Restaurants: Soul Food, March 6, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: Soul Food, March 6, 2008

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Soul Food

Army & Lou's422 E. 75th | 773-483-3100

$Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

A favorite of Mayor Harold Washington, Army & Lou's has been dishing up well-executed southern and soul food for more than 60 years. For starters there's Louisiana gumbo; in the bread basket are yeasty homemade biscuits, fresh, flaky, and warm. Steak, chicken, and chops come smothered with gravy and served with corn bread: quintessential comfort food. The fried chicken has light, deliciously crispy breading; pieces are so meaty that half a chicken makes a very filling entree. It's worth ordering a few extra sides, though: greens are tender but not overcooked, sweet potatoes carry a hint of clove, and pickled beets and onions provide a tart contrast (there are also chitterlings, butter-boiled pig intestines best with plenty of hot sauce). Sweet potato pie and peach cobbler are made, our waitress told us, by a "little old lady from the neighborhood"—they taste like it. —David Hammond

BJ's Market & Bakery8734 S. Stony Island | 773-374-4700

$Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

BJ's Market & Bakery, the flagship of John Meyers's miniempire (there's a new outpost at O'Hare), lays out honest food at an honest price, no fancy-pants frills, just down-home cooking you order at the counter and bring to your seat. Lightly breaded wings are the only fried chicken on the menu. Instead BJ's specializes in spice-rubbed smoked rotisserie chicken; moist, flavorful, it's a real deal: $12.79 gets you a whole bird, a comfortable feed for two. Greens, cooked with smoked turkey leg, have great tooth; black-eyed peas, simple and good, weren't cooked beyond recognition; even the green beans, though seemingly canned, had subtle seasoning that goosed them up a notch. Sweet potato fries make a good combo with BJ's signature mustard-fried catfish. BJ's on-site bakery turns out red-state renditions of chess pie (eggs, sugar, and butter—"it's jes' pie," as the saying goes) along with banana pudding and peach cobbler. On Sundays a big crowd rubs shoulders at the long buffet. —David Hammond

Boo's Soul Food Cafe8414 S. Ashland | 773-298-9997

$Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Cash only

Willetta "Boo" Tatum and her husband, Jackie, serve up chicken and dumplings, smothered pork chops, roasted rib tips, fried catfish, and more soul food staples, plus sides like sweet yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn and okra, and green beans. Tatum was head cook for the Chicago Board of Education before opening this place a decade ago. "We try to make everybody feel at home," she says, and in return customers routinely send Miss Boo stuffed animals, artwork, and plants—all of which are on display around the narrow, cozy dining room. —Steve Dolinsky

Captain's Hard Time Dining436 E. 79th | 773-487-2900

$$Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday-Sunday till midnight, Tuesday-Thursday till 11

The mirrored foyer with a crystal chandelier gives an upscale first impression, but the eye-popping pink-and-white banquet room and slightly timeworn public dining room quickly dispel the notion. In stark contrast to Izola's, one block east, Captain's, overseen by the forbidding Reverend Stanley Keeble, a former high school English teacher, doesn't exude a whole lot of charm. But the standard Chicago south-side soul food menu has some high points, like the perfectly cooked Belgian waffle paired with a crisp leg-thigh combo, though this particular chicken seemed to be suffering from dwarfism. Short ribs were meltingly tender even if char from reheating detracted; salmon patties had good overall flavor but were dry. Sides run the gamut, from delectably tender sweet potatoes and delicious crisp corn muffins to bland mac 'n' cheese and sagey stuffing dense as a mattress. Tea is offered sweetened or unsweetened. Higher-than-average prices together with the atmosphere suggest a trip to Izola's or Army & Lou's instead. —Gary Wiviott

Cathy's Ultimate Soul Food5638 W. Chicago | 773-287-9510

$Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

West-side Cathy's Ultimate Soul Food dishes up standards as well as selections not traditionally included in the American soul food canon, such as Caribbean-born jerk chicken and fish. Short ribs proved a fine balance of toothsome meat with ripples of tasty fat; a classic platter of fried chicken smothered with brown gravy delivered satisfying crunch in thick sauce. The ham hock is one lush fist of meat, but if you can't commit to that much pig, order a side of black-eyed peas—they include a generous portion of pork. Such soulful sides add dimension to simply spiced dishes; we also enjoyed pintos, rice with gravy, and greens, lightly done with good crunch. Desserts include standbys such as caramel cake and banana pudding, which contained the requisite vanilla wafers but alas no banana. Cathy's has specials that change throughout the week; they run short of some items and service may slip on Sundays, when battalions of the faithful stream in from local churches. . —David Hammond

