Best of the South Side 2008: South Loop

The South Loop stands today as the best example of gentrification on the move in Chicago. Cranes consistently dot the horizon, as high-rises sprout and come to fruition, housing the city dwellers who are flocking back to urban areas. But the South Loop is a strange place unto itself–rundown blocks border high-end restaurants and shiny new apartments. Walking through the various parts of the neighborhood is like walking through a timetable of decades of development, from one of the city’s original residential neighborhoods, to its decline and recent revitalization. The neighborhood is also home to the city’s one-time printing mecca, Printers’ Row, but recent developments now threaten to whitewash its storied history. For the meantime, both the old and the new stand juxtaposed in odd and often interesting combinations.

Best Maxwell Street Polishes
Express Grill/Jim’s Original Hot Dogs (tie)
Today Maxwell Street, located just south of Roosevelt Road, is little more than an alley that starts and stops its way across the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus. Once, however, the street was home to the famed Maxwell Street Market, a teeming emporium where immigrants from Jews and Poles to Koreans and Gypsies lived and sold their goods. Out of this open-air market grew Chicago traditions such as the electric blues and the Maxwell Street polish, which in its most authentic form consists of an all-beef sausage topped with mountains of grilled onions, mustard, and peppers, served on a bun and accompanied by fries. This authentic form was created and perfected at Jim’s Original Hot Dogs by Jimmy Stefanovic in 1939. The Express Grill was created a few decades later, when Stefanovic’s nephew Tom Lazarevski quit Jim’s to start his own hot dog stand. When the Maxwell Street Market was decimated by the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the UIC campus, the families relocated their stands a few blocks away to Union Avenue, where they now stand next to each other overlooking the highway. Drop by any time of the day or night and find out which one you like best. Jim’s Original Hot Dogs: 1250 S. Union Ave. (312)733-7820. Express Grill: 1260 S. Union Ave. Both open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (312)738-2112 (Sam Feldman)

Best Thai Food
Opart Thai House
It’s not hard to find a Thai restaurant in Chicago. A truly good Thai restaurant, however, takes some exploring. The Opart Thai House in South Loop (and its twin in Lincoln Square) will be the last place you look. Nestled in one of the many new developments springing up, it’s tastefully decorated with golden Thai artifacts that look as if they’d be priceless. The menu doesn’t present any particularly surprising or unusual dishes; perfection, rather than innovation, is the key to this place. The dishes are consistently fresh and perfectly spicy in a way most Thai establishments fail to be. Some swear by the Tiger Cry (charbroiled beef with a spicy sauce), some by the Woon Sen Pad Thai (Pad Thai made with bean thread noodles), but f­­­rankly, any pick will be sure to make you return before long. I dare you to find an unsatisfied patron. 1906 S. State St. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm. (312)567-9898. (Ellis Calvin)

Best Jewish Comfort Food
Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen
Zagat’s says that Manny’s is “‘The closest thing Chicago has to a New York deli’…where the mighty and the humble stand elbow to elbow for ‘Jewish comfort food’”–which is why Zagat’s is pretentious schlock. But I digress. At Manny’s you can get all the Hungarian goulash, prime tzimus, borscht, ox tail stew, liver and onions, kashe, kreplach, kishka, calf’s tongue, and other Eastern European delights that you can stomach. You might even be able to get stomach. 1141 S. Jefferson St. Monday-Saturday, 5am-8pm. (312)939-2855. (Gavin Fox)

Best Place for Good Ol’ American Art
Lusenhop Fine Art
It’s not exactly cutting edge, but the best way to look forward is to continually keep in mind the past. And if it’s American art from 1920 to 1980 that you’re looking for, Lusenhop is the place for you. Owner David Lusenhop specializes in “African-American art, American Scene painting and sculpture, Midwest Regionalism, Social Realism, Non-objective art of the 1930s and 1940s, and Chicago art and artists.” Together with Director Melissa Azzi, Lusenhop runs a clean, no-frills one-room gallery: simple, modern, with an emphasis on the artwork. Check out the current exhibit, focusing on the work of Civil Rights Movement photographer Robert Abbott Sengstacke, through October 7. 73 E. 16th St. Thursday-Saturday 11am-5pm. (312)322-2440. (Sean Redmond)