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Mom and Pops 

Twenty-five family-run restaurants

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Mom and Pops

Twenty-five family-run restaurants

La Banh Mi Hung Phat4942 N. Sheridan | 773-878-6688

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday | Cash only

Not to be confused with the adjoining but unrelated Vinh Phat, known for its fantastic barbecued ducks, La Banh Mi Hung Phat serves some of the best banh mi on Argyle—though you may have to work for it. On my first visit a helpful but strict woman named Michelle wouldn't sell me the three sandwiches arranged on the counter because they'd been sitting there too long. Come back early in the morning, she told me. I appreciated this, but when I returned she'd make me nothing more than a single pork-skin banh mi—long chewy strands of skin dressed in nuoc cham, the sweet, spicy fish sauce. She advised me to return on subsequent mornings to sample other varieties. The extra effort was worth it: the tender roast pork is flecked with delectable bits of caramelized skin, and the shredded chicken is redolent of the spices applied to the ducks next door. Other varieties distinguished themselves as well: the Chinese barbecued pork had large chunks of meat, and the grilled marinated pork was cooked halfway to jerky (not a criticism) and steeped in a visibly herby spice mixture. My favorite, the "steamed pork ball," is an eviscerated meatball, sort of like the coarsely ground, extrafunky Issan-style Thai sausage. Mike Sula

Boo's Soul Food Cafe8414 S. Ashland | 773-298-9997

$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Cash only

Willetta "Boo" Tatum and her husband, Jackie, serve up chicken and dumplings, smothered pork chops, roasted rib tips, fried catfish, and other soul food staples, plus sides like sweet yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn and okra, and green beans. Tatum was head cook for the Chicago Board of Education before opening this place ten years ago. "We try to make everybody feel at home," she says, and in return customers send Miss Boo stuffed animals, soda bottles, artwork, and plants—all of which are on display around the narrow, cozy dining room. Steve Dolinsky

Borinquen1720 N. California | 773-227-6038

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Borinquen, the "Home of the Jibaro," stakes its reputation on a dish its owner claims to have invented: the jibarito ("little hillbilly"), a garlicky sandwich with your choice of meat layered between two deep-fried slices of flattened green plantain. It's a greasy, unwieldy mess of a sandwich, but man, does it work. I like mine with lechon, juicy Puerto Rican-style roast pork laced with pockets of rich fat and satisfying crunches of golden crackling skin. The jibarito also comes in beef, veggie, ham, or chicken incarnations. I can't wholeheartedly endorse the pollo—the stewed chicken can be tough and gristly; the pechuga, or chicken breast, is better. On the side I take an order of arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon peas) or habuelitos (red beans with ham) and a splash of vinagre (a red-pepper and garlic-infused vinegar, made in-house). Borinquen has a full menu of Puerto Rican plates, but none lives up to the high standard set by the jibarito. The mofongo is interesting, fried plantain mashed in a wooden mortar and pestle with salt pork and garlic and then molded around either lechon or seafood. The appetizers are sometimes good, depending on how long they've been under the heat lamp in the window; I like the bacalaito, a codfish fritter. —Seth Zurer

Burt's Place8541 N. Ferris, Morton Grove | 847-965-7997

$$Pizza | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Monday, Tuesday | Cash only

Ham radios, antique telephones, and oversize kitchen utensils decorate this spot situated on a quiet road in suburban Morton Grove and run since 1971 by owners Burt and Sharon Katz. The pizza leans toward Chicago-style deep dish but avoids the gut-busting mismatched proportions commonly found in that concoction: Burt's mid-deep is well balanced, with a tart tomato sauce that complements the fragrant sausage and good-quality mozzarella. The key, though, is the deeply caramelized crust, crisp with cheese and skating right up to burnt. Pizzas are made to order and can take up to 35 minutes or so, but if hunger dictates an appetizer, salad, cheesy garlic bread, or jalapeno poppers will soothe the edges. Gary Wiviott

