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From the June 3, 2003 25th Anniversary issue of Crain's Chicago Business.  I have not tried all of these, but this shows the variety of offerings.

The city that eats
Proving that Chicagoans' tastes extend beyond pizza and hot dogs, these 25 eateries underscore the region's ethnic diversity.

June 02, 2003
By Anne Spiselman

Key ingredients: Frontera Grill and its sister, Topolobampo, are the foundation of a food empire created by Chef Rick Bayless. Photo: Brett Kramer

When I suggested celebrating Crain's 25th anniversary and the city's diversity by highlighting 25 restaurants that serve 25 different ethnic cuisines, the first question my editors asked was, "Can you find that many?"

So, I made a preliminary list of more than 50. Cutting the contenders in half has been difficult, and I freely admit that my criteria are totally subjective. No attempt has been made to mirror Chicago's ethnic makeup, nor to single out the "best" in any category, though some places are firsts, one-of-a-kinds or especially typical.

I did exclude trendy fusions like Pan-Asian and Nuevo Latino, as well as outposts of chains based elsewhere, among them Fogo de Chão (Brazilian) and Fado (Irish). What follows, then, is an eclectic selection of favorites, arranged alphabetically by cuisine.

Old school: The Berghoff is a Loop tradition dating back to 1898. The menu mixes German standards with trendy picks. Photo: Brett Kramer

Kabul House (3320 W. Dempster St., Skokie, 847/763-9930; 1729 N. Halsted St., 312/751-1029) is no match for Helmand, which closed years ago (where Jack's on Halsted is now), but the Skokie strip-mall storefront and the newer Chicago location are inexpensive places to sample Afghan cuisine. Besides kebabs, staples on the limited menu include aushak, chive-filled dumplings smothered in oily meat sauce and minted yogurt; mantu, meat dumplings in the same sauces; qabili palau, chunks of lamb with seasoned long-grain rice enriched by raisins and carrot strips, and a vegetarian sampler of eggplant, spinach, lentils and the real treat mashed pumpkin. Like everything else, firnee, rosewater-scented cornstarch pudding sprinkled with chopped pistachios, betrays close ties to both Middle Eastern and Pakistani/East Indian cooking.

Tango Sur (3763 N. Southport Ave., 773/477-5466) is everything a neighborhood restaurant should be. Convivial and often crowded, the family-run spot decorated with Argentine memorabilia specializes in high-quality beef at value-conscious prices. Parrillada is the prime pick; the mixed grill of short ribs, sweetbreads, chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) arrives still sizzling on a tabletop grill. An order for one really is enough for two, especially preceded by empanadas or matambre, cold veal stuffed with a mosaic of hard-boiled egg, carrots and parsley. Steaks also stand out.

Emperor's Choice (2238 S. Wentworth Ave., 312/225-8800) raised the bar for Chinatown restaurants when it opened in 1988, and although others have surpassed it in some ways, the tasteful room brightened by a couple of beautiful kimonos remains a reliable source for seafood and more. Good bets include soft-shell crab with spicy salt and pepper, steamed fish with cilantro and ginger, clams in black bean sauce, any vegetable dish featuring peapod sprouts and whole lobster any of seven ways, especially on one of the reasonably priced dinners. Entrees number about 150, of which a few are an acquired taste (sea cucumber) or a bow to the au courant (ostrich with leeks on crispy rice noodles).

Andean folk music Thursdays through Sundays transforms La Peña (4212 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773/545-7022) into a lively gathering place. The haunting strains of pan pipes, guitar and a host of other instruments accompany meals that might begin with shrimp, octopus or three other spicy-tart ceviches served with toasted hominy; pinchos, little skewers of beef, chicken, sausage or shrimp, and humita, a smooth, soft corn tamale with a bit of cheese blended in. Fried or steamed fish, pork chops in orange sauce, mixed seafood with rice and several pastas are among the entrees, which are less exciting.

