Sky Full of Bacon


So here we are, where we left off not quite two years ago when I took the job at Grub Street Chicago; the procession of high end meals will surely slow for me at least for a bit, and it’s back to ethnic food in farflung bits of town— not that I ever stopped that. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a nostalgic, taking-stock kind of moment; LTHForum is going through a blush of love for a place called Rainbow Thai that seems to be trying to recapture those heady times in 2004-6 when Erik M. was schooling us all on Thai food beyond pad thai and chicken satay, and I was reminded of another round of discoveries by a Tribune piece last week on Almawal in south suburban Worth. It seems recent compared to the Thai discoveries, but it was four and a half years ago that I wrote about the enclave of middle-eastern restaurants (and shops) in south suburban Bridgeview for Time Out (with accompanying blog post) in early 2009, further LTH exploration ensued including Almawal (which didn’t exist yet when I first wrote about the area), the best of them, Al-Bawadi, became a GNR, Mike Sula in time would uncover a sweet shop and Sheeba, a shortlived Yemeni restaurant, down there, and so on.

I tried Almawal a couple of years ago and thought it a fine enough place but not better than Al-Bawadi— and I was not positive, based on the meal that I had, that they charcoal-grilled their meats as Al-Bawadi had. Based on what others have written, they must, but it’s something of a verdict on the results that day that I couldn’t be sure. Anyway, after Pang’s Trib piece I thought it was probably time to give them another shot… unless I found something else new to try.


Nablus Sweets was one of the places I wrote about in Time Out, and when I saw Manara Restaurant in the same strip mall I immediately pulled over to check it out. It turned out that the restaurant was more like the antechamber to the banquet hall, from which middle eastern disco music boomed and into which rolling carts full of food kept disappearing. We were the only customers on the restaurant side but they did their best to look after us as they tended to the crowd inside. As the Jerusalem name suggests, most of the population down here is Palestinian, and I haven’t been wild about their tahini-heavy hummus in the past, but what they offered here was creamy and delicious, while the kefta kabob was terrific, brightly spiced and unmistakably grilled over charcoal, served with moist, flavorful rice. I pressed myself on the owner, a Kurt Kasznar lookalike, just long enough to get his back story: he owns the Loop middle-eastern place Haifa, and apparently turned its lunchtime profits into something grander for his neighborhood. Then I asked if my son and I could grab a couple of shots of the grill, and he invited us back and introduced us to the grill man, whom he said was from Jordan and had been operating this Palestinian style of charcoal grill for 40 years:


Here is a Palestinian grill man to be spoken of in the same breath as great barbecue men, as Michael Cheng the duck roaster of Sun Wah, of all the brethren who devote their lives to perfectly executed meats over live fire. So add Manara Restaurant to your list of places to check out in the Bridgeview area— though as we were driving off I noticed that another of the places I had visited 4-1/2 years ago had changed names and presumably owners again, and was now a place called Yazor Kabob— also promising charcoal fire. So I have that to check out too, now— though I was also made ever more conscious of an irony on the Bridgeview dining scene. The middle-eastern places promise charcoal fire and always have it. The Mexican places promise Tacos al Carbon— and never have live fire. If just one of them would follow the middle-eastern places and start burning charcoal instead of a gas grill, Bridgeview might be a destination for Mexican as well as middle-eastern.

Manara Restaurant
8310 S Harlem Ave
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 907-5832

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A couple of sweet-looking ladies running the place, all kinds of authentic things on the menu… Taqueria Teloloapan in Logan Square is the kind of place I should have loved. So what went wrong?

First, I ordered a chalkboard special of chicken in salsa verde. The salsa verde was bright and tart. It was the chicken that was the problem— which is to say, I didn’t expect exactly half a chicken. I figured I would kind of get scraps, most likely as the breast was used as somebody else’s entree. But I could have at least had the thigh, no? No, I got a small leg, a skinny wing, a hunk of bony back and the hacked-off pointy end of the breast— maybe a third of a cup of meat. At $4.99, I might have figured that was acceptable. At $7.99, enough to buy me a whole roasted chicken at the supermercado down the street, it was just chintzy.

