Serious Streets: Western Avenue from Cortland to Belden
Editor's Note: Serious Streets explores the culinary offerings around a specific point on the map. First up is the Western Avenue Blue Line stop from Cortland to Belden.
View Western Avenue in a larger map
Western Avenue may be one of the longest streets in America, but that honor also hides the fact that for most of its 26-odd miles it is a glorified interstate. Even the half-mile stretch of Western Avenue just north of the Blue Line stop (roughly from Cortland to Belden) is not exactly the most elegant road. But while it is easy to zoom by without noticing the scenery, you'd also miss one of my favorite places to eat in the city.
Like many other stretches of asphalt in Chicago, a number of cuisines are represented in this half mile. But what's different is that many are exceptional examples. In fact, it's almost like a little microcosm of what makes the Chicago culinary scene so great: a little old school and a little cutting edge; nostalgic when it needs to be, and blunt and straightforward at other times.
I loved this stretch when I lived nearby in Bucktown, and I miss it now that I live further away.
Barbecue: Honey 1 BBQ
You can smell the smoke from Honey 1 BBQ from blocks away, which would be totally annoying for nearby residents if it weren't so intoxicating. (Having lived a block away for a year, I had plenty of time to wear thin on it.) Famous for its rib tips and hot links, Honey 1 also serves up remarkable ribs that are loaded with smoke. Serious Eats has been singing the praises of this barbecue joint for years, and it's no surprise that it was one of the restaurants that had to be included in our launch party.
Honey 1 BBQ, 2241 North Western Avenue Chicago, IL 60647 (map), 773-227-5130
Taqueria: Las Asadas
When most people think of taco options at this stop, Arturo's and Lazo's Tacos are usually the first two on the list. Unfortunately, that probably has more to due with their hours (both are open 24 hours a day) than with what they serve. Las Asadas, located a mere block north of both, doesn't have the same freewheeling character, but the tacos are so consistently superior that it's hard to understand why anyone would waste time going anywhere else. It's all about the beef here, and the carne asada is one of my favorite versions in the whole city. That said, I'd never turn down the almost unnaturally-beefy barbacoa. Served with an excellent blackened chile salsa, this joint easily serves the best tacos on the strip.
Mexican Restaurant (Non-Taqueria Edition): Birrieria Estilo Jalisco
As you've probably guessed from its name, Birrieria Estilo Jalisco specializes in warming bowls of birria—a delectable goat stew that is served with corn tortillas and toasted chile de arbols. Nothing is in English, but luckily there aren't many options. Basically, you get the birria, either in a large bowl (grande) or the more manageable small one (chico). (I've honestly never tried the tacos.) If its not as mind blowing as Birria Zaragoza, it's still light years better than most birria joints around town, featuring perfectly tender goat meat in a mild and grease-less broth.
Birrieria Estilo Jalisco, 2045 North Western Avenue Chicago, IL 60647 (map), 773-252-8425
Coffee Shop: Ipsento
From the outside, Ipsento looks like any of a number of insufferably hip coffee shops, but once you walk inside it is clear to see that this one is different. The first thing you notice is the massive roaster, which freshly roasts all of the shop's beans. Also, the knowledgeable staff is friendly and willing to help find the brew right for you.
Chef Driven Restaurant: Belly Shack
Located directly underneath the Blue Line station, Bill Kim's Belly Shack is a strange Korean/Mediterranean/Cuban hybrid which makes absolutely no sense on paper and yet, much like his first restaurant Urban Belly, it somehow manages to all work. The hot and sour soup with hominy is hard to pass up, though I've been a big fan of the rice bowls that have been added recently. Either way, the bacon chocolate chip soft serve is the perfect way to cap it all off.
Belly Shack, 1912 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map), 773-252-1414, bellyshack.com
Cuban: Cafe Bolero and Siboney
After Think closed (it reopened as Knew on Fullerton a few months later), the two nicest restaurants on this stretch are actually Cuban restaurants. Siboney and Cafe Bolero are both remarkably solid, but I do have soft spot for the ropa viejo at the latter location. Oh, and if you're looking for a quick lunch, Cafeteria Siboney, which is located next door to its Siboney, also kicks out a fine Cuban sandwich.
Cafeteria Siboney, 2161 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL (map), 773-278-5417
Ice Cream: Margie's Candies
Oh Margie's. As one of the best preserved old ice cream parlors in the city, Margie's Candies exudes a classic charm that is almost impossible to hate. I mean, where else would you rather have a massive banana split with homemade hot fudge? I'm also a fan of the malty chocolate ice cream. Though the lines can be long, to-go orders are filled out relatively quickly.
Margie's Candies, 1960 North Western Avenue Chicago, IL 60647 (map), 773-384-1035
Pizza: John's Pizzeria
This stretch of Western surprisingly doesn't have a knockout pizza joint, but it does have John's and sometimes I need John's. Margie's Candies has a more obvious old-school charm, but it isn't decorated like suburban basement from the 1970s. Nor does it have a fireplace with all necessary accoutrements (various pokers and shovels) to tend a real fire, even though it's obviously fake. Would you like me to go on? How about $4 glasses of wine, vinyl booths, and a children's menu complete with gun-loving Chicago gangsters? Hell, the pizza comes out ringed in white doilies! How is the actual pizza? The thin crust tavern-style specimen ranges from passable to oddly satisfying. Of course, all the other elements probably help make it taste better.
I wish Danny's Fresh Market had a better taqueria inside, but it's still a great place to score Mexican groceries. Though small, if you're in need of products from Brazil, Brasil Legal is the spot to check for dry goods.
Danny's Fresh Market, 2140 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map), 773-235-0999
Brasil Legal, 2153 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL (map), 773-772-6650
Hot Dog: Red Hot Ranch
Until a few years ago, Sam's Red Hots on Armitage was the only option for a late night minimalist dog with fries. Then Red Hot Ranch came along. Serving natural-casing Vienna Beef hot dogs with some amazing hand-cut fries, this is one of my favorite hot dog stands in the city. Just make sure to ask for the fries "extra crispy."
Red Hot Ranch, 2072 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map), 773-772-6020
Did I miss any places?