Restaurants & Bars

Jeez, is everyone still recovering from the Westernathon?

Mike G | Mar 9, 200308:59 PM     27

Okay, I didn't race to post after 12 hours of 'Hounding either, but hopefully this partial report will spur some others over the next couple of days. The Westernathon was a highly interesting event which I suspect will have inspired a lot of diverse reactions (not least because not everyone did exactly the same thing all the way through).

My first comment is that I regard the Westernathon as in many ways a scouting trip for further exploration (in part because the weather precluded a lot of casual strolling around-- we pretty much just drove to high points once it started drizzling). For instance, one of our first stops was at 79th, where Miss Muffet appears to pack them in for hearty old school breakfast and one of the best neon signs in the city, while just steps away Nicky's Hamburgers and Custard no longer serves custard but seems to leave Miss Muffet's overflow crowd just as happy with an equally fine diner breakfast. Some people tried to order grits to go from Miss Muffet but mainly that was just a stop to reconnoiter for further adventures; I was halfway tempted to take the kids to go have breakfast at Miss Muffet this morning, and I'm sure some less frigid Sunday morning I will. Likewise, Rainbow Cones looks like it'd be an excellent place to have ice cream, in another season, and RST already scouted out the interesting-looking Cupid's Candies, which dates back to the 30s and sounds promising but is not open on the weekends.

But I'm ahead of myself. The event got off to a rocky start, at least from my perspective, because although the official start time was 11 am, several people planned to begin the day with First Lunch at Julia's Lithuanian Truckers Welcome at noon. Turns out the 11 am crew wasn't anywhere near ready for that by 12 (I will let one of them tell the story of why, which is bizarre enough that it turns out to justify the confusion), and that's how Joan and I wound up racing down another 6 or 7 miles to meet up at B.J.'s Soul Food Market, a somewhat dispiriting soul food establishment with decor apparently modeled exactly on Boston Market. (Apparently there's an original somewhere that's more authentic-looking.) But how was the food you ask? Heck if I know, we got there just in time to see the 11 am crew finish eating. Then it was off to the parking lot of Nicky's Custard and the adjacent CTA bus turnaround to stand around, also not eating.

So far the trip was highly interesting on the 50s-neon-sign level but disturbingly Chow-free. Fortunately at that point a group of us staged a coup against our Mayor and his cronies, and announced that we were heading to Julia's Lithuanian Trucker's Welcome, and others could come with us or stand all day eating grits in a bus turnaround if they liked for all we cared. (This was where Shirley earned her new GWiv-dispensed nickname, the Sergeant of Arms of Chowhound, although I personally preferred "Shirley The Hammer.") We went on to Julia's, though apparently some others stopped for hot dogs on the way at a place bearing the name Fat Johnnie's, which from the street at least appeared to be selling hot dogs through a hole in a fence around a junkyard.

Truckers were not in evidence at Julia's, but we snagged a long table previously occupied by police, which is at least as good. (First time I've ever pointed to a bulletproof vest left on a chair and said "Is that yours?") Now even Rene, who discovered Julia's, has tried to lower expectations a little for it, and this is pretty plain food to be sure, but I have to say that with my appetite sharpened by a good 90 minutes of purely theoretical Chowhounding, this was one of the most simply satisfying meals I've had in ages. With 13 people at the table, we were able to order 8 or 9 different plates (despite GWiv/Gary and the Mayor telling the waitress to ignore everything the other had said and starting the order over from scratch a couple of times-- which interestingly resulted in the ONE thing Mrs. Mayor wanted not getting ordered).

The stuff that came before the meal was only so-so-- sauerkraut soup tasted more like sauerkraut water and badly needed a little beef broth or something, and Gary got that famous Lithuanian delicacy Iceberg Lettuce with Thousand Island Dressing; but the rye bread was good and springy-textured, and several of the main courses-- kugelis, which is sort of a cross between a potato pancake and French toast; meat dumplings; and the smoked butt, were pretty terrific. It was also nice that at Julia's, although we were plainly the noisy, chaotic outsiders in a restaurant full of regulars, and at least one of the older waitresses regarded us with obvious suspicion, by the end they really seemed to have warmed up to us, and we left a tip that was downright princely percentage-wise (though not that much in actual dollars since the tab for a veritable feast for 13 ran to all of... FIVE dollars each).

By the way, we found out that Julia sold the restaurant years ago, and it's all owned and run by Polish now. Which is a bit ironic considering that someone had pronounced it the best Lithuanian restaurant in town moments before....

From Julia's we zipped north to Taylor street. Masi's, another Rene discovery where apparently he had to pass a test to be allowed to purchase anything, was closed, so we went to the Western Ave. Shrimp House and someone bought a bag of shrimp. To be honest, the hierarchy of fried shrimp in a bag places is not something I can speak confidently on, but seemed fine by me. After worrying that our Mayor had been abducted by the body shop across the street and was already being stuffed in a trunk (he passed Joan and me in the crosswalk and wasn't seen again for 10 minutes), I zipped out with Seth briefly to check out the Taylor St, Deli, which turned out to be a totally average quickie mart, but with prefilled cannoli.

