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South Loop memories (long)

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South Loop memories (long)

Mugs | May 21, 2003 05:13 PM

JeffB, I just read your May 2 post about La Cocina on Clark south of Van Buren. Bravo for exploring the South Loop. Throughout the 1970s I worked south of the Congress on Dearborn, Plymouth Ct., and Wabash, back when non-profits could get cheap rents in those sturdy printers' buildings. My comrades and I foraged for good grub over an area bounded by Michigan, Van Buren, Wells, and Polk. Herewith the most memorable joints. Anyone have other memories?

1. Tom and Fannie's coffee shop, NW corner of Dearborn and Harrison where Michael Foley's is. Breakfast and lunch for about $2.95 per. Terrible coffee.

2. Tom's Snack Shop, NE corner of Harrsion and Plymouth, I think. This is the place whose columns and old Coke signage have been left standing as some kind of Acropolis of pre-gentrification Printer's Row. I once ordered two types of sandwiches, but the saturnine Tom said he was out of both. I asked him what he had and he said chicken salad, so I ordered it. Tom took a chicken salad sandwich out of his metal lunchbox and sold it to me.

3. Louie's Tap on the alley, N side of Harrison just W of Dearborn. A terrific place which opened before dawn and closed before sunset. Tough breakfast drinkers in here, including Main Post Office workers from the graveyard shift. In the front window was the grill and steam table from which issued a cornucopia of daily specials, mega-calorie meals like meat loaf with potatoes AND dressing which John Goodman-type guys who worked on moving vans ate at ten in the morning. The boss, Louie, could have taken charm lessons from the staff at Johnnie's in Elmwood Park, but he had a golden heart. More than once he fed me amply and charged only what I had on me.

4. The National Cafeteria, N side of Van Buren just W of the Monadnock. A jewel. Art deco exterior of brushed aluminum with the name of the place in big blue plain letters. (One of the earliest residents of Printer's Row who wasn't a wino was the photographer Ron Gordon, who took lots of pictures of places like the National Cafeteria before the South Loop changed. Anyone know where his work can be found?) Probably the best kidney bean salad and Greek chicken I've ever had. Picaresque characters on both sides of the counter, such as an elderly male meat carver we called The Pirate because he brandished his long carving knife and fork with unnerving enthusiasm. Lots of poor, poor men in ill-fitting shoes, many of these men residents of the SRO above the National, nursing a cup of coffee and a dinner roll for hours. I had seen customers paying for their meals with what looked like tickets. I presumed this was some kind of discount deal, so I asked the woman at the register how I could get some. She said, "I don't think you want to" and explained that the tickets were vouchers issued to prisoners let out for the day from the Metropolitan Correctional Center across the street. The National Cafeteria site is now the parking garage with the Franklin McMahon tile painting.

5. The Shanghai was where La Cocina is now, I'm pretty sure. The boss looked like an Asian Steve Dahl. So-so Chinese food except for the Szechuan chicken, a big mound of many chicken pieces and those red peppers that look like crawdads. (I ate this dish so often and was so clumsy I wound up with big bruises on my body which the M.D. couldn't ascribe to anything except this dish, so she called my condition "Szechuan purpura.") Best were the Filipino dishes hidden in a corner of the menu, chicken adabo and chicken with pancit. This was the place where I discovered San Miguel Dark beer, so maybe that explains the clumsiness, not Szechuan purpura.

6. Boni Vino, S side of Van Buren W of Clark, still extant, and part of a string on South Loop pizza earlier this spring. We only ate pizza here after lots of drinking at Kasey's Tap, on the E side of Dearborn south of Harrison and still operating.

7. The Pick-Congress lunch cafe's salad bar. Fresh produce, cheap, a little quirky because it was under a pastel, striped ice cream shop-style indoor awning, and especially alluring to us young bucks because crews of flight attendants bivouaced at the Pick-Congress ate there...in uniform!

The first yuppie joints in the neighborhood were all on the E side of Dearborn: Eduardo's Pizza, still there just S of Congress (was it once spelled with a "u" rather than a "w"?); the South Loop Deli, N of Polk and run by a truly friendly family; and Moonraker's, the porthole-and-rope tavern with upscale casual food at Polk St. Also, on the NE corner of Polk and Clark, Blackie's, which I never liked because it served warm beer and had snotty service. I preferred the no-attitude Moosehead, 181 W. Harrison (check out the strong arch above the entrance to this black building), which served cold beer and live jazz.

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