Taste of the Boulevards

As a producer, I make many important decisions during the course of my day. To name just a few: I research, write narration, direct the crew, and edit the finished product. But the most important decision that I make—the one that receives the most scrutiny—comes at lunchtime, when I choose where our crew will eat. Each member of our team has his or her own unique needs that I need to consider: the lighting guy might be watching his pocketbook, the cameraman will want something healthy, the intern is a vegetarian, the host can't have anything messy dripping on his wardrobe; and I always want to eat something that's not only tasty, but unique to the neighborhood where we're working. So, after months of shooting—and eating—along Chicago's boulevards, here are a few of the crowd-pleasers that everyone could agree on.

Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles
3947 South King Drive

Chicken and Waffles fulfill three of our mouths' most basic needs: fat, sugar, and crunch. Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles delivers all three, and then goes the extra mile. The waffles are slightly cinnamony, and retain their crisp under the weight of the fried chicken. And the chicken is everything fried chicken should be: crispy, flavorful, tender, juicy. Add copious amounts of maple syrup. Enjoy. And if you're in the mood for something (slightly) healthier, may I suggest the fried chicken salad?

1518 East 53rd Street

This place has received no shortage of attention lately—it’s a favorite haunt of Barack Obama. And yet despite the fact that the Most Powerful Man in the Free World enjoys their egg whites, hash browns and bacon (or so says the sign), this place is, and always will be, a cafeteria. And cafeterias are a democratizing force, aren't they? It doesn't matter if you're the President of the United States or a well-known TV personality, or a high-powered attorney, you must: A) get in line, B) grab a tray, and, C) tell the guy behind the counter what you want; and quickly, before he loses his patience. I recommend ordering anything that you might find at Thanksgiving dinner—don't try to get fancy. And no Coke...or Pepsi. Only RC.

The Nile Restaurant
1611 East 55th Street

This Middle Eastern spot is a popular hangout for University of Chicago students. And it completely defies my expectations. In my experience, restaurants that cater to college students aren't particularly good. They usually offer cheap fare designed to absorb alcohol. But I suppose this is the U of C, where the kids are more likely to be intoxicated by the Classics than by anything else. And I'm guessing there are a fair number of Egyptologists in the neighborhood who have an appetite for authentic Middle Eastern food. The chicken shawarma is fantastic—and enormous.

La Cecina
1934 West 47th Street

This is the place I kept dragging our crew over and over (and over) again. At first glance, it's just another Mexican restaurant: brightly-colored decor, chips and salsa on the table. But once the main course arrives, it's a whole different ballgame. The basics (tacos, sopes) are especially well-executed. And the menu features all kinds of regional Mexican specialties that are incredible. My favorite is the restaurant's namesake. Cecina is sheets of paper-thin skirt steak that are crispy at the edges, and juicy and tender in the middle. It's served with homemade corn tortillas along with avocado and other toppings, so you can build your own cecina taco at the table.

Los Comales
3141 West 26th Street

The Little Village outpost of a popular taco chain. The tacos are simple and good, and the pickled vegetables on the table are a nice bonus. But I especially enjoy the vibe at this location—it feels like I'm vacationing in Mexico. It's a vast room with rows of extraordinarily long tables—each table is long enough to hold a family reunion. And looking around, it appears as if families are indeed having their reunions here. Univision, blaring from big screen TV's, provides the soundtrack.

Pompei Pizza
1531 West Taylor Street

It's not exciting. Or unique. Or anywhere near the boulevards. But when we were shooting on the West Side, this proved to be a close-enough crowd-pleaser. You get quite a bang for your buck here—for about $10 you get a slice, a side and a drink. I developed an affection for their casserole-like "pizza pies", in particular a variety that was topped with sliced beef—it essentially amounts to an Italian Beef Pizza. I know, that's Just Plain Wrong, but it's actually quite good. We also discovered that their Taylor Street location is The Safest Restaurant in Chicago. About 90% of the clientele are law enforcement.

Birchwood Kitchen
2211 West North Avenue

When we started shooting on the North Side, I was very excited by the range of restaurant options that opened up to us, and this place didn't disappoint in its North Sidedness. The sandwiches here are served on artisanal bread with fresh/local/organic ingredients from (Insert the Name of a Farm Here) Farms. When I tried to order a Diet Coke the guy at the counter gave me a dirty look, and explained that they didn't serve anything with chemicals in it. How am I supposed to make it through my afternoon without chemicals?

2723 West Division Street

Humboldt Park's Puerto Rican community plays a starring role in Biking the Boulevards. And luckily for us, our Star Associate Producer, Carmen, is Puerto Rican. She introduced me to my two newest friends: Tostones and Mofongo. Tostones are fried, green plantain slices, and if I remember correctly they were topped with chopped garlic (not an ideal midday appetizer). Mofongo is mashed plantains with crispy pork skins—because both ingredients tend to be dry, it came with a gravy. For my main course, I became reacquainted with an old friend: the jibarito, a sandwich served on smashed plantains.

Miko's Italian Ice
2234 North Sacramento Avenue

When our crew has been working in the hot summer sun all day, "thank you" just doesn't suffice. But because I'm a bit shy about telling my colleagues "I love you", I did the next best thing: I bought them a round of Miko's Italian Ice. If your exposure to "Ice" is confined to the artificially-flavored variety, you are seriously missing out. This place sells flavors like cantaloupe, watermelon, and Michigan blueberry, each of which tastes exactly like the real thing...only better. It's as if they've created an idealized version of these fruits' natural flavors, like they've captured fruits as they tasted in the Garden of Eden. How do they do this? Is God Himself working in the kitchen? I have my own, more profane theory, which involves Willy Wonka.

Cafeteria Marianao
2246 North Milwaukee Avenu

I've never been to Cuba, but I have seen Buena Vista Social Club more than once, so I can declare with plenty of authority that this place is authentic. It's housed in an aging shack with a faded sign—both seem to date back to the time of La Revolucion. There aren't any tables—just a bunch of vintage stools lined up at a counter, where lunch customers seemed to be enjoying their Cuban sandwiches. A horde of well-tanned men stood in the center of the room, discussing world affairs over cafe con leche. So popular is the milky, sugary-sweet coffee at this place, that there appears to be to a man whose sole job is to make cup after insulin-spiking cup of cafe con leche. I would call him a barista, except for the fact that he did his job with such calm and lack of pretension that he doesn't deserve such an insult.

Dunlays on the Square
3137 West Logan Boulevard

This isn't exactly the most interesting restaurant in Logan Square, but it consistently left the entire crew satisfied. I can only vouch for one item on their menu: the BLT, which was so good that I kept ordering it. It features hearty, multigrain bread and a generous portion of thick-cut bacon. Be sure to substitute "hashbrowns" for the french fries. Our lighting guy discovered that the "hashbrowns" here are actually a tangy potato casserole.

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