Restaurants: Hidden Gems, June 26, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Restaurants: Hidden Gems, June 26, 2008

Eighteen more of our critics' favorite

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Hidden Gems

Eighteen more of our critics' favorites

Cafe Orchid1746 W. Addison | 773-327-3808

$$Middle Eastern, Mediterranean | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday-Sunday till 11 | BYO

When Kurt Serpin says he's cooking Ottoman cuisine, he doesn't mean the extravagant feasts of the sultans, but he is talking about the traditional Turkish cuisine that evolved from the sultans' expansive palace kitchens. The menu at Cafe Orchid, his compact Lakeview restaurant, is diverse, covering the expected mezes (hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, falafel), kebabs, and grilled seafood dishes (Serpin is from the Turkish city of Mersin, on the Mediterranean), but also a nice selection of less common items, like the tiny wontonlike pre-Ottoman meat dumplings known as manti, which arrive in a deep bowl of yogurt-tomato sauce. Serpin says it takes him and his wife, Iho, eight hours to stuff enough of them for 25 orders. He's also doing alabalik, rainbow trout cooked with mozzarella cheese; balik sarma, or grilled grape-leaf-wrapped sardines; and mercimek koftesi, spicy, cold lentil fingers that are a vegetarian approximation of cig kofte, the raw meatballs served at nearby Nazarlik. No processed gyros cone spins in this place: Serpin, who's cooked at A La Turka and the late Cafe Istanbul, stacks the meat on the Autodoner himself and shaves it for doner kebab or iskender, a luscious, comforting dish of shaved lamb, veal, and house-baked bread, all smothered in butter, yogurt, and tomato sauce. —Mike Sula

Cafe Trinidad557 E. 75th | 773-846-8081

$$Caribbean | Lunch: Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: Saturday-sunday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

This superfriendly family-run enterprise traffics in the flavors of Trinidad, which have been influenced over the centuries by African, East Indian, Creole, Syrian, Lebanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese cooks. "Brown down" stews—begun with a caramelized sugar base—and rich, spicy curries dress slow-cooked meats like jerk chicken, goat, beef, and oxtails and are accompanied by rice and pigeon peas. Alternatively, most of these can be ordered wrapped in a fresh fried roti, a circle of soft flatbread that can withstand a considerable portion bulked up with a mild potato-and-chickpea curry. Fat, snappy shrimp popped under the tooth, and curry crab and dumplings were similarly fresh. These all came with a choice of filling sides—sweet potatoes, callaloo, red beans and rice, collards, macaroni pie, plantains. The bright, sparkling space adorned with Trinidadian flags and lively with island tunes has a lot of nice house-made touches like the sweet and deadly Scotch-bonnet hot sauce and drinks like mauby, an unforgiving, bitter, and debatably restorative cold infusion made from the steeped bark of the carob tree. I had more appreciation for the sweet, bracing, and uncontroversially refreshing ginger beer, or sorrel, a fruity purple punch brewed from the hibiscus blossom. —Mike Sula

Calumet Fisheries3259 E. 95th | 773-933-9855

$Seafood | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only

In a 1998 Reader story, Calumet Fisheries' Hector Morales lamented the decline in business that came with the death of the steel industry on the southeast side. But the tiny shack at the foot of the 95th Street Bridge is still smoking its own chubs, trout, and salmon steaks, heads, and collars over oak logs. These creatures remain moist after smoking, having been brined overnight. The vulnerable constitution of shrimp is the best endorsement of this process, remaining juicy and intensely smoky—though the monsters come dear at $19.95 a pound. Polyglot sailors still weigh in for fried catfish when they dock, and the fresh, crispy breaded aquatic life—frog's legs, shrimp, scallops, and smelts—are expressions of maritime rhapsody, like the sea spray that escapes the breaded crust of a juicy fried oyster. The dramatic location—it's where Elwood jumped the drawbridge in the Bluesmobile—is an ideal spot to clamber down to the river's edge with an order of deep-fried ocean critters and watch ships chug by.—MikeSula