Restaurants that have been open for 25 years or more:

1. Ann Sather, 929 W. Belmont Ave., (773) 348-2378; opened 1945, next door to current location, where it moved around 1981

2. Army & Lou's, 422 E. 75th St., (773) 483-3100; opened 1945

3. The Berghoff, 17 W. Adams St., (312) 427-3170; at Adams and State streets since 1898

4. Billy Goat Tavern, 430 N. Michigan Ave., (312) 222-1525; opened 1934

5. Cafe Bernard, 2100 N. Halsted St., (773) 871-2100; opened 1972

6. Cape Cod Room, Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton Place, (312) 787-2200; opened 1933

7. Club Lago, 331 W. Superior St., (312) 337-9444; opened 1952

8. Eli's the Place for Steak, 215 E. Chicago Ave., (312) 642-1393; opened 1966

9. Fireplace Inn, 1448 N. Wells St., (312) 664-5264; opened 1969

10. Geja's Cafe, 340 W. Armitage Ave., (773) 281-9101; opened 1965

11. Gene & Georgetti, 500 N. Franklin St., (312) 527-3718; opened 1941

12. Greek Islands, 200 S. Halsted St., (312) 782-9855; opened 1971

13. Italian Village, 71 W. Monroe St., (312) 332-7005; founded 1927

14. La Crêperie, 2845 N. Clark St., (773) 528-9050; opened 1972

15. Lou Mitchell's, 565 W. Jackson Blvd., (312) 939-3111; opened 1923

16. Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli, 1141 S. Jefferson St., (312) 939-2855; at this location since 1965

17. Nuevo Leon, 1515 W. 18th St., (312) 421 -1517; opened 1962

18. Pars Cove, 435 W. Diversey Pkwy.; (773) 549-1515; opened 1976

19. Pizzeria Uno, 29 E. Ohio St., (312) 321-1000; opened 1943; Pizzeria Due, 619 N. Wabash Ave., (312) 943-2400; opened 1955

20. Pump Room, Omni Ambassador East Hotel, 1301 N. State Pkwy., (312) 266-0360; opened 1938

21. Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, Ritz-Carlton Chicago, 160 E. Pearson St., (312) 573-5223; opened 1975

22. RJ Grunts, 2056 N. Lincoln Park West, (773) 929-5363; opened 1971

23. Tufano's Vernon Park Tap, 1073 W. Vernon Park Place, (312) 733-3393; opened 1931

24. Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern, 1655 N. Sedgwick St., (312) 266-1616; opened 1932

25. Walnut Room, Marshall Field's, 111 N. State St., (312) 781-3125; since 1907

After both satisfying and disappointing experiences at most of Chicago's Ethiopian restaurants, I've concluded that they're all pretty similar: Meals, served family-style on large round trays lined with a pancake-like fermented bread called "injera," bring together small portions of spicy and mild stews, vegetables, legumes and salad. Ethiopian Village (3462 N. Clark St., 773/929-8300), aka Ethio Cafe, deserves special mention for its bargain-priced all-you-can-eat buffet. Vegetarian except for chicken in berbere sauce (made with hot red chilies), the lineup typically includes piquant cold lentil salad, minced collard greens seasoned with ginger and garlic, pureed yellow lentils and a medley of potatoes, carrots and green beans.

Le Bouchon (1958 N. Damen Ave., 773/862-6600) sparked Chicago's bistro boom, and Jean Claude Poilevey's petite lace-curtain charmer has a permanent place in my heart, no matter how cramped, cacophonous and chaotic it seems on crowded nights. The menu is as clichéd as the decor is cinema-perfect: escargots in garlic butter, Alsatian onion tart, salade lyonnaise, roast chicken, steak frites, crème brûlée. But anyone would be delighted to find food this good at these prices in Paris. The service sometimes feels Parisian, but that's not a plus. The wine list's strength is affordable regional French finds. And there's always a soupçon of je ne sais quoi: being able to order kidneys in mustard sauce, seeing local celebs such as mystery writer Sara Paretsky.

"On Adams and State since 1898," The Berghoff (17 W. Adams St., 312/427-3170) has become as American as it is German. But murals of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (where Berghoff beer was served) and other early-Chicago scenes conjure up the Old World, as do vintage photos, stained-glass windows and white-aproned waiters in black tuxedo jackets and bow ties. Weekends and holidays, tourists and locals line up for lunches and early dinners that careen between traditional and trendy (e.g., portobello mushroom caps, fish with tomato-basil balsamic salsa). Safest are the standards: herring in sour cream sauce, sausages with sauerkraut and German potato salad, wienerschnitzel, creamed spinach, braised red cabbage.

