Hometown Eats Part 4: A Chicago Culinary Tour

Back at it again in Chicago, contributing writer Andrew Kaplan headed home for the holidays.

Back in the place that I call home, I was about to spend almost two weeks in the great city of Chicago. I knew there would be plenty of eating involved.

One of my first “snacks,” I’ll call it, was from a little Cuban restaurant down the street from my brother’s house called 90 Miles Cuban Café. It was late in the day, but I had barely eaten, so I grabbed a couple items from this shack of a place. I started with a side of Yuca con Mojo. Yuca is a starchy vegetable that is cooked until tender, and this one was served with a traditional garlicky mojo sauce. I also ordered the Maduros, sautéed sweet plantains, which were perfectly cooked and had great sweetness to them. Though my “snack” was quickly turning into a meal, how could I go to a Cuban place and not try the empanadas? I added one Beef Empanada and, intrigued by the unique filling, one Goat Cheese Empanada. It was a good decision. I am already looking forward to returning to “sample” their main entrée menu items.

(90 Miles Cuban Café, 3101 North Clybourn Avenue, Chicago, IL 773-248-2822

A few evenings later, I tried out a popular local bar called Gaslight Bar & Grille, which is known for taking the basic bar food you love up a notch with fresh twists (and fresh ingredients!). We tried out their burger, which was made to order and served on a bakery-style bun. I also ordered the Mini Turkey Burgers, topped with Brie and arugula. We also tried the Crispy Reuben Rolls – imagine a classic egg roll stuffed with the goodness of a Reuben sandwich: sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and finely diced pieces of corned beef. I was a little skeptical, but it worked! Delicious.

(Gaslight Bar & Grille, 2426 North Racine Avenue, Chicago, IL 773-929-7759   

My best friend was getting married in a few days, so I thought I would pick him up lunch and bring it to his office. There’s no better way to calm someone’s nerves than with a great meal, right?! I picked up food from the Vienna Beef Factory Store. You may recall I wrote about this once before, but it is just so good that I needed to go back and try more. After indulging in a Chicago-style Polish Sausage last time, I decided to try the sandwiches. One was a BBQ Brisket Sandwich that was served on an oval French roll. The brisket had been lightly smoked, bringing out its solid, meaty flavor, then was sliced and served with barbecue sauce on the side. It was an out-of-this-world sandwich! I also chose another brisket offering to share with my friend, the Texas Brisket Sandwich. This one was more shredded beef than sliced and the meat had been dunked in barbecue sauce. It was a little more on the messy side, but tasty indeed. The Vienna Beef Factory Store is one of my go-to lunch spots in the city. Be sure to call ahead of time so that you don’t miss out on this experience – they have goofy hours.

(Vienna Beef Factory Store, 2501 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 773-278-7800

Rather new to the Chicago food scene, and described as “New Asian” cuisine, Sunda is one of Chicago’s hot spots. Chef Rodelio Aglibot, a Los Angeles transplant, is the quarterback of the kitchen. I had been once before, but this time my girlfriend and I were thrilled to take a group of our friends here. The food at Sunda is served family-style. If I typed everything I had on the menu, you’d still be reading about it tomorrow. So instead, I’ll give you our Top 3 (or so) dishes. Our Number One dish by far was the Roasted Dusk Hash Salad. This had glazed duck, daikon cake, frisee, and a crispy egg on top. The flavor was sweet soy throughout and when I say do not miss this dish, I mean it. Number Two was the Miso Bronzed Black Cod. This is their signature cod, with a hint of red curry and served with glazed eggplant. My third highlight, and another can’t-miss-this-dish selection, was the Hand-Cut Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice, a chef Rodelio specialty. For dessert, there is one dessert that will knock your socks off, “The Ridiculous.” It starts with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream with a thin piece of carrot cake wrapped around it. It is then battered and fried until golden brown and crisp. It sits on top of a dollop of cream cheese frosting and has some caramel sauce drizzled on top. Needless to say, this dessert lived up to its name! 

This menu was filled with endless goodness, from sushi to meat to fish to chicken and beyond. Sunda is great for groups: the more people you go with, the more you get to try!

(Sunda, 110 West Illinois Street, Chicago, IL 312-644-0500

One should never visit Chicago without having an ethnic food experience. One weekend afternoon, my mother, brother, sister-in-law and I decided to go to Indian Garden on Chicago’s north side, known for their lunch buffet. Indeed, this is no ordinary buffet. I’m talking fresh food constantly coming out, and of the best quality. We tried everything from different naan breads to chutney to vegetable dishes, lamb dishes, tikka, goat and more. One of our favorites was the Baigon Bharta, a stew-like mixture of fresh eggplant gently roasted in the tandoor, mashed and marinated in a blend of spices, cooked over a low heat to draw the richness of the spices. This dish was sweet, aromatic and melted in your mouth. I’m usually not a big fan of buffets, but Indian Garden was right on the money.

(Indian Garden, 2546 West Devon Avenue, Chicago, IL 773-338-2929

A few days later, my mother, girlfriend and I headed a little north of the city to enjoy a lunch together. We decided on a good ol’ favorite, Maggiano’s. I remember back in the day when there was one Maggiono’s; they then blew up to be located all over the country, but they still have managed to keep that good Italian quality and flavor. We all shared the food, enjoying a Chopped Salad with iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes, crumbled bleu cheese, green onion, avocado, and crispy prosciutto, tossed in their signature House Dressing. We also shared the Maggiano’s Salad, a plate of romaine lettuce, crumbled bleu cheese, crispy prosciutto, red onions, and once-again their signature House Dressing, along with a traditional Chicken Parmesan Sandwich. Maggiano’s always proves to be a consistent Italian lunch with approachable prices.

(Maggiano’s, various locations

One of my last afternoons in Chicago. I headed over to Vietnamese Town with my brother and nephew. In keeping with family tradition, my 5-year-old nephew always likes a good food adventure! We decided to kill two birds with one stone and head to two old favorites, Sun Wah and Ba Le Bakery. Sun Wah had just reopened in a new location – in the past, we have always done take out form Sun Wah, but they now have a beautiful brand new restaurant – it’s almost a little too beautiful! My brother happened to be on a shrimp-in-lobster-sauce kick, so we ordered that and the Chinese Roast Pork Lo Mein, which is a Chinatown-style pork with its slight red hue. Across the street at Ba Le, we ordered our favorite sandwich, the Roast Pork with Shredded Carrot and Daikon, Cilantro and Jalapeños. You can always count on these two restaurants for a consistent meal. 

(Sun Wah, 5039 N Broadway St., Chicago, IL 773-769-1254)

(Ba Le French Bakery and Restaurant, 5018 N. Broadway Street, Chicago, IL 773-561-4424

Stay tuned for more from Andrew Kaplan when he returns to Chicago for his next edition of Hometown Eats!

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