Credit: Peter Engler

Food for the Soul

Nine survivors

Ace’s Soul Food Cafe

432 E. 63rd | 773-675-8469



The cooks at H&A Restaurant, a legendary Chicago “soul station,” had a way with fried chicken, greens, and hot dinner rolls. But H&A, around since 1945, closed a few years ago. For months the restaurant sat empty, a reopening soon sign posted in the window. Then Ace’s Soul Food Cafe finally made good on the claim. Longtime neighborhood resident and H&A fan Ace Reed has spruced up the old space considerably but continues to serve many of the soul-food standards that H&A was known for. Steam-table offerings, including daily specials such as Friday’s fish or corned beef and cabbage, are unusually fresh tasting. Other highlights are the smothered pork chops, ketchup-glazed meat loaf, nicely seasoned fresh collard greens, and chunky mashed potatoes. —Peter Engler & Rob Lopata

Captain’s Hard Time Dining & Josephine’s Cooking

436 E. 79th | 773-487-2900



The standard Chicago south-side soul-food menu on offer here has some high points, like the perfectly cooked Belgian waffle paired with a crisp leg-thigh combo. Short ribs were meltingly tender; salmon patties had good overall flavor but were dry. Sides run the gamut, from delectably tender potato sweets and delicious crisp corn muffins to mac ‘n’ cheese and sagey stuffing dense as a mattress. Tea’s offered unsweetened as well as sweetened. —Gary Wiviott

Daley’s Restaurant

809 E. 63rd | 773-643-6670



Daley’s is one of the oldest existing restaurants in the city, if not the oldest, though ask any waitress exactly how old and you’ll get a different answer every time—usually something like “A long time, baby.” The majority of employees and customers are neighborhood folks who pack in for massive portions of mostly solid, sometimes-from-scratch soul food at practically historical prices. It’s not hard to eat incredibly well, though you have to be selective. The biscuits are light and fluffy, but the mashed potatoes are instant. One serving of smothered chicken can look like it was fed on steroids while another looks starved. The beefy, cheesy patty melt is a sure thing, as is a side of cabbage with bits of ham, and just about anything can be livened up with the bottle of spicy red pepper vinegar on each table. Nobody stays alive for more than a century without doing something right. —Mike Sula

Ethel’s Soul Food

10938 S. Vincennes | 773-779-7549



With soul-food stalwarts like Doggy’s and Army & Lou’s closing in steady succession, it’s heartening to see some new faces in town. Ethel’s opened in February 2010 in a bright, homey space next to Pat’s Hand Car Wash. The new place is run by a young Chicagoan who returned from a stay in New Orleans to open the restaurant with her mother. Together they serve soul-food standards with an occasional Louisiana touch. Breakfast could be eggs with grits and spicy Louisiana-style sausage. Cornmeal-crusted catfish, a Friday special, with sides of stewed cabbage and freshly made potato salad, is one of their most popular lunches. One thing Ethel’s has that no other soul-food restaurant can claim is the Pig—a relative dressed in a slightly mangy pink suit and large fuzzy head—who can sometimes be seen standing at the curb enticing passersby with the day’s lunch special. —Peter Engler


5412 W. Madison | 773-261-2316



Sometimes the line snakes out the door of the always- bustling Macarthur’s, a cafeteria with a wide selection of heavy, slow-cooked meats and sides and an assured high turnover on the steam tables. For around seven bucks a hefty portion of meat and two, topped with a corn muffin, is lunch and then some. Ham hocks are tender and not too smoky or salty, with red fall-off-the-hock meat enveloped in a collar of quivering browned fat. Smothered pork chops are richly coated with gravy and onions. And though buffet fried chicken always suffers, here the crust is fairly light and not too greasy. At any given time you’ll encounter other standards and sides: fried catfish, smothered chicken, greens, mac ‘n’ cheese, red beans, mashed potatoes, and desserts like banana pudding or sweet potato pie. On the walls are lots of photos of African-American political players enjoying themselves in the large and comfortable but bland Denny’s-style space, but it’s not surprising most people take out—this kind of food isn’t going to suffer from a car ride. —Mike Sula