Fattoush Restaurant2652 N. Halsted | 773-327-2652

$Middle Eastern, Mediterranean | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Lina and Sam Elakhaoui, the husband and wife who run this Lincoln Park spot, import spices from Lebanon to season dishes like beef or chicken shawarma, shish tawouk (charbroiled cubes of chicken), and falafel with unique blends of aromatic mastic, marjoram, sumac, and the like. Most appetizers are meatless, and the sampling platter makes a substantial vegetarian meal or a great shareable starter. The namesake salad—diced tomatoes and cucumber with parsley, mint, spices, and toasted pita squares, tossed in lemon juice and olive oil—is refreshing. The pita-wrapped kefta kebab and shawirma sandwiches (about $6 apiece) are drizzled with a creamy tahini sauce and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Fattoush is BYO with no corkage fee; mint tea and fresh-squeezed juices are also available. And every Friday there's an off-menu prix fixe special featuring a home-cooked Lebanese dish such as marinated stuffed lamb. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Halina's Polish Delights Restaurant5914 W. Lawrence | 773-205-0256

$Polish/Russian/Eastern European | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Cash only

I love the breaded fried pork and veal cutlets at Halina's. The cutlets, each the size of an elephant ear, include Swedish style (stuffed with mushroom puree), cubao (with white cheese filling), and Wiener schnitzel (the Berghoff's version was no match). They're cooked to order and served hot enough to burn your tongue. Polish standbys like pork shank, stuffed cabbage rolls, and pierogi are good too. The indecisive should consider the Polish Plate, a greatest-hits platter with a breaded pork chop, three pierogi, a stuffed cabbage roll, and Polish sausage on sauerkraut. All dinners include buttery mashed potatoes and a trio of cold salads: sauerkraut, coleslaw, and beet. If you're taking a date, be warned that the harsh lighting reflecting off wall-to-wall mirrors reveals every blemish. —Peter Tyksinski

Himalayan Restaurant8265 W. Golf Rd., Niles | 847-324-4150

$$Indian/Pakistani | Vegetarian/Healthy | Lunch, dinner: seven days

You can get Indian food at the pleasantly appointed Himalayan Restaurant, but why do that when you can sample the much rarer (at least in Chicago) Nepalese offerings? Momo, one of Nepal's most popular dishes, are the natural offspring of nearby India and China, tiny dim sum-like grenades exploding with ginger and coriander, served with a laid-back tomato-garlic dip. The masala chicken wings fly, giving new meaning to what is usually low-rent bar food; served steaming on a sizzling platter of herbed white onions, they pack big-time flavor all out of proportion to their size. The Chinese influence shows up again in aloo tama bodi, a potato stew with bamboo shoots and black-eyed peas—our server told us this was festival food in his hometown. It was crunchy, rich, and piquant. Another dish in "village style" is ko masu, with lightly stewed chicken or goat—the typically mild Nepalese seasonings set the deep tang of the meat in relief. There are a number of premium Indian beers (though none from Nepal—"too far away," explained our server); we went with the somewhat Anglo-sounding Golden Eagle and found that its hoppiness well complemented the Nepalese seasonings. David Hammond

Leyla's Turkish Restaurant and Bakery3213 W. Irving Park | 773-509-0448

$Mediterranean, Polish/Russian/Eastern European | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday-Sunday till 1, other nights till 11 | BYO

Named for owner Ilim Mazhitov's daughter, Leyla's Turkish Restaurant serves food that's a mix of Turkish and Russian in a bright storefront with two-tone orange walls, light wood floors, and maroon table coverings. According to our waitress, Mazhitov's sister-in-law, the family comes from the Black Sea region but is Turkish, so a menu with sumsah as well as cig borek and Uzbek-style rice pilaf as well as Adana kebab isn't as surprising as it might seem. The rustic sumsah—slightly flaky, salty pastries stuffed with somewhat greasy ground beef—are available a la carte and on an appetizer sampler, which also had unusually mild lentil fingers, decent hummus, diced eggplant salad with peppers and tomatoes, Russian salad, and, my favorite, refreshing grated carrot salad blanketed by house-made garlic yogurt. Most of the entrees are shish (marinated, grilled meat cubes) or kebabs, but we were drawn to the Uzbek pilaf, which turned out to be a shaped mound of vegetable-studded rice with a few little pieces of unfortunately dry lamb pressed into the top. Of the two pastas, boiled khincull and steamed mahnti (their spelling), the mahnti resembled messy round ravioli with the same meat filling as the samsuh in a gloss of reddish oil. An extra $1 bought a little dish of ice-cold yogurt. Artless-looking desserts included chocolaty "sharlott" and pink-and-white "special cake." Tea arrived in little glasses, Turkish style; the Turkish coffee could have been stronger. —Anne Spiselman

