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South-side picnicking done right

A guide to eating outside below Madison Street

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It's one of Chicago's eternal complaints: food writers ignore the south side. Actually, I think the culinary coverage south of Madison Street is better than it used to be, with neighborhoods from Pilsen to Bridgeport to Chinatown now known as booming, hip dining-out neighborhoods.

But I also think we shouldn't be in any hurry to see the south side turn into Logan Square. For me a major interest of poking around the bottom half of the city has to do with its deeply rooted ethnic communities (and their foods). And I don't know of any better way to take in the south side in the summer than to grab some food and then find a spot outdoors to picnic and people watch.

Take the water taxi to dumplings

Did you know the Chicago Water Taxi stops in Chinatown? In fact, it's a great way to pop down from the Loop to Chinatown. Get off at Ping Tom Park and walk straight south to the Chinatown Square Mall and Archer Avenue, where the choices will seem limitless. I think dumplings and pastries travel best for picnicking, so I'd hit a spot like Saint Anna Bakery for egg tarts and BBQ pork buns. Or go to the Richland Center basement food court and assemble a smorgasbord from the stalls—pot stickers and jianbing (a fried kind of crepe burrito typically eaten for breakfast) at Tong's Restaurant, the pork head meat pancake at Tientsin Kitchen, Nanshan chicken (served cold, with a Sichuan peppercorn sauce that will make your mouth tingle) from Snack Planet. Then walk back to Ping Tom Park and eat by the river.

Barbecuing and nothingness

So far as I know, the only barbecue place on the entire south side that has seating is 19 Paul, way down in Morgan Park. So when I hit Lem's for ribs, or Honey 1 BBQ for rib tips, or Uncle J's for rib tips and hot links, my next stop is almost always the same: Lorado Taft's statue Fountain of Time, in Washington Park, at 60th and Cottage Grove. Sit on its edge and contemplate eternity, then rinse your greasy fingers off in the fountain. Oh, and if you're going to Lem's, make sure to head to Brown Sugar Bakery for a caramel cupcake.

Little Village goals

Little Village is well worth a visit—though most things there should be eaten fresh off the grill in a restaurant, not taken away. What travels best would probably be the tortas from Doña Torta. Take your asadero torta (steak) or deliciosa torta (breaded steak), or capitalina torta (breaded steak, chorizo, and ham) to the new soccer fields at La Villita Park, 2800 S. Sacramento, where there's bound to be a game in progress on any Saturday or Sunday—in the shadow of the Cook County Jail complex.

The land of fire and chicken

If the south side is overlooked, the southwest side of Chicago barely registers at all. For many north-siders it's just home to Midway Airport—yet there's lots to eat down here. My first choice for a picnic would be to hit Mezquite Pollo Express to pick up a whole grilled chicken, full of smoky char flavor, with handmade tortillas, refried beans, and salsa. Unless, that is, I feel like old-school thin-crust sausage pizza from Pizza Castle. Then I'd probably hit Gelatinas Cris to grab a Mexican dessert like arroz con leche (rice pudding) or gelatina con rompope (Jell-O with a rum-milk concoction similar to eggnog). Unless I think I should visit one of the Polish bakeries, like Racine Bakery for bacon buns and paczki, or Pticek & Son Bakery, a real slice of the past, for a fresh, fruit-filled coffee cake.

No matter what part of this bounty I wind up with, in the end my destination will be the same: the eastern half of Marquette Park, starting at Marquette (aka 67th) and California, finding a picnic spot among the families fishing the lagoon. The largest green space on the southwest side, it's one of the most bucolic—and underappreciated—spots in the city.  v

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