February 21, 2014

Platonic Love: Feeding the masses en masse

Courtesy of Edward Fox Photography

We’ve all been in that spot before. You were in charge of the group reservation, and you forgot to make it. Panic mode ensues as, call after call, your regular go-to restaurants slam the door in your face. What’s the point of living in a sea of restaurants if they’re all full?!

It’s a good question. In a foodie town like this, it’s always best to think ahead and make a reservation. But even on those absent-minded weekends, do we need to settle for another trip to Gino’s East or Chinatown? Not unless that’s what you’re craving! Here are a few off-the-radar options to make the best of a bad situation.

Ras Dashen: 5846 North Broadway Street

Ethiopian food has surged in popularity in recent years, and the foodies of Chicago have embraced this. But for all the buzz surrounding Ethiopian food today, there were some restaurants around even before it was cool. Zenash Beyene opened the doors of Ras Dashen more than 13 years ago, and she’s been upstaging the Broadway scene ever since.

What truly sets Beyene apart is the consistency of her work. Each dish, vegetarian and meat plates alike, is laid out on a large silver plate covered in injera, and represents a unique degree of spice and heat that still works within the parameters of this savory cuisine. There is, after all, nothing quite like the aggressive and explosive flavors of zilzil tibs (beef strips sautéed with peppers and covered in a spicy berbere sauce) to soak in the acidic flavors of injera. Make sure to order diversely: I recommend the doro alicha (a fragrant yet mild chicken dish) or the kitfo tere (a form of steak tartare).

The restaurant has several spaces that can accommodate groups, and usually has availability. Get ready to split up into more manageably sized tables, though. There are only so many people that can sit around one plate of injera.

Carnivale: 702 West Fulton Street

If you’ve ever been on the Kennedy Expressway, then you’ve probably seen the façade of this building with its name plastered in colorful letters. And although it’s not the wholesale clown store you thought it was, this Latin-fusion restaurant is one fun place to dine.

Carnivale is one of the city’s most high-energy establishments. The main dining room is impressive—a two-tiered open warehouse meets a colorful Caribbean celebration—and can seat 600 diners at once. Large, roaring crowds pack in on the weekends to drink cocktails and enjoy the classic-with-a-twist dishes sent out of the kitchen.

A different country is featured on the menu each month, but certain dishes are staples. Ceviches are a huge hit here, as is the ropa vieja (shredded steak in tomato-based sauce), but the menu is always extensive enough that you can almost certainly ensure that everyone in your party will be happy.

Jake Melnick’s: 41 East Superior Street

There is plenty of great food in River North and the Loop: The key is just to find it. For every one good choice, there are two lesser ones, and it’s the diner who has the nearly impossible task of finding the right one. But here’s a freebie for you: Jake Melnick’s.

Some of you already acquainted with the restaurant may be thinking: What? This is a wings place. It’s always packed. What are you talking about?

Jake Melnick’s may be ‘just a wings place’, but it is one of the wings places in a city where getting your Buffalo hots is not the easiest quest. Its classic chicken wings are heavily breaded with various levels of spice that really do have a kick, but what’s probably more interesting is the other wing offerings. The Poncho is a mild wing that is always on the menu, but the meat is tender and juicy, better than almost any other chicken in the city. As for the Wing of the Month, well, most of the times I don’t even get to try it. Because they’re already out. And it’s 8 p.m. on Friday.

And to those that say it’s crowded? That’s true. Don’t just walk in with a big group. But if you call the morning in advance, they’ll set something aside.

To anyone looking for last-minute group options in the city of Chicago: I wish you good luck. Living in a culinary capital means dealing with the fact that people want to eat the food in your town. Every weekend, students from UChicago are competing with locals who have been going to the same places for 20-plus years. Fortunately for us, we’re not in any rush. Take time to try some new places, and wait until next weekend to hit up that new dish Paul Kahan retweeted.