Ed's Potsticker House3139 S. Halsted | 312-326-6898

$Asian, Chinese | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11| BYO

To gain access to Ed's amazing repertoire of delicious northern Chinese specialties start by asking for the leather-bound Chinese menu with English translations, then ask about the specials hanging on the wall, and if something appeals to you don't let anyone talk you out of it. You could spend weeks happily exploring: house pot stickers are long cigars of crispy, porky goodness, and the complex lamb, stir-fried with dried chiles, is carried from the kitchen with great regularity. Beef stew with noodle is a massive, very soupy bowl of tender beef chunks with a nice touch of spice. "Fish-fragrant" eggplant has nothing to do with fish—it's really just a version of eggplant with garlic sauce that renders the fruit light and puffy, with a delicate, crispy outer crust. Don't overlook the cold appetizers: a bowl of tofu with bits of preserved egg is a nice lesson in subtle textural contrasts, and the sliced pork leg with soy sauce is cut thinly in cross section so you can see the varying textures of the different muscles, rimmed by a layer of caramelized fat. Even cosmetically challenged selections tend to be terrific: lily flowers and bean thread noodle is sort of a grayish lump of noodles studded with wilted yellow flowers, but the pale yellow buds have a satisfying snap. —Mike Sula

Ghareeb Nawaz2032 W. Devon | 773-761-5300

$Indian/Pakistani | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 2 | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Named for a benefactor of the poor, Ghareeb Nawaz has a reputation as an oasis for cheap and freshly made home-style Indo-Pakistani food. One of the few spots on Devon open for breakfast, it offers inexpensive paratha (griddled wheat flatbread) filled with egg or aloo (seasoned potato) and halwa puri, the traditional Pakistani breakfast, three crisp, puffy fried breads served with lightly sweetened sooji halwa (a semolina pudding) and aloo chole (curried potato and chickpeas); for $1.99, it beats the hell out of McStyrofoam. Biryanis here are among the best in town, and the thali is an amazing deal: $3.81 gets you a veggie combo with a choice of bread (chapati, paratha, or naan), a generous portion of rice, an achar (pickle) of some kind, and servings of four or five dishes such as chana masala, dal, aloo palak, and bhindi masala; meat thali are a scant 50 cents more. Veggie kebabs are deliciously dense disks of potato, chickpeas, egg, and spices, though the beef shish kebab suffers from too much filler. Samosas, meat- or potato-filled triangles of pure snacking pleasure, are, at 50 cents each, an addiction I'm prepared to indulge. You order at the counter here, and the restaurant's two brightly lit rooms are spartan, but there's cricket on the TV in season and a prayer room for the devout. —Gary Wiviott

Gloria's Cafe3300 W. Fullerton | 773-342-1050

$$South American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Reopened under new ownership (with an actual Gloria at the helm) this little Colombian joint is putting out lovingly made home-style plates. My admittedly limited experience with arepas had me believing they were dry, lifeless pucks, but here the cheese and sweet corn (choclo) arepa appetizers both were moist and cakey—a lesson well learned. Empanadas with mild chimichurri were swell, particularly the spinach, garlic, and potato variety, as was a "Colombian Hummus" with no identifiable South American traits. Among Caesar and house salads there's an unusual rice and shrimp ensalada with sweet plantains, chile flakes, and a sweet-and-sour sauce that wouldn't be out of place on a Thai menu. Rotisserie chickens are marinated, blazed well, and available in various sums of their parts. The traditional and steak dishes come with ample starchy and fibrous sides (rice, cassava, plantains, beans). I'm particularly partial to the bandeja paisa (country platter), a manly pile of sides, chicharrones, chorizo, grilled flank steak, and a fried egg. —Mike Sula

Hai Woon Dae6240 N. California | 773-764-8018

$$Korean, Asian | Lunch: Saturday-Sunday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 5

When it comes to late-night Korean barbecue, the small, sedate, and friendly Hai Woon Dae is a better bet than the vastly more popular San Soo Gap San. As at SSGS, live coal grilling is the focus, but there's a greater, more interesting, and lovingly prepared selection of table meats and kitchen-cooked dishes. I particularly like the yook hwe, beef tartare dressed with raw egg and julienned Asian pear (also available on bi bim bap), or panfried bacon with kimchi (sam gyeop sal kimchi bokum), steamed eggs (gyelan jjim), cold spicy buckweat noodles with raw fish (hwe naengmyeun), and a thick, tangy kimchi pancake. There are three kinds of grilled mackerel; a great selection of two-person "casseroles," hot pots bubbling with goat and vegetables or pig trotters and shank; and a plate of pungent preserved crabs (gye jang bak ban) you won't forget for weeks.—Mike Sula

