THE CHICAGO BEAT :: BYOB – Endless Choices from Chicago’s Food Scene Part 2

by Paul Ciminero on July 2, 2012

The food scene in Chicago has evolved over the past decade to include award winning, internationally acclaimed restaurants sprouting up with no liquor licenses, hence bringing the concept of BYOB to a whole new level. As mentioned in Part One, there are three “Top Dogs” that fit into that category; Schwa, Goosefoot, and Ruxbin Kitchen.  For those who love being able to bring their own bottles into a fine dining establishment, I’ll tell you here about more  incredible eateries that allow you to do just that..BYOB!  In this second installment, I’ll give you my favorite go-to list for Mexican, Central and South American, Mediterranean, and Indian cuisines.   The final  installment of our look at BYOB’s will feature  barbeque and comfort food restaurants and will be published later this year.  Are you hungry yet??

MEXICAN/CENTRAL/SOUTH AMERICAN: It would be hard to imagine that this staple of the Chicago food scene, the Mexican/Central/South American neighborhood restaurant, would gain international acclaim to the level that it has in the last three years.  Through the tireless efforts of Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless, whose Frontera Grill,  Topolobampo and XOCOhave brought this style of cooking with a contemporary American twist to the prime time masses, we’ve seen an explosion of award winning BYOB’s in this category. For beverages with these cuisines most folks go with can’t miss margaritas; but blending your own beforehand when heading to a BYO seems hardly like an option.  I suggest any lagers, classic French White burgundy (or Chardonnay that isn’t to buttery or over oaked), Sancerre (or American Sauvignon Blanc) and moderately hearty red wines like Italian Barbera d ‘Asti, Cahors (or medium bodied southern French reds), and Pinot Noir with your meal.

Chilam Balam –  Bravo’s “Top Chef’s Season 9’s” bad boy, Chuy Valencia, hangs his toque at this basement studio apartment sized eatery on North Broadway next to one of the best hot dog shops in town, Flub a Dub Chub.  As sous chef for Mr. Bayless at Frontera and as the executive chef for the Adobo grill franchise, he may look like the wiry kid next door but his cooking skills are exceptional.  The concept is simple; support local, sustainable farmers and their products.  The menu consists of over a dozen “small plates” ranging in price from $8.95 to $14.95 and several desserts.  This encourages your entourage (of say, six of us on a recent visit) to pick 5 or six main items and order at least two servings.  With standouts like their “Blue Marlin ceviche”, “Chorizo Meatloaf “ or the “Suiza style duck leg enchilada’s”,  you’ll want two or three orders of each.  Go early (they’re open for dinner only); they don’t take reservations, and it’s CASH only.

Mixteco Grill Bayless/Frontera alumni, Raul Arreola, brings his masterful take on Mexican cuisine to Lakeview’s Mixteco Grill.  Located at Montrose and Ashland Avenues, Mixteco’s Arreola is the “master of the mole” sauces and they are extraordinary.  Offering dinners nightly (closed Monday), the menu includes staples like enchilada’s (like you’ve never had –shredded chicken with” complex” black mole, garnished with onion, cilantro, radishes, lettuce, and cheese – $17), Rack of Lamb in Oaxaca sweet mole with garlic mashed potatoes ($21), or Camarones Al Morita (shrimp seared on the grill with a chipotle honey glaze – $19) just to name a few choices.  Their weekend brunch menu, (we had Huevos Al Bajio – two poached eggs served in corn mesa boats with black beans, chorizo, creamy poblano sauce, tomatoes and cilantro; it’s killer!) is well worth trying.  There is a $3.00 per bottle corkage fee.

Los  Nopales –  Another Michelin Bib winner, this great spot is within walking distance of another nearby Bib recipient, Opart Thai, at Wilson and Western avenues.  Nopales is a cactus that gives us the prickly pear and both the cactus and its pear are two of the many creative ingredients used here.  Go for the amazing Skirt Steak Special,  juicy, tender skirt steak on top of frijoles borrachos (pinto bean, green pepper, bacon, sausage and onions with as side of grilled cactus salad), or the slow roasted Grilled Pork Tenderloin Medallions or quite possibly the best Tilapia fish taco’s around. (You can order them as an appetizer too!) All are all great choices.  The pan fried whole red snapper or tilapia are great to share or just hoarding for yourself.

Habana Libre  – A danceable, Cuban interpretation of the Beatles’ Obladi Oblada welcomes you to this eatery’s webpage so get ready to party at this West Town BYOB.  Plenty of fried offerings are on the menu but don’t let that scare the occasional dieter away.  There’s plenty of rice, black bean, chicken, and beef dishes with sides of fried plantains for you! We started with the combination “appetizer for six” consisting of assorted empanadas, papa rellenas (breaded/fried potato balls stuffed with ground beef), yucca frita (fried yucca), and Croquetas (Breaded/fried croquettes stuffed with ham, chicken or fish).  If I had a gall bladder, it would have had a stone the size of billiard ball after that course.                                                                                                                           You could order the Ropa Veja (pictured), shredded steak in a tomato sauce – a Cuban staple) or Lechon Asado (roasted pork loin – Cuban style) but I recommend heading directly over to Granma’s Menu (Granma has a menacing smile and a 10 inch cigar in her mouth in the menu’s background) and grab the whole red snapper, Cuban Paella, or the $60 combination plate (serves 3) with over 10 items.  And save room for one or more of their incredible flans (including pumpkin and passion fruit flavored) for dessert.  Then waddle back to you car and flatten the tires as you get behind the wheel.  No corkage fee here either.

