To paraphrase Casablanca, “I’m a foodie. That makes me a citizen of the world.” I’ve eaten a fair amount of fancy food lately— my Restaurant Week is the down month of January, you don’t get a discount in prices but you definitely knock off a chunk of the crowds— so it’s now time to return to my peoples, the ethnic cuisine of Chicago. Here’s a few I’ve been to lately, searching for greatness and usually not finding it, but at these prices, you can’t afford not to keep looking:
Mr. Daniels, 5645 W. Belmont
I have a theory that for certain cuisines, inauthenticity is a sign of authenticity. Not for Asian, for instance, but definitely for Eastern European, where the hearty comfort food they’re used to has been infiltrated by all kinds of things from outside— hamburgers, Turkish doner kebabs, curries, Italian food. An Americanized Polish place might serve only obvious Polish food, but when you see a menu like this:
…you know you’re at a place that’s making food for recent immigrants. I was first attracted to this sign by the mention of “nalesniki,” which are basically blintzes, but I’ve never seen that word for them on a Chicago menu before; the only place I’ve heard it is at my mom’s, since her Mennonite grandparents used it. (I thought it was a Ukrainian term for blintzes, the same way she uses “vareniky” for what anyone in Chicago would call a pierogi— her family was German-speaking Mennonites from the Gdansk area who settled for a century or so in the Ukraine.) Anyway, Mr. Daniels’ menu is almost frightening in its cross-cultural eclecticism, ranging from doner kebab (ubiquitous in Europe these days) to hot dogs where “everything” includes mushrooms (that must be a Polish thing) to zapiekanki (which appear to be a sort of pizza bread with what ominously appears to be ketchup on it). It was either going to be great or awful, but memorable in either case, I figured.
Well, maybe if I’d gone for the zapiekanki, it could have been. I ordered a Polish plate special and got a perfectly decent, perfectly average sampler of Polish food— much of which, I suspect, came in 24-packs from A&G Market across the street. It started with what was almost certainly Bobak’s sausage— Bobak’s may be a prominent name on the south side but afficionados don’t rank its Polish sausage very highly, there’s something insubstantial about it, like more filler than meat (that may not literally be true, but it’s how it comes off) and a thick skin that, as this one demonstrated, if you score it and then fry it, produces edges sharp enough to cut yourself on. Then a decent couple of pierogi and cabbage roll, and a cucumber salad that seemed undressed and thus no more exciting than eating raw cucumber. The atmosphere, though clean, was Soviet-despairing. I had hopes for something bizarre enough to make a good post, and it wasn’t even that. Maybe one needs to dive off the Polish platter into the truly weird cross-cultural stuff on the menu, but if you want to be the discoverer of Chicago’s best zapiekanki, be my guest.
Ashkenaz Jewish Style Deli, 12 E. Cedar Street
“When my father dies, the first thing I’ll have to do is call Ashkenaz and order a party tray,” a client of my wife’s often said. Ashkenaz is apparently the gold standard for deli to set out while sitting shiva among Gold Coast Jews— well, gold standard as in “the last authentic place of its kind so you don’t have to order from Treasure Island.” Deli in Chicago usually begins and ends with Manny’s, but there are a few of these other old places still scattered around (back in the 50s and 60s there was a famous and celebrated Ashkenaz in Rogers Park, I honestly don’t know if this is related or not). I think I last ate at Ashkenaz when I was first working in advertising in Chicago, which more than qualifies this post to be installment #5 in “Once Every Ten Years.”
Well, it’s no Manny’s but it isn’t bad at all. It’s a tiny place (didn’t there used to be a KFC next door, or a Wendy’s?) with the usual celebrity photos and other nostalgic stuff tacked on the walls. (Not sure why Sinatra gets such placement in a Jewish restaurant; that would have made for a great “guess the restaurant” at LTH, as people kept guessing old Italian joints.) I went for basic, a corned beef sandwich and a latke. They don’t have so much as a panini press for warming sandwiches, but given apparent limitations, they did a perfectly creditable job with steamed Vienna corned beef and rye bread, though the only brown mustard they had was a sweet-hot kind, which seemed weird. The latke was pretty well made, similar to Manny’s cumulonimbus latkes, but rubbery after being microwaved for dining-in. Service was extremely friendly and welcoming. I wouldn’t go miles out of my way to grab a sandwich here, but given the general neighborhood, which is all fast food or overpriced steakhouses and very short on simple, real places like this, I wouldn’t mind coming back and digging deeper into the prepared foods like chopped liver.
Ruby’s Soul Food Restaurant, 3175 W. Madison
Can I make a confession that may blow my food-adventurer cred? I never ate at Edna’s Soul Food before the legendary Edna Stewart passed away in mid-2010. I tried once, but it turned out to be a week she was closed for vacation. And, you know, how often are you passing the 3100 block of west Madison while trying to decide where to eat? I should have found the moment to go there, some lunch time, but I just never did. It’s a big city.
Now Edna’s has reopened as Ruby’s, with what seems to be a perfect replica of the old sign, and the same menu and staff. We popped down there for breakfast on Saturday, and you can easily see, or perhaps feel, why it was a beloved place— despite bare walls and a plexiglass cage for the cashier, the place had the hum of a community meeting place. I loved that part.
What I have to admit I didn’t love, was breakfast. One of the things that sent us here was my son’s desire to have chicken and waffles, now that CJ’s Eatery has closed. Well, there’s no chicken and waffles. Other than the presence of grits as a side, there’s really nothing here for breakfast that you wouldn’t have at any Greek greasy spoon diner.
And on that level, the cheapness in ingredients that you often run into in black neighborhoods— a fact of life for obvious economic reasons— brought this meal down a number of times. A Denver omelet was pretty well made, onions and peppers fried on the grill before being added to the egg, but then the inside was overflowing with the cheapest orange American cheese. Bacon was the cheapest commodity bacon, with a salt pork and old grease flavor that even the bacon-snarfing kids recognized and didn’t care for. The grits were quite good, the famous biscuits (more roll than what I think of as a Southern biscuit) were nice but, I suspect, day-old. And surprisingly, all this cheapness didn’t come that cheaply; it was $40 for the four of us, which is more than, say, Johnnie’s Snack Shop or Diner Grill near me, and not that much less than, say, Nana. What almost made up for it was the genuinely warm and Southern service. I guess I need to go back and have lunch, finally, fried chicken and collard greens or something, but breakfast was worth it only to say that finally, I’d been.