There’s an authenticity problem in this city’s restaurant scene. There are so many shiny new restaurants popping up, I often feel starved for a place that isn’t situated in an urban village, flanked by 10 places that look just like it. Once in a while, I find myself hungering for a place with old family pictures on the wall. Grainy, black and white photos of long-dead relatives of people I’ve never met give me a sense that I’m not just eating lunch but carrying on a tradition. But authentic doesn’t merely mean old. If that were the criteria, Joe T.’s would qualify. The places I’m talking about also have to have some soul –– some love — in the recipes.
Does it get more authentic than Drew’s Place Restaurant and Catering (5701 Curzon Ave.)? The soul food restaurant on the edge of Como has been around since 1987, and if a packed dining room is any indication, it’s not going away any time soon.
The first thing I saw on walking into the free-standing building was the man himself: Drew. The owner was working the line in the mostly exposed kitchen. The next thing I saw: old family photos on the wall. Perfect. Things I didn’t see: Bearded hipsters or people taking cell phone photos of their plates. Also perfect.
The food isn’t going to put Drew on the James Beard watch list, but it was hot and comforting, and there was plenty of it. I went for the fried chicken ($11.99), with a three-piece mix of white and dark meats, fried to order. (It takes about 20 minutes.) The bird was crispy, moist, and tender, though it could have used a little salt. My guest chose the smothered pork chop plate ($8.99) — massive, tender chops smothered in brown gravy. The sides were all OK, though not great. The black-eyed peas were out of a can, and the mashed potatoes could have used more salt and pepper. Our lunches came with squares of warm, moist cornbread.
Continuing my search for the real deal, I landed at the Jazz Café (2504 Montgomery St.). The place has been in its location on the edge of Arlington Heights for more than 40 years. I remember going to the place as a student at Heights more than 20 years ago. That time, I had to wait so long that I was late getting back to class, and I haven’t been back since. Not, that is, until a guest and I visited by accident recently. We had overshot the blink-and-miss-it Mexican eatery Trevino’s (1812 Montgomery St.), when the Jazz loomed up. It was fate.
The place is so cool, it feels like it must be run by your eccentric uncle. Though its décor gives no hint that it’s a Greek place, it somehow works. An old Wurlitzer jukebox sits in a corner, an antique airplane propeller hangs over a door frame, musical instruments sit iready to be played, and bric-a-brac is randomly strewn about as if the place doubles as a storage shed.
The lunch menu offers mostly sandwiches, with some vegetarian options and a few classic Greek dishes. We started off right with the fresh-tasting combo platter ($10.50) of hummus, tabouli, and tzatziki. My guest opted for the bland Green Gobbler ($8.50) sandwich, with turkey breast, mozzarella, and avocado. The promised red onion was missing — a shame, since the sandwich could have used some extra spice. The star of the afternoon was the poorly named but pleasantly fragrant B.O. pizza ($8), with fresh marinara, feta cheese, mozzarella, mushrooms, and bell peppers.
I’m all for broadening the dining-out opportunities in this town, but it was great to see a couple of stalwarts doing fine without any sauce béarnaise on the fried chicken or pancetta on the B.O. That would just stink.
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