Best of the South Side 2009: Grand Crossing and Chatham

In the early 1850s, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway was one of several connecting Chicago to parts south, and competition was fierce. When the Illinois Central Railroad lost a court battle to cross the LS&MSR tracks with its own, it responded in true Chicago style, kidnapping a guard and laying an intersecting track in the dead of night. Within a year, a fatal collision at what’s now 75th and South Chicago occurred between trains of two other companies operating on the disputed tracks. That didn’t deter Hyde Park founder Paul Cornell from developing the marshy surroundings, and when it was learned that a downstate village was already named Cornell, the area became Grand Crossing in honor of the intersection. By the late 19th century it was home to a range of factories and their mostly German workers. Successive decades brought demographic changes, and by 1920, eight years after the namesake railroads had finally been elevated above street level, Grand Crossing was mostly Hungarian. As in many South Side neighborhoods, the ’60s were years of white flight. To the immediate south across 79th Street, the neighborhood of Chatham remained middle-class through the transition. In contrast, Grand Crossing declined. But in spite of the–let’s not mince words–sketchiness, it’s got more to see and do than most parts of Chicago.

best vegan soul food
Soul Veg
What do you do if your religion’s strict vegan diet renders most restaurant food off-limits and you’re tired of cooking for yourself? If you’re the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, founded more than 40 years ago by a West Side steelworker named Ben Carter, you start your own restaurant and cook up the South Side’s best vegan soul food. Soul Vegetarian East, or Soul Veg for short, is the only Midwestern outpost of a worldwide chain of Soul Vegetarian restaurants. You may think you’re familiar with its output from the frozen versions found in student-run coffee shops on the University of Chicago campus, but there’s really no comparison between those and the hot, fresh dishes at the 75th Street location. Many believe that the real highlights of the menu are the little things: the battered tofu bits appetizer, the sweet and garlicky barbecue sauce that comes with many side dishes, the Prince salad dressing that improves anything it touches, and the soy ice cream flavors that change by the day and, on a recent visit, included a silky, creamy carob-peanut blend. Among the main courses, the jerkfu wrap and the veggie gyro are standouts. 205 E. 75th St. Monday-Thursday, 8am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-11pm. (773)224-0104 (Sam Feldman)

best barbecue
Uncle John’s Barbecue
Chicago may be the unquestioned capital of pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef, but it’s a barbecue backwater, and the places that rise above mediocrity or worse can be counted on one hand. Foremost among them is Uncle John’s Barbecue, a cash-only takeout stand at 69th and Calumet. Behind an anti-robbery window, owner and former commercial meat dealer Mack Sevier smokes up a terrific and supremely affordable rib tip and hot link combo. The coarsely ground and distinctively seasoned links are made in-house, and it shows in every bite. Tips are delicious, studded with gristle but smoky and flavorful enough to justify the mess. On top of it all, the sauce is first rate: dense, tangy, and sweet but not cloying; follow the regulars and ask for a mix of hot and mild. A single $9 order spills out of a Styrofoam tray and feeds two easily. The only downsides are the total absence of seating and the tense surroundings. Fortunately, Uncle John’s is only a short bike ride from Promontory Point and the lakefront beaches. Grab a grape drink from the vending machine, pack up your order, and you’re ready for a perfect late summer picnic. 337 E. 69th St. Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-1am. (773)892-1233 (Michael Joyce)

best theater
eta Creative Arts Foundation
At its core a theater performing African-American-centric plays, eta is also an incubator for talent. Founded in 1971 seeking the “preservation, perpetuation and promulgation of the African-American aesthetic in the City of Chicago” and beyond, eta runs five major plays each year, mainly new works. In addition, eta also offers a wide range of performing arts for children and families as well as two art galleries, a library, and a variety of educational programs. Running until mid-November, this fall’s first major performances is “Resurrection,” Daniel Beaty’s study of the emotional complexities faced by black men. 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. (773)752-3955. (Michael Joyce)

best place to buy reptile meat
Market Fisheries
Your prizewinning gumbo recipe calls for turtle meat, but in Chicago that’s being quoted at $20-plus a pound, and you’re told you can buy no fewer than ten. What are you going to do? Visit Market Fisheries, where you’ll pay half that, and can satisfy your alligator needs to boot. If you’re looking for cheap crawfish, crabs, or frog legs, along with actual fish, you’ll find that too. A no-frills but full-service fishmonger, it offers extraordinarily low prices and great service in a slightly frenetic atmosphere. Bonus: the hairnet-clad counterperson will clean your picks, and cut them as requested. 7129 S. State St. Open daily by 10am; closes 6:15pm except on Wednesday, 7:15, and weekends, 3:45pm. (773)483-3233 (Michael Joyce)