Miss Lee’s Good Food

203 E. Garfield | 773-752-5253



A 31-year veteran of the late, great Gladys’ Luncheonette, Miss Lee is the Florence Nightingale of home-style granny food without a bit of fanciness or fuss. But if cooking like hers were really that simple, everybody would be doing it. She’s justifiably proud of her desserts: her bread pudding and fruit cobblers are La Brea Tar Pits of sweetness—covered with a delicate layer of sugary, caramelized crust but soft and heavy underneath. She rotates a daily menu of high-density, low-gravity comforters like baked turkey and dressing, stewed chicken and noodles, smothered pork chops, catfish, short ribs, and roast beef and dressing. Each comes packed with a pair of biscuits or corn muffins and two sides (the creamy black-eyed peas and spicy collard greens are capital, and Miss Lee swears by her yellow turnips, i.e., rutabagas). The a la carte options are great too: there’s mac ‘n’ cheese and a spicy rubbed bird of her own invention that she calls “herbal chicken” (add 50 cents for white meat). It’s a good thing food like this travels, because Miss Lee’s is carryout only. All the better—it’s the type of eating that goes down best with a sofa nearby. —Mike Sula

Pearl’s Place

3901 S. Michigan | 773-285-1700



Don’t let the HoJo-esque interior deter you: Pearl’s Place serves great soul food. Cooked-to-order items such as the juicy fried chicken and catfish are some of the best executed in the city; while some might fault the cook’s light hand with the spices, there’s no denying the quality of a batter as supercrispy and light as this one. Also on the menu are a number of smothered meats—chicken, steaks, and chops—and the standard sturdy sides, with mac ‘n’ cheese and collards as standouts. Salmon croquettes rival the fried chicken for top menu honors; homemade peach cobbler and sweet potato pie satisfy. On weekends there’s an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet with still more comfort food—pancakes, French toast, grits, rice and gravy, moist scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon, sausage, and grilled ham. Eat too much and you could always check into the adjoining motel for a bit of a nap. —Rob Lopata

St. Restaurant #2 Country Kitchens

727 E. 87th | 773-962-0700



This spacious two-steam-table setup on 87th Street doubles as a Christian ministry run by owner Pastor L. Hopkins. I’m not sure the eats beat the distinctive and carefully prepared plates at the late, great Doggy’s S.S. Soul Food, but it’s awfully good, and certainly belongs in the pantheon of quality home-style southern restaurants around town. We were dealt heaping plates of slow-cooked neck bones, oxtails, smothered pork chops, and chicken, with greens, beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, and spaghetti sides. Even less durable items like fried catfish and fried chicken looked pretty vital sitting under the heat lamps, boding well for things that weren’t available that particular day, such as baked duck, meat loaf, and short ribs. Lunch was dished out by Hopkins, possibly the most encouraging and enthusiastic booster of cafeteria-line food I’ve ever encountered. —Mike Sula

Turner’s Family Soul Food

8223 S. Ashland | 773-488-5700



From the outside, Turner’s doesn’t look much different from the innumerable ramshackle independent fast-food joints and soul kitchens all over the south side. So there’s no preparation for the heaping, luxurious plates that appear through a window from the kitchen. The cook, Murilee Johnson, arrives at six every morning and gets to work on about a dozen different daily specials and 28 sides, all the heavy hallmarks of the southern/soul-food canon—turkey wings and dressing, salmon croquettes, ham hocks, liver with onions and bacon, five kinds of beans, okra two ways, mac ‘n’ cheese, candied yams, and greens simmered with a choice of turkey or pork. Substantial dishes such as these tend to vary little from one place to the next, but Johnson’s cooking is something special. She says she does it with “love,” and works “by the spirit,” and if you’re not a believer, her chicken and dumplings—soft stewed meat and fat, toothy noodles—will set you straight. Fine-dining chefs everywhere have rediscovered the wonders of beef short ribs, but hers—dinosaur-size and falling off the bone in a simple, spicy gravy—are fundamentally righteous. —Mike Sula

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