Pegasus (130 S. Halsted St., 312/226-3377) is unique among Greektown restaurants: It has a romantic rooftop terrace with panoramic views. You can order only drinks and appetizers up there, but the possibilities are many: tangy taramosalata and other spreads, saganaki, crusty grilled octopus, plump lamb sweetbreads, broiled quail. Anyway, except for thick-cut lamb chops, the openers outshine the entrees. The spacious dining room awash with murals of a seaside town is pleasant, when weather doesn't permit sitting on the terrace or you don't want to navigate the steep staircase. I've found the service to be less gruff than at other spots on the strip.

With no slight intended to Devon Avenue's many East Indian and Pakistani restaurants, I repeatedly have found that the drive to India House (1521 W. Schaumburg, Schaumburg, 847/895-5501) is worth the effort. "Discovery" is the operative word, because the 200-item menu roams the subcontinent, tantalizing diners with everything from street snacks to royal specialties. Don't miss murg chat, a chicken salad swathed in sweet-and-sour chutney; jheenga Madras, jumbo shrimp in a coral-toned sauce enhanced by grated coconut; gosht ulta-pulta, minced lamb cooked with potatoes and eggs on an iron griddle called a "tawa"; spinach simmered with either mustard greens or mushrooms, and as many different breads as you can handle.

Mia Francesca (3311 N. Clark St., 773/281-3310) didn't quite start the trattoria trend, but founder Scott Harris took what he learned working at Trattoria Roma in Old Town and ran with it. Key elements were casual surroundings, fair prices, generous portions and a menu that combined regular appetizers with a daily roster of pastas and entrees. People lined up to endure the ear-splitting noise, drink wine out of juice glasses and chow down on platters of carpaccio, bowls heaped with black mussels, ravioli in four-cheese tomato cream sauce and roasted chicken alla romana. Since 1992, Francesca Restaurants has grown to a dozen locations in the city and suburbs, many of them better-looking and quieter than the original. But Clark Street has a trump card: a tiny, walled patio with Italianate murals.

When Heat (1507 N. Sedgwick St., 312/397-9818) opened in 2001, it fanned critical flames by serving sashimi so fresh, the flayed fish arrived still twitching and sky-high prices made some customers twitch, too. But what really sets Machu and Kee Chan's sleek little Zen-meets-Art Nouveau spot apart is the way it illuminates the scope and complexity of Japanese cuisine. Dramatically presented daily sashimi may include itoyori dai (twisting thread snapper) and kamasu (barely seared barracuda), while several kinds and cuts of tuna, amberjack, wild yellowtail and raw shrimp are typical nigiri-sushi (fish atop balls of vinegared rice). The artistry peaks in monthly kaiseki dinners, a progression of 11 raw and cooked mini courses, some of them traditional, others trendy fusions.

Even the pickiest eaters I've introduced to Korean storefronts on Lawrence and Lincoln avenues have loved the food, but Jin Ju (5203 N. Clark St., 773/334-6377) makes such excursions unnecessary. The 2001 newcomer has become one of the city's hot spots by offering a "contemporary" version of the cuisine in hip crimson-and-exposed-brick surroundings. Western menu categories and knowledgeable servers add to the accessibility, but the kitchen doesn't sacrifice authenticity. It just adjusts ingredients and presentations so that, for example, spicy tofu soup comes with tender baby clams rather than a big, chewy one, and marinated, grilled short ribs are stacked on root vegetables and ringed by lightly dressed lettuces instead of being plopped on a plate.

Maza (2748 N. Lincoln Ave., 773/929-9600) strikes a balance between style and substance. Although the attractively spare decor and tableside flambéing (of the rack of lamb and two desserts) hint at high aspirations, the cooking is down-to-earth. The ideal sampler is the maza deluxe for two, mini portions of every appetizer on the menu plus salads and surprises. A few standouts are smoky baba ghannouj, refreshing tabbouleh, flaky phyllo spinach and cheese pies and kibbe mekyla, deep-fried cracked-wheat balls stuffed with lamb and pine nuts. Leave room for entrees, especially boneless trout layered with herbs. Mamoul bi tamr, date-filled baked couscous, and halawat al-jubn, rosewater-scented cheese and semolina, are worth ordering for the tableside show.