Kang Nam4849 N. Kedzie | 773-539-2524

$$Korean | Lunch, dinner: seven days

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, 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

Masouleh6653 N. Clark | 773-262-2227

$Middle Eastern | Lunch: Saturday-Sunday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Masouleh specializes in home-style Persian food—stews, soups, and small sides, many based more on vegetables than meat. While Goly Nassiri-Masouleh works the front of this equally homey Rogers Park restaurant, her husband, Azim, works the kitchen, laboring over regional dishes such as mirza ghasemi, roasted eggplant stewed with tomato and garlic. Gilan, the northern Iranian province where Azim hails from, is noted for its heavy use of garlic, eggs, vegetables, and green herbs that infuse dishes with fresh, grassy flavors. Torshe tareh, for example, is minced sour spinach textured by a small amount of cracked rice and flavored with garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a minty dried herb called khol wash, from a dwindling stock Azim's sister brought over from Iran. Other specialties include zaytoon parvardeh, a side dish of olives marinated in a mixture of garlic, chopped walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and a touch of golpar, a spice that comes from the giant hogweed and is sometimes called Persian marjoram. Then there's the mirza ghasemi, the region's most famous food, which is similar to the northern Indian baigan bharta but for the addition of scrambled egg. The menu also includes a triumvirate of three classic Iranian khoureshte, or stews: vegetable beef with green herbs (ghormeh sabzi), eggplant, beef, and yellow split peas (gheimeh bademjan), and chicken in a thick walnut-pomegranate sauce (fesenjan). And every weekend Azim prepares a more labor-intensive northern dish as a special, for example, morghe torsh, chicken and yellow split peas seasoned with garlic, lemon juice, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, and khol wash and finished off with scrambled egg. There are kebabs as well, but why bother with the ordinary when you can eat like an Iranian? —Mike Sula

Nhu Lan Bakery2612 W. Lawrence | 773-878-9898

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday | Reservations not accepted

Banh mi, the miraculous French-inspired Vietnamese sub, has an assured place in the Sandwich Hall of Fame as a classic example of cross-cultural pollination. Cheap, fresh, and filling, it's something that should be available on every corner—but isn't. Nhu Lan Bakery, a Vietnamese bakery in Lincoln Square, is a pioneer, striking out relatively far from the Broadway/Argyle intersection. It's a risky business plan, but a treasure for the neighborhood. Demibaguettes are baked fresh daily to cradle nine different fillings (only five were available on my last visit), typically accented by pickled, julienned carrot and daikon, cucumbers, mayo, cilantro, thinly sliced jalapeños, and dressed with spicy-sweet nuoc cham, a potent fish sauce. Among my favorites is the "special," a meat-lover's sub with a schmear of rich paté, headcheese, ham, and a fried pork sausage called cha hue. The ham banh mi is piled with jambon and a generous wipe of paté, a simpler version that highlights the textural contrast between the two. There's also a meatball filling, sweet and messy like a sloppy joe; a lemony shredded chicken; grilled pork; and an all-vegetable variety filled with undressed breaded, fried, dry vegetable matter—the only one I can't recommend. These sandwiches run a mere $2.75 to $3.25; buy five and you get one free. There are also fresh-fruit smoothies and a large selection of Vietnamese snacks for takeout: spring rolls, yellow house-made mayo, Western pastries, and a rotating variety of sweet rice and pudding desserts in challenging flavors—corn, mung bean, sweet potato, sausage. You can take away vacuum-sealed sausage, paté, ham, and headcheese too. —Mike Sula

