From left: Chickpea’s stuffed grape leaves; Trader Vic’s server; Chickpea’s stuffed eggplant on tomato broth; Trader Vic’s mai tai
My favorite remedy for the winter blahs is to stuff myself silly with Polish grub. The hearty soups, dill-flecked mashed potatoes, and crisp cutlets all seem created with comfort in mind. And there’s no better place to indulge than Smak-Tak!, a pine-paneled little hideaway in Jefferson Park. Its name means “taste-yes” and Peter Lakony, the owner/host, ain’t kidding. With his wife, Eva, and mom, Halina, in charge of the kitchen, everything they whip up boasts fresh, no-nonsense flavor. Case in point: the soup. Flavors rotate, but if you’re in luck, you could get a hefty bowl of mildly sour cucumber studded with potatoes, carrots, and dill pickle; an intensely earthy mushroom; or a tart, pasta-laden tomato. Go easy, as follow-ups include succulent pork goulash in a crisp plate-size potato pancake ($12.99) and bigos, a rich hunter’s stew of veal chunks, kielbasa, and cabbage ($9.99). Blanketed with sautéed mushrooms, both the tender pork and the juicy, zaftig veal cutlets are terrific. Of course, there are pierogi—12 chubby dumplings filled with anything from savory ground meat to mixed berries. I go for an assortment ($8.99), and since the place is BYO, I like to take a six-pack of Zywiec. 5961 N. Elston Ave.; 773-763-1123.
Say you launch an over-the-top psychedelic dessert bar and follow that by designing an even more ambitious belle époque nightclub: Where can you go from there? Arab fast-casual, of course—with your mother as the chef. “I want to show people the depth of Arab food,” says Jerry Suqi (Sugar, La Pomme Rouge), whose stylish, colorful Ukrainian Village spot is meant to evoke a Middle Eastern street-scape. “She’s always wanted to do this,” says Suqi of his 62-year-old mom, Amni Suqi, who whips up eggplant and minced-lamb dishes in the kitchen. “And I wanted to make it happen for her.” 2018 W. Chicago Ave.; 773-384-9930.
Like a Polynesian breeze wafting in from the southwest, Trader Vic’s has blown into the Windy City just in time to warm the hearts of Chicagoans frozen by winter. The Palmer House location closed nearly three years ago, but Vic has returned, this time in the Gold Coast, bringing back the tribal masks, the tiki torches, the barrel-enclosed Chinese oven, and, of course, those rummy drinks. Where else in town can you nibble on a “Cosmo tidbits” appetizer sampler while sipping a mai tai? Forget paper umbrellas: These concoctions get tricked out with everything from plastic parrots to hula girls. Welcome back, Vic. We missed you. 1030 N. State St.; 312-642-6500.
Main Street Smokehouse
Barbecue folks generally cling to traditions tighter than the meat grips the bone on a Memphis slab. But then along comes Eddie Moore, a culinary school graduate and veteran caterer who happily bucks the system at Main Street Smokehouse with his “unique regional” barbecue. As far as we can tell, this means pork shoulder in homemade apple cider barbecue sauce, ribs slathered in a maple chipotle sauce, and distinctly un-barbecue items such as pulled pork quesadillas. In Moore’s 35-seat wood-and-steel space, even the oven—a rotisserie-style pellet smoker—goes against the grain. “It produces a more consistent product than a Southern Pride smoker,” he says. 536 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville; 847-247-4330.
Photography: Anna Knott