Southern Comfort

Twenty spots for down-home cookin’ and soul food

Army & Lou’s422 E. 75th | 773-483-3100

$ (2 reports) Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

A favorite of Mayor Harold Washington back in the day, Army & Lou’s has been dishing up well-executed southern and soul food for more than 60 years. For starters there’s Louisiana gumbo; in the bread basket are yeasty homemade biscuits, fresh, flaky, and warm. Steak, chicken, and chops come smothered with gravy and served with corn bread: quintessential comfort food. The fried chicken has light, deliciously crispy breading; pieces are so meaty that half a chicken makes a very filling entree. It’s worth ordering a few extra sides, though: greens are tender but not overcooked, sweet potatoes carry a hint of clove, and pickled beets and onions provide a tart contrast (there are also chitterlings, butter-boiled pig intestines best with plenty of hot sauce). Sweet potato pie and peach cobbler are made, our waitress told us, by a “little old lady from the neighborhood”—which is pretty much how they taste. David Hammond

BJ’s Market & Bakery8734 S. Stony Island | 773-374-4700

$ (1 report) Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

BJ’s Market & Bakery, the flagship of John Meyers’s three-store miniempire, lays out honest food at an honest price, no fancy-pants frills, just down-home cooking you order at the counter and bring to your seat. Lightly breaded wings are the only fried chicken on the menu. Instead BJ’s specializes in spice-rubbed smoked rotisserie chicken; moist, flavorful, it’s a real deal: $15 gets you a whole bird with two large sides, a comfortable feed for two. Greens, cooked with smoked turkey leg, have great tooth; black-eyed peas, simple and good, weren’t cooked beyond recognition; even the green beans, though seemingly canned, had subtle seasoning that goosed them up a notch. Sweet potato fries make a good combo with BJ’s signature mustard-fried catfish. BJ’s on-site bakery turns out red-state renditions of chess pie (eggs, sugar, and butter—”it’s jes’ pie,” as the saying goes) along with banana pudding and peach cobbler. Alcohol is neither served nor allowed; on Sundays a big crowd rubs shoulders at the long buffet. David Hammond

Boo’s Soul Food Cafe8414 S. Ashland | 773-298-9997

$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Cash only

At this 12-table storefront next door to Pat’s Hand Car Wash, Willetta “Boo” Tatum and her husband, Jackie, serve up chicken and dumplings, smothered pork chops, roasted rib tips, fried catfish, and more soul food staples, plus sides like sweet yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn and okra, and green beans. Tatum was head cook for the Chicago Board of Education before opening this place in 1998. “We try to make everybody feel at home,” she says, and in return customers routinely send Miss Boo stuffed animals, bottles of soda, artwork, and plants—all of which are on display around the narrow, cozy dining room. Steve Dolinsky

Cafe Aorta2002 W. 21st | 312-738-2002

$American, Southern/Soul Food, Barbecue/Ribs| Breakfast: seven days; Lunch: monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Reservations not accepted | BYO

“Eat your heart out!” proclaims the menu board at this tiny, whimsically named cafe in Heart of Chicago, and it’s no joke: the portions threaten to spill over the edge of the plates. But it’s hard to be anything other than a hearty eater here—the food is pretty damn good. Right around the corner from the Pink Line stop at Damen, Cafe Aorta is so far best-known in the neighborhood for its weekend brunch, but lunch and dinner offerings are worth a visit too. The Cajun hummus platter, listed as an appetizer and big enough for a meal, is an unusual combo: a zesty mound of hummus the color of cayenne pepper flanked with warmed pita wedges and a large helping of sauteed veggies. Sizable sandwiches include the Malibu, which is actually a retooled Monte Cristo; the slabs of tender turkey and ham between slices of eggy Hawaiian bread will have you reaching for your knife and fork. The turkey meat loaf, paired with a creamy dill sauce, is also tops. But best of all are the sides: the pungent sage-seasoned cornbread dressing, unapologetically garlicky mashed potatoes, and pleasantly spicy mac ‘n’ cheese were all wonderful. Among the desserts, the crushed red velvet cake is a moist slice of heaven. Rob Christopher

Calvin’s BBQ2540 W. Armitage | 773-342-5100

$$ (1 report) Barbecue/Ribs, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

Calvin Woods is a veteran: he also owns and cooks for Smokin’ Woody’s, a North Center rib shack of minimal distinction. This second outpost is a pleasant little spot on a relatively bleak block of Armitage, with bright yellow walls and friendly service. A big man with a big smile and big hands who obviously enjoys the fruits of his labor, Woods looks the part of a great pit master. But Calvin’s fails to deliver in one crucial respect: smoke, the critical element in superb barbecue, was nowhere in evidence in a recent meal. Pulled pork, moist and bland, was pretty good, though drowned in a ketchupy sweet sauce. Baby back ribs, on the other hand, were overcooked and dry, a tiny amount of deep red meat peeling back from exposed bones in sticky strips. Brisket was better though still mysteriously without smoke flavor despite sporting an authentic-looking smoke ring. If Mr. Woods hasn’t quite got the barbecue firing on all cylinders, somebody in the kitchen has a deft hand with a deep fryer: catfish fillets were perfectly cooked, flaky and juicy with a nice crisp cornmeal crust, as was the fried okra. Seth Zurer

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe5557 W. 79th, Burbank | 708-229-8700

$$ (1 report) Southern/Soul Food, Mexican/Southwestern, Cajun | Breakfast: Saturday-sunday; Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Chuck Pine spent two and a half years at Topolobampo under the tutelage of Rick Bayless before striking out on his own, opening a small barbecue shack in the meat-and-potatoes parking lot of south-suburban Burbank. Beginning in 1997 with the occasional pot of gumbo, his Mexican and southern specials have eclipsed the barbecue. Pine wants to show his customers the great variety within Mexican and deep south cooking, at prices much lower and in an atmosphere more casual than at other shops around town started by Bayless’s flock. Pine continually travels, studying Cajun, Creole, and Mexican regional cooking styles. Cinco de Mayo and Mardi Gras are the best times to visit, when monthlong blowouts warrant daily specials like a trio of homemade chorizos and chiles en nogada—poblanos stuffed with meat and fruit, covered in walnut sauce and grapes. Pine always throws a few curveballs in as well: paella, say, or strawberry salad, or Creole-Italian dishes like lasagna with andouille. Normally when restaurants try to do so many different things they do none of them well, but Pine cooks by his whims consistently well. Mike Sula

CJ’s Eatery3839 W. Grand | 773-292-0990

$$ (2 reports) American, Southern/Soul Food, Mexican/Southwestern | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Dinner: Thursday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | BYO

Bright, spacious, and friendly CJ’s Eatery might do for west Humboldt Park what the original Wishbone did for another desolate stretch of Grand Avenue in the 90s: grow into a vital community hub while serving solid southern and soul-inspired comfort food. Charles Armstead and Vanessa Perez have filled a couple deep voids already, providing a Lavazza-dispensing coffee bar and sit-down table service for three squares in a neighborhood where the only other viable eats are at Jimmy’s Red Hots around the corner. Breakfast is a steal: an egg-and-chorizo burrito or biscuits and gravy are just $3.50; French toast and a hangover-blanketing sausage casserole don’t go much higher. Sandwiches predominate at lunch, along with a few entrees (barbecued pork steak, four-cheese mac), soups, salads, and a handful of appetizers (crab cakes, spinach dip) that pull a double shift at dinner. Entrees include a chile-rubbed sirloin with southern-fried corn and a “BBQ Meatloaf Tower” crowned with mashed potatoes and fried onions. At a recent lazy Sunday brunch, carb loading was accomplished with a special of shrimp and creamy grits and a banana bread pudding with peanut butter creme anglaise that could’ve raised Elvis off the bathroom floor. Mike Sula

Daley’s Restaurant809 E. 63rd | 773-643-6670

$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

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 previous owner, Nick Kyros, says an Irishman opened the place in 1892 and ran it until his father took over in 1918; now he’s turned it over to his son Michael and co-owner Nick Zar, though he still hangs around some, he says. Today the majority of his 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. The chicken gumbo is tangy and thick but mined with canned green beans. 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

Edna’s3175 W. Madison | 773-638-7079

$$ Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations accepted for large groups only