Salam4636 N. Kedzie | 773-583-0776

$Middle Eastern | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

This spare, narrow Palestinian eatery in a cramped strip mall quietly dominates a stretch of Kedzie Avenue crowded with fantastic Middle Eastern restaurants. Platters of meat are lined up in front of the grill, fairly bleating freshness. Service is sometimes stoic but always solid, softened by a complimentary teaser of briny olives and bright pink radishes. The menu doesn't call attention to its unremarkable selection of shawarma and kebab entrees (downsizable to sandwiches), but they arrive in a nearly insurmountable heap, sprinkled with sumac on a pile of rice or creamy hummus. The accompanying pita comes soft and hot, with a tangy, sweet, and juicy cucumber-tomato salad. This lineup is rounded out with a rotation of specials (usually sold out by midafternoon) including grape leaves, zucchini, or cabbage stuffed with lamb; massef (a soup traditionally accompanied by lamb and rice); and a Sunday wild card that ranges from string beans to Cornish hens. Smaller dishes include the standards; the addictive kibbe usually doesn't last until nightfall either, but the perpetually crispy and fresh falafel, the best deal on the street at 19 cents apiece, never seem to run out. More than a few items are not often seen on English menus: chickpea dishes such as fatah and mossabaha, and an organ trio of liver, heart, and kidney sauteed with onions and lemon. Sage and mint tea are freshly brewed, orange and carrot juice freshly squeezed. The owners impose the same standards on their bakery next door, selling rich, honey-drenched pastries from broad baking sheets under gleaming glass. —Mike Sula

Ssyal Ginseng House4201 W. Lawrence | 773-427-5296

$Asian, Korean | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

Saam gae tang, the chicken ginseng soup that's a specialty at this Koreatown dispensary, is eaten in Korea as a preparation for the hot summer months, though I've availed myself of it as a tonic for the winter cold as well. A stewed Cornish hen stuffed with rice and small dates sits meekly in a small bubbling cauldron of murky yellow broth. Whole, softened, and slightly sweet ginseng root swims under the surface, and small side dishes of green onions and sea salt are meant to enliven what is otherwise an appropriately bland treatment. As a further reminder that you're not so much meant to enjoy yourself as to prepare or heal yourself, the pot comes with a side of sticky brown rice and red beans. There are also four other perfectly respectable hot soups (codfish, bean with seafood, beef with cabbage, and bean and vegetable) accompanied by the usual assortment of panchan. And you don't have to take your medicine in a bowl: there's a $3.95 sweet ginseng shake or hot ginseng tea floating with pine nuts; for the home cure you can buy ginseng fresh, dried, powdered, and infused in a molasses-like solution, all displayed under tall clear containers of whole roots, with an extraterrestrial appearance resembling something I once saw in the woods devouring a squirrel.—Mike Sula

Three Happiness209 W. Cermak | 312-842-1964

$Asian, Chinese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: 24 hours every day

Crunch into shell-on salt-and-pepper shrimp—juicy and fragrant with five-spice mix—or dry stir-fried blue crab, perfumed with ginger and scallion, and you realize that "Little" Three Happiness has a more expert hand with seafood than many far more upscale restaurants. Crisp panfried noodles, rice or wheat, groan under a shrimp-boat's catch of fresh seafood or a combination of barbecued pork and five-spice-accented roast duck. Crispy-skinned chicken is a revelation: moist, tender meat and succulent crisp skin served with a lemon wedge, Szechuan pepper-salt mix, and a topknot of cilantro. Stir-fried watercress, pea shoots with garlic, and lettuce with oyster sauce are sure to please, but for a change of pace water spinach with fermented tofu (ong choi with fu yee) is a winner. Raymond and Betty Yau, who've owned "Little" Three Happiness since 1995, spruced the place up a few years back, and the result looks nice—though thankfully not so nice as to violate Calvin Trillin's inverse ambience theory of Chinese restaurants. The clams in black bean sauce are as good as ever. —Gary Wiviott

Tropic Island Jerk Chicken Restaurant419 E. 79th | 773-978-5375

$Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: seven days

Hacked to order, Tropic Island's yard birds are generously steeped in the manifold spices that typify the island style, their flesh moist and soft, tinged with the rosy blush of a good smoke. They're served on rice and peas, with sidekicks of plantains and mushy cabbage; these bland starches act as a kind of protective barrier against the tiny tubs of dark, nuclear sauce you might apply to the bird if you've got something to prove. The standard repertoire of homey and often bony Jamaican eats are in effect: oxtails, brown stew chicken, yard salad, beef patties, callaloo, and something called reggae stir-fry corn. But the pinnacle of long-cooked fatty comfort is the goat, which requires a small amount of dental work to appreciate. —Mike Sula

