The broad swath of Archer Avenue slices diagonally through McKinley and Brighton Parks like a hot knife through a grilled cheese sandwich. Oozing out on both sides of the avenue is a Vegas-like array of flashing signs clamoring for the attention of famished gullets, as well as the crumbling Central Manufacturing District, which once housed Ron Popeil’s Veg-O-Matic empire.
If you’re looking for “It Slices, It Dices” flash, start at the 1. Apachee Grill (3429 S Archer Ave, 773-376-4015), where chefs in paper-boat hats carve al pastor (spit-roasted pork) with glinting knives. Served as a torta on a grilled kaiser bun, the smoky, pepper-flecked pork glistens in its own juices. Since every protein deserves a good starch, make your next stop 2. Don Jose Tamaleria and Taqueria (2000 W 34th St, 773-927-4252). The employees don’t speak English, but ask “Qué es lo mejor?” (“What is the best?”) and an old lady will load you up with rajas con queso tamales, fluffy corn purses filled with fiery jalapeño and melted cheese that aren’t your typical Igloo cooler–stored gut-bombs.
After the masa binge, follow the waft of deep-fried food, and you’ll be staring at a piece of Edward Hopper–esque Americana in 3. Huck Finn Donuts (3414 S Archer Ave, 773-247-5515). There’s always a row of police interceptors (a.k.a. Crown Victorias) parked in the lot, bathing in the pink glow of the restaurant light. Request the doughnut delight, a UFO-size dough saucer dripping with ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream.
As you step back out into the razor-sharp Chicago wind, you need an internal space heater: a hearty bowl of chili from 4. Lindy’s and Gertie’s (3685 S Archer Ave, 773-927-7807). Gertie’s ice-cream shop opened in 1901 at 55th and California, Lindy’s launched its famed chili biz in 1924, and in the mid-’70s, a local entrepreneur purchased both businesses and put them under one roof. A strip of neon buzzes incessantly, and a photo of Harry Caray getting spoon-fed by a buxom Lindy’s waitress hangs on the wall. The beefy, saucy chili has a subtle hint of spice, and if you love it, there are 55-gallon take-out drums.
Now that you’re warmed up, it’s time to settle in at 5. Tio Luis (3856 S Archer Ave, 773-843-0098) under the glass mural of a sombrero-topped Rhett Butler wooing a Latina Scarlett. The smoky salsa is the perfect complement to the steak taco, with its tender bits of lightly charred and heartily seasoned carne asada in a corn envelope dotted with cilantro. Give it zing with a squeeze of lime and a dash of heat from the tableside escabèche (Mexican giardiniera).
At this point your carnivorous cravings should be sated, and the sea calls. Head down to 6. Frank’s Shrimp House (4459 S Archer Ave, 773-523-4624), where Michael Yarbrough—a guy whose vicious skull tattoo belies his friendly nature—has been frying up shrimp for 22 years. A crustacean expert, he’ll dish on which local shrimp houses use frozen shrimp and which don’t devein. The piping-hot, Chicago-style Gulf Coast prawns are tossed in a brown paper bag, but don’t wait to eat them or the garlicky shrimp will lose their snappy crunch.
Rolling back out the door as plump as the shrimp you scarfed, you’re starting to get thirsty. Thankfully, nearby you’ll find 7. Michael’s Sports Lounge (4501 S Archer Ave, no phone), where the preferred digestif is a tipple of Old Style. Bartender Peg, a 14-year White Sox season ticket holder, is the ultimate fan. The crusty neighborhood dudes might not seem too friendly, but after a few beers you’ll be an honorary member of the Polish Highlander Alliance of Brighton Park. When the stuffed deer on the back bar starts moving, it’s time to go.
For the last stop of the night, head over to 8. Leon’s BBQ #4 (4550 S Archer Ave, 773-247-4171) for the hot link–and–rib tip combo. The smoke curling from Leon’s aquarium smoker is a sign of good things to come (remember that the next time you enter a rib joint and see only an oven). The specialty of the house are the red pepper–flecked links and crunch-lined ribs, both with the tell-tale smoke ring. Mop up the tangy sauce and the beer in your stomach with chewy white bread, and you’ll ensure that this good night will end as a gentle morning.