Sometimes you eat somewhere and you don't feel like offering a full learned disquisition on it. And sometimes when you have toddlers, you find yourself eating a lot at places with names like Buona Beef and not entirely wanting to admit it. (Once, maybe. But I've been there twice in a month. Yikes.) For this purpose Harry V. invented the roundup not too long ago, and I will now steal his format.
Buona Beef-- This chain seems to be following the Portillo's model of existing in one or two locations in the burbs for 30 years, then suddenly expanding all over the burbs and even coming downtown so that, apparently, people from Downers Grove visiting the Mag Mile need not eat at a restaurant that they haven't been eating at for 20 years already. Also like Portillo's, they get points for being less plastic than a lot of the things there are to eat in the immediate vicinity-- I would choose Buona Beef or Portillo's over many of the choices either on North Michigan Ave. or on the stretch of Golf east of Woodfield. (Or in and around Woodfield, for that matter.) I actually can't speak to the Italian beef, that's not my thing, but a charbroiled hamburger was quite decent (although the list of toppings, which includes mayo and doesn't include mustard, is all wrong), and considering that they're basically in the spot on Superior where Gino's used to be, the deep dish pizza at that address may actually have slightly improved. And both locations are shockingly posh for fast food joints. You look at a place like the Golf Rd. one, with its fireplace, or the maitre d' station and upstairs seating on Superior, and no wonder McDonald's is on the skids.
Kosta's-- a gyros place on Dundee road somewhere way beyond Woodfield, found it while driving around killing time and gas after one kid fell asleep on the way to Woodfield. From the posher-than-average exterior looks I thought this might be another Buona Beef, or at least another Dengeo's, the superior Greek fast food joint up on the bike paths in Skokie. But rotisserie chicken was just okay, wouldn't pass muster for Athenian chicken in the city, and service was downright rude, not to mention I was rather put off by people standing at the counter as their orders came together plucking fries and fried shrimp from their soon-to-be trays and munching it in the pickup line. (I understood why a little better when I realized all our fries were cold, but still, an unsightly habit.)
Prego Ristorante-- This is a nice-looking Italian place at 2901 N. Ashland, a pretty room with a tin ceiling and even, on Tuesday night, a singer doing Astrud Gilberto-type vocals. I wanted the food to live up to the setting because it's so close, but it didn't quite. I'll probably be back because of its proximity but my special, venison done sort of like veal marsala, was just okay; while my wife's pasta with brown butter and sage was a little better but both seemed, I don't know, not quite in focus. The room promises more expertise than the kitchen delivers, I guess; I'd have felt more like I'd discovered a little gem if it had been a hole in the wall rather than looking like it could be another Merlo.
Marta's-- Someone, probably RST, was going on about how there was a whole world of Puerto Rican food out there totally unknown to food writers (not strictly true, since Laura Levy Shatkin wrote that "Beyond Puerto Rican" section in the Reader some months back). So since I love Cuban, and even the worst Cuban restaurant I ever ate in was pretty good, I figured I'd make it one of my quests to try a bunch of PR places in the next few months. I mentioned this to a friend and he said there was a Puerto Rican restaurant just up the street from Flying Saucer he'd always meant to try, on California near Division--and so we did. Unfortunately I don't know the names for a lot of the things we tried, which is one thing keeping me from writing a full report on it.
Marta's has two buffet cases, one with deep-fried stuff and one with stuff swimming in pans. It was after 2 pm by the time we got there for lunch, so we had to adjust for the fried stuff being past its peak. I wasn't crazy about a lot of it but there was an improbable thing consisting of beef wrapped in plantains and topped with cheese that wasn't bad, and while one empanada-like thing was just bland beef tucked inside, another which had red and green peppers in a tomatoish gravy was really tasty, I'd have gone back for another if we didn't have a pile of food from the other section waiting. Roasted pork was fall apart on your fork good, with just the right hint of that chicharron/stockyard flavor that I find overpowering and offputting in many carnitas places. A chicken dish was, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Cuban arroz con pollo, but likewise very tasty. A bit of a dive, Marta's is, but our visit paid off.