Tropical Time Jerk Chicken1117 S. First, Maywood | 708-338-2003

$Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

The genial owner of Tropical Time, who goes by Drew, hails from Saint Catherine Parish, Jamaica, where he learned to cook from his mother. His jerk shack shares a common wall with a payday loan store just up the road from the Fourth District courthouse and provides a motherly balm in one of the culinary wastelands that surround the centers of Cook County jurisprudence. His rich, stewy Caribbean dishes like curry goat or beefy, oily, fall-off-the bone oxtails would make a cheerful lunch break from the grim human drama on display there. Drew cooks over charcoal in an aquarium-style pit, which gives his jerk chicken a spicy smoke. His catfish escabeche—also jerked, cut into steaks, then grilled—has an even busier flavor when it's dressed with the vinegary sauce and amped with onions, carrots, and cooked-down Scotch bonnets. Drew's jerk sauce is not incendiary, more vinegar than chile, and makes a nice dressing for blander sides like fried plantains, rice and beans, or soft sauteed cabbage. The remains of nearly everything served are moppable with the sweet, dense hard-dough bread he gets from Caribbean American Bakery in Rogers Park. —Mike Sula

Udupi Palace2543 W. Devon | 773-338-2152

F 7.9 | S 8 | A 7.1 | $ (7 reports) Indian/Pakistani, Vegetarian/Healthy | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

rrr From the outside, Udupi Palace is bright, spacious, and friendly, which is why the famously bad service inside is so puzzling. Ignore it: you'll get your food soon enough and it'll make you happy. (And the service isn't always bad: on a recent visit, the waitstaff thoughtfully moved us and our dozen bottles of booze to a larger table.) Udupi's menu is all-vegetarian and south Indian. Dig deep into the appetizer menu: the chaat papri, fried dough dosed with yogurt and tamarind chutney, is addictive, and the vadas, or lentil doughnuts, are great doused with chutney or sambar. The paper masala dosai could double as plumbing pipe: three feet long, the wafer-thin dough is rolled and filled with potatoes and onions. And remember those dozen bottles? Udupi is permanently BYO: bring a good wheat beer or a sparkling wine. —Nicholas Day

Vito & Nick's Pizzeria8433 S. Pulaski | 773-735-2050

$Pizza, Italian | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1 | Cash only

Despite hints of balkanization in the Barraco family—there's an unaffiliated suburban location—the original Vito & Nick's has reigned as the thin-crust pizza of the south side since 1945. Its squadron of white-shirted dough boys is well trained, and great care is taken to ensure that pies emerge from the oven as nothing less than paragons of pie maker's art. A bit thicker than the advertised cracker-thin, the crust is toasty bottomed and only lightly cornmealy, and there's nary a hint of glueyness topside—the perfect canvas for the ballsy sauce and bubbling cheese, baked to the very brink of browning. There's a perfunctory selection of red-sauce and bar food, the most unusual example being the Big Nicky, a fat patty of spicy fried Italian sausage on pizza bread, thinly blanketed by melted provolone, served with waffle fries and a dipping cup of marinara sauce. This location packs families in, serves very large and inexpensive cocktails, and seems unaltered since its 1965 opening, with brown shag-carpeted walls, an enshrined portrait of the very late Vito, and weary waitresses whose dogs may have been barking here since day one. —Mike Sula

Xni-Pec5135 W. 25th, Cicero | 708-652-8680

$$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 11

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the Chicago area got a rare Yucatecan restaurant when Antonio Contreras opened Xni-Pec (pronounced "shnee peck") in Cicero. His mother runs the kitchen, and his grandmother has come up from Yucatan several times to help with the recipes. Unlike the foods of many other Mexican regions, Yucatecan cuisine isn't inherently spicy, so you can savor the flavors without heat or amp it as you please with xni-pec (it means "wet nose") and other incendiary salsas made from habanero chiles. Cochinita pibil is a typical Yucatecan dish: pork spread with a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pit. This pre-Columbian preparation is served with bright pink pickled red onion, which supplies a welcome acidic note to the silky pork. Huevos Motuleños—the finest rendition of this dish I've had outside the dusty town of Motul—are eggs on a tostada, sprinkled with ham, cheese, peas, and salsa and paired with black beans and a little mound of rice, with a disk of plantain. For dessert there's calabaza y comote, a sugary blend of a pumpkinlike squash and a sweet-potato-like tuber, candied and served with a slice of orange, another example of a basic but delicious preparation of common ingredients. Beverages include a light, refreshing melon water—cantaloupe juice and water—or, more exotic, xtabentun, a flowery honey liqueur flavored with anise.—David Hammond

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment