Best Of :: Food & Drink
"It's such a nice night, why don't you have a seat on the patio and have a glass of wine while you look at the menu?" the kindly old man advises as you walk up the front steps. If owner Sammy Patrenella seems at home here in this big old house in the Heights, it's probably because his parents built the place. Eating here still feels more like visiting an Italian neighbor's house for a plate of spaghetti than going out to dinner. The front yard is a bocce court, and there's a garden over in the parking lot. Sammy grows peppers, tomatoes and Italian squash over there, all of which he proudly parades through the dining rooms every time he picks some. You can't help but love this place, even if the food is a throwback to a simpler time.
They fry your chicken to order at Henderson's Chicken Shack. It takes about 20 minutes. Henderson's isn't a franchise or a chain. It's owned by a Creole woman named Ann Henderson, who was born in New Iberia, Louisiana. Cooking the chicken to order seems like a nuisance when you're waiting, but once you bite into the hot chicken, you know it's worth it. There's a wonderful thick, spicy crust, and the chicken pieces come on two slices of white bread, which soak up the juice. Most people get their order to go (there isn't much in the way of tables) and let the chicken cool off in the car, so it's the perfect temperature when you get your yardbird home. But be forewarned, you'll probably end up eating all the red-peppery fries on the drive.
Cajun Corner sells boiled Cajun-style crawfish all year round in its Vietnamese neighborhood. Gulf Coast Vietnamese-Americans are wild about Cajun-style boiled crawfish -- the spicier the better. There's a condiment bar where patrons stir up insanely hot dipping sauces made out of pure cayenne powder with a dash of ketchup and mayo or a little squeeze of lemon. Cajun Corner also sells gumbo, étouffée, chicken wings, alligator platters and a full menu of Cajun specialties. But the only other dish besides boiled crawfish that really stands out is the crawfish fried rice.
They're large, always warm and have just the right balance of firmness, chewiness and doughiness. The bagels at Manhattan Bagels run golden-brown rings around the others. More than 20 different varieties are always available, including all of the standards, plus rye, whole wheat, egg, jalapeo, spinach, cinnamon and raisin, cranberry and chocolate chip. Also available are cream cheese spreads in a dozen different flavors. At $5.95 for a baker's dozen, they're a terrific bargain. The breakfast and lunch sandwiches are also good values. With their frequent shopper cards, you can earn a dozen free bagels after your 12th purchase. Now, if just we could get them to open one inside the Loop.
Mama Tran makes the dumplings at this quirky little family-run Vietnamese restaurant in the Old Chinatown neighborhood near the intersection of Highways 45 and 59. The dumplings are awesome, and the noodles are pretty good, too. Owner Jenni Tran-Weaver (Mama Tran's daughter) makes the homemade Vietnamese desserts. But that's not all that makes this place special. According to the menu, you get a lap dance from Jenni's husband, Scott, added to your bowl of noodles for $50 extra. (Shrimp is a cheaper add-on, at only $4.) Members of various local arts groups come here to eat such signature dishes as Infernal Chicken Curry and Art Car Curry. The employees wear T-shirts printed with such slogans as "Madonna Eats Here" and "My Noodle Is Bigger than Your Noodle." If you're having trouble finding this strip mall location just off Jefferson, look for Jenni's plastic pink flamingos that she strews all over the grass strip in front of the place every morning.
Plum sauce is mundane in these surroundings. If the toddy palm drink, fresh seaweed, spicy sliced pork ear and stomach, or fish balls aren't exotic enough for you, try the mochi chocolate pai, karela, tidora or moo, none of which comes with a translation. Then there's the fruit-flavored beef jerky and the sweet soursop, both of which sound like oxymorons. Live geoducks (giant clams) lie lazily in one of the many fish tanks, awaiting their fate as live sushi. Kids, this is not the kind of stuff you'll find at Kroger. The wildest ingredients, though, also may be the most expensive. Take a gander at the dried deer leg at $25 per pound, or the shark fin at a toothy $250 a pound (both are used to make soup). Sorry, you can't just have a pound or two; you've got to take the whole fin, which weighs from ten to 13 pounds. That's not just exotic, it's plum wild.