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Omnivorous: Subterranean Soul

Five under-the-radar home-style restaurants that should be better known

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Back in the day, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, the Negro League baseball star, was a regular customer at Gladys' Luncheonette, the famous Bronzeville soul food restaurant founded by Gladys Holcomb in 1946. One of the game's great defensive catchers, Radcliffe wore a chest protector that read "Thou Shalt Not Steal." For years he held court in his booth, catching up with old friends, shaking hands with strangers, and occasionally selling an autographed photo. And he wasn't the only celebrity in the house—local pols and the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Aretha Franklin, and Oprah were known to join the neighborhood folks gathered there. Holcomb retired in 1997, and when she passed away five years ago at age 96, the luncheonette closed (Double Duty died not long after at age 103). Today an encouraging number of the soul food warhorses—Army & Lou's, Edna's, and MacArthur's, to name a few—soldier on, but it's unwise to take them for granted (Barbara's, one of the great ones, closed just months ago after a fire). And there are plenty of less famous restaurants that deserve to be better known.

The spirit of Gladys' itself lives on a couple miles south, where Lee Birda Hogan, who worked at Gladys' for three decades, opened her own restaurant, Miss Lee's Good Food (203-05 E. 55th, 773-752-5253), ten years ago. There she prepares her superlative baked "herbal chicken," wonderful cobblers, and "jungle juice"—her personal blend of five fruit juices. There's no seating, but friendliness seems to radiate through the bulletproof takeout window.

The cooks at H&A Restaurant, another legendary Chicago "soul station," had a way with fried chicken, greens, and hot dinner rolls. But H&A, around since 1945, also closed a few years ago. For months the restaurant sat empty, a reopening soon sign posted in the window. Then in August Ace's Soul Food Cafe (432 E. 63rd, 773-324-8060) finally made good on the claim. Longtime neighborhood resident and H&A fan Ace Reed has spruced up the old space considerably but continues to serve many of the soul food standards that H&A was known for. Steam-table offerings, including daily specials such as Friday's fish or corned beef and cabbage, are unusually fresh tasting. Other highlights are the smothered pork chops, ketchup-glazed meat loaf, nicely seasoned fresh collard greens, and chunky mashed potatoes. Ace's is a clean, no-frills place where hospitable employees and owners seem to sincerely care about both food and customers.

At the top of the list of off-the-beaten-path greats is Doggy's S.S. Soul Eatery (2815 W. Harrison, 773-722-4037) in East Garfield Park, columnist Mike Sula's choice for best soul food restaurant in the Reader's Best of Chicago issue. Where many soul food restaurants use one and the same gravy for everything, Doggy's, under owner Harry "Dog" Cannon, varies its sauces. For instance, the stewed rabbit (offered only in the fall and winter, a southern tradition harking back to the days before refrigeration) has a pungent, highly seasoned sauce of pureed vegetables, vinegar, and abundant black pepper. Other entrees—smothered pork chops, ham hocks, short ribs—are paired with their own assertively seasoned gravies. Side dishes such as mac 'n' cheese, greens, yams, and red beans are uniformly good, and an ample block of bread pudding comes with all meals.

Sula has written in the past about Turner's Family Soul Food (8233 S. Ashland, 773-488-5700), certainly one of the great soul food houses in Chicago—their chicken and dumplings is one of the best dishes we ate anywhere, and the smothered pork chops aren't far behind. But another Auburn Gresham spot is Morrison's (8127 S. Ashland, 773-892-1078), a superior soul food cafeteria where high turnover helps ensure the freshness of the offerings. The extensive steam table carries a weekly rotation of homey classics, with braised short ribs and roasted Cornish hen among the standouts; other dishes might include rib tips, braised oxtails, and neck bones with potatoes. Sides are excellent, especially the succotash with tomato sauce and the pork-enriched black-eyed peas (steer clear of the overly salty dressing, though). The upbeat old-school vibe of Morrison's is nearly worth the trip itself, but beware: on our last Sunday afternoon visit we only barely beat the weekly onslaught of well-dressed churchgoers. Good thing, because the line soon spilled out the door. Some people know what's good for them. —Peter Engler and Rob Lopata

Care to comment? Find this roundup at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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