Sky Full of Bacon

It sometimes seems as if there are no more food discoveries to be made in Chicago. The truth is, while it may be harder these days— though far from impossible— to find unknown places in Chicago, there are all kinds of unexplored suburbs around the city, especially in less-traveled-by-internet-users areas like the south suburbs. So don’t think it improbable if I say that as far as I am concerned, the best middle eastern food in Chicago is in an area that has gone almost entirely undiscovered (with one exception) until now— that at least half the times I’ve stopped for food there, I’ve had middle eastern food that for brightness of flavor, freshness of preparation, and the hospitality with which it was served handily surpassed almost any middle-eastern meal I’ve ever had within the city. After repeated middling experiences at what I’d long considered the best of them in the city— Salam— and adjusting my expectations for middle-eastern downward, the food in and around Bridgeview has given me new hope for the existence of an authentic, lively example of this cuisine in Chicago.  I chronicled these explorations and discoveries in my Time Out “Taste Quest” last week; this will offer some notes and further explication of that piece, which I would recommend as the primary, easily referenced primer for the explorer.

I had vaguely known for some time that there were middle eastern restaurants down in this area (which, to help set the scene, is located straight south of the city on Harlem avenue in the 80s and 90s, mostly; or in foodie terms, it’s about a mile southwest of Chuck’s). In fact Salam even had an outpost here at one time. The Arab community here— mainly Palestinian— originated in Chicago’s oldest middle eastern area, which was in the South Loop, and for many years they were the shopkeepers for the south side black community, both necessary and resented by the local population (a la Korean bodega owners in black neighborhoods today). The community moved over time to the area around 63rd and Pulaski, and there are still some remnants of it there; I took part in an event during the time between the abandonment of Chowhound and the launch of LTHForum in which several of us ate our way up and down 63rd, checking out the restaurants and shops that existed then. However, when the best known to us of these, Steve’s Shish Kabob, closed up around 2006 (eventually reopening somewhat to the southeast of Bridgeview), the whole south side Arab community kind of fell off the local foodie radar.

To get back to its history rather than mine, the community had started looking for a place to build a mosque as early as the 1950s, and a Bridgeview mosque was built in the 1970s. The Bridgeview mosque has inspired controversy which is best understood by perusing the Chicago Tribune’s series of articles on it from a few years ago, but whatever may be happening inside it, the commercial activity around it remains warmly welcoming to the outsider, if to judge by appearances, rarely seeing many from the Irish, Poles and Lithuanians who also live in the area.

The first place I visited, a bit to the south of the main area, was Al-Basha in Palos Heights, which seems to have been around for a number of years, to judge by both the slightly worn decor and the very relaxed air with which regulars were being served. First impressions were not promising— and it took long enough to get our order taken that they had a long time to sink in— but all doubts were swept away once food arrived. Everything— falafel, kifta, the bowl of complimentary pickles— just sparkled a little brighter than any I’d had locally for some time. Tastebuds that had been lulled into slumber woke up, ready for duty. The food was as jaunty as the chef in the window:

Al Basha
7216 W. College Rd.
Palos Heights

A month or so later my wife and I were in that area again and I suggested we just pick and try another random unknown spot. She’s the one who found Albawadi Mediterranean Grill in a strip mall parking lot on 87th. If I had one knock against Al-Basha— besides the fact that smoking is still allowed in restaurants in Palos Heights, shock, horror!— it would be that the menu seemed to offer only the expected standards of middle eastern cuisine. Albawadi proved not only to be at least Al-Basha’s equal in flavor but to show more ambition with an extensive menu that includes everything from meat to seafood, and begins with a relish tray centered around a wonderful garlicky eggplant dip (something like the Turkish imam biyaldi). The grilled meats were outstanding, perfectly done, while the decor led to a rather amusing moment:

