Chicago Eats- page 4 | Travel | Smithsonian
The predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood was once predominantly Czech. Across Chicago, says Juana Guzman of Pilsen's National Museum of Mexican Art, "food is an important cultural anchor." (Tim Klein)

Chicago Eats

From curried catfish to baba ghanouj, Chicago serves up what may be the finest ethnic cuisine going

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Izola's main dining room confronts you with large blowup photos of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, United States Representative Charles Hayes and other local luminaries. Then-Congressman Washington made the decision to run for mayor in 1983 while dining with Hayes at Table 14, said Izola White, who has presided over her restaurant for 52 years. "Harold called me over, he said, 'Come here,'" White recalled. "So I come over and he said, 'Charlie's taking my seat, and I'm gonna run for mayor.' So that was it."

There's a definite clubhouse feel to the place, and a great jukebox never hurts—a compilation CD titled "Izola's Favorites" features Dizzy Gillespie, Alicia Keys and the First Church of Deliverance Choir. Asked what draws him here, Bill Humphrey, a retired policeman, said, "The friendship, the fellowship. It's like a home away from home." And, oh yes, the food. "My favorite is the breakfast—the scrambled eggs with hot links sausage, which you don't get anywhere else," he said. "And I love Izola's smothered pork chops and the short ribs. If you don't see it on the menu, you can order it anyway, 24 hours. Anything, she serves it."

Hawkins gave thumbs up to the stewed chicken and dumplings ("I'm liking it!"), the pork chop ("The seasoning is perfect") and the bread pudding ("It's delicious—very sweet, with a lot of butter"). Lovett voted for the fried chicken ("Not too greasy, just really good") and the greens ("Perfectly balanced, not too sour"). Both my companions have Southern roots, although Hawkins, from Louisiana, isn't nostalgic for everything down-home: "I remember the smell of chitlins cooking in my great-grandmother's kitchen," he said. "It was horrible! I hated it! We would run out of the room."

There's a life-size cutout of Obama on the wall. He has eaten at Izola's several times and has been to White's home, too. "He's a nice young man," White volunteered. "Nice family."

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I found the Holy Grail—the tastiest food of the trip—when I least expected it. It was at Podhalanka, a quiet restaurant on West Division Street, a thoroughfare known as Polish Broadway—in a city that boasts the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Though my own Granny Ottillie was Polish-born and a wonderful cook, I had somehow gotten the impression that Polish cuisine, on the whole, was bland, greasy and heavy. Podhalanka set me straight.

J.R. Nelson lives nearby in Ukrainian Village and works at Myopic Books, a local literary landmark. He's a student of Chicago lore and a friend of my friend Jessica Hopper, a music critic and author who was born in Cole Porter's hometown of Peru, Indiana. J.R., she said, knew a great Polish place, so we all met up there. As we looked over the menu, they told me that the old neighborhood had been losing the grittiness that it had when Nelson Algren prowled the area. "Twenty years ago, it was more rough and tumble," J.R. said in an apologetic tone.

Podhalanka couldn't look plainer—lots of faux brick and linoleum, posters of Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana— and yet, as Jessica told me, "You just look in the window and it's like, obviously, I'm going to eat there."

I won't mention every dish, just the highlights: begin with the soups: shredded cabbage in a tomatoey base; barley with celery, carrots and dill; and miraculous white borscht—delicate, lemony, with thin slices of smoked sausage and pieces of hard-boiled egg somehow coaxed into a silky consistency. (This was $3.20, including the fresh rye bread and butter.) But wait, there's more.

The pièce de résistance was zrazy wieprzowe zawijane—rolled pork stuffed with carrots and celery—which was tender, juicy and subtly peppery. It came with boiled potato, mashed up with a perfect light gravy and topped with fresh dill. The cucumber, cabbage and beet root with horseradish salads were a fine complement, as was rose hips tea.

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