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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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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Way back when I reviewed Cemitas China Poblana in my series of restaurants not yet talked about on LTHForum or elsewhere, I made note of a roasted chicken place across the street…

Now, just the other day I had fantastic grilled chicken, one of the best things I ate all year, at a place I will write about shortly, so I had high hopes that lightning might strike again.  Did it?  It did not.  The first time what strikes you may be lightning, but the second time it’s usually just an ’88 Pontiac with a lot of rust damage.

Restaurante El Campestre is a spiffy looking place, almost chain-like in its bright, clean interior and slick signage.  (Nevertheless, there only seems to be the one.)  It has one dish, roasted chicken, which you can have plain or adobado, that is, marinated in a bright red adobo.  Sides are, well, what you’d expect— beans, rice, fries, cole slaw (clearly aiming beyond the Mexican crowd alone), mashed potatoes, etc.

For about $9 I got a half a chicken with two sides, plus chips, salsa, and tortillas.  A moment later, another $2 got me a limeade; there’s a nice-looking fruit stand in the back where they make jugos, although as I would later note, probably the one they don’t make out of fresh fruit is the limeade.  (So of course they’re promoting it.)

The salsas were a bit odd; the one in front was almost bubbly, like it’d just been pureed at a very high speed, sort of applesauce texture.  The one in back, a little better, had a slight citrusy tang to it.  Not sure what style either was aiming for, they were okay.  (A lot of the population in this area seems to be from Zacatecas, maybe this is one of their styles.)

Got my chicken.  It was cooked decently— white meat a little dry, but dark meat dead on, which is pretty much how you usually get chicken like this.  But it didn’t sing.  It didn’t have that fresh-off-the-grill charcoaly sharpness, the adobo didn’t have the zing of fresh spices.  It immediately brought to mind a picture of a 10-gallon drum of institutional adobo sauce.  No freshness, no life.  Washed out.

The limeade was a refreshing choice, but it too had the flattened flavor profile of something from a jug, not a living fruit or vegetable.

Incidentally, I noticed a sign on Cemitas China Poblana that it had moved as of the end of November— it’s now, apparently, at 3138 W. 47th St.  Maybe someday someone else will check it out— for all the crowds now visiting Cemitas Puebla, no one seems to be burning to try another example.  There’s still a lot happening on this block— a carne en su jugo place, a store window full of boxers’ photos, an old nickelodeon becoming a massage parlor.  A colorful slice of the city, worth checking out— though I can’t really recommend the chicken.

Restaurante El Campestre
4226 S Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 927-1333

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Don’t know how the eGulleteers enjoyed or didn’t their visit to the jostling madness of Maxwell Street, hardly saw them though I heard there were quite a few, but had a very pleasant time with LTHers Cathy2 and Mhays & family, shopping for Pokemon cards.

New to me: an African woman working spells with incense. Hammond said he’d only seen her once before.

Fishing poles were also new to me:

The stand with the fruit drinks was giving out samples of mamey, a sort of cross between a squash and a canteloupe. I’ve seen it listed as a flavor at ice cream stands, but never seen the fruit.

Not a meatball taco, it’s chicharron (pork skin/fat) on a taco. I passed on that, the better to concentrate on the steak, pastor, red mole and flor de calabaza at Manolo’s. For once I went there not having stuffed myself before reaching it, and was really able to enjoy all those things on superbly fresh tortillas.

Homemade noisemakers for every taste:

I thought this was the creepiest thing I saw (nothing says candy like wrinkly corpse-like flesh):

But the idea of owning a dozen R. Kelly bobbleheads probably beat it.

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Not toro the sushi fish, toro the bull. I use this cliche for a heading because, driving on Armitage to what would ultimately be my lunch destination—


—I passed, first, a storage place whose sign said “Got stuff?,” and then an attorney whose sign said “Got lawyer?” Got lawyer? If I needed one, would I feel like being that flip about it? Would I want one who advertised himself that way? Jeez, got enough of cliche already?

But let us answer a more serious question, namely, “where’s the beef?” A place called Taqueria Toro Grill would seem to be a promising answer to that question. I spotted it by my patented new awning technique, and pulled the kids over to check it out. Taqueria Toro Grill is new management in a place that’s been around a while, but it seems clean and welcoming at first glance. The kids wanted to sit at the counter, so we did and chatted with the main guy (owner or not, I wasn’t sure). The first thing we spotted sitting there was this:


Real pastor, complete with pineapple on top, turning and roasting away. I knew what I was going to have to have:


I also had a carne asada taco, and a carnitas sope, big chunks of pork:


This isn’t a great place but it’s an above average one, gaining bonus points for a commitment to keeping the pastor running all the time, and for generally friendly demeanor. Maybe with time (they’ve been open a month) it’ll get really good. I wished for more crispy edges on the pastor and steak, but at least I was impressed by the high quality meat used in all three cases, not the frequent low-grade gristle-y beef. Carnitas was a little dry, but brightened right up with the addition of the red salsa. A nice place, worth a visit.

Taqueria Toro Grill
3561 W. Armitage

Retroactively declared #3 in my 50 new restaurants challenge.

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