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Chicago Diary #3: The Ethnic Dining Experience

March 21, 2009
by Mark Hagland
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Recently, I posted a blog listing some very upscale downtown restaurants in Chicago, for those of you who’d like to imbibe a bit of culinary luxury while here in the WindyCity. But as a long-time resident, I have to say, one of the many great joys of living in Chicago is experiencing its kaleidoscopic ethnic restaurant scene. In a city whose residents represent practically every ethnic heritage in the world, is it any wonder that we’d have a rich and dynamic ethnic dining scene? From Laotian to Lebanese, Polish to Punjabi, Argentine to Afghan, Chicago has a galaxy of ethnic food offerings. Most of these restaurants are extremely reasonably priced, and certainly offer a tremendous value for money when compared to the elite eateries downtown. Plus, for the cost of a taxi ride, you can get a glimpse of the real Chicago—a wonderful mosaic of neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive character. I could literally offer dozens of options, but below are a few that Chicagoans themselves continue to flock to for their authenticity and flavors. If you can sneak away from

McCormick Place

and downtown long enough to catch a glimpse of Chicago’s ethnic dining scene, I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Bon appetit!

You want a real adventure in Korean cuisine, the hot (often quite literally) ethnic cuisine? One of my favorite places is San Soo Gap San, at 5247 N. Western Avenue, in the Lincoln Square area on the city’s far North Side (phone: (773) 334-1589). It’s a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Chicago, but very worth it. They cook all the classic Korean entrees on the individual grill built into your table, including kalbi, bulgogi, and my favorite, sam gyeop sal, or Korean pork belly. And of course, you’ll get the full panoply of ban chan (side dishes) with your meal, in the traditional Korean manner. This place gets very crowded very quickly, and they don’t take reservations, so come early.

Chinese will always be popular. And Chicago’s Chinatown offers many great options. One of my favorites is Lao Sze Chuan (also spelled “Lao Szechuan”; www.laoszechuan.com), located in the

Chinatown Square

mall at

2172 S. Archer Avenue

in Chinatown (phone: (312) 326-5040). This place is always packed, and, in a testament to its authenticity and flavor, usually at least half of its patrons are Chinese-American or Asian-American. The wait can be long, but it’s worth it, and any of the restaurant’s spicy Szechuan-style dishes is terrific.

Feel like Indian cuisine? Raj Darbar, at

2660 North Halsted Street

, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood (www.rajdarbar.com), has got the real thing (phone: (773) 348-1010), including chicken tikka, plenty of curried dishes, and a very good range of vegetarian dishes (some of them curried).

Adobo Grill (www.adobogrill.com), a very popular Mexican restaurant, now has two locations in Chicago, one in OldTown and one in WickerPark. The addresses and phones are

1610 N. Wells Street

/(312) 266-7999 (OldTown) and 2005 W. Division Street/(773) 252-9990 (Wicker Park). Among its more creative dishes (all presented with flair) are lomito en mole negro, a grilled pork tenderloin in Oaxacan black mole, with fresh corn tamal and sautéed garlicky spinach; and pescado a la veracruzana, whole fish of the evening cooked in Veracruz-style sauce, with Mexican rice. Ole!

Café Iberico (www.cafeiberico), at

739 N. LaSalle Drive

(phone: (312) 573-1510) is an immensely popular tapas restaurant, still technically downtown, and even within walking distance of some of the

North Michigan Avenue

hotels. Most of the tapas are surprisingly reasonable at between $6 and $9 per dish, though as everyone knows, the bill adds up pretty quickly when one noshes on these tasty little dishes. Consider pulpo a la plancha (grilled octopus with potatoes and olive oil), almejas en salsa verde (small claims sautéed with shallots, white wine and parsley), or croquetas de pollo (chicken and ham puffs in an ali-oli sauce). The restaurant has a great selection of Spanish wines to go with its tapas, including very good Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Crianza offerings.

Casbah Café, at 3151 N. Broadway (phone: (773) 935-3339), in the heart of my own East Lakeview neighborhood, is one of the most relaxed and charming little eateries I know of. It offers all the standard Middle Eastern fare, focused on kabobs, grilled meats, and vegetables like eggplant. The prices are a steal, and if you pick one of the two window tables, you’ll get a wonderful view of the passing parade on Broadway.

Tango Sur, at

3763 N. Southport Avenue

(phone: (773) 477-5466)) is all about the meat. It’s Argentine, after all! The cuts are fabulous here, whether its their Argentine range-grown churrasco (a juicy 12-ounce sirloin served with potato wedges and chimichurri sauce) or their bife Vesuvio, a prime strip stuffed with spinach, cheese and garlic in white-wine sauce. The atmosphere is intimate, if crowded, with beguiling tango music playing in the background. This is a BYOB place with no corkage fee. Why not bring a nice bottle of Malbec with you?

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Comments

Hi, Kate!
I'm so glad you enjoyed the blogpost. One thing I love about Tango Sur is that it not only tastes, but also feels, authentic! And the skirt steaks are indeed quite large, and ever-so-juicy! I'm sure that the restaurants here will be eager to serve HIMSS attendees, at least those adventurous enough to jump into a taxi and get into the real neighborhoods! :-)
Mark

I want a potato pancake as big as my head. Thanks Mark.

Gwen,
Thanks so much for your lovely comments! Well, I'd love to be a restaurant critic, maybe part-time... except for the "hazards of the trade"... I'm afraid I'd end up as big as a house! -) But in any case, you're very welcome, per the list. I hope all our readers attending HIMSS will be able to enjoy a bit of truly local cuisine while here!

Mark,
This is great. It's not even 10 a.m. and I'm already salivating over this ethnic food (which sounds like it's very reasonably priced). If I have a chance, I'll definitely visit Tango Sur - it sounds amazing. For those who have never enjoyed Argentine cuisine, a word of caution: pace yourself!

Adobo Grill also sounds right up my alley. Any chance we could move the HCI booth to one of these restaurants?!

Daphne,
You're very welcome, too! And yes, that image of the potato pancake could be taken as either euphoric or... possibly a bit frightening...??? -) :-)
Mark

Mark,

Glad to see Adobo Grill on your list of favorites - mine, too! The margaritas are out of this world, and don't even get me started about the fresh guacamole made tableside! Speaking of the margaritas...Kate, maybe it's good that you can't move the HCI booth...

Mark - I believe you've missed your calling. Wonder if Frommer's is hiring? This Chicago series has been fantastic - thanks!

G.

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Mark Hagland

Editor-In-Chief

Mark Hagland

@hci_markhagland

www.healthcare-informatics.com/blog/mark-hagland

Mark Hagland became Editor-in-Chief of Healthcare Informatics in January 2010. Prior to that, he...