Al Bawadi is located in a former fast food building, which they are in the process of expanding so that they can have a nonsmoking original building and a separate hookah room. The building looked vaguely Alamo-like, but I couldn’t quite place it, so after our meal I asked our waiter if it had been a Mexican restaurant. He clearly thought I was asking if the meal we had eaten was Mexican food, and, eyes bulging in disbelief and dismay, carefully explained to the astonishingly stupid gringo (who somehow knew baba ghanoush and falafel by name, but apparently believed them to be salsa and chips), that the restaurant was Jordanian-Palestinian. Eventually I got out of him that the building had once been an Arby’s, but I’m not sure I ever convinced him that I hadn’t mistaken his place for Senor Sombrero’s.

Albawadi Grill
7216 W 87th Street
Bridgeview, IL 60455

At this point, 2 for 2 on random picks having turned out to be pretty damn wonderful, I decided I had a mission to try every middle eastern place down here. As it turned out, Albawadi turned out to be the best by a comfortable margin, and indeed I would anoint it the best middle eastern restaurant in Chicagoland— and thus the one to visit if you feel inclined to make a trip down there and check the area out. And since the menus tend to be fairly similar from place to place, that’s not a bad strategy. All the same, there are several other worthy places worth noting, and without duplicating the Time Out article (which extends to groceries and sweet shops), here are a few more restaurants which warrant attention (and which I will number as part of my series of 50 places previously undiscovered by LTHForum and the local foodie community generally):

21. The Nile
This is a second outpost of a restaurant that still exists on the 63rd street strip (the similar-named place in Hyde Park may have been related once as well; or “The Nile” for a middle-eastern place may be
“Great Wall” for Chinese restaurants). The cafeteria-like atmosphere is nothing to get excited about, but the bustle behind the counter suggests that they’re doing more than lazily serving up falafel— mensef was the special one day I came in here. (The specials board is in Arabic, so you have to ask.) I didn’t have the mensef, I wanted to just try the regular menu (and being on deadline, I had another lunch ahead of me that day, so I didn’t want to order big), but the shish taouk was grilled spot-on perfect and the falafel were bright and flavorful. It’d be worth checking out again.

The Nile Restaurant
7333 W 87th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 237-0767

22. Baladi Restaurant
This was one I found by searching the internet, as it’d be easy to miss it on a side street off Harlem.  (I don’t have much use for Yelp generally, but it sometimes at least alerts you to the existence of places that locals have commented on that otherwise have gone unnoticed by the internet.)  The first time I went I had an absolutely fantastic grilled chicken off the specials board (again, in Arabic only), perfectly grilled (do we detect a theme?) and accompanied by a kind of red pepper sauce.  I had planned on a second lunch that day as well but the idea of not finishing that chicken while it was warm and crispy was unacceptable.  Baba ghanoush— not that I needed anything like that with this chicken— also impressed me as smoky and delectable.

I returned about a week later with LTHForum poster Gastro Gnome, who had agreed to accompany me to visit some of the groceries and markets and help me understand where the points of distinction were so I could include a few of those in the Time Out piece.  We started with lunch at Baladi, ordering off the regular menu, and… it was one of those times when the second visit completely fails to show your guest what had wowed you the first time.  Everything (shawerma, shish taouk, etc.) was okay, but nothing sparkled.  So I guess stick to the specials at Baladi; that chicken really was great.  I’m not imagining it.

Baladi Restaurant
7209 W 84th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455

23. Lebanese Cuisine (menu says Lebanese Nights)
This is the only Bridgeview restaurant I tried that didn’t make the Time Out piece at all.  (Al-Basha didn’t make it because it was too far away from the others.) The location is actually where Salam’s outpost used to be, and it was something else in between (as my take-out bag indicated).  I ordered a Lebanese shawerma sandwich (shawerma inside a thin wrap with pickles and so on) and a side of foul, beans.  Running the place (seemingly singlehanded) was a sort of pepperpot lady in a full hijab.  She couldn’t have been more warm or welcoming, and I was ready to love this place… but the food just didn’t do it at all.  The shawerma was kind of mealy and tough, and the foul, despite giving off waves of garlic, was flavorless in that way that only bean dishes can be.  Too bad.