Then there was the sign in the window that said Tortillas Hecho a Mano— made by hand; something that can redeem an otherwise middling meal. Well, not the ones that I got. A comment on Yelp says you can ask for them that way, though. Okay, fine. I will also tell you that you can ask for them that way— and that you shouldn’t have to when it says it in big letters like that on the glass storefront. That’s a sacred trust, a promise in vinyl letters on glass, not to be trifled with.

I’ll give it another shot someday, what there was tasted good and the ladies seem like they’re nice… but I’ll be more careful about ordering the not-so-special special, that’s for sure.

Taqueria Teloloapan
3641 W. Fullerton

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Speaking of 2008 or so, I was finally downtown at the right time to hit a place that had its day of fame around then, which I had never been to: Cafecito, a Cuban sandwich shop in the South Loop which is bedecked with aging clippings from all the food press of the day; Sula profiled its owner here, declaring it the city’s best Cuban sandwich. Me, I think the best Cuban sandwich, if not the best “Cuban sandwich,” is a lechon sandwich at 90 Miles To Cuba; I like that better than the grilled Cuban concoction of ham and roast pork with cheese, mustard and pickle. But even within that specific sandwich’s universe, I was unexcited by the Cuban sandwich at Cafecito, which was mostly a hard Gonnella roll with very thin quantities of pork and ham. Is the pork marinated in the guy’s housemade mojo, baby? Who could tell when it’s a couple of nanometers thick? I wouldn’t write this off, there’s a long menu and maybe soup is the thing to try, but it was hard not to think that 2008’s best Cuban sandwich isn’t so great in 2013.

26 E. Congress Parkway
(312) 922-2233

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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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So a few installments of my “restaurants that haven’t been talked about on LTHForum or all that much anywhere else” ago, I wrote about Al-Basha, a middle eastern restaurant in a south suburban strip mall where I found that a menu of familiar favorites was distinguished by unusually fresh and bright flavors, ranking among the best of such things as shawerma, falafel and baba ghanoush that I’ve had lately.

Today, in a change of pace, I present Al Bawadi Mediterranean Grill, a middle eastern restaurant in a south suburban strip mall where I found that a menu of familiar favorites was distinguished by unusually fresh and bright flavors, ranking among the best of such things as shawerma, falafel and baba ghanoush that I’ve had lately.

Actually, credit for finding this one goes to my wife.  Yes, I was the one who put us on 87th heading toward Harlem to look for middle eastern, but she was the one who spotted Al Bawadi’s sign and most critically, its promise of “Natural Fire Wood Grilled” meats, and fought her way through vicious traffic to land us in its parking lot.

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.

It is, let me say, a vast improvement, not only because of the much more pasha-decadent decor (I assume the paisley curtains and pillows are not Arby’s originals) but because the food was simply first-rate throughout.  Again, it’s not that anything was anything all that unusual— fattoush salad, hummus and baba ghanoush, falafel, a mixed grill platter with shawerma and kebabs— but it was all really well executed, bright spices, fresh as could be, chicken kebab perfectly cooked and so on.  (There are some grilled fish dishes and the like that seem a little beyond the usual.)  The only item I hadn’t really seen before was a freebie on the plate of nosh set on our table as we arrived; along with the usual pickled vegetables and some toasted pita, we got a pile of smooshed eggplant mixed with tomato and garlic, lots of garlic.  (The precise degree of smooshing was, less than baba ghanoush, but more than a chopped eggplant dish like the Turkish imam biyaldi.)  It wasn’t pretty (it sort of looked like brains or something) but it was really good, and I think I just stopped tasting the garlic about 20 minutes ago.

So the Bridgeview area is a big 2 for 2 on middle eastern places selected by pure random chance.  It won’t be the last time I explore down there, even if I no longer have a traffic court issue that compels me to visit that part of the world.

Al Bawadi Grill
7216 W. 87th St.
Bridgeview, IL
(708) 599-1999

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