Jamaican Jerk Chicken at Claire's Korner in Evanston
There are the ethnic cuisines that Chicagoans know about and treasure—Italian, Mexican, a host of Asian ones. Then there are the ones that are hidden in plain sight—Ecuadoran dots the city, Puerto Rican clusters along North Avenue, Serbian hangs out in a dark bar on Montrose, smoking. If there's one of the latter that ought to be ready to break through to broader appeal, it's food of the Caribbean, which can be found all over the city's northern edge and into Evanston (and also on the far South Side).
Claire's Korner, on the west side of Evanston, serves up a cafeteria line of Jamaican classics six days a week. There's just a few seats, so the assumption is you're taking it to go and either way it comes in a styrofoam container. A few people on Yelp complain that it's kind of high-priced for Jamaican, but I defy you to hold that heavy styrofoam container and not feel like you've just gotten a ton of food.
It could be stewed oxtail, hearty and with a deep beefiness like boeuf bourguignon. Or it could be goat curry (pictured above) on the bone, blazingly incendiary, hotter than almost any Indian curry in town. (There's a combo that will get you both, and feed you for a couple of days at least.) Both will be ladled over comfy, earthy red beans and rice and served with a few fried plantains and a side of cabbage with peppers, which is one of the best ways to eat that vegetable in town.
But the dish I think you should start with is Jamaica's most famous one, jerk chicken. The chicken is grilled over gas flame, owner Claire says, but so expertly it tastes like someone smoked it on a Weber out back. Then it's topped with jerk sauce—not too spicy but rich and complex, like a cross between barbecue sauce and Mexican mole.
You'll want something to drink, especially if you get the goat curry. Be sure to try Ting, a Jamaican grapefruit soda, though my favorite choice is spicy ginger beer.
Claire's Korner has been around for 10 years, and the friendly Claire says she's been cooking since she was seven. She was working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and making food on the side for events when she catered an aunt's engagement party; the response was so positive that she decided to try going on her own. She says she learned to cook from her mom, with one exception: "She only knows how to make food for a few people, and I only know how to make a lot of it for a lot of people."