Best of the South Side 2010

Given that the University of Chicago is situated smack dab in the middle of Hyde Park, the resulting feel of the neighborhood (and of Kenwood, immediately to the north) is one of a strange cultural mélange. Sure, there’s the obvious difference in economic class between many of the UofC students and the local community members, but to reduce the social milieu to merely an advent of economic diversity would be superficial. Furthermore, to classify the area as a “college town” would be similarly incorrect. Beyond the University, and those businesses that cater to it, Hyde Park and Kenwood are full of unique restaurants, gardens, community centers, and even monk parakeets. And, of course, our current President calls these parts home. For those UofC students who have yet to explore their surroundings, and for those who have not yet visited the two neighborhoods, the following guide should assist you in experiencing them in all their full glory.

best finger-lickin’ ribs

Ribs n’ Bibs

If you’re hankering for some serious barbeque, Ribs n’ Bibs will hear your cry. Located in a tiny storefront on the corner of 53rd and Dorchester, this Hyde Park staple serves up nothing but the tastiest hickory-smoked barbeque and scrumptious accoutrements. Given the place’s name, it would be an absolute travesty if the ribs weren’t up to par–but worry not, they are, and so are the burgers, dogs, fish sandwiches, and fresh fries slathered in barbecue sauce. Just as the food is slowly infused with flavor, so has the restaurant been in Chicago culture and history. Adorning the walls are autographed photos of athletes, politicians, and local characters, as well as pictures of the restaurant through the years. One has the impression that Ribs n’ Bibs has long been a mainstay of Hyde Park and Kenwood for a reason, and after having consumed some of their wonderful food, all speculation disappears. 5300 S. Dorchester Ave. Monday-Friday, 11am-11:30pm. Saturday-Sunday, 11am-12:30am. (773)493-0400 (Alec Mitrovich)

best awkward tourist attraction
The Obama House

The stately red brick home on the corner of 51st Street and Greenwood Avenue doesn’t look much different from the ones around it–except for the concrete riot barriers blocking half a block on either side and the Secret Service agents parked in the driveway. Yep, that’s the president´s house. No, you can’t go any closer. While tourists take a disappointed look through the trees at the otherwise ordinary residence, neighbors have seen their property values increase and their parking spots disappear, and the K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Synagaogue across the street has seen their religious services turn into traffic nightmares. Even the school bus for the adjacent after-school program has to open its back door for a bomb check. Does anyone mind? It doesn´t seem like it. The seemingly tense set-up has become part of the neighborhood–the Secret Service agents know residents by name, and have even been known to retrieve a lost soccer ball or two for kids. The strange ritual of security is the neighborhood´s most direct reminder of Obama since he left for the White House–and, well, we’re proud. 5046 S. Greenwood Ave. (Harry Backlund)

best collision of cultures
Rajun Cajun

This tiny restaurant represents a critical element of Hyde Park itself. Marrying two apparently unrelated cuisines–southern Cajun-influenced soul food with dishes from India–this fine establishment is sure to satisfy the needs of any kind of spice-lover. Unorthodox combinations like samosas with jerk chicken and masala with biscuits complement each other in an unexpectedly symbiotic manner. For the traditionalist who wants to enjoy strictly Cajun or Indian food, worry not: to combine or not to combine, the choice is entirely yours. Even the cultural variety of the restaurant space itself is a hybrid; it feels like a traditional Indian buffet, with Hindu icons, statues, and paintings around the room, and sitar twangs and tabla rolls ring out from the kitchen, but hints of New Orleans are also present in the old menus. The warmly lit plastic booths of Rajun Cajun bridge the highly fraught space between culture and cuisine in a unique and delicious way. Seriously. It sounds weird, but try it. 1459 E. 53rd St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-9:30pm; Sunday, noon-8:30pm. (773)955-1145. (Alec Mitrovich)

best crunchy grocery store
Hyde Park Produce

For those used to shopping at Whole Foods, this Kimbark Plaza standout might be your new favorite place. Of course HPP stocks first-rate produce, that goes without saying, but the rest of their inventory is also impressive. HPP carries mainly organic, high-quality, and imported brands, and yet they manage it all without the hefty price tags of Whole Foods. Though it’s not as large as Treasure Island (55th and Lake Park), it manages to squeeze in the essentials. In addition to their decent selection of groceries, they also have a solid deli and prepared food section. And, given the fact that the store is located a kitten’s toss from Kimbark Liquors, adding alcohol to your gourmet grocery experience is horrifically convenient. 1226 E. 53rd St. Monday-Saturday, 8am-8pm; Sunday, 8am-6pm. (773)324-7100. (Alec Mitrovich)

best slice of japan
Osaka Garden

Hidden in the middle of Jackson Park is a fertile Japanese oasis. Upon breaching its borders, you are instantly escorted to a state of infinite repose. While it doesn’t cover a particularly large area, the garden is a startlingly beautiful section of the vast park. A small pond in its center is gapped by an arched wooden bride, and flanked by jagged stones and trees cut to resemble bonsais. In the middle of its eastern boundary is a Japanese gazebo–an ideal picnic spot. Osaka garden is all too often overlooked as an option for walks or park outings, which means that you’re not likely to run into many other people during your visit. Finding your way into the park is also not straightforward, so be sure to enter from the bridge on the north side of Wooded Island, which can be found behind the Museum of Science and Industry. Wooded Island, Jackson Park. Monday-Sunday, 6am-11pm. (Alec Mitrovich)

best marketcafe
Z & H MarketCafé

Though the second half of Z & H’s title, “MarketCafé,” gives primacy to the market component of the operation, the café portion is the highlight of this establishment. Their decadent deli sandwiches, which some have dubbed the best sandwiches in the area, are reason enough to venture forth and give Z & H a try, especially if you’re growing weary of your usual South Side haunts. Prices are relatively high (the average sandwich price is $7.25) but you get what you pay for, and after painting your palate with their delicious nutrients, you won’t complain. In addition to sandwiches, salads, and soups, the café offers a wide variety of coffee-based concoctions, as well as manifold and multiform baked goods. As for the “market” portion, do not come in search of everyday grocery items. Z & H sells itself as a “specialty foods market;” if you’re in dire need of truffle oil, or expensive cheeses, this is your place. Save on groceries elsewhere, and splurge here on a sandwich. Two locations: 1126 E. 47th St. and 1323 E. 57th St. Monday-Friday, 7am-7pm. Saturday-Sunday, 8am-6pm. (773)538-7372. (Alec Mitrovich)