In the Southwest Suburbs, a Middle Eastern enclave of food and family thrives.
Mon Jan 5 2009
Middle Eastern food should be about two things: lively spices and my-restaurant-is-your-home hospitality. So it’s disappointing when your local pita pit dishes up limp falafel and humdrum hummus with a side order of surly. Fortunately, there is a land not far away where the welcome is as warm as the spices are sunny, and fantastic food awaits the weary traveler.
If you know where Bridgeview is, you either grew up in the South Suburbs or you have Chicago Fire tickets. Located straight south of Chicago’s western edge, the neighborhood is a mix of Irish, Polish, Lithuanians and Palestinians, and with its rows of unlovely strip malls and lube joints, it hardly looks like an Arabian Nights idyll at first glance. But as the commercial and religious center for the South Side Arab community, it’s Chicago’s mecca for the tastiest Middle Eastern cuisine.
Two strip malls on 87th Street just west of Harlem anchor the Arab community; start at the one on the south side, window gawking at brightly colored hookahs, hijabs and knockoff designer T-shirts. 1 Al-Amal Grocery & Bakery (7289 W 87th St, 708-237-2625) offers a wide variety of freshly baked pitas and other breads, often still warm in the package, and spices like the all-purpose za’atar, a zesty mix of sesame seeds and herbs. A few doors down, 2 Albasha Sweets (7311 W 87th St, 708-233-0826) is stacked high with a glittering treasure trove of gift-boxed Turkish delight and other gooey treats. For an actual meal, you could visit the offshoot of 63rd Street’s venerable 3 The Nile Restaurant (7333 W 87th St, 708-237-0767) for simple but well-prepared grilled shish taouk and other standards.
Better yet, save your appetite for across the street. 4 Village Pita & Bakery (7378 W 87th St, 708-237-0020) is an impeccably tidy shop selling freshly baked spinach pies, za’atar -covered flatbreads and other healthy, satisfying baked items. If you like spicy, go for the mohamora, a paste of red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses; for sheer comfort food, don’t miss the potato triangles. Stock up: They’ll go fast and they’re cheap. And as the owner implores (with the concern of the true artisan for his wares), reheat in the oven, but never microwave.
It may be hard to imagine how you could turn an old Arby’s into a pasha’s pleasure den, but that’s pretty much what 5 Albawadi Grill (7216 W 87th St, 708-599-1999) has done. The over-the-top decor is matched by the superb hand with wood-grilled meats in the kitchen, producing kebabs, chicken and (unusual for a Middle Eastern restaurant) seafood with perfect juiciness and char flavor. Veggie items—psychedelically bright green falafel, tart fattoush salad, smoky baba ghanoush—also popped with an uncommon brightness of flavor, though the tastiest thing of all might have been a freebie: the complimentary garlicky eggplant dip that started the meal. An attached hookah parlor (with separate ventilation, I was assured) is under construction. From Arby’s potato cakes to Albawadi’s falafel is truly following the path to paradise.
Heading north on Harlem, it would be easy to miss 6 Baladi Restaurant (7209 W 84th St, 708-233-1025), hidden behind a pancake house in a tiny strip mall. Again, the classics are tastily prepared (the baba ghanoush is especially good), and the complimentary tea with dried sage might be reason enough to return. But be sure to ask what the Arabic-only specials board has to offer—on one trip the inquiry was met with a grilled whole chicken, accompanied by a tangy red-pepper dipping sauce, that was unbelievably tender and delicious, with spiced and crispy charred bits.
Next door, the tiny 7 Beesan Grocery (7211 W 84th St, 708-430-0669) is worth a stop for steamy bags of fresh pita baked on premises, as well as an assortment of housemade flatbreads topped with za’atar and the like. Ask about that unusual one you think to be some exotic discovery, though, and the owner might reply “Pizza. With hot dog.”
A feast like this must conclude with sticky, honey-filled Middle Eastern sweets, and 8 Elshafei Pastries (8511 S Harlem Ave, 708-237-9200), on the Burbank side of the street, smells great as baklava and assorted pistachio-filled treats bake in back. But for something a little less common, go into 9 Nablus Sweets (8320 S Harlem Ave, 708-529-3911) and point to the tray of cheese oozing out from under a layer of circus-peanut-orange crispies. This is knafeh, sort of a cross between a deep-dish pizza and a cheese blintz. Technically it’s white cheese and saffron-colored shredded wheat topped with crushed pistachios and doused with sweet syrup, and as rich as it is, you probably won’t make it through a whole portion, but on weekends the locals line up and consume it like hotcakes. As well as they know their food down here, you should trust them on this one.