I used to live in Albany Park—well, for a short spell I slept on the floor of a friend's second-floor walk-up in Albany Park. Another friend camped on the back porch, and the living room served as a makeshift film production office. We'd just finished up a super low-budget indie film, which somehow lefts us all homeless, so we found this month-to-month rental and set up camp for our next project: a TV show about round-the-world eating adventures. At the time, the only spots I knew about in the neighborhood were Mexican hole-in-the-walls, Brisku's Bistro and dark karaoke bars. In fact, I didn't even know the 'hood had a name. To me, it was just no man's land—nothing more than a place to crash and get the hell out of as soon as possible.
Ah, how times have changed. This continually on-the-verge area is home to a gazillion of restaurants that I absolutely adore, including the Middle Eastern gem Salam. I first discovered this no-frills storefront right around Ramadan, when I went in to sample some kataifi, the wildly delicious sweet created specifically for breaking the month-long fast. The generous cooks invited me back into the kitchen to watch them create the treat, and I have to say, getting a first-hand tour of a tiny Middle Eastern kitchen made my heart soar. Sometimes, I get so excited by food, I just bury my head in my hands and furrow my brow for a spell; this was one of those times. The super-sweet pastry is stuffed with either cheese or crushed walnuts and cinnamon and then baked until crispy, just like an empanada. Finally, a bit of lemony syrup is drizzled over each pie, making it truly a taste sensation to behold.
Most times, though, I usually go for the cheap-o falafel sandwich, which arrives steaming hot and just crispy enough. The little falafel balls tear open to reveal a pretty green mush that is so insanely satisfying, you won't believe you've just dropped less than $3 on the bounty. The on-fire cooks also whip out daily specials, like a nice little ditty called "upside down," a cauliflower and potato mash doused in copious amounts of lemon and sopped up with warm pita bread.
The service is uber-friendly, just like what you'd expect if you were part of the family. Little samples of most items can be had, and when I had to wait extra long for my falafel one day, the waiter trotted over with some salty cheese squares studded with little specks of black pepper (at least that's what I think those dots were) and some fresh pita on-the-house. He brought me a bit of sugary hot tea to boot.
Though the restaurant's lighting is a little harsh, it makes for the perfect conditions to spy on your neighbor's plates filled with slabs of meat, big hunks of charred kebabs, cabbage stuffed with lamb and huge piles of rice—all delivered with a small side of pickled veggies and costing less than a 10-spot. Food this good should remain off-the-radar, but what kind of person would I be if I didn't share the wealth?
The Final Rave: Though I didn't know too much about it back in the day, this 'hood is so on my foodie radar now it hurts—especially when it comes to authentic Middle Eastern and hardcore Mexican eats.
Keep it going:
Eat it: Noon O Kabab
Its massive portions, affordable prices and big tables are just screaming for a real mess in the making. I've created one many, many times and each time is more glorious than the last.
Try it: Nazareth Sweets
Located next door to Salam, this sugar haven whips out kataifi year-round every weekend. You'll have to wait for Ramadan to try Salam's, but in the meantime, Nazareth's version is definitely a good enough filler. Go early, when it’s still warm.
Do it: Urbanspoon
I still can't get over what a great food site this is. It covers Chicago and all her majestic neighborhoods (and restaurants) with the greatest of detail. Just brilliant.
Get crazy with it: Manana
The best hummus I've ever had is served up in this breezy bookshop/cafe on a tiny island in the Caribbean called Isla Mujeres. The falafel is killer, too. Come to think of it, so are the strawberry daiquiris.