It's the time of year when we salute the Irish part of our city's heritage with a series of meaningless gestures, mostly involving wooly sweaters and dying things green (beer, major waterways). But a number of food shops around town offer a more authentic taste of the Auld Sod.
Historically, Irish cuisine hasn't exactly enjoyed a stellar reputation in the U.S., as we've dismissed it as over-boiled and bland. But many of the country's archetypal foods—wholemeal breads, cheeses, savory puddings, to name a few—epitomize characteristics that have lately become culinary watchwords here in the US: They're humble, often small-batch and have embodied nose-to-tail cooking since long before that was a thing people talked about. Here are five Chicago-area shops to reshape your idea of Irish food this St. Patrick's Day—even if you insist on pairing it with green beer.
RECOMMENDED: Chicago St. Patrick's Day guide
Best Irish food shops
You might at first take this Jefferson Park spot to be merely one more of the many shops around town peddling Irish gifts like Belleek china and Aran knits. But something more is happening here: Back beyond a small but densely stocked grocery section offering imported staples like baking supplies, sauces and potato chips (er, "crisps") is an open kitchen where shop staff whip up a range of traditional Irish comfort foods. Try the sausage rolls, super flaky, rich puff pastry shells wrapped around a filling of herby ground pork. It's a simple combination that's a little salty, a little fatty and extremely satisfying.
For more than 40 years, Jack & Pat's has serviced the Southwest Side's sizeable Irish expat community from its marvelously kitschy Chicago Ridge location. Like Gaelic Imports, Jack & Pat's maintains a section of Irish grocery staples. It's first and foremost a butcher shop, though, and it's a good bet for Irish breakfast sausage, which, unlike its American counterpart, is subtly seasoned and so finely ground it's almost creamy. USDA regulations make importing Irish meats tough, so Jack & Pat's carries two locally made brands: Winston's and Diamond's. Both versions are tasty, but in spicing and consistency, Diamond's are closer to the real thing.
Brown bread may just be Ireland's quintessential food: It's beautifully simple, hearty and delicious. While it's ubiquitous in Irish homes and restaurants, a good American approximation can be hard to find, due largely to textural differences in each country's whole wheat flour. (Theirs is far coarser than ours.) O'Connor's Deli in Edison Park bakes up one of the best versions in the city, with a pleasant, malty sweetness and a crumb that's simultaneously tender and crumbly. The only embellishment a slice of brown really needs is a smear of dense, faintly tangy Irish butter; fortunately, O'Connor's stocks two varieties (Kerrygold and Dairygold) among its small range of imported goods.
You might not guess it from its super-adorable name and Pinterest-y Southport storefront, but the folks at Spencer's Jolly Posh Foods have a real way with pig's blood. After all, it's a key ingredient in black pudding (similar to morcilla or boudin), of which Spencer's produces an excellent rendition (along with its paler cousin, white pudding, and a handful of other carnivorous delights). Traditionally, black pudding is found fried or broiled on the Irish breakfast table, and Spencer's version works just fine the old-fashioned way—but it's also highly adaptable. Try it on a salad, or with some Irish blue cheese atop a pizza.
Along with supplying Irish meats to shops like Jack & Pat's, Winston's also operates two retail stores, the original near Midway (4701 W 63rd St) and the other, much newer and larger, in the southwestern suburb of Tinley Park. A visit to the Tinley location is well worth the trip; not only does it stock the meats prepared at the Midway location—boiling bacon, corned beef, sausages, and so on—but in its vast range of imported snacks salty and sweet, tea and soft drinks, even frozen goods like fish sticks, it may also be the closest thing to a real Irish grocery store this side of the Atlantic. At the end of the day, though, Winston's is really about meat, so pick up a pack of the house-cured, thick-cut back bacon, known in Ireland as rashers.