"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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

North Center/St. Ben's

The Breakdown
Beautiful autumn day in North Center
An overview: North Center.  It’s like Lake View without the drama…well, and the lake.  In all seriousness though, North Center is that neighborhood every North-Sider has been to often without realizing what neighborhood they’re in.  What’s here is a bevy of restaurants and taverns located within one of the City’s safest, most pleasant areas.

The North Center community area encompasses four neighborhoods.  We’ve already covered the southern half, which is Roscoe Village and Hamlin Park.  You can read about our experience here.  This entry will cover the northern half, which covers the eponymous North Center neighborhood, and the smaller St. Ben’s.

It's not quite Trajan's Column but it'll do

The boundaries: The boundaries of the North Center (sometimes spelled "Northcenter") neighborhood are Montrose Avenue to the north, Addison Street to the south, Ravenswood Avenue to the east, and the Chicago River to the west.  The St. Ben’s is a mostly residential neighborhood encompassed within the larger North Center neighborhood.  Named after St. Benedict’s Catholic Church (2215 W. Irving Park Road), its borders are Irving Park Road to the north, Addison Street to the south, Damen Avenue to the east, and Western Avenue to the west.

Population make-up: Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the North Center community area basically stayed the same, losing only 28 residents over that 10-year period.  The 2010 population count for the entire community is 31,867.

The population of the North Center/St. Ben’s neighborhood itself has increased since 2000, now at approximately 16,317, a 1.5% increase over the past decade.  The racial breakdown of the neighborhood is 78.6% white, 12.5% Hispanic, 5.3% Asian, and 1.7% black.

St. Benedict Parish (background)
is one of North Center's icons
A brief history: North Center really began to grow just after the Chicago Fire in 1871.  Demand for brick housing was supplied in the area, giving the neighborhood the nickname “Bricktown”.  Meanwhile, immigrants flooded into the area to work in the industrial plants along Ravenswood Avenue, notably Germans whose imprint is still left today in many of the restaurants and taverns along the neighborhood’s major corridors.  North Center was also home to a very famous amusement park, Riverview, which was open from 1904-1967.

From the 1940s through the 1990s, the neighborhood saw a drop in population, which has stabilized in the past couple decades thanks in part to an influx of Asians and Hispanics.  Today it is a pleasant mix of young professionals and families living in single-family homes and brick two-flats.  Eclectic shops, diverse restaurants, and trendy bars make North Center enticing to those who are looking for an accessible neighborhood filled with amenities without the density found in the Lake Michigan-bordered neighborhoods.

Getting there: By “L” you have three options, all via the Brown Line: Montrose, Irving Park, and Addison.  All three will leave you on the eastern portion of North Center, but the neighborhood isn’t so wide that you can’t transfer to a bus and get where you need to be in about 10-15 minutes.  Sorry bout the double-negative there.

By bus, going north-south: Western (49) and Damen (50).  Going northwest-southeast: Lincoln (11).  If going east-west: Montrose (78), Irving Park (80), and Addison (152).

The Globe Pub (1934 W. Irving Park Road)
Where you can watch the "other" football
Arguably North Center’s most well-known watering hole.  This is the place to come and catch your English Premier League or international rugby match-ups.  Another beautiful thing about the Globe is that it helps showcase Chicago as an international city.  European and Aussie sports fans living in the Windy City all come here to pull for their home team, allowing this establishment to live up to its name.  Comfy and boasting an OUTSTANDING beer selection, the Globe Pub is a must if you’re looking to hang out in North Center.

Michael’s Take: There’s not much to say about the Globe other than it’s awesome whether you’re a sports fan or not.  On the surface it would only appeal to a European soccer fanatic, but in reality there’s always a great mix of people at any time of the day, many of whom are blissfully unaware that there are TVs hovering above their heads.  And in the vein of a true English or Irish Pub, there’s a complete lack of pretentiousness.  You’d be just as comfortable here sipping a Bud-heavy as you would a Left Hand Milk Stout.  It’s so easy to find too, just a block west of the Irving Park Brown Line station.  The Globe Pub is definitely one of Chicago’s iconic bars, and is well worth the visit at any time of day.

At The Globe Pub, you have options
Laura’s Take: I love going to the Globe whenever I’m around the area and I’m not even a European sports fan!  No matter if it’s at 6:30am, if there’s a game on, the Globe will be showing it.  This gives the place a fun, feisty atmosphere.  There is a lot of paraphernalia on the walls and you’ll find a corner that you want to settle in.  I hear they have a big party for DA BEARS games with giveaways and free wifi internet.  Their Facebook page is littered with thanks from international ex-pats for the beer list and sports schedule, so if this sounds like your scene, you will enjoy.

Anything Else We Missed: If you’re a Chicago Fire fan (you know you are, you just don’t realize it yet), the Globe offers a private bus to home games throughout the season.  Riding the bus is $15 and includes refreshments, reservations required.  However, you’re on your own for a ticket to the game itself.