On a recent visit to Edna’s I watched a middle-aged woman in a smart blue suit walk in carrying a cane. A waitress greeted her by name and asked if she’d have the usual. Apparently, every Saturday afternoon for the last 25 years Miz Bluesuit has eaten a plateful of stewed pork neck bones, a saucerful of dressing, a tall, cold glass of sweet tea, and a stack of corn cakes. It’s easy to see why. Fried chicken at Edna’s is cooked to order, juicy, crunchy, salty, and fresh, the kind of bird I dream about. Side dishes are a greatest hits of southern lovin’: fresh-baked short biscuits, pickled beets, mac ‘n’ cheese, collard greens with optional onion and tomato on top. When Edna dropped by my table to say hello, I told her that I’d been here for a six o’clock breakfast with a crowd of white people a few years ago. “I remember you all,” she crowed. “Welcome back!” She vanished into the kitchen, and one by one, unbeckoned, more side dishes came out—we sampled nine out of the ten on the menu that afternoon. The pork-neck lady looked over as I picked at my sweet potatoes: “You stuffed? Edna, she stuffs you, that’s how she gets you,” she said. “Now you’re hooked, just like me.” Seth Zurer

Feed2803 W. Chicago | 773-489-4600

$ (4 reports) Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

Feed is the project of Donna Knezek, one of the original owners of Leo’s Lunchroom and a founder of Bite. It’s a shack with a chalkboard menu that begins 1/4 chicken, 1/2 chicken, whole chicken. Needless to say, get the chicken: salty and succulent, it has the golden crackle of skin that makes rotisserie bird so viscerally satisfying. Knezek has been cooking in Chicago for almost two decades, but at Feed she’s pared down her menu to the point of parody: chicken, burger, Caesar salad, a daily special, and a dozen sides. They include fried okra, a homey, comforting corn pudding, and rich and cheesy baked mac ‘n’ cheese. For dessert there’s pie, red velvet cake, and fluffy, creamy banana pudding served in a Styrofoam cup, with Nilla Wafers throughout. Feed is BYOB but the sweet tea’s superb, and there’s a corner store with a decent beer selection a few blocks to the east. As with any good meal, the food makes anything else you’d wanted before—steak, say—suddenly superfluous. Nicholas Day

Harmony Grill3159 N. Southport | 773-525-2528

$ (4 reports) Southern/Soul Food, Burgers, Barbecue/Ribs| Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Monday-Saturday till 11

“A good place to eat and lounge before a show at Schubas,” says one Rater, and the sentiment is echoed by many. Spun off from the bar and club next door, in the last year this casual restaurant has undergone a revamp under chef Paul Fehribach. There’s still comfort food like meat loaf, mac ‘n’ cheese, and burgers, and the menu has retained its southern tinge (okra, gumbo, greens). But Harmony Grill has now jumped on the locally grown/artisanal bandwagon, so alongside organic tofu applewood smoked in-house there’s grass-fed Tallgrass beef (Bill Kurtis owns the ranch) and produce from Kinnikinnik Farms and other growers in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. At brunch locally grown organic eggs are available. Kate Schmidt

Harold’s Chicken Shack #597247 S. Racine | 773-783-9499

$ American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Till 3 every night | Cash only

Among the older, more classically ornamented outposts in the great Harold’s Chicken Shack empire, #59 is a prime example of a dark, forbidding little hole in a grim neighborhood from which great fried chicken emerges. It also shows evidence of the maverick spirit of various HCS proprietors, who sometimes veer from the template of a uniform chain with interesting and positive results. The chickens fried here are large, with stout, meaty wings and breasts that remain juicy, tender, and unpunished by the hot fresh-tasting oil. Other little touches make all the difference: a highly seasoned peppery crust, an unusually thick hot sauce, and thin batter-fried french fries. Conveniently, #59 adjoins Lee’s E.T. Lounge, where “all parties will be catered by Harold’s Chicken Shack.” —Mike Sula

Macarthur’s5412 W. Madison | 773-261-2316

$ (0 reports) Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

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 it’s not transgressive—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 Food203-05 E. 55th | 773-752-5253

$ (1 report) American, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

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 nine high-density, low-gravity comforters like baked turkey and dressing, stewed chicken and noodles, smothered pork chops, oxtails and boiled potatoes, and roast beef and dressing. Each comes packed with a pair of corn muffins and two sides (the creamy black-eyed peas and spicy collard greens are capital). And 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¢ 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 Place3901 S. Michigan | 773-285-1700

$American, Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, Lunch, and dinner: tuesday-saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Reservations for large groups only

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 ($8.95) 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