I've eaten at Penang (2201 S. Wentworth Ave., 312/326-6888) at least a dozen times and never had good service. But I keep going back because the food is as wonderful as it is exotic. Must-haves on the huge menu: roti canai, the Indian-style pancake with chicken curry dip; pangan ikan, barbecued fish (try stingray) wrapped in a banana leaf; kang kung or "lady finger" belacan, hollow-stemmed spinach or crisp okra (you'll like it) in Malaysian shrimp paste, and Buddhist-style tofu, creamy homemade bean curd in a delicate lobster sauce. Rice porridge with pork and preserved egg and bracing curry beef stew noodles are among the dishes available in individual portions, and there's a full Japanese menu, too. One friend describes the ersatz-jungle decor as "summer camp mess hall"; on busy weekends, add "noisy and nightmarish."

Rick Bayless started a Mexican restaurant revolution in Chicago when he and his wife, Deann, created Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St., 312/661-1434) in the 1980s. Since then, he's become a celebrity with a TV show, cookbooks and a line of retail products. At the casual Frontera and semiformal Topolo, he continues to push the envelope, exploring the breadth and depth of regional Mexican cooking, while drawing on local farms for meat and produce. Menus change frequently in both rooms, but Frontera can be counted on for elevated renditions of chiles rellenos (they run out early), tacos al carbon and carne asada, and Topolo features complicated dishes, such as roasted Crawford Farm lamb loin with honey-pasilla chile sauce.

When Rinconcito Sudamericano (1954 W. Armitage Ave., 773/489-3126) opened in 1980, the neighborhood around it was a no-man's land; now, it's ultra-trendy Wicker Park/Bucktown. But the city's oldest Peruvian restaurant remains almost the same, from the linoleum-tile floors and shiny metal chairs to the plastic-covered tables set with fake flowers. The menu hasn't changed much, either. Over the years, I've had everything from terrific anticuchos, skewered beef hearts slathered with fiery red-chili sauce, to terrible arroz con pato, rice with inedibly tough duck. Recommended for novices: chupe de camarones, a family-size bowl of creamy shrimp soup; ahi de gallina, shredded chicken in walnut sauce, or the combo dinner for two, which brings together four Peruvian classics.

Reza's (5255 N. Clark St., 773/561-1898) started in 1983 as a hole-in-the-wall and has grown into a huge restaurant, with a second equally large River North location (432 W. Ontario St., 312/664-4500). The menu also has expanded, so that it's as Middle Eastern/Mediterranean as Persian, vegetarian-friendly, packed with more combination dinners than you can count and moderately priced rather than cheap. Success has a downside, though: On busy weekends especially, the food isn't always as fresh, hot or good as it should be, and eating $18 entrees off plastic plates seems less than ideal. But when I scoop up some kashkeh bodemjan eggplant dip with caramelized onions bite into charbroiled quail, taste the ground-beef koubideh kebab or savor the pomegranate-crushed walnut sauce on Cornish hen, I recall how happy I was the first time I ate at Reza's 20 years ago.

Czerwone Jabluszko, Red Apple (3121 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773/588-5781) is the best deal in town for any cuisine. A mere $6.49 ($7.49 weekends; $5.89 lunch) buys an all-you-can-eat buffet plus soup and ice cream. More than 50 dishes include pierogi, pork cutlets, sauerkraut with sausage, roast duck, stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes and blintzes. The homey food is at its peak when it's brought from the kitchen on trays to restock the buffet table. Of the dozen salads, grated beets accented with horseradish and carrots with raisins are tops. The two cheerily decorated rooms, one with a bar, typically are full of neighborhood folks who look like they eat here often, and no wonder!

Except for a few of the customers, nothing trendy crosses the threshold of half-century-old Café Central (1437 W. Chicago Ave., 312/243-6776), even though the simple lunch-counter spot sits amid Sonotheque, Flo and West Town Tavern in the gentrifying East Village. I go when I need a meat and plantain fix be it pionono, a ground-beef-stuffed sweet-plantain fritter; mofongo, a deep-fried ball of garlicky ground plantain and pork rind, or jibarito de lechon, roast pork, tomato and cheese sandwiched between wide strips of crisp fried plantain. Stews beef, chicken and goat and decent shrimp creole are among the inexpensive entrees, which come with a choice of plantains and rice.