Cafe 28 (1612 W. Irving Park Road)
The pleasant brick interior of Cafe 28's dining room
Cuban food if you’re curious, Mexican food if you want to stay in your comfort zone.  Either way, this Latin American restaurant has been a North Center mainstay for nearly two decades.  So grab your mojito, or your sangria, or your cerveza, and take a seat in the cozy, dimly-lit dining room.

Michael’s Take: I really liked what I got.  It’s not often you get to go out and have Cuban food, and as someone who really enjoys it, this was a pleasure.  Thick slices of pork were lightly doused in light mojo sauce (that’s “mo-ho” to you, Mr. Mojo Risin’).  For the uninitiated, mojo is a thin, clear sauce made of garlic and sour orange.  It’s not sweet, just very light and refreshing.  Black beans and rice were flavorful as well, and plantain chips were perfectly thin and crispy.  Also, highly recommended is the “Taste of Cuba” appetizer.  Plump, crispy empanadas were complemented along croquets with a rich center of ham and chicken.

Pork that has some SERIOUS mojo
Laura’s Take: I really liked the atmosphere of Cafe 28. Coming in, stepping up into the doorway from the street, and being greeted immediately by the exotic drink menu at the crowded bar was a good start to a Saturday night. They are into specialty drinks and cocktails, which can really whet your appetite for a good meal. Once our table was seated (the atmosphere did not disappoint back in the dining room) we enjoyed some appetizers. I ordered the blackened duck, which was pretty good, but unfortunately I remember the side of jalapeno potatoes (so promising!) as gummy and not very flavorful. For the price I would have expected more out of my entrée, but this is not to say that I wouldn’t go back to Cafe 28. Maybe drinks and appetizers at the bar would be a realistic happy medium way to enjoy the place on a Saturday night.

Anything Else We Missed: If you live in North Center, you are in luck.  Cafe 28 now offers North Center residents a 20% discount if you dine there on Sunday nights from 5:30-9:00pm.  Proof of residency in the neighborhood is required, which means you should probably get that driver’s license with your old suburban home address updated.

Glunz Bavarian Haus (4128 N. Lincoln Avenue)
Das ist gut at Glunz
Mmmmm…German beer hall.  Here’s a great place to get your stein or boot of Hofbrau or Spaten.  The Germans left an indelible mark on Chicago’s culture and history.  Here’s a place to experience what makes their influence in terms of food and drink so special.

Michael’s Take: Admittedly it was fairly quiet mid-afternoon on a Saturday.  Supposedly this place really livens up in the evenings although people were starting to trickle in as we were leaving.  In true beer hall fashion, there is a lot of shared seating.  Beer on tap is great, and as any beer fan knows, Oktoberfest is when some of the best stuff you can get becomes available.  I went with Hofbrau’s Oktoberfest, which is awesome of course.  A little bitter and then just enough caramelly sweetness at the finish.  Although there are great microbreweries popping up all over the country (notably the one just a couple blocks down the street from Glunz…more on that one in a bit…), sometimes it’s nice to remember why the Germans have such a legendary influence on the industry.

Laura’s Take: Places like this Bavarian Haus make it fun to explore the city. It really makes you remember Europe and lets you pretend you are one more beer-drinking German during Oktoberfest. If the words Doppelbock, Oktoberfest, Weizenbock, Pils, and/or Tremens get you excited you should probably go. We were full of Korean food while we were there, but the menu looked, well, very German, and a few menu items really caught my eye and sounded very home-cooked. It would be worth coming back for that. Another perk of this place was the new technique I learned from the bartender on how to get rid of the foam atop your draught brew…. I honestly just can’t remember what he did. But it was magic.

Anything Else We Missed: Of course they have German food.  There’s a special Oktoberfest menu every year.  Entrees are gonna run you $15-$25 per person, but it’ll be more than that because you will undoubtedly have a beverage or two with dinner.

Cho Sun Ok (4200 N. Lincoln Avenue)
Oh, it's not just ANY Korean Restaurant
Korean food has to be one of the most underrated ethnic cuisines out there.  Chinese will always be popular, Thai food has seemingly been trendy for over a decade, but nobody ever talks about Korean food.  Up in North Center there’s a great place to experience this type of cuisine.  The cooks are Korean, so are the waitresses, and so are most of the patrons…always a good sign.  Unlike many of its Asian counterparts, a great portion of Korean food is broth-based, so your meats and dumplings with often be served in a light, flavorful soup.  If you’re in the mood for something different and authentic, Cho Sun Ok is a great out-of-the-ordinary experience.