Lebanese Nights
9050 S Harlem Ave
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 430-4377

24. Village Pita & Bakery
This small shop would have been easy to miss in the same strip mall as Albawadi, but I’m glad I didn’t.  They sell a variety of baked goods stuffed or topped with things like za’atar (a green spice of herbs and sesame) or mohamara (a spicy red pepper topping), dirt cheap and, if not mindblowing, totally easy to like.  Not surprisingly, it was the one place where I saw non-Arab customers— the Irish kid delivering Pepsi chimed in to urge me to try the potato filled one.  The owner (you can see his picture at Time Out’s site) clearly takes serious pride in his wares, as he was very insistent, almost worriedly so, that I not under any circumstances microwave the ones I took away (hey, I’d already had two lunches), but warm them on a cookie sheet in the oven.  I did, they made a great dinner that night.

Village Pita & Bakery
7378 W 87th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 237-0020

25. Nablus Sweets
I tend to think of things like baklava in terms of David Mamet’s line that there’s no difference between good flan and bad flan, so I included a couple of sweets shops in the piece, but hell if I have any way to tell which is better than the other.  This place stood out for one offering I’ve never seen anywhere else— knafeh, a dish made of warmed white Nablus cheese, topped with orange shredded wheat (once saffron-colored, I imagine), ground pistachios and sweet syrup.  I could only get through half a piece, it was so rich and sweet, but I was assured on the weekends, they line up for it.

Nablus Sweets
8320 S. Harlem
Bridegview, IL
(708) 529-3911

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BillSFNM is a longtime poster on LTHForum. Here’s a time-lapse video he posted of a pizza baking in his woodfired pizza oven. (I don’t think it’s sped up by much—maybe double time.)

Pizza Leoparding Test – HD from Extreme Cooking on Vimeo.

I guess “leoparding” is cooking a pizza till spots appear? Funny. Anyway, little wonder that praise came quickly for this at LTHForum, hardly time for a phone call in between posts admiring it.


This is going to be new media talk, if that bores you, there will be more food talk soon enough.

My foraging video has passed 4000 views at Vimeo. And as I mentioned in the post below, my total viewings to date are now well over 10,000 (over 11,000 at Vimeo plus hundreds more via iTunes and my own server).

This is starting to be real media. That may seem like a vainglorious claim—how can I say that when TV shows draw millions—but the reality is that there are lots of things that sell or get watched or listened to in the five figures, or even four, that we treat as “real” media. The book I wrote about a dozen years ago sold 14,000 copies—which may not sound like much, but impressed the hell out of folks published by universities, who knew their sales were in the hundreds. The run of a classic film on DVD from a small distributor like Kino might only be a few thousand. Even TV—many cable network shows draw non-primetime audiences in the five or low six figures.

And certainly compared to other attempts at similar online media, these numbers are strong. Okay, not as strong as Chad Vader or similar goofiness on YouTube, but as I mentioned before, there’s a vaguely similar series of videos produced in Chicago that’s also on Vimeo, and their last one has been viewed all of a couple of hundred times. Not to get all Seth Godin or Jeff Jarvisy here, but it’s really a textbook example of the old versus the new media playbook. Here’s their tactical approach to getting viewers in a few Powerpoint-style bullets:
• Existing brand name
• Built-in subscriber base
• Magazine-style subject with proven audience appeal (how to videos with name chefs)

And they get a couple of hundred views. I have no name, no built-in base (maybe LTHForum would count as one, but it amounts maybe 75-150 views each time, not that big). But what I do have is:
• Personal approach that makes my stuff feel like it comes from a real person
• The determination to go out and schmooze for links all over the landscape (which paid off hugely this time)
• “Sticky” subjects (that is, the kind of subjects where you feel like telling somebody “Hey, check this out!” and putting it up on your site)

These are the things that matter in the new media landscape. There’s nothing brilliant about how I’m doing it, and there are at least hundreds, maybe thousands doing it better than me on a million topics all over the web. But my relative success with somewhat esoteric, longform regional foodie documentaries is a perfect example of where our media landscape is going, toward homemade media that can genuinely compete in the same media landscape for a sliver of the audience, if they work hard at it.

