While North and South Siders duke it out for Chicago supremacy, West Siders have quietly gone about their business. They don’t need to assert anything because they’re too busy enjoying a wealth of culinary offerings their warring counterparts don’t even know about. The Westsiders would probably like to keep it that way, but the wealth of culinary delicacies, which includes terrific tacos and tortas, blistered juicy chicken, Eastern European dumplings, Michelin-level cooking, and even reinvented American comfort food, deserves its spot in the sun. Fortunately for you, we’ve got the rundown.
FRIED SHRIMP FROM A CENTURY-OLD SHACK
4151 W. 26th St. 773-521-7847
How does a hundred-year-old landlocked Little Village restaurant end up serving some of Chicago’s best flaky golden fried shrimp ($10.70 for half order)? It all started in 1917 when George Troha plied locals with a bowl of chili and a stein of beer for a nickel. During the Depression, chili meat became scarce, so Troha switched over to selling fresh and smoked fish, eventually unveiling shrimp in 1935. The idea of frying it came a few years later, after the restaurant’s owners were inspired by a visit to New Orleans. The Trohas also claim to have developed carry-out fried chicken six years before KFC. Whether that’s true or not, one thing is certain, the fourth-generation owners are still killing it a century later.
2517 W. Division 773-862-8313
Papa’s kitchen rotisserie beckons with a battery of roast chickens ($7.50-$16.50). Their mahogany-colored and char-flecked skin and juicy flesh will make you regret every Costco or grocery market chicken you’ve ever bought.
El Pollo Real
3823 W. 31st; 773-847-3907
Like Papa’s Cache Sabroso, the chicken here is moist and juicy to the bone, but these birds are not spit-roasted. They’re grilled over live fire charcoal and develop a smoky char that pairs well with blistered knob onions and pickled red onion, perfect for swaddling in a warm tortilla ($7.68 and up).
TACO TUESDAY FOREVER
La Chaparrita Grocery
2500 S. Whipple 773-254-0975
If Little Village is the center of Chicago neighborhood taco magnificence, then La Chaparrita is its capital. All the tacos are great, but the crispy tripa ($2.40), or crunchy bits of offal showered with onion and cilantro wrapped in a supple corn tortilla, will change your life.
Taqueria Los Barrilitos
3518 W. 25th St. 773-673-0102
If you’re looking for great tacos al pastor ($1.70), you’re looking for a taqueria featuring a magnificent trompo, aka a spinning pyramid of pork slathered in rusty achiote paste. If you don’t see a trompo, the kitchen is likely just marinating their pork and cooking it straight on the griddle, which often results in a mushy steamed mess. The meat never has the chance to crisp up or char from a constant flame like it does here.
4001 W. Jackson 312-709-8281
On weekends, there are often Hot Doug’s-like lines for the charcoal-grilled chicken tacos bursting with cheddar and cilantro ($6). If you drank a lot the night before, you might also want to refresh your constitution with a Styrofoam clamshell full of the loaded jerk steak nachos ($15).
2255 W. Taylor St. 312-725-0507
For the longest time I believed one of the best breakfast tacos/burritos in Chicago was the McSkillet burrito from McDonald’s. It had a rusty red salsa, fluffy scrambled eggs, golden French-fried potatoes, crisp peppers and sausage bits that no Mexican spot could quite match. But, alas McDonald’s discontinued the McSkillet in favor of the limp sausage burritos with mushy meat they serve today. Since then, I have been searching for a successor, that is until I tried the chorizo and potato “El #1” featuring bright pico de gallo and salty queso ($3.25) from Jarabe.
3936 W. 31st 773-277-1155
If you bring a vegan friend to most taquerias, the only thing they’re likely to be able to munch on is a tortilla, and maybe not even one of those if it’s been griddled in pork fat. Not so at El Faro, which offers a vegan-friendly assortment of soy-based steak and chorizo. ($3.75 and up).
