Where to Eat Near the University of Chicago

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20120912-unversity-of-chicago-seal.jpgThere are two brief anecdotes I'll share that sum up for me what it's like to live in Hyde Park. They both take place in the parking lot of Treasure Island supermarket (the Hyde Park Food Co-op in my day). The first involves a stooped old man waving his fist angrily at a car that cut him off: "Do you realize you almost ran over a Nobel prize winner?!"

The second involves a shoplifter, who, when a stolen ham falls out from under her sweatshirt, looks around and asks to no one in particular, "For real though—who threw that ham at me?"

U of C first years, welcome to Hyde Park, one of the coolest, most interesting neighborhoods in the Midwest—and not just because it's the president's home town.

Now the food? Well, let's just say it's no accident that I cooked more and better in college than any time since. But there are some tasty bites to be found in the neighborhood, and a couple great ones—more so if you're willing to travel farther afield to explore everything the South Side has to offer. Truth be told, you can eat quite well on the South Side.

I'm told that since I graduated, food in the neighborhood has only gotten better, including a new street food scene and a Twitter feed so you can track them all down. Have any new favorites? Share 'em in the comments and I'll hit them up on my next trip to where fun goes to die.

Max's Hyde Park Eats

The Jamon, Jamon at Z & H [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Sandwiches: Z & H is a mod-ish cafe/market that makes good coffee and very nice sandwiches. I'm partial to The Marty, a grilled eggplant panino with pepper-walnut spread and Muenster cheese on focaccia. There are no shortage of coffee shops on campus, but I think this place, a little down 57th Street, is tastier and more comfortable than all of them.

Daily Bread (and Pastries and Milkshakes): The Medici Bakery (The Med) makes some great bread, including a slightly sweet semolina ring loaf I love to eat with butter and ham. I'd head there early on Sunday mornings for a warm loaf that I'd down in my dorm room with friends, tea, and a pile of Durkheim. The milkshakes, particularly the cinnamony, chili-spiked Mexicana Malt, are also well worth your time—much more so than the terrible dollar shakes sold Wednesdays on campus.

Adjacent to the bakery is the The Med restaurant, perhaps the most beloved student haunt in Hyde Park. I'm risking the ire of Chicago grads everywhere to tell you this, but frankly it's overpriced and not very good. Stick to the bread, flaky French pastries, and milkshakes at the bakery.

Chinese Takeout: None of the Chinese takeout/delivery places (Wok n' Roll, Noodles Etc.) are especially good or especially bad—you can order from them pretty safely. The one exception is Nicky's, which is absolutely disgusting with one saving grace: their fried potstickers, which are greasy in all the right ways, plenty porky, and crazy delicious. You don't even have to hate yourself to like these potstickers, and frankly, they're the only Chinese food in the immediate vicinity that I think is worth talking about. Just don't get anything else from Nicky's. Really.

Middle Eastern: The Nile's entrées aren't all that, but their small plates (think mezze like falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, etc.) are surprisingly tasty and very cheap. The large tables are good for groups, and the menu encourages sharing. You can eat well here for $10 or so a head.

Mexican: In my time at school, Maravillas vacillated from decent to less so to back again. I hear it's currently leveled out at pretty good, and it's a worthy spot for $2 biggie cups of horchata and cheap antojitos. I skip the tacos for the sopes and sizable tortas.

Thai: Hyde Park's Thai food doesn't rise above sickly sweet pad Thai and uncomplicated coconut curries. The Snail is superior to both Noodles Etc. and Thai 55, if you need to fix that craving for drunken noodles. Their red curry is alright.

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[Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

Pizza: There is no good to great pizza in Hyde Park, deep dish or otherwise. If you want to be introduced to stuffed crust, Giordano's is okay as far as it goes, and better than Edwardo's.

Diner: There are a few diners in Hyde Park, but Salonica was always the friendliest to me. The decor isn't depressing, the hash browns are just greasy enough, and the sun-lit space has a good vibe. Not exceptional diner food, but it makes you feel right at home. Definitely better than the dining halls on weekend mornings.

Hangover Helper: Sammy's Touch is a Chicago food stand with seating (tables and benches bolted to the floor) that primarily serves the U of C hospital employees. At least when I went to school, it had a great sign in the front with some awkward line breaks: WE FRY IN/ TRANS FAT/ FREE OIL. The burgers, hot dogs, and gyros win no awards, but they're dirt cheap and oily enough to soak up all the leftover booze in your system.

