I often travel the city-- if not quite so ruggedly as some (for one thing I'm usually in a car)-- in search of new culinary adventures. And yet, like most of us I suspect, there are places in my own neighborhood that I've ignored for years.
There's a little two-shop strip development (mall would be too big a word) at the corner of Addison and Lincoln, across from the Dunkin' Donuts. When I first moved to this neighborhood, in its earliest yuppifying days, there were two restaurants there, possibly related-- one a diner place where I had pancakes or hot beef and gravy once in a while, though it wasn't my first choice for that. I can't even remember its name; it's a flower shop now. Then there was Red Corner, which has always been dominated by Vienna Beef signage and thus is, to all appearances, a Standard Hot Dog Place.
Did I ever eat there? I can't honestly remember. I think I must have, I don't think there's anywhere within a half mile I didn't try once. But trying it in 1993 doesn't really mean I know it. Having to go to the post office up the street, on a cold cold day earlier this week, I popped into Red Corner again as the nearest warm spot.
If it was a hot dog place then, it's more than that now-- as the pictures of various pasta dishes behind the counter suggested. That wasn't what I was in the mood for, so I ordered a simple burger and then decided the chicken soup would be a good starter.
The burger? The same one you've had a million places. But the chicken soup most definitely was not the same yellow salty bowl with fluorescent globs floating on it you get in every diner in this town. Yes, it almost certainly had commercial chicken stock as its base. But the chunks of fresh vegetables and the flavor of fresh herbs set this apart from all those soups all over town that are made straight from the How To Run a Greek Coffeeshop Cookbook.
The owner, or chef, or whatever, was a middle eastern looking man (but beyond that I don't know-- there was one reference to "Israeli style" somewhere on the menu). And I heard him talking to an apparent regular at the counter about different kinds of middle eastern foods-- asking him if he liked falafel, and hummus, and so on. The regular allowed that he liked dolmas, but otherwise, only his wife liked that stuff; and the owner/whatever seemed to imply that he made some of those other items on occasion when he said that dolmas were too much work for a restaurant. Yet when I asked the owner/whatever if he ever served middle eastern food, he kind of changed the subject quickly by saying "Once in a while" dismissively.
So now I have a quest in life. To start going to this long-neglected local spot often enough that I become a regular, and then discover the secret of when this seemingly standard hot dog joint and diner with so much hidden behind its casual exterior makes the middle eastern food that isn't for the likes of mere interlopers like me, who live just blocks away and yet only drop in once every decade or so.