"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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Albany Park

The Breakdown
The golden dome of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church
under renovation. 
The boundaries: OK, try to follow me here.  The community area of Albany Park is bordered by the Chicago River to east and mostly to the north as well.  To the south, the majority of its border is Montrose Avenue.  Once Montrose hits Elston Avenue, Albany Park's south and western boundary follows Elston to Lawrence Avenue.  Lawrence then runs into the Edens Expressway (I-94), which makes up the community area's western boundary.  Please refer to the map at the end of the post for a visual representation.

The majority of the community area is made up of the Albany Park neighborhood.  However, there are two smaller neighborhoods to the west, Mayfair and North Mayfair.  Both neighborhoods are bordered by Cicero Avenue to the west and Pulaski Road to the east.  Lawrence divides the neighborhoods, with North Mayfair going north to Bryn Mawr Avenue, and Mayfair going south to Montrose.

Population make-up: Unfortunately we don't have the demographic breakdowns of each community area yet, but we're working on it.  Going by the 2000 Census however, it's verification of the neighborhood's diversity.  The 2000 population was 57,655 with 46.4% of the population reporting as "Hispanic/Latino alone".  Those described as "White alone" made up 27.5% of the population while Asians made up 17.7% of the populace.  It also registered the largest total population of Korean and Filipino residents of any community area.  As of the 2010 Census, Albany Park's overall population had declined 10.6% to 51,542 residents.

A brief history: A farming community shortly after the Civil War, Albany Park was annexed by the explosively growing Chicago in 1889.  Albany Park experienced massive growth and development with the relocation of the Chicago River and the extension of the Chicago "L" to Kimball in the early 1900s.  Initially settled by German and Swedish immigrants, it became the home of a substantial Russian Jewish population into the 1960s.  Due to suburban flight, the area fell into great disrepair in the 70s.  Efforts in the 80s and 90s to rejuvenate the area have been successful, re-energizing the community.  Today, it is an incredibly diverse community of whites, Asians, Hispanics, and Asians.  It is home to a large contingent of Koreans, and it's estimated that nearly half the businesses along the Lawrence Avenue corridor are Korean-owned.

Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park hosts a high percentage
of Korean-owned businesses.
Getting there: Public transit is a reasonable option when getting to Albany Park.  The brown line serves the eastern half of the community area with stops at Kimball, Kedzie, and Francisco.  If going by bus, the east-west options are Lawrence (81) and Montrose (78).  The Foster bus (92) will also take you North Mayfair.

If going north-south, you can take the buses along Pulaski (53), Kimball (82), and partially by California/Dodge (93).  Also, the North Cicero bus (54A) will put you along the community area's western border.

Marie's Pizza & Liquors 
(4127 W. Lawrence Avenue)
Such a simple idea, yet such a novel find: liquor store + pizzeria.
When you drop into Marie's your options are threefold: one of them is pizza, the other two involve liquor.  I don't think anybody saw the sign and accused the place of being misleading.  On one hand, it's a decent liquor store.  Your other option is to go into the restaurant.  There, they offer thin-crust pizza, and a full bar in a 70s throwback that makes you think of your grandpa's basement.  So grab a seat on a comfy red leather chair and enjoy yourself at Marie's.

Michael's Take: OK, so maybe not getting the pizza was cheating, but we still lounged and absorbed the atmosphere.  If you didn't already know, Albany Park isn't a hotbed of bars/taverns/clubs.  So even though it was St. Patrick's Day weekend, we were the only non-employees there around noon.  Our server was polite and attentive to where we didn't have to wait on an additional drink.  It would be interesting to see what it's like in the evenings when there are likely more people there to dine (and not just "wine").  Still, the atmosphere was old-fashioned and comfortable.  Only a couple beers on tap, but I wasn't expecting Hop Leaf: Part Deux either.

Very retro.

Laura's Take: I sort of get a kick out of Marie's.  In a wash of Korean bakeries and joints, it's an odd but familiar taste of Americana.  Maybe they figured that pizza and liquor were the first two items people would be craving around here.  The pictures of the pizza looked good.  It was thin.  Yeah, that's right, nothing deep about it and I was glad.  The only question that comes to mind is can you bring your liquor purchases across into the pizza parlor?  This will have to be answered on a later date.

Yep, the booths are comfy too.

Anything Else We Missed: Besides the pizza?  Well, live music from Thursday thru Saturday sounds pretty good, and the lack of cover charge is a bonus.  You're probably not going to discover the next Stabbing Westward here (hey, remember them??), but you could a lot worse than Jazz Thursdays, Swing Fridays, and a string trio on Saturday night.

Alwadi Restaurant (4835 N. Kedzie Avenue)
No, it's not actually the suburbs.
Are you in the mood for Middle Eastern food but can't decide on a place to go?  Just get yourself to the intersection of Kedzie and Lawrence.  From there, flip a coin.  If it's heads, you're going north on Kedzie, if it's tails then you're going south.  Don't worry, either way you're going to have about a half-dozen options within the next two blocks.  Seriously though, if there's a more underrated ethnic cuisine than Middle Eastern I'd like to hear it.  It's flavorful yet inoffensive (although if anything remotely resembling a gyro offends you then we just have no hope for you), and very VERY affordable.  We decided to try Alwadi, in a little strip center just north of Kedzie and Lawrence.  Heads it is.

