burgers, plus an extensive list of specialty drinks, though the beer and wine list is pretty minimal. For dessert there are more crepes, apple pie, bread pudding, and carrot cake. Service is friendly but extremely laid-back. —Holly Greenhagen

The Rail Bar & Grill4709 N. Damen | 773-878-9400

$Bar/Lounge, American | Lunch: Friday-sunday; Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3, Sunday-Friday till 2 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

The walls of this grub-and-brew spot near the Damen Brown Line stop are festooned with train memorabilia as well as the usual plethora of flat-screen TVs. Nightly food and drink specials help make this place inviting, though it's more a neighborhood spot than destination dining. The Texas chili, made with buffalo meat, was very satisfying, with enough kick to banish my hay fever for the rest of the meal. And my friend's bacon cheeseburger was so gargantuan he was almost tempted to attack it with a knife and fork. Weekend brunch, featuring customized Bloody Marys, is popular, and there's some outdoor seating out front. The kitchen stays open till 1 AM. —Rob Christopher

Ramova Grill3510 S. Halsted | 773-847-9058

$American, Breakfast, Burgers | Breakfast: seven days; Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: Monday-Friday | Cash only

Fresh-squeezed orange juice, old-school meat chili, sesame-seed-bun-topped burgers, perfect over-easy eggs complementing greaseless hash browns nestling a trio of link sausage. No, it's not some trendy new Bucktown breakfast place, but a south-side institution around since 1929, where the newest innovation is using colored chalk on the original menu boards. Tony Dinos, who bought the diner from his uncle in 1964, mans the grill with the skill and grace only years with spatula in hand can bring, while the friendly waitress efficiently "hons" her customers: "Little warm-up on that coffee, hon?" Ramova may look like just one of countless south-side diners straight out of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, but its God-is-in-the-details mentality elevates its simple diner food to art. —Gary Wiviott

Salt & Pepper3537 N. Clark | 773-883-9800

$American, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Breakfast, burgers, and chili are the main attractions at this urban diner, which seems to inspire Raters to heights of terseness. "Killer malts!" is all one has to say. "Lively jukebox," says another. "The Charlie Trotter's of diners," says a third. The tiny original Salt & Pepper (across the street from the restaurant's second location at 2575 N. Lincoln) was a true greasy spoon; by comparison the slicked-up retro ambience of the Clark Street location seems a bit calculated, but you won't find any designer martinis there, just a few bottled beers (no alcohol at all on Lincoln). —Michael Lenehan

That's-A-Burger2134 E. 71st | 773-493-2080

$American, Burgers | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Idiosyncratic owner, out-of-the-way location, 20-minute wait for burgers, no seating, orders placed through bulletproof glass, impatient staff, no picture taking, and did I mention idiosyncratic owner? But all is forgiven after one big juicy chin-dripping, eye-rolling chomp into one of the better burgers in Chicago—maybe even the best if one factors in value. My burger of choice here is a half-pound of coarse ground beef with a sumolike ratio of fat to lean, topped with fried egg, tomato, onion, and sport peppers. It's a purist's choice in the face of the Whammy Burger, which is served dripping with cheese and crowned with a split Polish sausage, or the T.A.B. Special, which throws chili, cheese, bacon, and egg into the mix. Scented with sage and surprisingly moist, turkey burgers are also a draw, and turkey chili is tasty as a stand-alone or on burgers. Terrific fresh-cut fries are nestled in with the sandwiches. That's-A-Burger is takeout only; dining options are car, benches at the Metra stop across the street, or the scenic South Shore Cultural Center, just a few blocks to the east. —Gary Wiviott

Torpedo's Subs and More5211 W. Diversey | 773-622-7060

$American | Lunch, dinner: monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

At this little corner sandwich shop in Belmont-Craigin, owner Carl Drace and his crew launch a fleet of soups, salads, and subs ("torpedoes" in Jersey parlance). The sammies, though sent out in smooshy rolls ("Easier for kids and older customers to chew," says Drace), carry high-quality ingredients in inventive combinations, almost a different species of chow than you'd get at franchise shops. The namesake Torpedo has a lot going on, with ham, salami, pepperoni, and American and Swiss cheese; the Italian features paisano faves gabagool (i.e., capicola), Genoa salami, mortadella, and provolone with a slight splash of oil. Better even than the sandwiches are house-made soups and chili; we enjoyed a creamy broccoli with fresh flowerets floating in a mildly rich broth; minestrone had a pleasant herbaceousness and generous chunks of beef, and smoked red pepper soup packed considerable zing. At $1.99 a cup ($2.50 for chili) they're all a very good value, as are the subs. Drace takes understandable pride in his work (there's no tip jar because he feels they're unseemly, but we duked 'em anyway because the folks here are so damn nice). —David Hammond

White Palace1159 S. Canal | 312-939-7167

$American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours every day | Reservations not accepted

Surrounded by the usual big-box suspects (Home Depot, Staples), White Palace is a throwback: a friendly neighborhood eatery steadfast in its blue-collar resolve. Open 24 hours, the kitchen pumps out burgers, fries, omelets, and chili (both meat and vegetarian) to a steady stream of city workers, politicians, bankers, and street hustlers. The quality is of the standard diner variety. On a recent visit, for instance, not even copious amounts of gravy could make the country-fried steak anything other than bland. The "Gypsy," a skillet of scrambled eggs, ham, onions, and cheese, was fine but nothing that couldn't be done better at home. Previous visits yielded better results—burgers are typically good and greasy, omelets light and airy. Ambience, however, is the sine qua non of the White Palace; were it not for the classic Formica-and-chrome decor and mural of Chicago notables, you might just as well head over to Manny's. —Chip Dudley

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