If you have ten bucks and you want to eat like a sultan, dictator, premier, presidente or even the Illinois gov (Blagojevich is a resident), there’s no better place than Albany Park. Featuring a Korean enclave on Lawrence Avenue, a Middle Eastern bazaar along Kedzie, and all manner of Latino spots throughout, it’s one of the most ethnically diverse of Chicago’s ’hoods. But before you get more exotic, start with more familiar immigrant cuisine at 1 Marie’s (4127 W Lawrence Ave, 773-685-5030), home of some of Chicago’s best thin-crust pizza. Rimmed with red vinyl booths and featuring a stained-glass, rose-covered ceiling over the bar, this 60-year-old joint also happens to be a full-service liquor store, so if you need some Chianti for the road, you’re golden.
For an ethnic take on a familiar dish, try the Guatemalan fried chicken from 2 Pollo Campero (4830 N Pulaski Rd, 773-282-1966). Sure, it’s a franchise, but the orange-hued spicy pollo is so revered, travelers to Guatemala were known to smuggle it in airplane overhead compartments before the chain hit the States. Quell the spice with a bit of cream at 3 Dokil Korean Bakery (3844 W Lawrence Ave, 773-539-3551). The fist-sized cream bread has a doughnut-like consistency, but the nooks and crannies of these goodies ooze with airy pastry cream. They come in a variety of flavors, but the peanut-butter version, redolent with a nutty aroma, is the best. The bakery is smack-dab in the portion of Albany Park that pulls in Korean expats searching for a taste of home, so don’t fill up yet. Head east to 4 Chicago Kalbi (3752 W Lawrence Ave, 773-604-8183), a Korean barbecue joint that uses live charcoal grills, ensuring a nice smoky char on your protein of choice. The namesake kalbi (marinated short rib) is revered for its exceptional marbling, and the pajun (scallion pancake) with baby octopus is equally popular. If you want glammed up Asian eats, try Chicago Kalbi’s sister restaurant, 5 Chiyo (3800 W Lawrence Ave, 773-267-1555), where paper thin sheets of Waygu beef are ready to take a dip into bubbling oil, shabu shabu style.
For more Korean flavors, follow the flocks of Korean-style chicken-wing fans to 6 Great Sea restaurant (3254 W Lawrence Ave, 773-478-9129), a spot founded by Chinese immigrant Nai Tiao 20 years ago. Tiao’s garlic, soy and scallion spicy chicken wings are so tasty, you might just swear off the Buffalo version for life. If you’re really hardcore and want to keep the Korean feast going, 7 Kang Nam (4849 N Kedzie Ave, 773-539-2524), down the street, offers succulent pork bulgogi and soul-satisfying bowls of dolsot bibimbap, filled with vinegar and sesame oil–marinated vegetables, a runny egg and crispy bits of rice.
Switch gears from Korea to the Middle East and head to 8 Semiramis (4639 N Kedzie Ave, 773-279-8900) for roast chicken shawarma cocooned in lavosh bread and served with a side of toum (whipped garlic spread) or sambusik, crusty pastries filled with onion, pine nuts and sweetly spiced ground lamb. While the food is great, the crowd is a bit yuppie, so if you want to “keep it real” head across the street to 9 Salam (4636 N Kedzie Ave, 773-583-0776), a spot as authentic as it gets. It’s a community gathering place for recent Middle East transplants, where many female patrons wear khumur or burkas, and patrons with hearty appetites dig into bowls of fatah, a sort of deconstructed hummus made with whole chickpeas and drizzled with tahini, paprika and a host of spices. The shawarma spits featuring housemade cones of fresh lamb and chicken (no preformed frozen goods here) beckon with a symphony of pop and sizzle. If you heed the call, your meat will be wrapped in a thin pita and sprinkled with a pink dusting of sumac, a dried crushed berry that provides a lemon zing. Be sure to go off menu and ask for the daily specials, where you’ll discover typical Middle Eastern homestyle treats like mensaf, rice with lamb cooked in dried reconstituted yogurt and served with saffron and turmeric–spiced rice. Salam does sell sweets, but skip them in favor of next-door neighbor 10 Nazareth Sweets (4638 N Kedzie Ave, 773-463-2457). There’s no shortage of honey-slathered baklava and birds’ nests, but try the orange-hued knafe, a sweet pizzalike confection made from melted butter, ricotta cheese, pine nuts and sugar, heated to a gooey, pliable consistency and topped with a smattering of pistachios.
Heading south out of the Middle Eastern enclave then west on Montrose, you’ll find 11 Pupuseria Las Delicias (3300 W Montrose Ave, 773-267-5346), a Salvadoran restaurant that offers a mouth-searing green-chile hot sauce alongside its pupusas, griddled, stuffed corn-masa pockets. Chef Ceci Roman fills them with an assortment of goodies (our favorite is the crunchy pork skin) then tosses them onto the flattop where they caramelize and blow up like corn balloons.
Move from Central America to South America with one of Chicago’s best Peruvian spots, 12 Ay Ay Picante (4569 N Elston Ave, 773-427-4239). Run by the Bardales family, Picante serves up a delicious ceviche mixto featuring fat shrimp marinated in leche de tigre, a.k.a. tiger’s milk, a combination of lime juice and rocoto chiles.
If you want to try making ceviche at home, head just past the Albany Park border to Mayfair’s 13 The Fish Guy Market (4423 N Elston Ave, 1-888-347-4489) for an assortment of sushi-grade fish. Owner Bill Dugan’s as much a foodie as a fishmonger, so he also carries rotating specialties such as early season heirloom tomatoes and well-marbled Kobe beef. If you’re not into DIY in your home kitchen, Dugan offers a Thursday and Friday sit-down dinner under the moniker Wellfleet (wellfleetchicago.com/about.htm), where you can sup on prepared versions of high-quality seafood via multicourse tasting menus.
This article first appeared in Time Out Chicago in a different form.