The popular Korean dish bi bim bop

WHEN I CAME TO to Chicago 11
years ago, a vegetarian
from Pittsburgh, I was
pale, underweight, and awestruck
by how much there was to eat here.
I’d had a few revelatory eating
experiences back home—Thai,
Indian—but I had no idea how
poorly those meals would compare
to so many in my future.

I regrew my meat tooth one day on
a whole barbecued chicken from the
late, great N.N. Smokehouse, and I
never looked back, consuming everything
in my path from ant eggs in a
Laotian restaurant to bull’s pizzle at a
Nigerian place. There’s a staggering
variety of ethnic cuisines in this city.
None require the consumption of
insects and organ meats, and most
are vegetarian friendly (but get over
that). The biggest barrier to
finding inexpensive and delicious
representations of
any of them is not language
but knowing
where to start and
where to go next.
Every week the Reader
bites off a chunk, presenting
a large selection of short restaurant reviews by writers who think while
they eat. Online there’s a constantly
updated database of thousands of
reviews, searchable by cuisine and
geography. This survey is a small, by
no means comprehensive taste of
what can be found all over the city
from the four corners of the globe.

It’s amazing that Taco Bell can
exist here when there are taquerias
on nearly every block serving
authentic food not squirted from
tubes. We arguably have the best
and biggest variety of Mexican cuisine
in the country (yes, even better
than LA). The Maxwell Street Market (at Canal and Roosevelt)
runs every Sunday from before
dawn until midafternoon and offers
regional Mexican foods from earthy
huitlacoche to rich stewed goat
birria to fat banana-leaf-wrapped
Oaxacan tamales, hot churros, rice
pudding, empanadas, octopus and
shrimp cocteles, and every possible
taco you can imagine, most in fresh,
hand-formed corn tortillas.

Between giant metal Puerto Rican
flag arches in Humboldt Park,
Division Street becomes the Paseo Boricua, the epicenter of the venerable
Puerto Rican community.
An older landmark within,
the 46-year-old Latin American Restaurant and Lounge (2743 W.
Division, 773-235-7290) has a daily
buffet laden with
comforting, heavy
cocina criolla (Puerto
Rican cuisine), including
the fatty, crispy marinated
pork known as lechon, blood
sausages, plantains, stuffed potatoes,
stews, and soups. Borinquen (1720
N. California, 773-227-6038) is the
home of the Chicago-invented

jibarito, a heart-stopper of lechon,
sliced ham, steak, chicken, or veggies
sandwiched between deep-fried,
flattened green plantains.

Up north in Rogers Park, La Unica (1515 W. Devon, 773-274-7788), a
Cuban grocery store, has a lunch
counter in the back with a wide
variety of cheap meals and daily specials
including chicken and rice,
papas fritas and yuca fries with
garlic sauce, garbanzo soup, roast
pork sandwiches, oxtails, and sweet,
creamy Cuban coffee. But Devon’s
most renowned for its Indian and
Pakistani restaurants, groceries, and
banquet halls—you can smell the
spices blocks before you hit the
street. Khan BBQ (2401 W. Devon,
773-274-8600) is best for its chicken
boti—juicy, tender pieces of bird
marinated in yogurt and hung in the
tandoor, a clay oven—but also plates
other cheap eats ideal for soaking up
a late-night drunk, like frontier
chicken, rice greasy from the griddle,
kebabs, and vegetable dishes.

On the outskirts of downtown
there’s a handful of small, utilitarian
restaurants catering to Muslim cabdrivers
who want Prophet-approved
halal meals at any and all hours. The
24-hour Kababish (939 N. Orleans,
312-642-8622) has a few booths set
before a steaming buffet of hearty
north Indian and Pakistani dishes,
notably a thick, stewy, slow-cooked
haleem made from wheat, mutton,
lentils, and spice; grilled charga
chicken sprinkled with garam
masala; and goat curry.
African cabbies have their spots
too. Most afternoons you’ll see lines
of them pulling up alongside lunch
trucks scattered in specific downtown
spots. The one associated with
Uptown’s TBS African Restaurant (4507 N. Sheridan, 773-561-3407)
passes out tins of fiery jollof rice
accompanied by the meat of your
choice for around $6. Richard, the
driver, says he’s usually parked at Chicago and Chestnut every
weekday from ten to noon, then
moves just north to Washington
Square Park by the Newberry
Library until 3 PM or whenever the
food runs out.

You can find other lunch trucks
doing a brisk business in jerk
chicken and other island specialties,
but some of the smokiest, most aromatic
bird comes from the take-out-only
Tropic Island Jerk Chicken Restaurant (1922 E. 79th, 773-978-5375). For a more relaxed knife-and-fork approach, Cafe Trinidad (557 E. 75th, 773-846-8081) is a
spiffy sit-down spot with excellent home-style curries, brown downs
(stews begun with a caramelized
base), and jerk fish, goat, and beef.

