Naf Naf Grill has quietly been taking over Chicago’s fast food Middle Eastern niche. It started in Naperville – the result of a former Taboun cook’s passion for fresh pita and juicy-as-hell chicken shawarma – and has now spread to Niles, Aurora and thankfully, The Loop. They’ve whittled down the menu to the essentials: falafel, shawarma, kebabs and chicken schnitzel, the latter a dish every Israeli child grows up eating. You can get them in a freshly-baked pita or over rice. That’s about it. The schnitzels are crispy outside, and exude the tender juiciness that is the hallmark of a well marinated and seasoned thigh, lightly coated and fried at the proper temperature. The toppings – including pickles, purple cabbage and a tahini-less Jerusalem salad – also make this sandwich truly unique. (Big thanks to Todd Rosenberg, @toddrphoto, for the fine videography this week).
Takashi Yagihashi’s profile has been given a boost over the last few weeks, thanks in part to his appearance on “Top Chef Masters.” One of the friendliest chefs in the business, he returned to Chicago several years ago (after stints at Tribute in Farmington Hills, MI and Okada at The Wynn Las Vegas) to open his namesake in Bucktown. Problem was, fine-dining – especially for a style of cuisine that could only be described as Asian with French technique – was on the wane. Enter Slurping Turtle in River North. Since his more casual ramen and yakitori spot opened last year, seats have been tough to find and demand for his ramen has exploded. So much so, that he dropped the popular Sunday ramen menu at Takashi, and now just focuses his efforts downtown (as well as at the Takashi Noodles kiosk on the 7th floor of Macy’s). One of my favorites is the tonkatsu ramen, which features hunks of pork in a silky, rich porky broth. The noodles are made for the restaurant elsewhere – to the chef’s specs – but they are nonetheless wonderfully chewy and taught. This is a dish you can eat anytime, but especially on an overcast, autumn afternoon in a sweater.
I’m still lamenting the loss of the Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop in Hyde Park, but the other location – in Evanston – is still humming along. Incidentally, they also have a second location in South Suburban Lansing. The restaurant serves three meals a day, but on weekends, they offer a few extra items, such as banana bread French toast. ‚ Jammed with an intense banana flavor, and capped by a snowy mountain of freshly-whipped cream and a handful of caramelized bananas, this weekend treat could be a delicious habit.
Before you know it, it’s going to be steady sweater weather. Enter your perfect antidote: hearty burek, which – depending on where you’re from – hails from either Macedonia, Turkey, Serbia and/or Bosnia. The Beograd Cafe on Irving Park is a reliable hangout for off-duty construction workers and coffee-sipping ex-pats, and nearly every table has a sturdy, doorstop-worthy plate of burek on it. I’d recommend bringing a friend to help you polish one off.
As you can probably tell, I’m on a bit of southern kick this week, especially after yesterday’s post about some of my eating highlights in Charleston. When you’re in the Lowcountry, near the Carolinas on the Outer Banks, one of my favorite dishes has to be shrimp and grits. True, the rest of the South has embraced this dish (one of the best versions I can recall was at Two Sisters Kitchen in NOLA, not to be confused with the touristy Court of Two Sisters in the Quarter). But I’ve rarely found exceptional versions in Chicago. Fortunately, the entire philosophy at Big Jones, in Andersonville, is about staying true to historical southern cooking with a strong emphasis on sustainably-raised and sourced products. That’s why it’s not surprising to see those lovely Anson Mills grits serving as a corny canvas for the homemade tasso and sauteed Gulf shrimp. I think chef/owner Paul Fehribach has come as close to the Lowcountry ideal as is possible, and I hope you’ll agree.
(videography by Todd Rosenberg)
In the waning days of summer (I can’t quite reconcile the fact that August is already in the past), you don’t have to make the trek to Ukrainian Village (or their latest store, at Belmont & Damen) to try Jesse Oloroso’s gelato. In fact, the owner of Black Dog Gelato has several outlets selling her locally famous dessert: Girl & the Goat, Socca and Uncommon Ground, just to name a few. But if you happen to be strolling down Damen, you should make a point to stop in for a cup or cone. Her remarkable combinations are unlike anyone else’s, and the combination of sweet and savory ingredients is an exercise in creamy, eggy alchemy.