Miss Lee’s Good Food

The small neon sign taking up the narrow storefront window tells you what you need to know:  Miss Lee’s Good Food. The neighborhood is tough–like many unassuming takeouts across the South Side, the kitchen and cash register are closed off with protective glass, and the food comes to you through a turnstile. Yet the atmosphere is no less warm and inviting. The walls speak–photographs of children sitting on Santa’s lap or posing at prom hang next to religious messages telling you to trust in God. And of course, there’s the menu. It’s a hand-written dictionary of Southern cooking: stewed chicken, fried catfish, smothered steak, and even a pig ear sandwich. The dessert list tempts with three types of cobbler, a special of stewed apples, and a “whole buttered milk pie.”

A little old black lady, gray hair swept up within a hair net, came out with all our food ready to go. It had to be Miss Lee. As she passed two bags of catfish and fried chicken and other assorted goodies through the turnstile, I took a quick whiff of the food and was immediately ready to adopt Miss Lee as my grandma.

I asked if we could get a picture, and she smiled shyly and agreed to come out. First she took an order of pig ears from the man behind us in line, asking if he wanted that with biscuits or corn muffins. “Do I look like a biscuit man to you?” he jovially questioned.

Miss Lee then ambled out, letting us snap a photo in front of the menu. I asked her when she opened her restaurant–almost fourteen years ago–and why she wanted to. “It’s a passion,” she said in a thick Southern accent. “It’s a gift from God. You use it or lose it.” She had come from Mississippi to Chicago in 1962, waitressed for many years, and loved serving people and cooking for them.  Finally she opened a restaurant, serving up what has come to be regarded as some of the best soul food in Chicago.

“You tell them that I love this woman and I want to marry her!” said the pig ears man. I promised that it would be on the record. The restaurant is take-out only, so we dashed out to catch a bus before we could dig in. The bags gave off a greasy and appetizing aroma, surprisingly similar to the smell of Chinese take-out. When we finally arrived home, the styrofoam containers of mac and cheese, BBQ beef, and peach cobbler finally came out from glistening paper bags.

Miss Lee’s most famous dish is her herbal chicken, and rightfully so. The grilled, herb-coated meat was tender and juicy, smoky and spicy. It’s also one of the healthier items on the menu, as it comes either baked or grilled. Another winner was the tangy and delicious BBQ beef sandwich with a side of fries. The fried catfish with a side of pickled beets proved disappointing–the fish was laden with salt, and cloves had overpowered the beets.

Each special came with a choice of biscuits or corn muffins and two of the day’s sides, like succotash or spaghetti in barbeque sauce. While the corn muffins were surprisingly dry, the biscuits tasted excellent and even came pre-buttered. On the side, the sweet succotash of corn and beans in tomato sauce and the soft, golden yellow mashed turnips proved a superb complement to any main course. The meal ended with peach cobbler, a tender square of golden-brown crust in a pool of cinnamon-flecked syrup.

My body was not very happy with me for the salty, fatty, fried-up dinner, and made its displeasure known with a serious case of heartburn. Nevertheless, I regret nothing. I know a bit about soul food, but I know more about good food, and Miss Lee’s is deserving of the name.

203 E. Garfield Blvd. Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-8pm. (773) 752-5253