Taste Quest: Irving Park/Old Irving Park
Brogues, barbecue and Balkans intersect in the blocks that make up a historic area.
Never been to Irving Park? You’re not alone: The residents of this graceful neighborhood all too often have its restaurants and bars to themselves. That’s criminally unfair; Irving Park is a fascinating patchwork of old-school Chicago haunts and esoteric ethnic storefronts. The original Irving Park—a.k.a. Old Irving, which is roughly boxed in by Montrose Avenue to the north, Addison Street to the south and Milwaukee Avenue to the west—was originally a cushy suburb that remains an architectural gem, lined with beautiful bungalows, Victorians and Queen Annes. Today, Irving Park also includes the blocks east from Pulaski Road to Sacramento Avenue, a quiet and splendidly diverse stretch.
Irving Park has historically been an Irish playground, and there’s still a vivid green tint to it. It’s the home of the 1) Irish American Heritage Center(4626 N Knox Ave, 773-282-7035), a sprawling former high school that’s now educating students in stepdancing and Gaelic. And it has an admirable commitment to accurate historic representation: There’s a bar on the first floor; the Fifth Province Pub is open on Friday and Saturday nights, and there’s not a more pleasant place to labor over your umpteenth Guinness and bone up on your Emerald Isle history.
Stay in the same state of mind but wander a few blocks south to 2) McNamara’s (4328 W Irving Park Rd, 773-725-1800), a restaurant with all of the Irish essentials, including corned beef and cabbage, and shepherd’s pie. The bar has the requisite green ceiling, taps of Smithwick’s and Killian’s, and plaques of the Irish Writer All-Star team, but it isn’t a shtick: The bartenders speak with a thick and sonorous brogue, and the regulars last all afternoon. Eventually, move on and head north on Pulaski to 3) Paddy Mac’s(4157 N Pulaski Rd, 773-279-9300), a much-loved neighborhood bar with a no-nonsense menu of Reubens and fish and chips.
If you haven’t done due diligence with the corned beef, you’ll need 4) Smoque’s barbecue (3800 N Pulaski Rd, 773-545-7427) to soak up all that stout. When Smoque opened last year, it drew people from across the city with a barbecue manifesto that promised ribs and brisket smoked from here to eternity. The brisket’s worth a trip from any ’hood; spork-tender, it pairs perfectly with sides of vinegary slaw and creamy, bubbly-crusted mac and cheese.
Smoque’s runoff—on weekends, the daunting line can hit the door and keep on going—might ditch the wait and head for institutions like 5) Sabatino’s(4441 W Irving Park Rd, 773-283-8331), the Italian-American restaurant that liked the 1950s so much it decided to never leave. Sabatino’s may be Chicago’s longest-running theatrical production: The hosts wear tuxedos, violinists serenade diners tableside, and any irony you came with is checked at the door. The food’s gloriously old-school: feel-good garlic bread, a page of veal entrées and a Wednesday-night lobster special.
Irving Park is far more than Irish, Italian and ’cue. 6) La Oaxaquena(3382 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-545-8585) is among the city’s most intriguing Mexican restaurants, devoted to the justifiably exalted Oaxacan cuisine. Order anything with the housemade and bottomlessly rich mole sauces; the more adventurous should ask about the chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, a beloved Oaxacan snack. From Mexico, Ecuador’s only a few blocks away: a tidy, colorful restaurant run by three brothers,7) La Humita(3466 N Pulaski Rd, 773-794-9672) specializes in its namesake. The humita is essentially an Ecuadorian tamale, weightier than its Mexican cousin and filled with cheese. Last year, the brothers, displaying a possibly prescient faith in the Irving Park nightlife scene, opened El Balcon upstairs, a flashier cocktail lounge with live music. If that’s your ambition, stay away from the excellent llapingachos, potato pancakes with fried eggs and Ecuadorian chorizo. The hefty meal will fortify but is likely to keep you off the dance floor.
For something grubbier, 8) Christina’s Place(3759 N Kedzie Ave, 773-463-1768) is Irving Park’s best dive. Serving until 4am, Christina’s is a cozy hangout with Saturday-night karaoke and a singular special: $2 Guinness, all night, every night. And cold beer in a dive may be what you need to balance the feel-goodness of9) Cousin’s Incredible Vitality(3038 W Irving Park Rd, 773-478-6868). Owner Mehmet Ak transformed his Turkish storefront into a raw-food restaurant (which means that none of the all-vegan food is cooked above 116 degrees). The menu items are still recognizably Mediterranean, but the preparations are from an alternate dimension; the falafel are now made with pistachios, “hand-massaged” and wrapped with collard leaves.
For a cooking philosophy that’s diametrically opposed to Cousin’s, walk across the street to the 10) Beograd Meat Market(2937 W Irving Park Rd, 773-478-7575), where the food is meaty, oily and deliciously stomach-swelling. A Serbian café and grocery, Beograd attracts a crowd of young Balkan businessmen, who migrate to the sidewalk tables outside and simultaneously work on their cell phones and on the freshly made, flaky burek pies. After a long day in Irving Park, you’ll need a double shot of the powerful and bitter espresso, too.