Daley's Restaurant809 E. 63rd | 773-643-6670

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

Daley's is one of the oldest existing restaurants in the city, if not the oldest, though ask any waitress exactly how old and you'll get a different answer every time—usually something like "A long time, baby." The previous owner, Nick Kyros, says an Irishman opened the place in 1892 and ran it until his father took over in 1918; now he's turned it over to his son Michael and co-owner Nick Zar, though he still hangs around some, he says. Today the majority of his employees and customers are neighborhood folks who pack in for massive portions of mostly solid, sometimes-from-scratch soul food at practically historical prices. It's not hard to eat incredibly well, though you have to be selective. The biscuits are light and fluffy, but the mashed potatoes are instant. The chicken gumbo is tangy and thick but mined with canned green beans. One serving of smothered chicken can look like it was fed on steroids while another looks starved. The beefy, cheesy patty melt is a sure thing, as is a side of cabbage with bits of ham, and just about anything can be livened up with the bottle of spicy red pepper vinegar on each table. Nobody stays alive for more than a century without doing something right. —Mike Sula

Edna's3175 W. Madison | 773-638-7079

$$Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations accepted for large groups only

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

Helen's Restaurant1732 E. 79th | 773-933-9871

$Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Cash only

Along with Edna's and Army & Lou's, Helen's is among the city's more beloved and historic soul food landmarks. Down the block from the New Regal Theater, it's attracted its share of celebrity endorsements, but like Soul Queen, another overrated local institution featured recently in Saveur, Helen's seems to rely on its reputation more than consistently well-prepared food. Its famous turkey legs can come out mummified, beans taste like they were flavored with spice packets, and a Saturday smothered pork chop special sometimes just gets battered around. Still, it's a comfortable, exceedingly friendly spot full of tattered charm, with silver wallpaper and salmon tabletops; Bakelite light fixtures that look like a child's xylophone; gospel, blues, and slow jams on the jukebox; and black-history comic strips on the place mats. Mike Sula

Izola's522 E. 79th | 773-846-1484

$Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday | Open late: 24 hours Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Cash only

"We're in for a treat" ran through my head as I settled into Izola's. The table-hopping crowd was convivial and smiling, and our neighbors immediately engaged us in conversation—"Don't miss the fried chicken"—as bright-eyed octogenarian proprietor Izola White worked the room. Chicken soup foreshadowed good things to come, rich broth with chicken, celery, and thick, chewy house-made dumplings, which reappeared in the stewed chicken, tender dark meat with peppery gravy. Fried chicken had a crisp, aggressively seasoned crust encasing juicy flesh with a hint of salt. Short ribs were tender, with a zesty sauce, and salmon patties and eggs are a delicious if implausible-sounding combination—a dining companion declared them "better than some crab cakes I've paid 15 bucks for." Sides were uneven: spaghetti was overcooked and coleslaw was doused with mayo, but greens with hot-pepper-infused vinegar were terrific, and sweet potatoes were just the right side of sweet. There are two different seating areas, one a comfortable dining room, the other a more casual lunch counter for those in a hurry—though with the many charms of Izola's I don't see why one would want to rush. —Gary Wiviott

Macarthur's5412 W. Madison | 773-261-2316

$Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Sometimes the line snakes out the door of the always bustling Macarthur's, a cafeteria with a wide selection of heavy, slow-cooked meats and sides and an assured high turnover on the steam tables. For around seven bucks a hefty portion of meat and two, topped with a corn muffin, is lunch and then some. Ham hocks are tender and not too smoky or salty, with red fall-off-the-hock meat enveloped in a collar of quivering browned fat. Smothered pork chops are richly coated with gravy and onions. And though buffet fried chicken always suffers, here it's not transgressive—the crust is fairly light and not too greasy. At any given time you'll encounter other standards and sides: fried catfish, smothered chicken, greens, mac 'n' cheese, red beans, mashed potatoes, and desserts like banana pudding or sweet potato pie. On the walls are lots of photos of African-American political players enjoying themselves in the large and comfortable but bland Denny's-style space, but most people take out—this kind of food isn't going to suffer from a car ride. —Mike Sula

Miss Lee's Good Food203-05 E. 55th | 773-752-5253

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

A 31-year veteran of the late, great Gladys' Luncheonette, Miss Lee is the Florence Nightingale of home-style granny food without a bit of fanciness or fuss. But if cooking like hers were really that simple, everybody would be doing it. She's justifiably proud of her desserts: her bread pudding and fruit cobblers are La Brea Tar Pits of sweetness—covered with a delicate layer of sugary, caramelized crust but soft and heavy underneath. She rotates a daily menu of high-density, low-gravity comforters like baked turkey and dressing, stewed chicken and noodles, smothered pork chops, catfish, short ribs, and roast beef and dressing. Each comes packed with a pair of biscuits or corn muffins and two sides (the creamy black-eyed peas and spicy collard greens are capital, and Miss Lee swears by her yellow turnips, i.e., rutabagas). The a la carte options are great too: there's mac 'n' cheese and a spicy rubbed bird of her own invention that she calls "herbal chicken" (add 50 cents for white meat). It's a good thing food like this travels, because Miss Lee's is carryout only. All the better—it's the type of eating that goes down best with a sofa nearby. —Mike Sula