Michael’s Take: One of my favorite things to get at a Korean restaurant is the Mandu.  You get meat-filled dumplings in a savory broth, complemented by rice cakes.  The rice cakes are soft little pads, slightly chewy, and provide a nice texture to the soup.  If you’re not into the soup thing though, you can always get the classic Bul-Go-Gi.  It’s got tender slices of marinated beef over a soft bed of rice.  The meat at Cho Sun Ok is nice and soft, and the marinade could best be described to the uninitiated as similar to a more flavorful and less sweet teriyaki.  Oh, and those appetizers…

You can almost see Michael
just beyond the Mandu and condiments

Laura’s Take: This place was really out there the first time I went! The waitresses barely speak English and you may see them sharing a communal meal at one of the empty tables if you come in between normal meal hours. The first time I went, I ordered a very spicy noodle dish. The waitress was a little taken aback but she just didn’t think I could handle the flavor. In any case, this time I got the mackerel, which was fried up in some oil, and was a tad disappointed. The flavor just wasn’t what I expected. However, Mike had the best thing I’ve tasted at this place, a big bowl of Mandu with dumplings and broth. Now I know what to order when we go back – this was a real treat. All I have to say about the huge spread of appetizer delights you will get is – have fun!  You will probably love some and hate some. I think the best was some sort of fried tofu or soy product, cut into strips with a light brown color.

Anything Else We Missed: You can order standard entrees like we did.  Or you can do something awesome that we DIDN’T do and cook your own meat/seafood on a grill that’s either provided to you on the side, or built into your table, depending on where you sit.

Half Acre Brewery (4257 N. Lincoln Avenue)
Soooo...you're here for the tour too, huh?
Ninety minutes.  That’s how long we waited to get into a tour at the Half Acre Brewery.  Now, they offer only one tour a week, Saturdays at 1:00.  These tours are booked until June 2012.  That’s not a typo.  Yet, there’s hope.  Of the 60 spaces already reserved for each tour, there are always people who don’t show.  So, they let those waiting in line to fill the unclaimed reservations on a first-come first-served basis.  “Hurrah!” cried the crowd as a Half Acre employee announced that 30 would get in for the tour that day.  But was it worth it?

Michael’s Take: Oh it was worth it.  For $10 you get a souvenir pint glass and three fills to the top.  Gabe, the owner, is your tour guide.  He’s definitely a younger fellow (early 30s?), and he gives an engaging tour, explaining both the science of beer making and the short but notable history of the brewery.  On tap they offered their flagship brew Daisy Cutter (pale ale), Gossamer (golden ale), and a saison that they had just first brewed in the past week.  The first two are accessible in any trendy tavern, but the real treat was the saison.  Here’s to hoping this one will be more accessible, slightly sweet with an inoffensive spiciness.  Beautiful golden coloring too.  A couple from Toledo that we met while waiting in line (they were #1 and #2, we were #3 and #4) was lukewarm to the Gossamer, but completely sold on the saison.  Definitely one of the best beers I’ve tried in recent memory.  Additionally, the hipster staff is extremely pleasant and accommodating, and will likely refer to you as “man” on multiple occasions.  That’s ok though, I liked it.  And after all, I AM a man.

Gabe is here to take care of you
Laura’s Take: I’ve waited in line for hot dogs and BBQ in Chicago, but I think Half Acre was more worth it.  Not to mention it was a scorching morning on Lincoln Ave, let alone the noon heat! Good thing the Jewel across the street stocks water. Anyway, the brewery has a modern urban industrial feel to it. And pretty exclusive too, considering what you have to go through to get in! However, it IS one of the more interactive and generous tours I’ve been on. We started in the top level of the brewery where the staff has created a makeshift loft level. Luckily he did not keep us in that hot box for too long, but again it makes you feel like you are seeing something really special. Gabe did a great job explaining the process of grain malting and mashing, and it really brought it home to be standing up with all the equipment that they have jimmied up to operate from the floor up to the second level. Half Acre beers are high quality. If you are lucky enough to live close you are going to enjoy your growler option. Not being one for pale ales (they make me want to drink gallons of water immediately), I actually like Daisy Cutter very much. At Half Acre they are paying attention to their ingredients and getting maximum flavor out of them, but creating very drinkable beers at the same time.  Enjoy!

Anything Else We Missed: If you can’t make it for the tour, you can still stop in for their beer.  There was a steady flow of patrons as we waited in line, coming with empty growlers and leaving with satisfied grins on their faces.  They’re closed on Mondays, but holding regular hours Tuesday through Saturday.  Also, they’re open on Sundays from noon until 5:00pm.

North Center: The Final Tally
Looking eastward down Irving Park Road as night falls
North Center may have a boring name, but it is really an outstanding neighborhood and considering its accessibility from anywhere on the north side, is a must-visit.  The streets are alive at all times of day, but not congested the way they are the closer you get to the lake.  Nightlife and restaurants are not hard to find, and the neighborhood just has a more laid-back feel that is a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of its eastern neighbor Lake View.  We love North Center, you’ll love North Center (or probably already do and don’t even realize it).  Go out and visit it this weekend.

The North Center neighborhood and where we went (St. Ben's in red)

When only one kind of kimchi just won't do, Cho Sun Ok gives you two levels of hott (left)

The North Center community area is made up of four smaller neighborhoods:
North Center (blue), St. Ben's (red), Roscoe Village (green), and Hamlin Park (purple)

Bring a sticker and leave your mark at Half Acre

Classy row homes on Damen Avenue

North Center and St. Ben's sit only a few miles northwest of the Loop

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