Less well-known than Ann Sather, Tre Kronor (3258 W. Foster Ave., 773/267-9888) is, like the couple who own it, a marriage of Swedish and Norwegian. Don't be put off by the troll mural and kitschy decorations: The cooking is quite sophisticated. House-made pickled herring and gravlax are excellent appetizers, though they vie for attention with baked onion soup enlivened by Jarlsberg cheese and limpa bread croutons. The top entrees on the one-page menu are roast pork loin with prunes and plum gravy, duck breast draped with lingonberry sauce and daily fish, especially rainbow trout crusted with crushed walnuts. Homemade cinnamon rolls are reborn as bread pudding, swaddled in rich caramel sauce.

Duke of Perth's (2913 N. Clark St., 773/477-1741) main assets are an outstanding selection of close to 80 single-malt whiskeys, some of them very rare and expensive, and the all-you-can-eat fish and chips ($8.95) on Wednesday and Friday nights. Eight U.K. brews are on tap at the bar upfront, where a stuffed, mounted deer head keeps a placid eye on revelers. Another perk is the big outdoor patio. Just don't expect the food to be authentically Scottish. The "pies" rich steak and kidney under a pastry dome, Hebridean leek under a cloud of mashed potato come close, but burgers and chicken sandwiches are mainstays. A warning: All-you-can-eat nights sometimes draw hordes.

Originally an authentic-feeling tapas bar with a few tables, Cafe Iberico (739 N. LaSalle St., 312/573-1510) has grown into a sprawling institution with five bustling dining rooms and a takeout area. I'd swear that portions have gotten bigger, too, so that now, the plates of garlicky potato salad, thinly sliced Spanish ham with manchego cheese and tomato-topped bread, fire-roasted peppers, skewered grilled beef morsels and much more are "tapas" in name only. They're also less expensive and generally better than at competing restaurants. Otherwise, why would anyone brave the daunting weekend crowds?

Amarind's (6822 W. North Ave., 773/889-9999) offers the refinement of Arun's at a fraction of the price. That's because owner/chef Rangsan Sutcharit worked at Arun Sampanthavivat's heralded restaurant for nine years before opening this mini castle on the Far West Side. His finesse shows in everything from the fancy-cut vegetable flowers garnishing appetizers, such as delicate fluted "golden cups" brimming with minced shrimp and vegetables, to precision diamond-cut custards for dessert. Velvety Panang curry with beef, top-notch pad Thai with shrimp and artfully deboned, deep-fried whole red snapper in fiery red chili sauce laden with chopped jalapeños are a few of the main courses on the ample à la carte menu (unlike Arun's, which is all prix fixe).

I've never reviewed Cafe Demir (2964 N. Lincoln Ave., 773/755-6721) because I know the owner/chef. But on a summer night, I love to eat in the garden under the big, old tree. After devouring too much pide (sesame-seed-topped bread that's thicker than pita), I always order the same things: hummus, patlican salatasi (mashed roasted eggplant salad), pizza-like lahmacan topped with lamb and tomato sauce (which I eat the Turkish way by adding lemon juice and hot red pepper, then folding the wedges over onions, tomatoes and greens) and grilled trout if I have room for a whole fish and the kitchen hasn't run out. I bring red wine, finish with kazan dibi ("bottom of the pan" pudding) and, with a little imagination, I'm relaxing at an outdoor cafe in Istanbul.

Pasteur (5525 N. Broadway, 773/878-1061), in its first location in Uptown, was one of the city's Vietnamese pioneers, and the cooking became more sophisticated over the years. The current incarnation matches the cuisine with a suitably semiformal colonial-style setting complete with lazily rotating ceiling fans, wicker chairs and potted palms. Artistic presentations help justify higher-than-storefront prices for such openers as goi cuon, rice-paper rolls filled with shrimp, rice noodles, vegetables and mint, and chao tom, shrimp paste formed around sugarcane sticks. Salmon simmered with butter and fish sauce in a clay pot is one of several French-influenced entrees. Sautéed beef cubes bedded on watercress and Saigonese duck in citrus sauce are other picks.

©2003 by Crain Communications Inc.