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Restaurants & Bars 4

South Commercial Avenue - Interesting Food Street

Rene G | Oct 6, 200209:33 PM

If you decide to venture over to the southeast side for the Haitian dinner you might want to come a little early and explore the area (just don't spoil your appetites!). Even if you can’t make it to the dinner, consider having a look some day. There's a stretch of Commercial Avenue (3000 E), about a block east and a little north of Le Creole, that's well worth a visit. I haven't made a detailed survey of the whole area but it seems the blocks between about 87th and 91st have the highest density of interesting food shops and restaurants. Here are a few random notes from last Saturday. I'm not sure how many of these places will be open on Sunday.

This area used to be a solidly Eastern European, blue collar, steelworkers neighborhood. A few of the old stores remain but there has been a steady transition toward Mexican, Caribbean, and African businesses. There are a few boarded up stores but it is a very active and diverse business district with a different feel than most Chicago neighborhoods. Almost without exception the street, shops, and restaurants were quite friendly. I visited many places but wasn't able to eat much. I had just been to Le Creole and had a monstrous portion of grillots (Haitian carnitas), rice and beans, fried plantains, a green salad, plus some spicy cabbage slaw. That’s the sort of day that makes me wish I had three stomachs.

One highlight was La Fruiteria (8909), a fascinating Afro-Carib-Mex market with attached taqueria. Medium sized but very densely packed. Window signs advertised Nigerian hens, sofrito fresco, and real attieka from Ivory Coast (anyone know what that is?). A pretty good produce section with several unusual items. Tons of tubers including yellow yams, water yams, Ghana yams, casava, malanga, lile [?] yautia, white yautia, sweet potatoes, yellow sweet potatoes, and dasheen. Sour oranges were 89 cents a pound but unfortunately weren't looking so great. By the cash register in unlabeled bowls was something I hadn’t seen before--fresh kola nuts, in two colors no less. As a friendly customer explained to me these are chewed as a stimulant. There were some interesting breads and baked goods from several Chicago and Gary bakeries (see note at end), not just the often seen stuff from Caribbean-American on Howard. The butcher counter was very busy and lots of people were buying those frozen African chickens, complete with head and feet. I asked a woman who had just bought two. "Those are no good" she said, pointing to a pile of yellow Perdue birds. "THESE taste like chicken." Lots of hooves and feet and tails. There were some really nice looking sausages hanging behind the counter. Hanging right next to the sausages were things that looked like dark, lumpy sausages. Turns out it was smoked snails, threaded on strings.

Almost across the street is Fisherman's Choice (8918), one of the better inexpensive seafood shops I've seen in Chicago. I'm not certain but it might be run by the La Fruteria people. Fairly limited stock but most of the fish were whole and most looked quite fresh. In the front of the store is a lunch counter where they'll cook their fish and serve it with rice & beans, plantains, and salad (mostly $6-10). Toward the rear is the fresh fish, including a large tiled tank filled with live catfish. The most expensive offering was doctor fish at $4.99 per pound. Also tilapia ($1.79), parrot fish, goat fish, and live blue crabs ($3.99 per pound). I didn't see any--it was late--but reportedly they usually have grouper, king fish, and shark (cazon). Also a good selection of salted and dried fish.

There are a couple of African restaurants that look promising. TBS African Restaurant & Party Hall (8910) has a very interesting menu that I'm kicking myself for not taking notes on. I think it might be Nigerian but there were a number of things listed that I wasn’t at all familiar with. Olamummy (8725) is clearly Nigerian and serves things like stewed snails, and egusi or ogbono soup with a choice of iyan, eba, or amala.

There are many taquerias, including El Progresso (8730) that looked very pleasant. Also, Birrierias Ocotlan (8726) which might be related to the one on 26th St. Cocula (8847), more a slightly upscale Mexican restaurant than taqueria, was crowded and might be worth a look.

Of course there are some Mexican bakeries, including Marzeya (8908) and La Española (8712). Marzeya seemed to have an unusually extensive bread selection but I didn't explore further.

La Mexicana Carniceria (9022) has a real nice feel to it. Lots of potted plants in front and a fair selection of kitchen equipment. There's a butcher counter in the back and lots of boxing posters on the wall. When I was there everyone was watching a boxing match on TV. Cool place, I will return.

There are a bunch of fast food shops. One that caught my eye was Commercial Sub (8904). What actually caught my eye was a small sign in the window: "Hand Breaded / Cooked Fresh / Fried Chicken." Might be awful but who knows?

One of the few remnants of the old Commercial Avenue is Polka Sausage & Catering (8753). A beautiful old but worn place, it was unfortunately closed by the time I got there. Looks like a nice place to try for homemade sausage and pirogie.

Finally, to stray away from food briefly, there's the Studio of Fine Arts (8845). Gamaliel Ramirez and Roman Villareal, two well regarded local artists, are both represented there.

Addendum: Some Other Caribbean Bakeries

Caribbean-American Baking on Howard seems to dominate the local market. I like a lot of their baked goods but not all. Here are a couple other Caribbean bakeries I wasn't aware of. One of these days I'll get to them but if anyone has any info, please post. One bakery--Lizbon's I think--makes some nice, very soft and light textured loaves.

West Indies International Bakery
841 E 79th St
773-651-7917 (?)

Lizbon's Homemade Buns
4357 Vernon Ct
Gary IN

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