"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Roscoe Village/Hamlin Park

The Breakdown
Eastward down Roscoe Street.
The boundaries: Roscoe Village and Hamlin Park are two of four neighborhoods located within the North Center community area, and make up its southern half.  The commonly accepted boundaries for Roscoe Village are the Chicago River to the west, Ravenswood Avenue to the east, Addison Street to the north, and Belmont Avenue to the south.  Hamlin Parks abuts Roscoe Village to the immediate south.  Its boundaries are Belmont Avenue to the north, Diversey Avenue to the south, the Chicago River to the west, and Ravenswood Avenue to the east.  For an image of the North Center community area, please see the map at the end of this post.

Population make-up: Since Roscoe Village and Hamlin Park only make up half the geography of the North Center community area, it’s not an exact science.  As a whole, North Center is pretty average in terms of population, size, and therefore density as well.  However, it does rank 12th in terms of median income, this despite its historical reputation as a working class area of Chicago.  In terms of ethnic make-up, North Center (according to the 2000 Census) is about three-quarters white, approximately 20% Hispanic, and the remainder a mix of other ethnicities.

Boutiques line Roscoe Street in the heart of Roscoe Village.
A brief history: Like much of Chicago, when the North Center area was established, it was heavily populated by immigrants, living there due to its proximity to jobs near manufacturing along the Chicago River.  Also like much of Chicago, the area suffered from post-World War II “urban flight”.  Crime increased and there was a severe reduction in much of the neighborhood’s property value.  However, the 1990s brought about a renewed interest in the area with substantial redevelopment and an influx of wealthy residents.  Roscoe Village, has become one Chicago’s most popular (and upscale) living destinations, especially for young families.

Getting there: Public transit is definitely doable, just fairly limited.  By train, your best bet is the Paulina brown-line stop.  Although it’s technically in Lakeview, it’s on Roscoe Street and is only a couple blocks east of the main business district.  The Paulina station is only two stops from the Belmont stop, which means an easy transfer to/from the Red and Purple lines.  The Addison brown line stop will also put you in the neighborhood’s northeast corner.

There are also a couple options by bus.  Going east-west are the Belmont Avenue bus (77) and the Addison Street bus (152).  If traveling north-south, one can take the Western Avenue bus (49), or the Damen Avenue bus (50) which takes you pretty much to the heart of Roscoe Village (intersection of Damen and Roscoe Street).

90 Miles Cuban Café (3101 N. Clybourn Avenue)
It doesn't look like much, but 90 Miles Cuban Café is well worth the trip.
We entered this little shacky cabana on a cold, sunny winter day.  Inside … we found a tiny Cuban throwback.  Fading magazine clippings plaster the walls.  Upbeat Latin music fills up the rest of the space.  Small groups of people crowd in, queue up in the tiny area in front of the counter, and order.  Your menu options are basic; it’s basically sandwiches, dinners, and a few appetizer options such as empanadas.

Laura's Take: The Lechón (roast pork) dinner was incredibly filling (I had two more meals from my leftovers) with rice, beans, plantains, and the pork.  This stuff was kind of like pulled pork, but with roasted chunks and onions and some delicious kind of vinegary/ garlicky sauce.  I wanted to try the Café Cubano after dinner and thought one would be enough to share.  Considering they basically came in plastic thimbles, this was not an apt decision, but the barista offered to pour me the extra out of his pitcher.  When we came in I was still recovering from a late night but I left feeling MUCH better.
Lechón sandwich to left, lechón dinner to the right...
here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
Michael's Take: I was fortunate in the summer of 2003 to study abroad in Havana, back when such things were legal.  My memories of the people, food, and culture are more ingrained in my head than the twelve years of Spanish that I've studied (for better or for worse...¡Que Lastima!).  The suburbs are mostly lacking in Cuban fare, so to find something like this in the City was a breath of fresh air.  90 Miles (a clever reference to the distance from Havana to U.S. soil) is affordable and fantastic.  I also had the lechón, but in sandwich-form.  The meat is so juicy, marinated in savory mojo sauce, and the bread was slightly crisp on the outside, but soft and chewy once you bite in.  Perfect.  Best yet, it came topped with a fried plantain.  For the unintiated, a plantain is comparable to a banana except not as sweet and somewhat starchier.  So I guess it's like if Mr. Potato Head and Chiquita Banana had back-talking offspring.  Anyway, three words: GOAT CHEESE EMPANADA. For $2, it's worth accompanying your meal.  Crisp on the outside yet delicate, creamy, and piping hot on the inside.  Overall we got two full meals, leftovers, a Coke, and a Café Cubano (Laura's aforementioned Cuban coffee) for less than $25.  Muy bien.