1001 N. California 773-904-7660
André Soltner, the legendary French chef who led the kitchen of New York’s influential Lutece, used to judge a cook by how he made an omelet. By that standard, Café Marie-Jeanne’s owner and chef Mike Simmons, who whips up a glistening yolk-rich curd stuffed with trout and dolloped with a cloud of dill-spiked sour cream, would probably be one of Soltner’s favorite humans. Even if that weren’t true, once you try this eggy masterpiece ($12), you’ll be tempted to make it a staple of every weekend.
SOMETHING FOR THE SOUL
5412 W. Madison St. 773-261-2316
Long before hipster restaurateurs brought “meat and two” or “meat and three”-style dining to trendy foodie circles, Macarthur’s had been serving up soul proteins like ham hocks, ($7.99) smothered chicken ($8.99) and fried chicken ($6.99) next to an assortment of sides like allspice-perfumed collards and quivering scoops of mac and cheese.
3750 W. Ogden Ave. 872-588-3380
It’s apt that this West Side café was launched as an outreach of the Lawndale Christian Health Center ministry, because once you eat the sweet and tangy barbecue-sauced BBQ Chicken sandwich ($5.75), a poultry-based Sloppy Joe of sorts, you’ll be giving praise to Jesus.
2524 W. Chicago Ave. 773-276-6402
Ukrainian food doesn’t quite get the cred of other European cuisines, but this Ukrainian Village spot offers quite the assortment of crave-worthy carbs. Mushroom dumplings swim in tarragon cream ($9), while a crispy pork chop sports a schnitzel-like crust ($10.50). The potato pancakes are lacey and the sour bright borscht ($4 for small bowl) will warm you from the inside.
2400 W. 21st Place 773-579-6136
The steak tacos are legendarily large, but the beef you want is the guisado de res, a juicy Mexican stew bursting with cumin and chili that will fuel you through the kind of snowpocalypse that closes down and strands cars on Lake Shore Drive. ($3.50 and up).
2624 S. Central Park Ave. 773-522-8544
Sometimes you just can’t choose between rojo or verde. At Los Candiles, if you order the huevos divorciados with chilaquiles ($9.40), you don’t have to, because you get a couple of runny sunny side up eggs—one topped with farm-fresh red tomato salsa, and another with grassy green salsa—as well as a healthy mound of crispy chips for sopping up the bounty.
1523 N. Pulaski Road 773-276-5825
The bowl of verde, aka green chili pozole, is like a slurpable Jacuzzi for the soul. Tender shreds of pork mingle with the carb comfort of hominy and the peppery crunchy contrast of radish, cabbage and chicharron bits ($9.25).
3759 W. 26th St. 773-823-1499
If you’ve got a hangover or a paunch from consuming too many burritos the size of an airliner, head over to this Little Village spot where they serve up Durango-style burritos($2.99), or flour tortillas filled simply with a slather of creamy beans and shredded smoky chili-spiked barbacoa. The relatively svelte burrito looks more like a flauta than a steroidal Chipotle creation.
1000 N. Francisco Ave. 773-235-9218
There are a lot of good Puerto Rican joints in Humboldt Park if you’re just looking for a tasty jibarito or a heaping pile of yellow rice with pigeon peas. But if you’re in the mood for fry-oil dappled flaky empanadas stuffed with steak ($1.25) or crab, this is your stop.
Gorditas La Tia Susy
3500 S. Western Ave. 872-281-5099
Tiny masa rounds are griddled fresh until they puff up like tortilla dirigibles, and then they’re topped with mashed pintos and a glistening mound of juicy carne asada ($3.50).
2834 W. Cermak Road 773-376-7474
There are plenty of great Mexican restaurants in Little Village including the venerable Nuevo Leon, but what sets Samuel apart are the ladies in front making tortillas to order. These tortillas, delivered piping hot to your table, are so good, you might want to drape them on your face and just inhale the corn perfume like you’re indulging in some weird new-age Mexican-inspired facial.
4377 W. 26th St. 773-522-2050
The pupusas ($2.50) or masa pockets are filled with gooey cheese and beans and sport a leopard print of griddle spots that offer a smoky caramelized contrast to the fluffy interior.
