In 1853, two trains riding along rival lines collided at what is now the intersection of 75th and South Chicago Avenue. Seeing opportunity in the mangled steel’s violent geometry, Chicago entrepreneur Paul Cornell made a wise investment. To prevent future crashes, the government mandated all trains to stop at the crossing, bringing in hundreds of visitors daily. Cornell’s investment turned the land surrounding the intersection into a commercial and housing center for travelers and residents alike. Envisioning the transit hub as a suburb, developers built homes for a working-class population that equated private property with prosperity. Following a familiar trajectory, the population transitioned midway through the twentieth century from Irish, German, and English to African-American.
Since that time, nearly half the area’s population has slowly bled away. The long stretches of residential streets are in decay, leaving buildings abandoned and lots empty. Nonetheless, a critical mass has gathered along the area’s commercial thoroughfares. Throughout the day, a steady stream of foot traffic makes its way along 71st, 75th and 79th Streets. Locally owned restaurants offer innovative approaches to common American fare, and enclaves of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have imported their tropical flavors to the Midwest. Keeping the lights on past midnight, a growing lounge scene on 75th mixes the scampering of jazz with the city’s late-night hum.
Best Gourmet Burger
Imploring customers to “Skip breakfast, eat burgers” Burger Bar allows such a habit to be pursued responsibly. In addition to their lean beef, the restaurant offers salmon, turkey, and veggie patties, using each as a platform for imaginative seasonings. The jerk burger features exactly what you’d expect–a zesty glaze of jerk sauce–while the “savory salmon” comes with remoulade tarter sauce, raw onions, and veggies. The fries complete the burger experience, as they’re crisp and won’t leave your fingers with a greasy sheen. Try the sweet potato fries if you want a bit more flavor, but order a side of the fried okra if you know what’s good for you. While gourmet burger chains are now ubiquitous on the North Side, their corporate interiors have nothing on the front-porch atmosphere of Burger Bar. The staff are kind and talkative, offering you advice on your order from behind the bullet-proof glass, while small details and written specials taped to the wall, beer bottles turned into salt shakers add some personal charm. 622 E. 71th St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-8pm. (773)846.2874 (Tyler Leeds)
Yassa African Restaurant
“Are you hungry?” asks Madieye Gueye, the owner of Yassa African Restaurant, as he sits down at the table with us. “When you come to Yassa you have to be hungry.” He’s right–the portions barely fit on the plate here at the city’s only Senegalese restaurant. Their trademark, yassa, is a mixture of the “chef’s secret spices,” diced onion, and piquant mustard, a traditional sauce from Senegal so central to the restaurant’s menu that they borrowed its name. Featuring chicken, lamb, fish, or shrimp, the dish comes smothered in the special spice blend and served up with a smattering of sautÃ©ed onions and carrots. Cut the spice with a side of djolof rice or atieke, a cassava-based cous cous that is otherwise a bit bland. And make sure to order one of their homemade drinks. Bissap, a juice made from dried hibiscus flowers, is refreshing and recalls the taste of pomegranate. The honeydew drink tastes remarkably natural in spite of its slime-green color, which incidentally matches the sponge-painted walls. 716 E. 79th St. Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday, 11am-10pm. (773)488-5599. yassaafricanrestaurant.com (Maria Nelson and Rachel Wiseman)
Best Sequined Bras
The fashion police at N’Dulge Boutique are always ready to serve and protect the public from a drab wardrobe. Sharita, a shopaholic and Chicago police officer in her free time, opened the store in May to showcase and sell the eye-catching clothes she loves. “She’s flashy,” says Sharita’s laconic boyfriend, wearing a Bluetooth while manning the cash register. Slinky rayon-spandex dresses, faux fur vests, and burgundy jumpsuits hang on racks at the front of the store. Cases display sparkling metallic bangles and heavy costume jewelry pieces, while bejeweled brassieres twinkle on their hangers–red, turquoise, and orange. The five-inch snakeskin heels exhibited on the wall look deadly–to walk in them you’d have to break a couple laws of physics, and maybe even a bone. The store design is almost as sumptuous as the apparel: plush, jewel-tone pillows line a bench and glass chandeliers hang over a bar in the back that is used for parties. A nearly complete set of letters hammered into a wall read, “INDULGE YOUR ELF”. At N’Dulge, there’s more than enough extravagance to go around: indulge your elf and yourself. 421 E. 75th S. Monday-Saturday, 11am-7pm. (855)638-5432 (Rachel Wiseman)
Best International Cuisine
Wings Around the World
“Girl, we don’t do plain wings,” the employee said to a customer who had inquired, tutting from behind the sliding glass window. Wings Around the World offers juicy and tender non-breaded chicken wings, cooked-to-order in batches of five to a thousand. The main draw, however, is the selection of over forty gourmet flavors gathered from around the world. Not only reserved for the chicken, the house-made rubs and sauces may be added to shrimp, catfish, perch, cod, or the most popular alternative, tilapia. Flavors range from the smoky sweet honey jerk BBQ to the savory parmesan garlic, to the sweat-inducing spicy “Kamikaze.” The sides are all American, but not to be passed up–the “cheese wedge” alternative to lightly seasoned fries is really fried mac and cheese–and all meals come with a cold pop. Expect a wait when you go–but relax, it took Jules Verne 80 days to make it as far as the Wings employees do in a mere 20 minutes. 510 E. 75th St. Monday-Tuesday, 2pm-12am; Wednesday, 12pm-2am; Thursday-Friday, 12pm-4:30am; Saturday, 12pm-5am; Sunday, 12pm-7pm. (773)483-9120. flavorstoinfinity.com (Kelsey Gee)
Best Rib Tip
Uncle John’s BBQ
The whole production at Uncle John’s BBQ is visible through the chicken wire that covers the glass storefront. A spit rotates, men stand attentive at the woodchip grill, placing on new racks of ribs, rotating cuts of chicken, and taking pieces off once slow-roasted to juicy perfection. While the decision between rib tips, fried chicken, hot links, turkey, or brisket may seem vexing, you can’t go wrong with any of these carnivorous delights. All are tender, faintly smoky, and drenched with mild, spicy, or ‘mixed’ sauce. The meat comes presented on a bed of fries, with two slices of white bread and a cup of slaw on the side–a grand feast considering it comes in a paper bag.Â 339 E. 69th St. Monday-Thursday, 1pm-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 1pm-12am. (773)892-1233 (Isaac Dalke)