Anything Else We Missed: This place comfortably seats eight.  That's it.  And that's awesome.  You can get the food to go, but if there's room, I highly suggest grabbing a seat with some hot sauce.  They have playing cards and dominoes for those who aren't in a hurry.  If more people knew about this place, the line outside XOCO might be just a LITTLE bit shorter (no slight on XOCO, that place is fantastic too).  They just opened a second location in Logan Square (2540 W. Armitage Avenue), so I'm guessing it's just as good and slightly more spacious.  Service was terrific too and the food comes out pretty fast.
Miss Laura enjoys the comforts of the dining area.  Yes, that's the WHOLE thing.

Four Moon Tavern (1847 W. Roscoe Street)
Neighborhood bar.  It's that place you know because it's comfortable, the bartenders take care of you, and it's unblemished by obnoxious outsiders.  That is the aura of Four Moon Tavern.  Located on the first floor of a mixed-use building on Roscoe Street just east of Damen Avenue, it's a real pleasant surprise.  It's warm, casual, and the bartenders are attentive.
Four Moon Tavern.  Modest exterior, warm and inviting interior.

Laura's Take:
Me (ordering): “Can I try the Unibroue?”
Bartender (slapping a sample shot of it down in front of me): “That’s a try.” 
Four Moon stands out as one of my absolute favorite classic neighborhood bars.  It’s hard to pinpoint what makes it that.  Nothing is bigger than it needs to be, including the vintage cash register that they actually use to ring up your tab.  The entire place is done in gorgeous wood paneling, even the ceiling and walls.  I think there is a back room but the front was just enough room for coming and going on Saturday evening.  There’s one pool table right next to the jukebox.  You will be heard for better or worse if you decide to sing along, as we found out from the group playing pool… but at least it was The Who (on the jukebox that is, they we're there playing pool).  There was no hurry at all in here, and I don’t know where else you’d really want to be in the first place.  They do have food, and it looked damn good.

Michael's Take: Four Moon pretty much sums up Roscoe Village in bar-form.  It was busy, but neither overwhelming, nor loud.  The music is audible in the background, but you're still able to actually converse with the person next to you.  There was a mix of young and old patrons.  Also, if you want something mass-produced, they have High Life.  Otherwise, you're in micro-brew heaven.  Crain's Chicago Business reported a few weeks ago how difficult it is for micro-breweries to compete in Chicago with Anheuser-Busch and Miller-Coors.  Four Moon Tavern gives credence to the wonderful beers being produced by independent breweries throughout the country.

Anything Else We Missed: Not really, so we'll just reiterate this place's general awesomeness.  Great beer, great service, great atmosphere, all in a great neighborhood.

Roscoe Village/Hamlin Park:
The Final Tally
Due to the weather, we didn't get to spend as much time as we'd like.  That just means we'll have to come back.  Both neighborhoods are quiet, yet offer enough excitement through their boutiques and eating establishments.  The action is along Roscoe Street and Belmont Avenue (which bisects the two neighborhoods).  Although it's a more quiet residential area than neighboring Lake View, there's still plenty of nightlife and is dense enough that the street aren't completely quiet.  Lastly, Roscoe Village was named one of the Ten Best Neighborhoods in Chicago by Chicago Magazine and hosts Retro on Roscoe, one of Chicago's largest neighborhood fests, every August.  This is an outstanding neighborhood that a lot of people don't think about, and is definitely worth a visit.
The counter at 90 Miles Cuban Café.

Eastward down Belmont Avenue dividing Roscoe Village and Hamlin Park.

The North Center community area.  Its four neighborhoods are represented in colors:
North Center (blue/red), St. Ben's (red), Roscoe Village (green), Hamlin Park (purple).

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