Sky Full of Bacon

Accidental Epcot: The Greatest Strip Mall in Harwood Heights

The foodie scene and LTHForum have changed so much with the years, with media exposure and so on that there’s something nostalgic about someone doing what used to be the base act of chowhoundism— exploring the oddball parts of the city and reporting back on things no one has heard of before. Yet when Rob Gardner/Vital Information did it recently in reference to a strip mall in Harwood Heights on the northwest edge of Chicago, the reaction was less joy at new finds than mockery and sheer incomprehension— he was dismissed by a moderator for not supplying an address (he deliberately did not do so, as a comment on the pleasures of the hunt), a poster who has praised the most godawful things (Mr. Sub) made a joke about the highlight of the area being a Denny’s, and the best thing in it was a poster saying he’d been to one of the places and never written it up. I keep promising a certain other blogger and moderator to stop sniping at dumb things on LTH at Twitter— in the old days that’s what we had the moderator’s secret board for— but really, one could overlook the dumb stuff if anyone had responded to it in the old spirit of adventure. But now what gets you LTH love is not discovering the obscure restaurant but letting everyone know you went to the latest universally-publicized one.

So of course I couldn’t wait to meet Rob there and check it out. Adventure lives! On Twitter.

Some of what Rob wrote about this strip mall, located just west of Harlem on Lawrence, made reference to his long-ago post about the best Chow-block in town (which I mentioned here). So is this the best Chow-mall in town? To my surprise, you could make an awfully good case for it, as it manages to include within a dozen storefronts Serbian, Italian, Middle-Eastern, Filipino, Chinese, Thai… and Italian Beef.

Our first stop was in the Serbian place, Dani’s (hence the Denny’s “joke”), where Rob had already ordered a Serbian hamburger as an amuse-bouche; there was plenty of time, as it would take 20 minutes to cook in the back of this bakery and grocery. When it came, we divided it into quarters, each the size of a Big Mac:

A patty of beef and pork, topped with onions and sour cream on a fresh-baked bun— simple but delicious in its simplicity. There was relatively little other savory food on display, but an impressive bakery selection— I’m not sure if they make them in house or not:

Next we went to the Filipino spot, Max’s. Besides lots of packaged goods, it had a full buffet of Filipino foods; we put together a plate of things to try. Now, I would almost say that I’ve never found Filipino food I liked. As Rob pointed out, his wife has had home cooked Filipino food from coworkers and it always blew restaurant food away. But what we tried, honest to God, is the first Filipino food in ten years that made me want to go back and try more things, not just say, okay, another one checked off the list. We had a dish of vegetables, BBQ pork and shrimp paste which was good, and then a tripe soup that was absolutely terrific:

Really, this soup wins the Yah’s Cuisine award for Thing I Loved I Would Never Have Expected To Even Like. We tried some other things like skewers and egg rolls that were fine, but it’s worth noting that the best things by far were the least gringo-friendly-looking. The spirit of adventure, I tell ya. You gotta have it and keep it stoked.

I also eyed the desserts, including one in a quite startling royal blue:

Our last stop that day was the place that had brought Rob to this mall, Pita al-Sharq. It’s a perfectly good place with friendly people (who tolerated our inexplicable and confused way of ordering a fragment of a lunch to go, and then unwrapping it at table to photograph) though I don’t think it’s the best middle eastern restaurant on earth or anything. The shawerma sandwich seemed drowned in mustardy tahini sauce, but the fresh-fried falafel— something hard to get in other restaurants, where they insist on frying them up ahead of time— was first-rate.

Walking along, stuffed and borderline-ill in the hundred-degree heat, we nevertheless had to stick our noses in at least one more spot, so we opened the door to the Italian cafe. As it happened Italy was playing Germany at soccer at that moment, so it was like opening the door to another dimension— outside, the silence of a windswept parking lot, inside, a raucous packed house cheering on Italy. (Closed, silence. Open, Italy! Closed, silence…) The thin Italian pizza looked pretty good, and they have gelato— have to go there with the kids sometime.

Is it the greatest strip mall in Chicago? Maybe, but really, who cares, it’s a great example of Chicago diversity packed into a tiny commercial space, thrilling to find so much in one tiny place, an accidental Epcot taking you around the world at lunch. Cheers, and if the spirit of adventure lives in you, go check it out and let us know how the pizza and the Thai and the bureks are.

* * *

It’s time for another quarterly roundup of the best things I’ve eaten lately:

• Pressed melon and buttermilk sauce, Premise
• Sunchoke soup, duck breast with lentils and ginger, goats milk cheese in filo pastry with red pepper/balsamic sauce, Goosefoot
• Cock-a-leekie pie from Pleasant House Bakery
• Chicken parmigiana sandwich at Publican Quality Meats
• Hot dog at Allium, roast pork leg with cheesy grits, veg-filled pork brat, Allium
• Porchetta sandwich from Becker Lane, Green City Market
• Q7 beef carpaccio with favas, wild boar pappardelle, sturgeon in red sauce, Moderno
• Phil’s Last Stand’s note-perfect imitation of an In-N-Out burger
• Poutine with English peas, grilled baby octopus, escarole and white beans, Red Door

• My own English pea/mint soup
• Bison tartare, fried pickles, The Gage
• Smoked sturgeon “caviar,” chilled English pea soup, pea tendrils, black forest ham, consomme, Tru
• Ramen, Yusho
• Shrimp taco, Del Seoul
• Fried chicken, Pecking Order
• Teriyaki omelet at Evanston Grill
• Queso fundido with Otter Creek cheddar, Frontera Grill
• Pork and steak tacos, Antique Taco
• “Classic” banh mi, Banh Mi & Co.
• Pastor taco, Zacataco’s (59th)
• Pastor taco, cabeza taco, Taqueria Mi Guadalupe
• English pea-mint bread, shortribs, semifreddo with spring fruit, Balena
• Barbecued mutton, Big Jones
• Square pizza, DiFara’s, Brooklyn
• Turnip dim sum, Joe’s Shanghai (NYC)
• Sturgeon, Barney Greengrass
• Romano beans in red sauce, braised escarole, Eataly
• Ramen, Totto Ramen

• Tripe soup, Max Seafood Grill (Harwood Heights)
• Oxtail stew at place in Rain Forest in St. Croix, and probably other things, but I have to look at the video to remember what all…

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