MIDDLE EASTERN/INDIAN: Many restaurants in this category are BYOB but some, as I recently encountered, do NOT allow alcohol of any type because of their religious beliefs.  Always call ahead and ask.  There are dozens of BYOB places on Chicago’s north side and adjacent suburbs.  Below is a listing of some of my favorites.  Lagers again dominate the choices in beer because of the richness of some foods and the use of basic grilling techniques with others.   The range of wine styles varies with individual tastes but whites like  dry Pinot Grigio,  Riesling and Gewurtzimer  can work in some cases and big reds like American Cabernet, French Gigondas, or more moderately styled Spanish Rioja’s  can be a choice depending on the intensity of the dish ordered.  Here are some of the places that I recommend:

Shokran – Moroccan Cuisine – Located just off the Kennedy expressway at Irving Park and Pulaski, Shokran’s allure is its tangine dishes.  A tangine is a Moroccan crock pot in which stews of various ingredients are cooked and presented table side.  Here they offer nearly a dozen and you can order several to share with your friends.  The Lamb Casablanca (made with potatoes, olives and rich spices) or the Kefta (pictured), Moroccan meatballs in a tomato sauce with garlic, parsley, and olive oil, are just two of the many standouts they serve.  From the grill comes the Middle Eastern standard of kabobs, (get the mixed for $15 of Lamb, Chicken, Beef, and Merguez – (special sausage)).  They also have an extensive array of Couscous based dishes that are delicious.   Appetizers include Zaalouk (roasted eggplant and tomatoes in olive oil), hummus, a carrot salad, and Briwats, Moroccan style egg rolls stuffed with shrimp and vermicelli.  This is a CASH only restaurant that is moderately priced and offers traditional Moroccan music on certain nights.

Bagdad Kabab  –   This recent addition to the Albany Park neighborhood on Lawrence is an unusual find.  Serving cab drivers, local students, and an array of street folk, Bagdad Kabab appeared quite unsettling to my out of town guests on a recent visit.  Having arrived first I asked the young chef what tonight’s special was.  “Lamb’s head” was his reply.  A little too adventurous for our tastes that night, Bagdad Kabab is a great example of why you don’t have to go far in this city to find “authentic” Persian cuisine. The interior is a well lit, spacious room with the Arab equivalent of MTV from a 40 inch TV screen blaring on the back wall.  The first thing you notice is the Iraqi breakfast menu, with Guimar (fresh cream “Iraqi style,” with honey) and Makhlama (shawarma with eggs) among the items.  At 3 am this place is probably hopping!  Mainstays of Hummus, Falafel, Baba ghannouj (eggplant dip- YBN editor Harvey’s FAVORITE dish), and the most amazing lentil soup in the city get you started.  The $10.99 grilled Cornish game hen or the lamb shank both served with dill rice are delicious at a fraction of the cost of most other establishments. Yet it’s the Kabab’s that you came for; grilled skewers of assorted meats and even an Arab take on Fajita’s that leaves everyone stuffed and smiling.  There’s no corkage fee (they were amused to see me pull out the wine glasses) and plenty of leftovers to take home.

Kabul House – Just north of the city limits nestled on Oakton and Lincoln avenues is an authentic Afghan eatery worthy of a Michelin Bib award.  The first taste of Afghan food for Chicagoans was a restaurant called the Helmand, run by Afghan President Karzai’s late brother in the 1990’s.  Kabul House picks up where they left off.  Appetizers range from Aushak (steamed dumplings of scallions topped with yogurt, mint, and a special meat sauce, to Pumpkin pureed in special spices (Kadu) and Boranee Baunjan (Eggplant in a tomato and yogurt sauce).  Traditional kabob skewers include  Koubideh (ground beef kabob) Lamb, or Murgh (ground chicken kabob) that will delight as a main course or to share with the table.   Their amazing selection of main courses include Mantoo (ground beef  in  pastry shells topped with carrots, yellow split peas and meat sauce), Quabili Palau (seasoned lamb covered with seasoned rice, carrots, and raisins) Qorma Sabzee (lamb stew on a bed of sauteed spinach with onions and spices), and numerous vegetarian offerings.  Afghan desserts include Firnee (pudding of milk,rose, and pistachio’s) and Baklava.

Punjabi Dhabha –  When I first moved to Chicago, my older brother Neil would take me to a dingy Indian restaurant on Belmont Avenue called Moti Mahal.  Their food was amazing even though the matriarch behind the counter scowled and treated you like crap.  Their Samosas were so authentic, (a breaded and quick fried appetizer of peas and potatoes) visiting friends would buy dozens to take back east.  They opened and later sold a second location on Devon Avenue to their former employees and it’s now called Punjabi Dhabha.  They have their own liquor license but allow BYOB and do not charge corkage. There are over forty food establishments in this unique neighborhood but I keep gravitating back to this one.  If you decide to order directly from the menu (buffet is also an option) start with the aforementioned Samosas and vegetable Pakora, topped with either, or both, the green or dark fruit chutney, then order a selection of Naan (one of the many breads made in a clay tandoor oven), Roti bread, and the basmati rice.  For my main courses and sides it’s always Mutter Paneer (ricotta like Indian cheese cubes and peas in orange creamy curry), Chicken Tikka Masala (chicken in a spicy, creamy tomato based sauce), Tandoori Chicken (served sizzling hot, table side, on a flat skillet with sweet onions) and any Lamb dish you like (the Vindaloo is a winner and comes in a fiery brown curry with chunks of potato).  Desserts include Gulab Jamun (small sweet cheese balls in honeyed syrup) and their amazing rice pudding.  A week on the tread mill awaits you after this meal!

In our final installment we’ll look at a few more outstanding locations to bring your own bottles and enjoy the pairing of more great food styles with your favorite alcoholic beverage. OK, it’s time to stop reading;  you’ve got plenty of eating to do!

Ed. I do NOT like eggplant. So kill me.

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