Saturday, May 23, 2009

Neighborhood Taste Tour: Albany Park

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I host neighborhood tours each month (March through October) in order to educate and share the wonderful neighborhoods of Chicago with residents as well as tourists. If you ever come to Chicago, the best piece of advice I have is to venture out into the Chicago neighborhoods and outside of "downtown." You'll soon realize all the amazing little finds and hidden gems this city has, most are so much more interesting, super affordable and ridiculously delicious. Not sure where to even go? Contact me and I'd love to create an itinerary for you based on your interests!

Today, I hosted a tour of Albany Park for my group, What's Cookin Chicago. Did you know that Albany Park is the most diverse neighborhood in the country? It isn't hard to believe once you drive down the major streets of Lawrence and Kedzie, which represent so many of cultures living together. We had nine food stops on my tour and here's a run down of where we went, what we saw and what we conquered... and I'm still stuffed!



Albany Park Stop #1: Mexican Bakery
El Trigal Bakery ~ 3107 Montrose
This bakery is known for their fresh hot doughnuts and Mexican pastries. They're all made in house and offer some interesting baked goods including Ginger Cookies, Sweet Potato Pastries and Guayaba (Guava) Pastries. FYI: Fresh hot doughnuts = $.61

Albany Park Stop #2: Lebanese Pita Factory
Sanabel Bakery ~ 4253 N. Kedzie
Where else in Chicago can you see freshly made pita bread and Lebanese baked goods in mass production and eat them piping hot?! Sanabel Bakery is where. From the outside, this place is a small corner store but inside is an amazing bakery where they start baking at 3am and stop around 11am. Sanabel Bakery is THE place for fresh pitas! FYI: Fresh hot bag of pitas + fresh hot pita flatbread w/zatar seasoning + fresh hot pita flatbread w/farmers cheese + spinach pie = $4.49.


Albany Park Stop #3: Middle Eastern Restaurant
Salam ~ 4626 N. Kedzie
This is a well established restaurant with deep roots here in Albany Park. They focus on Middle Eastern specialities such as Shawerma, Kifta, Shish Taouk sandwiches along with many other sides. They also take a lot of pride in their Shawerma because it is meticulously prepared every day. Unlike gyros which is mainly made with lamb, the Shawerma here at Salam is made with both beef and lamb. Both meats are carefully trimmed, roasted, sliced and placed on a spit to continue cooking. Another thing Salam is known for is their Falafels, which similar to hushpuppies. They're made with spiced chickpeas or even fava beans, formed into a ball and deep fried. (Isn't everything fried delicious?!) So what makes these falafels so special? Maybe it's the perfect texture - not to moist or not too dry on the inside... but I'm thinking the price has something to do with it's popularity. FYI: Falafels = $.25 each


Albany Park Stop #4: Arabic/Palastinian Baklava Bakery
Nazareth Sweets ~ 4638 N. Kedzie
When I think of baklava, I automatically associate that with Greek cuisine. However on today's tour, I learned the difference between baklava from Greece and Palestine. Greek baklava is much stickier and sweeter, using more honey and syrup. It's also served in larger pieces. Palestinian baklava is much drier and not as sweet, using less honey and syrup. This baklava is served in small pieces, enough for a perfect bite. Regardless of how you prefer your baklava, you shouldn't miss out on the sweets here. With so many different shapes and forms, it's easy to find one you'll like! FYI: baklava = $.25 each


Albany Park Stop #5: Lebanese Grocery & Bakery
Al Khayam & Zeina Bakery ~ 4738 N. Kedzie
If you're in the market for some authetic middle eastern ingredients, this is where to go. You'll find everything from extremely affordable spices, nuts, dried fruits and even some "exotic" fruit syrups like pomegranate, blackberry and tamarind. Inside the grocery store is a bakery section that carries similar baked pitas, flatbreads, and desserts. Oh... and if you're looking to hookah, they have an extensive selection of hookah flavors too!