16 S. Western Ave. 312-226-5094
Manny’s gets all the glory, but the corned beef ($6.41) served here—in between a couple of pillowy pieces of caraway seed-studded rye bread slathered with a smear of yellow mustard—is just as worthy when considering Chicago’s best brined beef sandwiches.
1000 N. California Ave. 872-829-2793
The interior with reclaimed fixtures from a 1920s Milwaukee-area soda fountain makes you feel like you’ve somehow found a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and traveled back in time like Michael J. Fox. The unique food, especially a beet Reuben ($11) that subs in roasted, thinly sliced beets for the usual corned beef, makes you feel like you’re eating in the future.
3331 W. 26th St. 773-257-0000
The airy bolillo loaves used for the sandwiches are yacht-sized and stuffed with all kinds of toppings. Go with “La Bomba,” ($7.75) which is filled with a butcher’s case worth of breaded steak, pork, ham and bacon plus gooey chihuahua cheese, pineapple, and a crisp salad of lettuce, tomato, onion and cilantro.
WINE AND DINE
954 N. California Ave. 773-292-1616
The name of this Humboldt Park spot is a nod to the hearty roots that make up great wine vines. And yet, whenever I’m here sipping on a fabulous Riesling and killing some silky chicken liver pate ($6.50), I hear the raspy voice of the Beastie Boy’s emcee, King Ad-Rock, rapping “How we gonna kick it?” followed by the refrain from the rest of the boys, “Gonna kick it root down!” Rootstock purveys the kind of community and comfort that makes you want to put your roots down and be a regular for life.
1012 N. Western Ave. 773-661-2116
There is no shortage of seared hunks of expense-account-capturing beef and sides of baked potatoes bigger than an NFL regulation football served in Chicago. Boeufhaus doesn’t play that game. Instead, they focus on quality over quantity, provisioning discerning steakhouse seekers with delicate beignets larded with short rib ($10) and a fennel-kissed fluke crudo ($14) along with a 55-day dry-aged rib-eye (market price) that’s funkier than any Prince track.
2419 W. 14th St. 312-226-8144 ($155+)
The world is full of smart-ass chefs who like to shoot their mouths off. What makes owner and executive chef Phillip Foss particularly special is that he blends a sharp wit with even sharper Michelin-level cooking skills. If you’ve got the money, try and score a “front row” seat, which puts you in the middle of the action, allowing you to pepper chefs with questions as they construct some of the more beautiful plates in Chicago.
2557 W. Chicago Ave. 773-278-5776
Sushi spots in Chicago are generally a dime a dozen, most of them serving up fat truck driver-worthy slabs of raw fish topping mushy rice. But there are a few that focus on serving delicate scrims of sashimi and nigiri buttressed by well-seasoned toothsome-grains. Of those, even fewer know how to serve a multi-course omakase, or chef’s choice progression of sushi, on the level of the best prix fixe Chicago restaurants. Kai Zan is one of the few.
2500 W. Chicago Ave. 773-697-4413
No doubt you’ve sidled into plenty of plump leather banquettes in Chicago restaurants, but I bet you’ve never sat in a booth lined with yellow equestrian-graphic-laden fabric that makes you want to yell “tally-ho!” Amidst that funky seating, Chef Zoe Schor serves up gourmet Americana ($14-$32), including McDonald’s-killing jalapeño-tinged chicken nuggets and a stellar green bean casserole tossed with earthy ‘shrooms that’ll have you wanting Schor to come over and cook Thanksgiving dinner for your clan next year.
3944 W. Chicago Ave. 773-661-1331
Sometimes you can’t make it to the county fair. The good news is if you live in Chicago, you can have the fair come to you in the form of Philly Bros’ deep fried Oreo sundae ($4.99), potato chips on a stick, and the Philly Burger hoagie ($7.99 and up) stuffed with loose ground beef, which eats kind of like the awesome love child of a submarine and a patty melt.
This article appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.