Lincoln Restaurant5501 N. Lincoln | 773-784-5225

$asian, korean | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Cash only | BYO

Of all the reasons people give for being intimidated by Korean restaurants—no English spoken, dark windows—I think the most legitimate is that they're so darn communal. I'll be the first to admit it ain't easy to stroll solo into some place whose tables are filled with extended families or soju-soaked businessmen all attacking giant bubbling centerpieces of delicious-looking food that can't be found on the menu. This tiny lunch counter with a handful of red leather booths renders the problem moot, serving a small selection of extremely well-made simple Korean standards, from a very red shredded beef soup (yuk gae jang) with nice big chunks of meat and radish to a fat, fleshy grilled croaker to an incendiary sam gyeop sal (stir-fried pork belly with kimchi), one of my all-time favorites. Add in an irresistible eggplant kimchi I've never seen before, table rice flecked with red beans, and the sweet mother-and-daughter team that runs it—this place is full of little surprises that make it one of the more comfortable and welcoming places I know for Korean food. —Mike Sula

Lucia's1825 W. North | 773-292-9700

F 8.8 | S 9.6 | A 8.0 | $$ (6 reports)Italian | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

rrr I love this little restaurant, located on North Avenue in the back behind a deli. It's BYOB, fairly inexpensive, and a quiet, comfortable space to dine. The eggplant appetizer is amazing—I can't help but order it every time I come here—and calamari are exceptionally good too. The pasta selections aren't unusual, but from my experience well prepared without exception. Service is extremely solicitous—attentive without being overbearing. I always leave this place with a wonderful warm feeling, like I just had a homey meal with great friends and conversation. —Lauren Moynihan, Rater

Miss Lee's Good Food203-05 E. 55th | 773-752-5253

$American, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

A 31-year veteran of the late, great Gladys' Luncheonette, Miss Lee is the Florence Nightingale of home-style granny food without a bit of fanciness or fuss. But if cooking like hers were really that simple, everybody would be doing it. She's justifiably proud of her desserts: her bread pudding and fruit cobblers are La Brea Tar Pits of sweetness—covered with a delicate layer of sugary, caramelized crust but soft and heavy underneath. She rotates a daily menu of high-density, low-gravity comforters like baked turkey and dressing, stewed chicken and noodles, smothered pork chops, catfish, short ribs, and roast beef and dressing. Each comes packed with a pair of biscuits or corn muffins and two sides (the creamy black-eyed peas and spicy collard greens are capital, and Miss Lee swears by her yellow turnips, i.e., rutabagas). The a la carte options are great too: there's mac 'n' cheese and a spicy rubbed bird of her own invention that she calls "herbal chicken" (add 50 cents for white meat). It's a good thing food like this travels, because Miss Lee's is carryout only. All the better—it's the type of eating that goes down best with a sofa nearby. —Mike Sula