Albany Park Stop #6: El Salvadorian Pupuseria
Pupuseria y Restaurante Cuscatleco ~ 3125 W. Lawrence
What makes El Salvadorian cuisine different from say, Mexican cuisine? For one, the cuisine of el Salvador isn't spicy and is pretty mild compared to other latin countries. The cuisine is well known for pupusas... which are masa flatbreads stuffed with fillings such as cheeses, meats, beans and vegetables. Here, we tried the 5 different kinds of pupusas they offered. They were equally delicious and served with a cool, crisp, sweet cabbage coleslaw and 2 kinds of salsas. Think of pupusas as round, softer, pillows of goodness, similar to quesadillas. FYI: Pupusas = $2 each


Albany Park Stop #7: Vietnamese Sandwich Shop
Nhu Lan ~ 2612 W. Lawrence
Move over Subway... we've got a more cultured sandwich on the block! Vietnamese cuisine is one of my favorites during the warmer weather because it's a refreshing combination of ingredients, flavors and textures. Nhu Lan has a whole wall dedicated to canned fruit juices and other Vietnamese specialities like a Basil seed drink and rice pastries. However the star of the show here are their Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches. If you've never had a Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich, you're missing out. The Vietnamese bread used for the sandwiches are made with both wheat and rice flour, which is light and sturdy. Filled with a myriad of ingredients such as Vietnamese mayonnaise, pickled and fresh vegetables, cured and/or roasted meats and head cheese (yes, you read correctly - head cheese), it's a meal in itself that (I think) puts Subway to shame. I'm tempted to not even share how much the sandwiches are because it's like divulging a culinary hot spot secret... so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves!


Albany Park Stop #8: Korean Restaurant
Great Seas ~ 3254 W. Lawrence
If you're a fan of chicken wings, you'll appreciate this place. But don't come here expecting buffalo wings or fried chicken wings with an assortment of sauces. Great Seas is well known for their "Lollipop Hot & Spicy Wings." Korean chicken wings are hugely popular in Korea... and Great Seas is doing it's part in getting Chicagoans on board with their version. You'll find their chicken lollipopped (brought over to one side, exposing the bone), fried to a crisp and tossed in a sweet sesame & soy sauce. In fact, the wings here at Great Seas is so popular, they even have a Hall of Fame of patrons who happily report how many wings they can consume in an entire sitting. Along with our order of wings, we had their crab rangoon, which was pretty tasty! FYI: Platter of 15 lollipop hot & spice wings + white rice = $11.95

Albany Park Stop #9: Wholesale Sushi
Lawrence Fish Market ~ 3914 W. Lawrence
From the outside, Lawrence Fish Market is one that you would easily pass by. In fact, looking into their storefront window isn't much of a sight either. There's no menu posted or printed. And when you walk in, you have to be careful not to trip over crates of avocados and styrofoam ice boxes full of fresh & frozen whole fish. But if you've ever wondered where many of Chicago's sushi restaurants go for their fish, wasabi, nori sheets and other sushi products, this is the place. Don't expect a fancy or trendy sushi spot because you're not going to get it. Instead, come prepared with your favorite sushi rolls in mind, provide at the counter and wait. While you wait, take a look at their freezer case where they have whole octopus heads and tobiko (fish roe) in a rainbow of colors. When your order is ready, get ready for your total because it will blow you away. You'll wonder why you go to fancy, trendy sushi spots and pay what you do when now, you can get it straight from the supplier for a fraction of the price without sacrificing quality. Again, I'm reluctant to share how ridiculously amazing their prices are for their made to order sushi.... but I will. FYI: Spicy tuna roll = $2.95; Soft Shell Crab/Spider roll + Dragon roll = $10


So there you have it, a Taste of Albany Park in Chicago. We've tasted only a few of the many ethnic cuisines represented here - Mexican, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Palestinian, El Salvadorian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese. There are so many more places I wanted to go, but after 9 food stops in 4 hours, I'll just have to come back and taste the rest another time!

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