Chicago Diary #3: The Ethnic Dining Experience

June 24, 2011
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

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”;, 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 (, 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 (, 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?

Finally, did you know that Chicago has the largest Polish population outside Warsaw? I’m not personally a knowledgeable connoisseur of Polish cuisine, but readers on Yelp ( say that Szalas Restaurant, at

5214 S. Archer Avenue
(phone: (773) 582-0300), not far from MidwayAirport, is one of the best Polish places in the city. One Yelp reader-reviewer gushes over the “giant potato pancake (the size of one’s head) fried to perfection”; while another who recommends the steak tartare, white borscht soup, and pork cutlet (kotlet schawbowy), “all with a tall cold pint of Okocim” beer. This place will require a 20-ish-minute taxi ride from downtown, but where else are you going to find a potato pancake the size of your head??!

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