Nazarlik1650 W. Belmont | 773-327-5800

$Mediterranean | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Ahmet and Zeliha Aksoy have created a Turkish restaurant that seems like an extension of their own home, specializing in food from the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, known for a great variety of kebabs and pastries, and also for the spiciness of its cuisine, fueled by the sun-dried isot red pepper. This means dishes like the dangerously scarfable lahmacun, thin, wide disks of freshly rolled dough slathered with minced meat and vegetables and fired in the giant oven behind the counter; fat cheese and fresh spinach pies (gozleme); and a spicy, tender lamb kebab over chunky roasted baba ghanoush smothered with yogurt (ali nazik); plus mujver, fried zucchini fritters, and antep, a salad of chopped tomatoes and onion. But the real surprise on the menu is cig kofte, raw minced beef and spices kneaded with bulgur, sometimes for hours, then shaped into meatballs and eaten with fresh lettuce and strong drink. Instead of the traditional mutton, Ahmet Aksoy uses lean beef he cuts, trims, and grinds himself. He prefers to keep his exact recipe a secret, but I saw him add sumac, fresh garlic and onions, chopped green garlic tops, ginger, and four different red pepper pastes, including a dark, fiery isot paste imported from Turkey. It's so labor intensive that the Aksoys need a day's notice to make it on weekdays, and two hours' notice on weekends. —Mike Sula

Noon Hour Grill6930 N. Glenwood | 773-338-9494

$American, Asian, Korean | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday; Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

A trip to Noon Hour Grill is like a visit to grandma's—if, unlike mine, your grandma was serene, a good cook, and listened to classical radio rather than Lawrence Welk. A small breakfast-and-lunch spot manned single-handedly by grill veteran Susie Lee, it offers an appealing mix of Korean standards and American breakfast fare. Omelets range from bulgogi to bologna and cheese to ginger, garlic, and carrot; a cheesy Denver came with toast and golden hash browns (you can substitute rice). I went for the pajun (Korean pancake), light, savory, and served with a homemade jalapeno soy sauce. Susie's bi bim bop is famous in the neighborhood (she ran a restaurant in Rogers Park before relocating to Irving Park Road for a number of years), and while the rice crust wasn't as crispy as the best I've had and the fried egg could have been runnier, it was satisfying, down-home comfort food. Other entrees include kalbi, chop chae, filling soups, and fried rice, and there are daily specials both in-house and to go. —Kate Schmidt

Los Nopales4544 N. Western | 773-334-3149

F 7.3 | S 7.3 | A 6.0 | $$ (14 reports)Mexican | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | BYO

The grilled tilapia tacos at this low-key storefront are so good, so bright and fresh, that at these prices—$8.95 for three tacos, rice, and beans—it seems like you're stealing. Tangy ceviche with tilapia and shrimp has a splash of orange juice, which adds an appealing sweet aftertaste; tortilla chips come served with two salsas, one made of tomatillos blended with avocado, making it creamier than the standard green sauce, the other a thick, spicy combination of chile de arbol and fruit. On a recent visit my entree was grilled pork tenderloin with an aromatic sauce flavored with guajillo and chile de arbol and a side of cactus salad (nopales means "prickly pears"). There are notable specials weekly—for example, enchiladas Michoacanas. The sweet, rich coffee flan we finished with was also a special—one of the exceptionally friendly owners told us the chef, her husband, is constantly experimenting. That's the kind of thing you'd expect at a place far more swank; to find it in a modest storefront is beguiling. —Chip Dudley

La Palma1340 N. Homan | 773-862-0886

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days

Going to La Palma is like enrolling in Puerto Rican Cuisine 101. A representative selection of island specialties is laid out under glass, cafeteria style, so you can sample a little bit of a lot; this place does a big takeout biz, so you also might consider getting grub to go. Whatever entree you elect to eat, a good foundation is vianda, a mix of root vegetables including yucca and purplish malanga. Or go with arroz con gandules, pigeon peas and rice, the standard starch foundation for rich, well-seasoned Puerto Rican stews. Bacalao, the toothsome whitefish paste (here made of pollack), is remarkable here whether ordered in tomato sauce or oil. Out of the fryer come corn fritters, pasteles (fried empanadas), and papas rellenos (meat-stuffed potato balls). The carne frita (fried bacon) is moist and meaty pork that's megacaloric, high cholesterol, and thus quite delicious. —David Hammond

