I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to rustic, hand-slapped food, but there must be an ancient bug in my system that pulls me toward the basic. Given the choice of scones versus sopapillas
, you know I'm hittin' the fried doughnut. Mention aioli and all I can say is, "I'll take my garlic mayo with a heaping side of fideos
So when I've got a day off and I'm out scouting the city streets in search of something delicious to fill my belly, I'm not looking for pretty signs touting a funky one-name flourish; I'm on the hunt for random ethnic words that speak of the people.
Take Los Niches, 6619 N. Clark St., for example. This tiny Colombian storefront goes way back to its roots and pulls straight from them. The name literally translates into "dark skinned people," and since we're calling a spade a spade, you just know a restaurant named after a reference to the color of its people has got to be slinging together some old-school chow.
Restaurants like this are the key to the good life in Chicago, if you ask me. Blend in as they may, most of these regulars-only type of places pound out the most intensely flavored concoctions to ever show face on a plate. This weekend I spent my afternoon exploring the complex flavors in Los Niches' giant bowl of Saturday chicken soup, and couldn't have been more jubilant at the taste bomb that hit my mouth.
I'd weathered the blistering cold to run errands and decided to reward myself with something totally gratifying. Out of nowhere I spotted Los Niches. After parking down a remote side street, I wandered into a practically deserted dining room and plopped down at the sunniest table I could find (a bunch of chirpy, smoothie-slurping patrons had claimed the bright window up front). My eyes flew over the menu, taking note of fried cassava and shrimp with coconut sauce, but I immediately gravitated toward the Saturday special: chicken soup. Served with rice and avocado, this seemed to be the exact dish I needed to help dislodge the frigid iciness that had taken over my entire body, and tossed in an arepa con queso for good measure.
After observing plate after plate of steaming meat dishes infest the wide-eyed six-top up front, I gleefully stood by as the waitress steadied my giant bowl of chicken soup on her hand and then froze with anticipation as she loaded down her other arm with a plate of fluffy white rice and a small bowl of limes. Careful there, tiger.
She quickly dropped this mound of food off and came rushing back within seconds with a lightly fried arepa (think cheesy pancake) and some tomatillo salsa. After she made her getaway back to the blaring TV, I just gazed at my bounty. The beauty of it was almost too much to take in, but I just dove right back into my pre-frozen sensibilities and starting creating bites. I took a small chunk of cold avocado, scooped up a heaping pile of rice and dunked it liberally into the greaseless, yet full-flavored chicken broth, just managing to catch a wedge of potato or a hunk of yucca with each spoonful.
Bite after bite, I managed to stuff myself to the point where the arepa was just a mere afterthought. But every time I thought I was totally done and couldn't eat any more, I'd wildly snatch a corner of gooey arepa and dunk it into the soup for one more final bite. Thank God I didn't have an eating pal with me, or it'd have been war; my food greed can get obscene.
The Final Rave: The final topper on the soup is the floating half corncob soaking up all the juices. The flavor is so sweet and summer fresh, it's like they had been hoarding cobs since July and decided to toss it in at the very last second as an afterthought. Pure bliss.
Keep It Going:
Eat it: El Llano
The steak at this no-frills Colombian restaurant is said to be pretty dang good. Yeah, but what about the arepas? The quality of this little corn pancake is always a telling sign regarding quality.
Do it: RecipeZaar
...your one-stop online shop for easy peasy Colombian recipes. Now, you have no excuses.
Read it: Urbanspoon
This new foodie website breaks down Chicago area restaurants by hood and ethnicity, and smartly collects most of the pro reviews on each place. Just add photos and these kids are onto something big.
Get crazy with it: Fusedworld
If you're into global real estate like me, you'll spend countless hours perusing the far-and-away options on this extremely well laid out site. Careful, they almost make it as easy to buy as eBay and paypal do. Yikes!