Arabian coffee: where to find it again?
Laura's Take: Alwadi is found in a cubicle-shaped space inside a strip mall.  This does not mean the food isn't awesome.  I had the falafel sandwich.  Although the falafel itself was probably a 6.5 out of 10, the sandwich as a whole I really enjoyed.  Great pita wrap, great sauce, and right amount of it.  Plus it was refreshingly affordable for the amount of food - I think the wrap, which came in two substantial halves, was $3.50.  I am so glad we ordered Arabian coffee too.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the predominant flavor was cardamom, but the waitress didn't exactly know what made it so delicious.  I guess all Arabian coffee is like that.  My favorite part was it was so different tasting and incredibly strong but not bitter at all.  Even though we had the basic schawarma and falafel sandwiches, the menu had a variety of options including more entree-like meals.  As an appetizer I had the lentil soup, which surprisingly was very gruel-like with a chicken broth base, but it came with fresh lemon and was tasty and hot.
Shawarma (top) and falafel sandwiches at Alwadi.

Michael's Take: Like the good Catholic that I am, I gave up red meat for Lent.  Like the bad Catholic that I am, I feel obligated to give up something for Lent to try and feel better about myself.  The end result is we're at Day 4 and I've got the sweats.  Fortunately, Alwadi offers Chicken Shawarma.  I had myself a wrap.  It was exactly what I'd hoped for.  Plenty of thick slices of meat and plenty of tangy sauce.  For someone who likes only a little sauce, I'd recommend asking for it on the side.  But for those who "go big or go home", our cook went big and didn't shortchange me.  Arab coffee is what you'd guess from looking at it: small, potent, delicious.  For around $8 counting tip, I was full and satisfied.

Anything Else We Missed: So if you Google this place, it comes up with the tagline "The Best Middle Eastern Food in Chicago".  Whoa...that took some serious huevos right there.  We can't verify if that's the case but still, if you don't set your expectations that high, you'll probably be pleased with a tasty and inexpensive meal from Alwadi.  Worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood.

Nazareth Sweets (4638 N. Kedzie Avenue)
Oh but it's not just Middle Eastern lunch or dinner that Albany Park has to offer.  Whether you're dining on kabobs, tacos, or mandu, make sure you save room for dessert.  The place to go for that is a tiny little bakery in a strip center on Kedzie, immediately south of the tracks.

A snapshot of the absolutely perfected confections at Nazareth Sweets.
Michael's Take: Delicious.  Absolutely delicious.  We struck up a chat with the owner, and he was kind enough to offer us two treats.  The baklava was everything you'd hope for, crispy, flaky, nutty, sweet.  Perfect.  He also let us try harissah, something I was unfamiliar with.  Think of it as a tiny coconut cake. The harissah was incredibly moist and sweet.  Pure decadence.  It's hard to decide what to get there, so they have plenty of containers filled with assorted desserts.  A box of about 15 was $8 even.  Trust me, for what you're getting, that's a steal.

Doesn't look like much, eh?
Laura's Take: Italian pastries, ehh... French pastries earn their reputation, but this.... wow.  The moment you walk in you are completely bombarded with the warm, intoxicating steam of butter pastry.  There's nothing fancy about the display, the storefront, or the way the owner handles business, but there is a reason this place is a mecca.  After we asked to take a picture, the owner unexpectedly started handing us treats.  I think he picked out the harissah probably because he knew it would be the single best dessert I've ever placed in my mouth.  I don't spend much time or energy or caloric intake craving on sweets.  However, I MUST have more of this stuff as soon as possible.  I don't know whether I loved the coconut cake (a name that doesn't do it justice) or the baklava more, but all I know is that these two tiny morsels made my day.  You can order them delivered, but I'm really glad I got to see the unassuming place where it's made.  Unforgettable.

Anything Else We Missed: You can order everything they make from their website (please click on their name in the heading of this section).  So, you don't have to go all the way to Albany Park to pick up a killer box of baklava.  But still, you SHOULD visit their location.  There's parking in front and on Eastwood Avenue.  Also, it's located right next to the Kedzie Brown Line station.  So you have no excuse.  But if you did have an excuse, you know, you could still get jawesome pastries delivered to your door.

Albany Park: The Final Tally
Aesthetically, not many are going to confuse Albany Park for a "beautiful" neighborhood.  There's often a lot of garbage on the ground, and there hasn't been substantial redevelopment along the main corridors.  Still, what Albany Park may lack in physical attractiveness, it more than makes up in character.  Ethnic dining options are everywhere - there seems to be a Korean or Middle Eastern bakery every other storefront.  The community is not only diverse, it's also relatively safe.  Oh, and it's also the home to the only three (please correct me if I'm wrong) street-level "L" stations.  Albany Park may not be as trendy as its neighbor to the east (Lincoln Square), or as wealthy as its neighbor to the west (Forest Glen), but it is a neighborhood worth experiencing at least once.

Albany Park.  Or as its residents affectionally refer to it, "The Alb".

The Lawrence Fish Market (they only do takeout).
The inside looks and smells like what it is: a space used to butcher and prepare fresh fish.

Street-level tracks between a building and the Kedzie Brown Line station.


  1. Do we really refer to it as "the Alb"? Great information and great blog!

  2. We don't refer to Albany Park as "the Alb". I happen to live in North Mayfair, and it's a beautiful historic bungalow neighborhood. Very quiet, very safe and I have to add also very clean.

  3. For a dip into a very condensed view of the true ethnically and economically diverse nature of this community, visit the Albany Park Community Center for opportunities to volunteer in tutoring non-native speakers of English from upwards of 25 countries, or teaching math to low-income youth to prepare for the GED exams, or assist in the Head start Pre-school program, or mentor youth at risk in after-school activites and community projects.

  4. Its really cool to know more info about things i see on a daily bases