More exciting was the carnitas at the little Mexican quickie mart up the street. I'll let someone else offer a full report on that experience, which included Gary's disquisition on which lards to buy and all of us clustering in the front exchanging pieces of chicharron and tender goat meat. But I will just say one thing; after I pointed out the Mexican Coke in the case, people (who will go unnamed) actually believed me a few minutes later when I idly commented, "Look, Mexican Windex!"

Next was Spoon Thai. I'm going to let someone else (like Gary, who planned it) go through that whole meal*, which was quite extraordinary and full of wonders unlike the typical Thai meal (and yet not blow-your-head-off hot, as I know has been the fashion at past Thai events). Also I'm sure there were many different experiences of the meal as it was one long table with 19 people at it; I sat at one end with Hungry Howard, Aaron and wife and baby (who ate more Thai food than Mrs. Aaron, frankly, and wasn't at all perturbed by the arrival of whole fish larger than himself), and Dave Hammond, who regaled us with minutiae about McDonald's, T.G.I. Friday's and other places he's discovered (I must say this Hut of Pizza sounds especially promising), and could hardly be restrained from constantly whipping out his Glock and frightening the waitstaff with the laser sight. That nerve-wracking part aside, it was a splendid meal, and thanks also to the mysterious RST who generously delivered Filipino dessert treats from Mom's Filipino Bakery (also on Western). (Of course he delivered them well before the meal, so no one would see him.)

* Although I will quote my own description of one whole fish item, the mackerel-- "I think it's fishy fish in fishy fish sauce."

After approximately 119 courses of exquisite Thai food, it was time for alcohol; a subparty of us, led by the Mayor (with Shirley the Hammer close in attendance to make sure things stayed in line) we went first to the Chicago Brauhaus, which didn't meet expectations for reasons that are still unclear to me (something about Zim not being able to stand the music, which wasn't actually going to start for another two hours), and so we instead discussed next steps for about an hour and a half at the Huettenbar. (You'll notice that we allowed ourselves to leave Western for alcohol, not for food.) This was where our plan of only hitting the Best of Western fell apart-- or perhaps, as Ed Harris put it in Apollo 13, this was not our worst disaster, this was our finest hour.

The appeal to me of a strict adherence to Western for food was that we would force ourselves not to use it merely as a venue for getting to familiar places, but that we would be forced to see what wonders existed on one of Chicago's more unromantic and utilitarian streets. Nothing would have been easier than to abandon Western for a brazenly bejweled Taylor or Lincoln or Devon, full of known quantities-- but the point was to see what there was actually on Western, poor, car dealer-crammed Western. Now, as our options dwindled on the far north side, we would be truly thrown on what few discoveries remained to be made north of Lawrence at 9 pm on a Saturday.

We convinced ourselves that a bar called the Edge Inn opposite Ravenswood cemetery would be full of a fascinating crowd drawn by the extreme irony of celebrating in the very shadow of death. Fortunately it had a window in its door which allowed us to see that in fact the atmosphere bore much too close a resemblance to death to happily accommodate a loud party of Chowhounds. Likewise, death seemed a distinct possibility at the Serbian restaurant if seven or eight of us came in flashing digital cameras and insisting on taking pictures of the staff. That left Delisi's, a pizzeria which, Gary claimed, was started by ex-Pizzeria Uno workers and had a similar recipe.

Okay, I have a feeling that Delisi's is going to come in for the most ragging here (the word Bisquick came up more than once in regards to the crust), so I'll just say, hey, it's an okay neighborhood pizza, especially on top of some beers. What do you expect way up north opposite a cemetery? Anyway, the thin looked better than the pan that we ordered, and as we ate we got more detail, perhaps more than we really should have wanted, on how Cathy2 and her father failed to properly kill a fish for dinner in Russia.

From there it was on to Bill's for 30s style hamburgers, under the mistaken belief that it was open until 11 pm, which was only off by four hours. That left only one choice, Ghaseeta Khan, one of the Indian places on Western that nobody ever goes to because the lure of Devon is just too strong. Cathy and I got there first, at about 20 till 11, and when we told them 7 people were coming they sort of blanched and then asked the curious question, "Do you all speak English?" By which it appeared that they were actually asking, "Are any of you Indian," in which case apparently we would get served, otherwise, it'd be out in the snow for us. Luckily we had thought ahead to have an Indian person with us at all times for just this sort of emergency (just as I had been along in case our visit to Chicago Brauhaus had required 20 words of extremely broken Deutsch), and by the time Zim arrived, they had apparently decided to accommodate us after all-- a decision they would come to regret, apparently, when the owner called to say "Don't close up, I'm bringing a whole disco worth of people to eat at midnight." If not for us, they probably would have been able to close up and escape before he called.

Anyway, as Zim said "This is very homemade Indian food," which was my impression as well, even though I wouldn't have felt sure enough to say that definitively. Nehari was just okay, but bhindi (okra) was really flavorful and chicken gosht was pretty good. It was, in its own way, as impressively unpretentious and satisfying as Julia's had been 10 hours earlier, and just the right ending to a journey which I, at least, plan to retrace and explore further in the future.

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