It's an action that's nearly Pavlovian: You exit the Division Blue Line, see a glimmer of Ashland, and make a beeline west. Ahh, the direction in which Moonshine, Milk and Honey (oh, the lunch-hour glory!), Alliance Bakery and Phyllis' Musical Inn await. Forget 'em. (Maybe just temporarily.) Heading south on Ashland and Milwaukee reveals some stellar finds as well, making Division a place to truly divide...and conquer.
Panhandler rating: Occasional.
Safety rating: Use those street smarts as you wander from the main thoroughfare.
There's nothing better than making a place feel like your own. It's even better when that place is a bit hipper than the corner diner. Usagi Ya more than fits the at-home bill, presenting a modern yet intimate atmosphere (enhanced by enveloping browns and two private, front-of-restaurant, window-side seating areas) that's approachable but fashionable. It's the kind of place you'll want to take friends to, whether they're your Division Street neighbors or in town from rural Kentucky.
Stake out a seat at the sushi bar (be sure to take note of the handmade chopstick lampshades above) and choose from a roster of nearly 30 sushi choices, 20 typical maki options along the lines of spicy hamachi and spider maki, and nearly 20 special maki, which certainly make good on their name. The $8 and up rolls include the summer maki, complete with tuna, yellow tail, cilantro, avocado, green pepper, chili oil, spicy sauce and lime juice. There's also a full menu of cooked pan-Asian fare.
Mon Lung Chop Suey
Mon Lung Chop Suey opened in 1982, before East Village's Polish and Latino immigrant population made way for American artists and yuppies overflowing from Wicker Park. The eatery has stayed a stronghold in the neighborhood even through the change, relying on its fresh ingredients and impeccable service to keep drawing patrons back year after year.
Since the interior was remodeled in spring '05, the dilapidated, seventies-style sign that greets you to Mon Lung no longer foreshadows what's to come inside. A never-ending menu meets the needs of everyone, ranging from a wide selection of tofu dishes for vegetarians to lobster egg foo young for experimental eaters to chicken nuggets with fries for picky, Chinese-food-hating youngsters. Customers rave about the egg rolls, which include the atypical combination of shrimp, barbequed pork, cabbage and onions (two for $2.20).
Corosh doesn't just double as a bar and a restaurant, it quadruples as a bar, restaurant, outdoor garden cafe and upscale substitute to a late-night diner. Surprisingly it excels at all four facets, providing diners with a dimly lit, brick loft setting, drinkers with an immense bar and outdoor guests with an intimate, wooded backdrop that hardly fits into its urban surroundings.
Owners Corosh and Hoda Haidari opened Corosh on a whim in 1991, turning the studio below their former apartment into a restaurant that offers an assortment of their favorite dishes. The menu shows a strong Italian influence, with staples such as fettuccini alfredo and pollo alla vesuvio. Pass those up for the Fusili Corosh, spiral pasta with sausage, peppers, escarole and cannelini beans in a light tomato sauce ($12). The bar menu, featuring Haidari's self-proclaimed "best burgers in the city," offers standard fare (burgers, buffalo wings, quesadillas…) from lunchtime through the wee hours of the morn'. Stop by Corosh on Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a brunch buffet that will put you back a mere $12.
Good for groups
The idea of a Mexican restaurant that primarily serves seafood may make you squirm in your seat. What's a fajita without juicy steak or an enchilada without chicken? But with long coast lines on both the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean, a large percentage of Mexican food is centered on seafood, and owner Rick Gutierrez opened El Barco in hopes of exposing Chicago to what he calls "real Mexican cuisine." To get his point across from the get-go, his restaurant's facade resembles a ship, and nearly a dozen life-sized blue marlins hang from the cobalt-colored ceiling.
The enormous menu (both in physical size and number of options) boasts a bevy of entrees with shrimp, red snapper, crab and octopus as their main ingredients. Gutierrez recommends the huachinango al mojo de ajo, red snapper in a garlic, wine and cilantro sauce for $15.96. The parrillada, with grilled and breaded filet of fish, grilled chicken breast, shrimp, skirt steak, crab legs, octopus, onions, fried potatoes, rice, beans and pico de gallo, will leave you stuffed for days to come. A handful of steak or chicken dishes will please staunch meat eaters.
Where to chill
Coffee on Milwaukee
Nestled into a corner spot on Milwaukee and Noble sits a coffeehouse that feels like somewhere you've been before. It's Coffee on Milwaukee (props for the creative name), and although you may not have been there before, the homey, comfortable atmosphere will feel just like hanging out in your best friend's living room. The furniture looks familiar, the couches are new but seem pleasantly worn and the service is akin to those good old elementary school days when mom would prepare cookies and milk for snack.
Coffee on Milwaukee has all the usual lattes, coffees and espressos, plus a fresh selection of pastries, bagels and cookies. It also makes its own ice cream, with flavors like Reese's, mocha and blueberry at the unbeatable price of $1.50 for two scoops. You'll find about a dozen games like Monopoly and dominoes for your playing pleasure, and wireless internet is free with any purchase. Open-mic nights held every Monday at 7 p.m. draw the later crowds, and poetry, karaoke and comedy nights are in the works.