Morrison's8127 S. Ashland | 773-892-1078

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

Morrison's is an inexpensive and dependable if not superlative buffet next to a now defunct pizza parlor. The Morrison family set up its steam tables in 2002, offering a relatively impersonal but expedient alternative to the excellent Turner's, one block south. Meat and two sides are a good value at $7.44 (short ribs are $12), and it's busy enough to ensure lots of fresh turnover. —Mike Sula

Pearl's Place3901 S. Michigan | 773-285-1700

$Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Don't let the HoJo-esque interior deter you: Pearl's Place serves great soul food. Cooked-to-order items such as the juicy fried chicken and catfish are some of the best executed in the city; while some might fault the cook's light hand with the spices, there's no denying the quality of a batter as supercrispy and light as this one. Also on the menu are a number of smothered meats—chicken, steaks, and chops—and the standard sturdy sides, with mac 'n' cheese and collards as standouts. Salmon croquettes rival the fried chicken for top menu honors; homemade peach cobbler and sweet potato pie satisfy. On weekends there's an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet with still more comfort food—pancakes, French toast, grits, rice and gravy, moist scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon, sausage, and grilled ham. Eat too much and you could always check into the adjoining motel for a bit of a nap. —Rob Lopata

Priscilla's4330 W. Roosevelt, Hillside | 708-544-6230

$Dinner: Sunday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Monday, Tuesday | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Surprisingly cheery for a former Sizzler with a view of a Jewish cemetery, Priscilla's cafeteria-style meat and two hits the soul food highlights with varying degrees of dexterity. Fried chicken's a study in textural point/ counterpoint, crisp skin giving way to moist, yielding interior flesh so juicy you run the risk of ruining your shirt. Tender greens are the perfect accompaniment, their bitterness rounded out by little cubes of cured pork. Less successful are the slightly undercooked baked beans, bland mac 'n' cheese, and acidic spaghetti, but sweet potatoes aren't bad, and mashed potatoes are fantastic, rich, creamy, and doused with silky-smooth house-made gravy. Short ribs are inconsistent, tender and bursting with flavor on one visit, stringy and flavorless on the next. Pork chops suffer the same steam-table-inflicted fate, fork-tender one day, knife-bendingly tough another. Bread pudding isn't coma-inducingly sweet, and pecan pie is pleasant, though it could use a few more pecans. Service is efficient, diligently providing refills of water, soda, or sweet tea, and daily specials, reasonable prices, and the vinegary hot sauce on each table round out a soul-satisfying experience. —Gary Wiviott

Queen of the Sea8154 S. Cottage Grove | 773-723-5520

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

Home of the precisely priced $9.54 all-you-can-eat bulletproof buffet, Queen of the Sea is a survivor, having endured a number of relocations over the decades. It's been in its current spot, a small storefront, for the last four years, dishing out competent-to-subpar soul food standards from behind the glass. I find the sides here, on average, to be better than the main dishes, particularly the greens stewed with big chunks of turkey. The cold, stark interior is offset by service sweet as pie. —Mike Sula

Soul Queen9031 S. Stony Island | 773-731-3366

$ Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

In 1971, when Helen Maybell Anglin opened Soul Queen, it became a buzzing hive of black celebrities and politicians—and those that would curry their favor. Today the walls are adorned with photographs of her highness receiving tribute from other African-American royals such as MLK, Ali, Cosby, Harold Washington, Joe Louis, Jimmie Walker, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger (?!)—which is why it feels seditious to say that the Queen's best days may be behind her. On my last visit there was a distinctly dispiriting vibe as jukebox slow jams echoed over the dim dining room, empty but for a pair of bejeweled and extremely well-fed young ladies who grazed the buffet while their older male escort remained in his booth conspicuously counting a large stack of bills through his sunglasses. The dishes that once attracted the Queen's subjects don't now display the home-style taste you've come for: turkey legs, stuffing, fried catfish, mac 'n' cheese, greens, stewed cabbage, okra, and legumes all seemed born of a loveless assembly-line production. Surprisingly, the lightly fried chicken, typically an item with a short half-life, bore up well under the heat lamps and was probably the only redeeming thing on the steam tables. The staff in their plastic tiaras couldn't have been more cheerful and attentive, but there are much better soul food buffets and cafeterias around town. Nevertheless the fading 70s swank of the place still inspires a certain reverence. It definitely made a positive impression on the seven-year-old at my table, who pronounced the atmosphere "fancy" and refused to eat her mushy, blandly sauced ribs without knife and fork. —Mike Sula

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