Priscilla’s4330 W. Roosevelt, Hillside | 708-544-6230

$ Southern/Soul Food | Dinner: Sunday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Monday, Tuesday | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Surprisingly cheery for a former Sizzler with a view of a Jewish cemetery, Priscilla’s cafeteria-style meat and two hits the soul food highlights with varying degrees of dexterity. Fried chicken’s a study in textural point counterpoint, crisp skin giving way to moist, yielding interior flesh so juicy you run the risk of ruining your shirt. Tender greens are the perfect accompaniment, their bitterness rounded out by little cubes of cured pork. Less successful are the slightly undercooked baked beans, bland mac ‘n’ cheese, and acidic spaghetti, but sweet potatoes aren’t bad, and mashed potatoes are fantastic—rich, creamy, and doused with silky-smooth house-made gravy. Short ribs are inconsistent, tender and bursting with flavor on one visit, stringy and flavorless on the next. Pork chops suffer the same steam-table-inflicted fate, fork-tender one day, knife-bendingly tough another. Bread pudding isn’t coma-inducingly sweet, and pecan pie is pleasant. Service is efficient, diligently providing refills of water, soda, or sweet tea, and daily specials, reasonable prices, and the vinegary hot sauce on each table round out a soul-satisfying experience. —Gary Wiviott

Rajun Cajun1459 E. 53rd | 773-955-1145

$ (1 report) Indian/Pakistani, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: seven days

This vegetarian-friendly place has burgers-and-dawgs decor, fast-food prices, and a menu that combines Indian and soul food (inexplicably, the only Cajun item on the menu is dirty rice). Fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese sit in the steam tray right alongside chicken curry, chana masala, and samosas. Holly Greenhagen

Soul Queen9031 S. Stony Island | 773-731-3366

$ Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: seven days| Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Reservations accepted for large groups only | Cash only

In 1971, when Helen Maybell Anglin opened Soul Queen, it became a buzzing hive of black celebrities and politicians—and those that would curry their favor. Today the walls are adorned with photographs of her highness receiving tribute from other African-American royals such as MLK, Ali, Cosby, Harold Washington, Joe Louis, Jimmie Walker, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger (?!)—which is why it feels seditious to say that the Queen’s best days may be behind her. On a recent visit there was a distinctly dispiriting vibe as jukebox slow jams echoed over the dim dining room, empty but for a pair of bejeweled and extremely well-fed young ladies who grazed the buffet while their older male escort remained in his booth conspicuously counting a large stack of bills through his sunglasses. The dishes that once attracted the Queen’s subjects don’t now taste of the carefully prepared home-style you’ve come for: turkey legs, stuffing, fried catfish, mac ‘n’ cheese, greens, stewed cabbage, okra, and legumes all seemed born of a loveless assembly-line production. Surprisingly, the lightly fried chicken, typically an item with a short half-life, bore up well under the heat lamps and was probably the only redeeming thing on the steam tables. The staff in their plastic tiaras couldn’t have been more cheerful and attentive, but there are much better soul food buffets and cafeterias around town. Nevertheless the fading 70s swank of the place still inspires a certain reverence. It certainly made a positive impression on the seven-year-old at my table, who pronounced the atmosphere “fancy” and refused to eat her mushy, blandly sauced ribs without knife and fork. Mike Sula

Soul Vegetarian East205 E. 75th | 773-224-0104

F 8.0 | S 6.3 | A 6.3 | $ (6 reports) Southern/Soul Food, Vegetarian/Healthy | Breakfast, Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days; Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Vegetarian friendly

rrr While the ambience is strictly functional, Raters agree that this unique restaurant—in business more than 25 years—is worth the trip. The menu offers vegan and vegetarian soul food—barbecued wheat gluten, stir-fried meatless “steak,” tofu tidbits, and many other unusual, reasonably priced dishes. Raters point out that while it is all vegetarian, it’s not the best place for the health conscious, as much of the menu is fried. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Wishbone3300 N. Lincoln | 773-549-2663

F 6.9 | S 6.1 | A 6.5 | $ (24 reports)Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Vegetarian friendly

This larger, sleeker Wishbone opened about the same time the original location on Grand closed in 1999, and the menu is the same—upscale southern comfort food such as blackened catfish, chicken-fried steak, collard greens, and buttery corn muffins. But many Raters feel that the overall experience is qualitatively different. Service is erratic, waits are long. It still shines at breakfast, packing ’em in on weekends with platters of reasonably priced omelets, eggs Florentine, seafood cakes, and the cheesiest grits in town. —Martha Bayne