Best of the South Side 2009: South Loop

The South Loop is a new neighborhood with a long history. Like many Chicago neighborhoods, it was first populated by poor immigrants in the mid-19th century, mainly Irish, Germans, and African-Americans from the South. Spared by the Great Fire, it became a bastion of the Chicago elite, who built magnificent homes along Prairie Avenue. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the neighborhood had become a nationally renowned haven for vice and corruption. When the city clamped down, shady characters moved out and industry moved in, setting up specialized districts like Printer’s Row and Auto Row. Reinvented once more, it’s safe to say the South Loop is currently at its highest point, literally. High-rise condos have proliferated so rapidly over the last decade–along with a doubling of population–that you shouldn’t be surprised if you notice a new one each time you visit. Industry is long gone, but still remembered in the converted luxury lofts. Many popular North Side restaurants have opened second locations in the South Loop to get a piece of the neighborhood boom, and high-end retail chains like Whole Foods have set up west of the river. The South Loop has a few excellent original spots as well–a number that will rise as the neighborhood continues to define its new identity.

best place to get everything
Maxwell Street Market
The Maxwell Street Market, now in its second incarnation, dates back to the 19th century. Old Maxwell Street gave the world gems as varied as Benny Goodman, the Polish sausage, and Jack Ruby. The new Maxwell Street Market is every bit the asset to Chicago as its predecessor. The market has always been dominated by immigrants, once Jewish, Italian, Greek, Polish, and Southern blacks, and now predominantly Mexican. Forced from its eponymous location decades ago, the market now occupies a strip of Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Harrison Street every Sunday. Vendors’ stalls are filled with any combination of items including produce, office supplies, car parts, electronics, toys, Chinese herbal remedies, clothing, paintings, power tools, and yes, even kitchen sinks. Even if you’re not looking for new copper cookware or baby shoes, the trip is always worth it for the full array of incredible Mexican street food. Cooks stand over hot skillets flipping homemade tortillas by hand, stirring vats of carnitas, or frying up churros. Grab a cup of horchata or agua de jamaica, take a seat on the curb and enjoy your Sunday. The market operates year-round, come rain, snow, or blistering heat. S. Des Plaines Ave. between W. Harrison St. and W. Roosevelt Rd. Sundays, 7am-3pm. (Ellis Calvin)

best italian imports
In an area full of chain eateries on Michigan Avenue, Panozzo’s Italian Market is an oasis of honest good eats. This spotless, inviting space stocks a depth and breadth of Italian groceries in both its deli and market. Ranging in quality–and price–from fine epicurean treats to middling items often available in regular grocery stores, they carry everything from antipasti to dolci. Their broad selection of meats and cheeses provides ingredients for well-balanced sandwiches held between dense D’Amato Bakery bread. However, special orders aside, their finest salumi (cured meats)–from such artisanal producers as Fra’Mani and La Quercia–and formaggi (cheeses) are best enjoyed solo to showcase their distinguishing subtleties of flavor. Generally satisfying prepared foods round out their deli offerings. The cold antipasti include a sumptuous array of juicy, piquant olives. House-made crescentina is a rich, chewy stuffed flatbread, filling literally and figuratively. Entrées are more hit-or-miss: lasagna Bolognese has the flavor of a serious ragù and the texture of baby food; otherwise tasty arancini are marred by fist-sized leadenness and breading soggy from sitting around. Daily specials often outperform mainstays: for instance, fresh pastas of remarkable flavor and bite are tossed in good house-made sauces to make deeply soulful dishes. Overall, a great place to grab some quality Italian pantry staples and satisfying takeout at one of the better delis anywhere in the city, though prices are somewhat steep relative to the ordinary sandwich shop. 1303 S. Michigan Ave. Tuesday-Friday, 10:30am-7pm; Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday 10am-4pm. (312)356-9966. (Yee Fay Lim)

best midnight drunk food
White Palace Grill
At the intersection of a canal, a derelict train yard, and retail stores all but abandoned at two in the morning, the White Palace Grill is a literal beacon of light. Step inside and you’ll find the diner you thought only existed in movies. The unyielding flux of inebriated college kids and chrome-laden furnishings make this a lively, yet comfortable joint. White Palace Grill is the sort of diner where you would want to become a regular. The wall that displays Michael Jordan playing Go Fish with Mayor Daley, the option of soup or salad with your burger, and waitresses like Teresa make White Palace Grill the best pit stop this side of the Loop. 1159 S. Canal St. Open 24 hours. (312)939-7167 (Carl Brozek)

best alfresco
Cafe Society
Pickings are slim for lunch spots in the Prairie District, but for the last eight years Cafe Society has proudly called itself the “neighborhood bistro.” Carving out a corner of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, Cafe Society serves up homemade Mexican snacks and traditional coffeehouse fare to hungry locals. The extensive menu covers lunch standards, but if you’re not feeling up to your third Caesar salad this week, try out one of their tortas, which are loaded up with tomatoes, guacamole, red onions, tomato, a fried egg and your choice of meat. Wraps are enormous (which almost justifies their $8 price tag) and come sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and smothered in a sweet pink mystery sauce, a tangy and unexpected complement to the hearty flavors of grilled vegetables or chicken. Across the hall from the café, the dining room feels somewhat isolated and is decorated like an Italian archaeologist’s patio, but that’s all the more reason to grab a table outdoors. Everyone and their yapping pair of Yorkies drop by for a refreshing drink and shady spot to sit in their courtyard. This ain’t Barcelona, though, so take advantage of the alfresco dining before winter descends. 1801 S. Indiana Ave. Daily, 6am-5pm. (312)842-4210 (Rachel Wiseman)

best-designed café
Little Branch Cafe
Hidden behind the reflective glass of a new residential tower, the Little Branch Cafe is almost invisible from the street. The quiet cafe’s earthy tones and classy design contrast with the sterile high-rise. Paper lamps hang over the tables, but floor-to-ceiling windows provide more than enough natural light. Painted white tree trunks stand in for barstools. Organic, yet chic, this place is an aesthetic treat. Little Branch Cafe has been expanding their menu gradually since it opened last year. Starting with coffee, it’s added gelato, smoothies, panini, a brunch menu, and most recently, beer, wine and cocktails. The cafe will be launching a small dinner menu very soon, with dishes “perfect for sharing over a glass of wine,” according to the sign. The baked goods probably won’t bring you back, but everything else about this place will. The espresso (from Chicago’s very own Metropolis Coffee) is properly made by friendly, artsy baristas, and served in an unpretentious porcelain cup and saucer. The roast beef panini is made on airy ciabatta and perfectly crisped in olive oil with a hint of rosemary. 1251 S. Prairie Ave. Monday-Tuesday, 7am-4pm; Wednesday-Friday, 7am-10pm; Saturday, 8am-10pm; Sunday, 8am-8pm. (312)360-0202 (Ellis Calvin)

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