And more and more our media landscape is becoming about slivers. The mass audience is vanishing. The media are facing rough times (everybody talks about newspapers, but I wouldn’t bet on fat times for magazines, radio or local TV stations any time soon, either). And slowly, slooooowly, the realization is dawning that all numbers are not equal—that the person who had a TV show about food on while they were surfing the web, eating a sandwich and sorting the laundry maybe isn’t an equal prospect to the foodie who sat and watched a 17-minute video on the computer of their own choice, from beginning to end. That one of the latter is maybe worth ten of the former. Or 100… if you can find the medium that reaches them.

I left for a few hours, and the total number of people who had watched the foraging podcast at Vimeo was something like 142.

Came back and the number who’ve been added today is over 1,500 2,000 2,500.  So far. That’s over 100 times the number who watched it the previous day.  (The nice thing, too, is that all the old ones always get some additional viewing as a consequence, too.  It’s great that they’re not dead after a few days, like so much on the web.) UPDATE: And a friend points out that I’m up over 10,000 views total at Vimeo as well.

So big thanks to Boing Boing for producing this hitstorm, and to a blog called Homegrown Evolution for being kind enough to post it where Boing Boing would see it! Also thanks for linkage to Martha Bayne (for whom I’ll be making soup soon), Chicago Metblogs, Planted Paradise, and TakePart. And it’s featured at The Local Beet, too.

Also, my article on Middle Eastern in Bridgeview is indeed in the new Time Out, where it looks fantastic (p. 34), also note that it rates a mention on the cover and a full-page shot of Albawadi serves as the beginning of the food section.  You can read the reviews here that led to me writing it, of Al-Basha (which didn’t make the final article because it’s too far from the others) and Albawadi (which, of course, did).

Whilst roaming Bridgeview and environs for my upcoming Time Out piece on the middle eastern food in that obscure suburb, which might be in this week’s issue, I spotted a highly promising sign:

The fact that it was on a former Pizza Hut might not be taken as so promising, but after all, the best middle eastern place I found down there was in a former Arby’s, so anything could happen. What was promising was the promise of “real charcoal.” A taco made of truly charcoal-cooked meat is a wonderful thing, full of charred edges and smoky beefy flavor, but I don’t know of any such place in Chicago, indeed one of the things I pine for here is a place like the one I visited in Playa del Carmen:

where incredibly fresh arrachera, skirt steak, was grilled over coals and served up by the ton.

This place may or may not be related to other places called Arturo’s around town, notably one near Milwaukee & Western, which I’ve never had a burning need to try, belonging somewhere in the middle, apparently, of local chains.  I suppose that’s an oversight, but there’s a lot of Mexican out there and Arturo’s gave off a Los Dos Sombreros vibe, seemed aimed squarely at the need-a-gutbomb-at-2-am crowd.

But we went in, and I ordered tacos, two steak and one pastor:

We can dispose of the pastor instantly, it sucked and certainly never came anywhere near a pastor cone.  The tacos tasted pretty good… I could almost believe in the charcoal cooking, there was definitely char and a smoky taste, but I kept waiting for it go beyond what you could produce on a good gas grill with juices dripping down and sizzling back up… and it just didn’t do it.  Maybe, I thought, it’s been reheated, which would be a major error with freshly grilled beef, but could dampen the flavor.  There was flank steak on the menu, maybe that would stand a better chance of being freshly cooked.