Harold's Chicken Shack

[Photograph: Nick Kinelsperger]

Fried Chicken: Harold's Fish & Chicken Shack is by no means good fried chicken (at least not in my former digs), but it's GREAT bad fried chicken, crazy greasy and pungent with vinegary hot sauce. Rumor has it they fry in oil mixed with beef tallow, and I'd believe it in a heartbeat. The crisp-from-the-fryer fries get totally soggy, but think of them as starchy sponges for chicken grease and hot sauce and you'll love them. Okay, a lot of people I went to school with didn't like Harold's at all. But they're not writing this guide. The 53rd Street Harold's is the closest Hyde Park location, but the one on 87th will deliver to campus. If I knew that my first year I'd be all gouty and diabetic by now.

Ice Cream and Coffee: Istria's gelato should be your go-to ice cream in the neighborhood; it's creamy and clean, devoid of ice crystals, and not gummy in the least. They brew Counter Culture coffee very well.

More Pastries: I haven't met a French pastry I didn't like at Bonjour Bakery, home to flaky morning buns with caramelized edges and warm, buttery centers.

#12: Ribs N Bibs‎

Rib tips and hot links from Ribs N Bibs [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Barbecue: Ribs N' Bibs doesn't hold a candle to other barbecue in the city, but the sweet, slightly smoky ribs will do in a pinch.

Farmers' Market: During the warm months (heh) there's a lovely little farmers' market with fresh veggies, good cheese, preserves, and some ready to eat food. It's a good, diverting way to start a weekend morning, and a great place to get your day's supply of squeaky cheese curds (!!) from Wisconsin.

Farther Afield

Hyde Park is a very bizarre bubble community on the South Side, and you'd do well to move beyond it both for great food and getting a better sense of the city you're living in.

Tacos de Sabinas at Nuevo Leon ($8.00 for three)

[Photograph: Nick Kinelsperger]

Pilsen: Nuevo Leon was my go-to taqueria for great refried beans, tacos, soups, and impressive hospitality. I know no other busy restaurant that could seat 25 people on 45 minutes' notice. If it's freshly fried carnitas you're after, both Carnitas Don Pedro and Carnitas Uruapan are there for you. It's also hard to go wrong at Nightwood.

Tony's Three Chili Chicken at Lao Sze Chuan ($11.45)

Tony's Three Chili Chicken At Lao Sze Chuan [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Chinatown: Everyone talks about the Tony Hu restaurants in Chinatown, and justifiably so; Lao Sze Chuan and Lao Beijing served me the best Chinese food I've had in Chicago. Nick's guide to chef Tony Hu's awesome dishes is required reading. For dim sum, Phoenix is decent, affordable, and good for first-timers.

Birria at Birrieria Zaragoza

[Photograph: James Boo]

Must-Eat Mexican: Birrieria Zaragoza is my favorite place to eat in Chicago, bar-none. Just a little north of 55th Street near Midway Airport, it's a worthy stop for your cab or airport bus. Birria, braised goat, is the game here, and it's what all goat should aspire to be: stewed tender, just fatty enough, and intensely savory with a bit of gaminess. The tomato consomme and thick, just-made tortillas that come with it are nothing short of superb. Add in just how nice the Zaragoza family is and you have the makings for a city treasure. Seriously: don't skip this. If you don't eat meat, the tortillas alone are worth the trip.

#1: Uncle John's Barbecue‎

Rib tips and hot links at Uncle John's Barbecue‎ [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

South Side Barbecue: I didn't get to explore as much of the barbecue scene while I was there, but Nick pretty much covered it with his post on the Best Rib Tip and Hot Link Combo. If you can only visit one place, make sure to stop by Uncle John's Barbecue.

Vegan Soul Food: Yah's Cuisine (best website ever) on 75th Street is a geographic and mental trip. Yah is a member of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, and she makes vegan soul food (take a moment for that all to sink in). It's definitely inconsistent—rather good sometimes, bizarrely not-so-good on others, and the service at this tiny restaurant, if not professional or all that with it, is endearing. But it's a charming, curious, only in Chicago kind of place, and her garlicky mac and cheese, bolstered with nutritional yeast, has never let me down.