Pannenkoeken Cafe4757 N. Western | 773-769-8800

$European, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

Linda Ellis, owner of this tiny Lincoln Square cafe, fell in love with Holland on her first trip in 2001—the bikes, the easy pace, the friendly people. And she got hooked on pannenkoeken, the large, thin, crispy-edged Dutch pancakes—so much so that she apprenticed herself to a gruff elderly master of the art. The initial result was a tightly compressed menu: a few egg dishes, regular buttermilk pancakes, and three pannenkoeken (apple, chocolate-banana, and bacon and Havarti). But with the help of her daughters, who handle the front of the house, Ellis has now expanded her pannenkoeken repertoire, offering combos such as raisin and ginger marmalade, apple and ginger, ham and cheese, and bacon, cheese, and mushroom. Mike Sula

La Pasadita Restaurant1141 N. Ashland | 773-278-0384

$Mexican/Southwestern | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 3:30, other nights till 2 | Reservations not accepted | BYO

La Pasadita had 15 minutes of fame last October. LTH Forum anointed the hole-in-the-wall on the east side of Ashland one of the year's Great Neighborhood Restaurants, while top British chef Heston Blumenthal and friends paid a late-night visit to the larger of the two restaurants on the west side of the street (at 1132 N. Ashland), an event chronicled by the Chicago Tribune. That location was also featured on Check, Please! And truth is, all three are local institutions, notwithstanding the debate about which is "best." The reason they're clustered within half a block of each other is an example of the American dream come true: the patriarch of the Espinoza family that runs them opened the first shack in 1976, and when it took off he expanded across the street to 1140 N. Ashland. A competitor's plans prompted him to acquire 1132 N. Ashland, which made its debut in 1996 with more tables and a bigger, somewhat Americanized menu. Fans of the original praise the authentic atmosphere—counter seating only, and not much of that—and a menu limited to a handful of tacos and burritos. I enjoyed the carne asado burrito packed with smoky, chewy steak, onions, and cilantro (no beans, lettuce, tomato, etc) and decent doubled-up soft corn tortilla tacos folded over barbacoa, tongue, and chile relleno with onions and cilantro. But 1132's creature comforts beckon, even though it's nothing fancy. The food is on about the same level, with choices including quesadillas nortenas, cheese-stuffed corn tortillas smothered with onions and fresh tomato sauce, and parrillada especial, a tortilla pan heaped with enough chicken, spicy sausage, carne asada, and thinly sliced short ribs to feed a family of four for a mere $25. Aficionados will appreciate the salsa negra served at 1132 but not at 1141. Dense, overly sweet flan was skippable. —Anne Spiselman

Patty's Diner3358 Main, Skokie | 847-675-4274

$American, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Patty's Diner is the type of place everyone wishes was in his neighborhood. Locals fuel up on bountiful breakfasts of picture-perfect eggs, heaps of home fries, plump sausages, crisp bacon, fluffy pancakes, and, best of all, griddled salty-sweet ham cut directly from the bone. Biscuits and gravy with potatoes is popular, as is the tasty corned beef hash, but if you ask me, ham hash paired with two eggs over easy is the brass ring. The off-menu "old potatoes" are home fries given a second seasoning and deep-fried crisp—swoon. Daily specials come with bread and house-made soup; I love the soul-satisfying beef barley. Meat loaf and beef stew also satisfy, but don't miss the Wednesday special: roast turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, veg, and gravy—old-school comfort food done right. —Gary Wiviott

Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja1549 W. Division | 773-486-6655

F 7.7 | S 8.3 | A 5.7 | $$ (7 reports)Polish/Russian/Eastern European | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

rr r It isn't just the knickknacks and portraits of the pope in this former tavern, a remnant of Division Street's days as the great "Polish Broadway," that remind me of my grandmother; I'll be damned if I don't sense her presence in the pungent whiff of cabbage that floats from the kitchen or the gentle tang of fermented rye flour in the zurek. That's white borscht, a smooth, creamy dill-specked soup with chunks of garlic and slices of kielbasa that has been fortifying Hunky peasants and steelworkers for generations. At Podhalanka you'll still see old-timers at the bar, warming their bones with cabbage or barley soup or fat pierogi stuffed with piquant ground pork, cabbage, or potato and cheese, but also younger folks who may or may not speak Polish working down bowls of caraway-flecked sauerkraut and heaps of smashed potatoes in gravy, accompanied by something big and meaty: a pork roll, perhaps, stuffed with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, bacon, paprika, and a few allspice berries, or uncured spareribs cooked in sauerkraut until tender. These meals are almost entirely drained of color, but they're big, inexpensive, and preceded by baskets of fresh bread and butter. —Mike Sula