In Chinatown there are restaurants
representing the multitude of
regional cuisines, including the more
obscure. At Spring World (2109-A S.
China Pl., 312-326-9966), in the
Chinatown Mall, you can order
something from just about everywhere
off the huge menu, but it’s the
Yunnanese specialties—like the operatic
“Across the Bridge” hot pot full of
sliced meats and rice noodles or the
daunting-sounding but terrific lamb
stew and fish with sour-pickle casserole—
that ought to remind you just
how huge and varied China is.

After Chinese, Thai may be the
most bastardized cuisine in
America, and in Chicago there’s no
shortage of uninspired spots
pushing bland pad thai, crab
Rangoon, and canned curry. But the
city has a great trinity of Thai
restaurants in TAC Quick (3930 N.
Sheridan, 773-327-5253), Spoon Thai (4608 N. Western, 773-769-1173), and Sticky Rice (4018 N.
Western, 773-588-0133), which specializes
in in the northern Issan
style (you can eat bugs here). Each
has a translated Thai-language menu that goes far beyond the offerings
of any other place in the city.

On Argyle roughly between
Broadway and Sheridan the
Vietnamese have their own distinct
neighborhood—one of the great
food streets in the city. Tank Noodle (4955 N. Broadway, 773-878-2253)
is the place for pho (say “fuh”), an
intoxicating beef noodle soup with
some 15 variations that’s garnished
with fresh cilantro, basil, chiles,
limes, and bean sprouts. Just across
the street, Ba Le Sandwich Shop (5018 N. Broadway, 773-561-4424)
has over a dozen banh mi—an
amazing sandwich of various combinations
of meats, herbs, and chiles
on a French-style roll—for just a
couple bucks each.

Though there aren’t many remnants
of it, Division Street in
Wicker Park used to be known as
the Polish Broadway. Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja (1549 W.
Division, 773-486-6655), across the
street from the Nelson Algren
Fountain, is a living memory, piling
huge, cheap, meaty, starchy plates of
pierogi, pork rolls, stuffed cabbage,
bowls of tangy white borscht, and
baskets of fresh bread, all under the
approving portrait of Pope John
Paul II. In the meantime, immigrants
from other eastern European
countries have become more visible.
Fontana (3424 W. Irving Park, 773-279-9359), a Serbian bakery and
deli, daily puts out fresh discus-shaped
loaves of bread that are perfect
for the chevapcici, fingers of
unencased beef and pork sausage,
griddled in the back.

Korean food may be one of the
more impenetrable yet rewarding
cuisines around town: some restaurants
don’t bother putting up signs in
English, and many have the inhibitive
habit of covering up their windows.
One place that makes it easy is
Garden Buffet (5347 N. Lincoln, 773-728-1249), an enormous room in a
strip mall that serves as an excellent
introduction to the depth and variety
of Korean food: $18.99 buys access
to dozens of standards, from noodles
and soups to sushi, drinks, and an
unlimited supply of meats to grill at
the table. It’s cheaper at lunch.
Chicago Food Corp. (3333 N.
Kimball, 773-478-5566), between
the Kennedy and the Blue Line, is a
huge store where, besides aisles of
local and imported Korean dry
goods, cosmetics, booze, produce,
fresh fish, and meat, you’ll find a
well-stocked self-serve bar of panchan(Korean side dishes) and a
“Snack Corner” dishing out bowls of
soup, stir-fry, and rice dishes along
with fried chicken wings, pork hocks,
and dumplings.

Many purveyors mistakenly pass
off gloppy parboiled or steamed ribs
slathered in red sauce as Chicago-style
barbecue. Much rarer are the
craftsmen who slowly smoke pig
parts at low temperatures over
hardwood, casting a narcotic spell
of caramelized, smoky, chewy porky
goodness. Robert Adams Sr. of
Honey 1 Barbecue (2241 N. Western,
773-227-5130) is a master at this
art, a living treasure, and a crusader
for the real thing.

The stretch of Kedzie Avenue
from Wilson to Ainslie in Albany
Park has a glut of great cheap places
to eat, many of them Middle
Eastern. Salam (4636 N. Kedzie,
773-583-0776) is always dependable
for fresh falafel, shawirma, and
the creamiest hummus on the strip.

Soul food is one of the oldest culinary
traditions in the city, and some
of its best-known veterans are still at
it, cooking heavy, rich, elementary
eats much as their mothers’ mothers’

mothers did. Miss Lee of Miss Lee’s Good Food (203-05 E. 55th, 773-752-5253) honed her skills for 31 years in
the late Gladys’ Luncheonette before
starting her own takeout joint on
55th and Indiana. Every day she
rotates a menu of nine home-style
classics—roast chicken, smothered
pork, and roast beef with dressing, to
name a few—which get packed to
order in Styrofoam with a pair of corn
muffins and a choice of two sides.