Best of the South Side 2010

It’s not really a fair name for the huge part of the city spanning from the western portion of Englewood to Midway airport, but the area dubbed the Southwest Side has changed so much so quickly and in such different directions over the last century that the gloss is understandably common.

Until the late 1880s, Chicago’s Southwest Side was little more than cow pasture sprinkled with farmsteads. The turn of the century, however, brought a slew of European immigrants including Poles, Lithuanians, and Bohemians with the advent of industrialization, as well as efficient public transportation and the establishment of the Union Stockyards. Like in many other areas of Chicago, the post-World War II era brought turbulence as racial demographics began to shift. The pastures had become social battlegrounds where civil rights activists were often met with violence from angry community members and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. was infamously struck by a rock during a Gage Park march for open housing.

Since then, the Southwest Side has become better known as a mixed community of African-Americans, Europeans, and Arabs, and more recently, a predominant number of Hispanics (around 80% of Gage Park residents are of Hispanic decent). With a diverse cultural makeup, a variety of small retail stores, restaurants, and ethnic grocery marts, this area is often overlooked as a vivacious sector of the city.

best geek paradise
Chicago Action Figures

Upon walking into Chicago Action Figures and being greeted by a life-size paper cut-out of El Rey Misterio, I knew I was in for a treat. Though small, Chicago Action Figures is stuffed with flashy merchandise, its walls lined with hundreds of wrestling, comic, and movie-inspired action figures. Fijian wrestling legend Jimmy ”Superfly Snuka” comes complete with a tiger-print bathrobe, while heavyweight champ Terry Funk is decked out with a cowboy hat and branding iron. Hulky, plastic, and garish, each figure in his or her own plastic casing is begging to be purchased with an intimidating snarl on their polyvinyl faces that is hard to say no to–and the prices, at around $12 a pop, only add to their argument. The very top shelves are lined with glittering Lucha Libre wrestling masks. My favorite item is a shiny gold version of a WWE wrestling belt outfitted with a spinning WWE logo in the center. Geeks of all stripes will get a kick out of this store, but girly-girls be forewarned–this place is not for Barbies. 5935 S. Pulaski. Monday-Friday, 12pm-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-7pm. (773)424-0911. (Anna Fixsen)

best place to escape winter
Garifuna Flava

Amidst a smattering of fast-food joints and the neon flash of a Harold’s Chicken Shack sign, Garifuna Flava stands is a culinary refuge for tired taste buds. The restaurant has gotten its share of press, having been featured on WTTW’s “Check, Please!” and WGN’S “Chicago’s Best.” The ambiance is sunny and pleasant: yellow-and-white-checkered tablecloths, photographs of Caribbean scenery, and groovy music on the speakers. The place is family-owned and operated; service is speedy and friendly. After much deliberation I sampled the gumbo-like conch soup, conch fritters, and plantain chips. The fritters were golden-crisp, and came with two delightfully spicy, cabbage-based chutneys. The conch stew was hearty and flavorful, especially when coupled with fragrant coconut rice. The portion sizes are huge–my date and I were grateful to split the conch soup, which came complete with its own miniature ladle in place of a spoon. Prices can run a tad high, but the weekday lunch special is about $7 and features classic dishes such as salads, beans and rice, and jerk chicken. 2516-2518 W. 63rd St. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-2am; Sunday, 11:30am-8pm. (773)776-7440. (Anna Fixsen)

best place to get better-than-popsicles

On a scorching late summer day, when Bomb Pops and Choco Tacos don’t cut it, head over to Tropicana for a paleta (a frozen Mexican treat similar to a popsicle). If you’re unfamiliar, think Edy’s fruit bars, only way, way better. Upon entering Tropicana, one can feel overwhelmed with choices. An oblong cooler in the back of the place contains a rainbow of paleta flavors including bubble gum, mango, lime, tamarind, strawberry, coconut, caramel, pineapple, and coffee. But monolinguals beware: most of the flavors are written in Spanish. The server was kind enough to help me out with the trickier words (berry eluded me) but a Spanish dictionary would have been appreciated. I sampled the pistachio ice cream and a galleta (cookies and cream) paleta. Both were creamy, flavorful, and satisfying. If ice cream doesn’t float your boat, the store also offers chicharrónes (fried pork skins) smothered in cheese, nachos, yogurt, and a smattering of other snacks. 5646 S. Kedzie Ave. (773)476-1107 (Anna Fixsen)

best tamales
Manolo’s Tamales

From as early as 5000 B.C., Incan, Mayan, and Aztec warriors used cornhusk-wrapped dough to sustain their armies. Portable, inexpensive, and delicious, it is easy to understand how the dish has endured through the ages–and tasting Manolo’s Tamales in Gage Park, it’s easy to see why the place has become a timeless favorite. The first thing one notices about Manolo’s isn’t the din of Mexican soap operas on the wall-mounted television set, nor the fake $100 bill behind the counter with the word “falso” written across it, but the delicious smell of cooking cornmeal. Tamales are served fresh from large cooking vats in the back of the tiny store and are sold individually or by the dozen. Not only are the flavors enticing (beef, pork, guava, chicken, bean, and cheese, to name just a few)–at 75 cents apiece, the price is enough to set one drooling. Tamales are available in the familiar cornhusk format and the oaxaqueño style, which are larger, rectangular, and cooked in a banana leaf. After sampling bean and cheese, pepper, and pineapple versions, I was sold. Tamales are the primary victuals, but Manolo’s also offers tacos, enchiladas, tortas, and more. 5341 S. Kedzie Ave. (773)436-7029 (Anna Fixsen)

best furniture boutique
An Orange Moon

Inside An Orange Moon, granny-chic takes on new life and starts to look pretty darn good. For a mid-century-modern furniture addict, this store is a dream come true (the tequila shot offered when entering the store might be appreciated by a wider audience). Specializing in vintage furniture, An Orange Moon has a wide variety of unique Eames-era pieces. Teak embellishments and credenzas abound along with Italian Lucite folding chairs and re-upholstered retro couches. A nondescript bat wing chair has been refurbished to look completely fresh and modern. The décor is sunny and inviting, with avocado-green walls, purposely worn white floors, and an artful array of clutter. An Orange Moon also offers a selection of vintage clothing, pottery, and decorative artifacts. The self-described “über hip” store lives up to all that the phrase implies. 2436 W. 59th St. Friday-Sunday, 11am-5pm (summer hours). (312)450-9821. (Anna Fixsen)

best bang for your buck
Unique Thrift Store

The sign above the door claims the shop is your “Department Thrift Store.” The selection of candelabras, DVD players, snow pants, brooches, books, and fabrics certainly affirms the title, but there’s no chance of confusion with Macy’s or Nordstrom. As the name also suggests, the offerings here are, in fact, unique. If you’re looking for overalls, stylish geese-covered plates, over-sequined prom dresses, or simple t-shirts, Unique is your spot. And as quickly as shoppers snag their treasures, the staff at Unique replaces merchandise with donations from around the city and suburbs. Clothing is sorted by color rather than size or style, which requires more strategic sifting, but the rainbow array of T-shirts alone guarantees any visitor an attractive–or at least humorous–find at a low price. Shoppers are encouraged to use the plentiful shopping carts and several curtained fitting room stalls. Be sure to check in on Mondays (all day) and Thursdays (before 1pm) for 50 percent off all items. 5040 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday, 6am-9pm; Tuesday-Saturday, 9am-9pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. (773)434-4886 (Nani Ramakrishnan)