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Critic's Choice 

Three to Try in Uptown

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BQ AFRO ROOT CUISINE, 4802 N. Clark, 773-878-7489: Husband-and-wife team Briggs and Queen Imarhiagbe serve their native Nigerian cuisine at this simple room overlooking Saint Boniface Cemetery, gladly explaining the menu and suggesting dishes. The staple starch in West African cuisine is fufu, a baseball-size round of dough made from yam, cassava, or corn flour, served here with any three of a number of meats--beef, chicken, cow leg, intestine, goat, tripe, "skin," or fish, all prepared in a spicy tomato sauce. Just pinch off a piece of the dumpling and dip it into the stew, either with your fingers or with utensils. On the side there are wonderful "dry soups" of stewed collard and mustard greens: ofe onugbu, eforiro, or egusi with vegetables, all seasoned slightly differently. The asaro, or yam porridge, consists of large chunks of steamed white yam in a sauce that, like the meat stews, gets a lot of its flavor from tomatoes and chili powder. Some meats become ultratender after being stewed; others, like the goat, don't. Only soda and juice are served, out of a tall cooler at the back of the restaurant.

--Laura Levy Shatkin

FRANKIE J'S, 4437 N. Broadway, 773-769-2959: This offbeat part of Uptown feels just right for Frankie Janisch's quirky restaurant and theater. The main-floor dining room has energy--walls are painted in multiple shades of green and hung with a variety of captivating photographs, from a brilliant sunset to a bunch of vibrant blueberries. At the back is an exposed kitchen, full of activity and wonderful smells. To start there are quesadillas, filled with your choice of chicken, steak, mixed veggies, or smoked salmon; char-grilled oysters topped with an onion-and-bacon mixture and wrapped in a lettuce leaf; or a dish of grilled exotic mushrooms and topped with an opal basil vinaigrette. The generously portioned entrees are geared toward meat eaters--baby back ribs, 8- and 12-ounce filets mignons, a 28-ounce porterhouse, two sizes of Black Angus New York strip, and a panfried pork cutlet in mushroom gravy. To keep everyone happy, Janisch also offers several salads, salmon in a Jack Daniel's glaze, and a blue-cheese-and-sage-stuffed chicken breast. Most nights after dinner you can meander upstairs to the MethaDome Theatre for improv or sketch comedy, but the dining room is definitely the more sophisticated destination.

--Laura Levy Shatkin

PHO XE LUA, 1021 W. Argyle, 773-275-7512: The list of Vietnamese treats available at Pho Xe Lua is almost inexhaustible: 200 food choices and 28 nonalcoholic drinks. There's a list of congees (soups with a thick boiled-rice broth), pages of noodle dishes, rice steamed and fried, firepots (meat dishes served in a sizzling-hot metal bowl), and even two perfectly toothsome French-style beef dishes (imperialist culture hasn't been so well assimilated since the Gauls picked up Latin). But creatures of habit will get stuck on a favorite, like the tasty number 175, a bowl of cool steamed rice noodles under warm, lightly blanched vegetables and tofu with fish sauce on the side, one of seven "vegetable" dishes. (Each of the three I've tried has been light and good, but purists might want to ask for a list of ingredients.) Most entrees are under ten bucks, except for the specialties (a whole roast quail is $12.95). Lone diners can expect slow service; bring an entourage or a book.

--Ann Sterzinger

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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