But I took the opportunity of visiting the bathroom so I could snoop on the kitchen.  And all I saw back there was a standard gas grill, no signs of charcoal grilling like actual flame, ashen grates, serious internal smoke ventilation systems, big bags labeled “hardwood lump,” whatever.  I tasted little and saw nothing to support the claims of the banner on the top of the building.  Maybe they’re grilling it out back on a barbecue and then holding it; that would reconcile the taste with the signage and with what I observed.  But I just don’t know.

Arturo’s isn’t bad by any means, but it isn’t the place I’d hoped it would be—and more importantly, that they said they were.  That’s a sin that makes it hard for me to want to go back, much as I’d love to have my suspicions overturned.

Arturo’s Mexican Restaurant
7260 W 79th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 458-8004

To see more in this series, click Restaurant Reviews at right and look for the numbered reviews.

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Urban foragers are people who eat what grows naturally from a very unnatural place— a city. In this all-vegetarian Sky Full of Bacon podcast, urban foragers show us how they find food all around them, and we nibble our way through a remarkable wilderness literally in the shadow of Chicago’s skyscrapers.

Sky Full of Bacon 07: Eat This City from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Feeling a little cabin feverish this winter?  This Sky Full of Bacon podcast (shot in September and October) will take you back to a sunnier, somewhat greener time as we explore the city looking for growing things to eat— from fruits to herbs to medicines.  First, chef-blogger Art Jackson shows us what he forages for his own use around his home in Pilsen. Then Art and I are led on a fascinating tour of a stretch of mostly undeveloped (for now) land on the near South side, which turns out to be an amazingly biodiverse landscape as it’s revealed to us by Nance Klehm, artist and urban foraging expert.  Along the way, we discuss many of the issues around foraging and the use of land and food in the city.

If you’d like to see more— and Nance showed us much more than I could include in this podcast— her foraging tours and classes in everything from canning to cheesemaking will start up again in March; watch closer to that time for more details.  As urban foraging became a hot topic last year, Nance started turning up more and more in the media; there’s more in this piece from NPR’s Weekend America, this audio podcast from Chicago’s Little Green People Show, and this audio podcast from a magazine called Arthur.

Art Jackson, chef at Chicago’s Bijan’s Bistro, and his wife Chel blog about food at; here’s a recipe they posted that uses one of the most easily foraged fruits in the Chicago area, mulberry muffins.  (We found mulberries but they wound up on the cutting room floor, digitally speaking.) It’s worth noting that I met Art because he commented on my very first podcast, so if you have an idea about something that would be interesting to do a podcast about, let me know and it could happen!

Here’s a Time Out article that came out last fall on another group of Chicago foragers. And finally, remember that the very first Sky Full of Bacon was about local food and growing your own, so if you never saw it, check it out.

Nance’s recipe for the dandelion-burdock tea that she brought along for our forage:

dandelion-burdock coffee

this rooty brew is highly benefical for the liver, “the great absorber” of stress, alcohol and other unhealthy things. we need to support it in its work and this is a delicious way to do it!

dig dandelion and burdock roots in early spring or late fall. if spring, wash and use greens for salads, soups or stirfries, if fall, compost the tops or use them to mulch a perennial in your yard. wash roots and cut into small pieces. spread on a cookie sheet and roast for two hours in a 175 degree oven – occasionally stirring to roast evenly. you will need a lot of them, and there are a lot of them out there, so digdigdig.

to brew: put one 1/4 cup of roasted root in a one quart jar and pour boiling water over the top, cap and wait 4 hours or overnight. roots take a long time to extract their beneficial minerals. in contrast, a shorter brew is only colored water and carries none of the rich flavor or medicinal benefits. you can drink this at room temperature, iced or gently reheat it if you prefer it warm.

nance klehm will post her ‘living kitchen’ classes and monthly ‘urbanforage’ walks for 2009 on in late march.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2)
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

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