Sabai-Dee5359 N. Broadway | 773-506-0880

$Asian, Other Asian | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Cash only

In Laos, Kevin Wong and his family were Chinese immigrants who operated their own restaurant, but when they came to the U.S. almost a quarter century ago his parents worked straight nine-to-five jobs. Now the 36-year-old has returned to the family business, a cafeteria-style steam table operation with a few tables, a perfunctory selection of Chinese-American dishes (fried rice, chow mein, kung pao chicken), but more importantly the only Lao food available in the city. Similar to northern Thai Issan cuisine, it's supposed to be spicier than its neighbor's, and though Wong tones down his thin red and green coconut milk curries, on request he'll doctor individual orders to their appropriately nuclear levels. These stews—floating with fall-off-the-bone chicken or pork and tender vegetables such as miniature eggplants or julienned bamboo shoots—are meant to be eaten with sticky rice or rice vermicelli. Pa lo stew, boiled eggs and firm tofu in a thin soy-based broth, is served with or without fatty chunks of pork belly; a nourishing pho with beef and meatballs is deep and rich. There's also a selection of salads—papaya, Lao ham (nam), and the beef salad called laap—the Lao national dish. Beyond an assortment of finger food—fried chicken, beef jerky, house-made rice, tapioca-based sweets, and sausage, milder but similar to the funky Thai Issan variety—there are other hidden treasures not on display. Just ask Wong what's good and unusual and he'll set you up. —Mike Sula

Spoon4608 N. Western | 773-769-1173

F 8.2 | S 7.8 | A 6.2 | $ (18 reports)Asian, Thai | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

rr r It's not like there's been a revolution against boring Thai food in Chicago, but there's certainly a healthy resistance, and it was born in Chai and Vanna Gumtrontip's little Lincoln Square restaurant. Spoon was the first place in the city willing to serve authentic, fully flavored Thai food to non-Thais. It began in the summer of '03 with the discovery of the Thai-language "secret menu" by a handful of obsessive chowhounds, who had it translated and began plumbing the depths of its aggressive, brilliantly seasoned dishes. Word spread, and though waitstaff sometimes had a hard time believing that non-Thais had the stomach for the real stuff (some servers still do), eventually they stopped blinking and began relinquishing funky Issan sausage, rich boat noodles, banana blossom salad, one-bite salad, incendiary papaya salad sprinkled with dried shrimp or pickled crab, and the miraculous Thai-style fried chicken (kai thawt), deeply penetrated with lemongrassy, peppery flavors and served with a tamarind dipping sauce. I'm a long way from navigating the depths of this vast repertoire, but so far some of my favorite items are naem khao thawt, a tangy, crispy fried rice salad with peanuts, cilantro, and pressed ham; phat phrik sa-taw muu sap, minced pork and bitter beans; and Issan-style minced duck salad. —Mike Sula

