Larry Tucker (N.N. Smokehouse) re-emerged in 2014 with Crazy Bird Chicken, a tiny, mostly takeout spot in Lawndale that focuses on fried chicken and sides. Tucker's a friendly guy and he'll help you decide what to order, if you're not sure where to start. He steered us toward a buffalo chicken sandwich, with tenders coated with a light, crisp batter, a restrained dose of buffalo sauce, crisp lettuce and blue cheese spread, and the Crazy Bird Crazy Good Fries, which are indeed that. A tray of perfect fries comes piled with cheese, gravy, truffle oil and crisp shards of duck bacon, and makes the poutine dishes you see around Chicago look weak. End with a slice of pound cake, made by Tucker's wife, and you have a very solid lunch. On Fridays and Saturdays, Tucker gets back to his barbecue roots and smokes rib tips in his small smoker. For Riot Fest, he'll pack up picnics to go.
We weren't sure Dave's was even open when we walked up to the door, but ignore the gate and enter the restaurant, which has been in business since 1938. It feels like nothing has changed in decades, with flyers tacked to the wall and yellowing menus. The menu consists of Vienna Beef links (they've been inducted into the Vienna Beef Hall of Fame), like skinless dogs, slicked with mustard and decorated with a thinly sliced pickle and peppers, with relish and onions only by request (as several signs remind you). The fries are hand-cut and have a crisp edge, and the steamed bun is soft and pillowy. To eat, squeeze into the tiny wooden booths or hop on one of the stools by the counter.
The bright, welcoming cafe is attached to Lawndale Christian Health Center and serves as something of a community center, with people tapping away on laptops and a Chuy Garcia sighting. The food is simple but satisfying, with sandwiches like turkey, cheddar, apple slaw and housemade green tomato jam piled on a roll, and salads, soups and a Saturday pancake breakfast. Just want coffee while you work? A full espresso bar is available and uses beans from Bridgeport Coffee.
No place in Chicago cares about corn tortillas like La Casa de Samuel. You can see this for yourself, since they are all prepared right as you walk inside. Thick, yet soft, with a sweet fresh corn fragrance—they are good enough to eat alone. But they really thrive when matched with slices of funky cecina. Thin sheets of beef are salted and dried, resulting in a concentrated wallop of beefiness.
Chicago’s best all-around taqueria specializes in tacos de fritangas, or fried meaty things cooked on a wide metal stovetop called a charola. You seriously can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, from the extra beefy suadero to the intricately spiced longaniza sausage. But the showstopper—and perhaps the best taco in the city—is the tripa. Order it crispy, and these little hunks from the cow’s intestine (not, as you would assume, the stomach) arrive as golden-hued and glistening crunchy nuggets.
The Chicago outpost of Lagunitas Brewing Company is the largest craft brewery in the city, mixing up barrel upon barrel of potent, hoppy concoctions. Housed in a group of warehouses near Douglas Park, the facility quickly became a popular destination for tourists and beer aficionados. A strong bar food menu wil help you make it through a couple rounds.
Tucked in the back of La Catedral Cafe & Restaurant is Las Quecas, the only Chicago outpost of the quesadilla chain (there are also locations in Carpentersville and Melrose Park). The tortillas are made right in front of you and it shows—they're thick, fresh and perfect vessels for fillings that range from carne asada to squash blossom. The chicharrón quesadilla features tender pork rinds cloaked with a vibrant salsa roja that offers a slow burn, while a spin through the salsa bar reveals some excellent, piquant sauces.
This unassuming walk-up window, located right at the corner of Sacramento and Harrison, serves basics like a hot dog and burger, but the Polish is the way to go. The thick, smoky, snappy sausage comes nestled in a bun swiped with mustard, a ton of griddled onions packed on top, and peppers tucked into the sides of the bun. It comes with fries, which are soft and limp, but no matter—this Polish is a big enough meal on its own, and totally satisfying to boot.
Just down the street from La Chaparrita is perhaps the city’s best al pastor taqueria (making this stretch of 25th Street the beating heart of Chicago’s taco scene). An enormous spit of rotating marinated pork beckons you as you walk in, and fortunately Los Barrilitos knows how to treat it right, slicing the chile-stained pork directly onto awaiting tortillas. Tender, with nicely caramelized edges, this is al pastor done right.