Ssyal Ginseng House4201 W. Lawrence | 773-427-5296

$Asian, Korean | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | BYO

When I find myself weakening in the early stages of the grippe and the usual fortifying regimen of zinc, vitamin C, raw garlic, and Wild Turkey won't vanquish it, saam gae tang, chicken ginseng soup from this Koreatown dispensary, is my tonic of last resort. A stewed Cornish hen stuffed with rice and small dates sits meekly in a small bubbling cauldron of murky yellow broth. Whole, softened, and slightly sweet ginseng root swims under the surface, and small side dishes of green onions and sea salt are meant to enliven what is otherwise an appropriately bland remedy. I've heard others say they find an off-putting, slightly bitter understory to the broth, but I've never detected it. As a further reminder that you're not so much meant to enjoy yourself as heal yourself, the pot comes with a side of sticky brown rice and red beans. For the healthy there are four other perfectly respectable hot soups (codfish, bean with seafood, beef with cabbage, and bean and vegetable) accompanied by the usual assortment of panchan. And you don't have to take your medicine in a bowl: there's a $3.95 sweet ginseng shake or hot ginseng tea with pine nuts; for the home cure you can buy ginseng fresh, dried, powdered, and infused in a molasseslike solution, all displayed under tall clear containers of whole roots, with an extraterrestrial appearance resembling something I once saw in the woods devouring a squirrel. —Mike Sula

Sunshine Cafe5449 N. Clark 773-334-6214

F 7.9 | S 8.5 | A 5.6 | $ (11 reports)Asian, Japanese | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

r rr Noodle dishes—from nutty buckwheat soba to chewy wheat udon—dominate the menu at this home-style Japanese restaurant. Most come swimming in large bowls of broth with generous servings of vegetables or meat. A brief selection of equally impressive main courses includes sukiyaki, shrimp tempura, and pleasantly sweet chicken teriyaki. Prices are rock-bottom—one Rater calls it "one of the best bang-for-your-buck places in Chicago." Says another: "Sunshine Cafe is one of those places that you hesitate to recommend because you are afraid to blow its cover!" Laura Levy Shatkin

Tropical Time Jerk Chicken1117 S. First, Maywood | 708-338-2003

$Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

The genial former manager of 79th Street's Tropic Island, who goes by Drew, hails from Saint Catherine Parish, Jamaica, where he learned to cook from his mother. His jerk shack shares a common wall with a payday loan store just up the road from the Fourth District courthouse and provides a motherly balm in one of the culinary wastelands that surround the centers of Cook County jurisprudence. His rich, stewy Caribbean dishes like curry goat or beefy, oily, fall-off-the-bone oxtails would make a cheerful lunch break from the grim human drama on display there. Drew cooks over charcoal in an aquarium-style pit, which gives his jerk chicken a spicy smoke. His catfish escabeche—also jerked, cut into steaks, then grilled—has an even busier flavor when it's dressed with the vinegary sauce and amped with onions, carrots, and cooked-down Scotch bonnets. Drew's jerk sauce is not incendiary, more vinegar than chile, and makes a nice dressing for blander sides like fried plantains, rice and beans, or soft sauteed cabbage. The remains of nearly everything served are moppable with the sweet, dense hard-dough bread he gets from Caribbean American Bakery in Rogers Park. —Mike Sula

Xni-Pec5135 W. 25th, Cicero | 708-652-8680

$$Mexican | Lunch: Saturday-sunday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 11

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the Chicago area got a rare Yucatecan restaurant when Xni-Pec (pronounced "shnee peck") opened in Cicero last May. "We didn't want to do any advertising until we were ready," explains owner Antonio Contreras. His mother runs the kitchen, and his grandmother has come up from Yucatan several times to help with the recipes. Unlike the foods of many other Mexican regions, Yucatecan cuisine isn't inherently spicy, so you can savor the flavors without heat or amp it as you please with xni-pec (it means "wet nose") and other incendiary salsas made from habanero chiles. Cochinita pibil is a typical Yucatecan dish: pork spread with a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pit. This pre-Columbian preparation is served with bright pink pickled red onion, which supplies a welcome acidic note to the silky pork. Huevos Motulenos—the finest rendition of this dish I've had outside the dusty town of Motul—are eggs on a tostada, sprinkled with ham, cheese, peas, and salsa and paired with black beans and a little mound of rice, with a disk of plantain. For dessert there's calabaza y comote, a sugary blend of a pumpkinlike squash and a sweet-potato-like tuber, candied and served with a slice of orange, another example of a basic but delicious preparation of common ingredients. Beverages include a light, refreshing melon water—cantaloupe juice and water—or, more exotic, xtabentun, a flowery honey liqueur flavored with anise. —David Hammond

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