THE HOG BUTCHER of the world is a fat cat. And he's not getting thicker from eating just ribs.
He's eating deep-dish pizza, six-way hotdogs, and steaks so big they hang over the dinner plate. He's eating sashimi (Japanese raw fish), pastel (Pervuian vegetable pudding), and so much Polish food that one writer described our city as "the little pierogi by the lake."
Chicago dining is obviously more diverse than our politics. And just as controversial. Both natives and visitors struggle in deciding where and what to eat.
We are, you see, a city of villages--a city enriched with ethnic groups and cooks, lots of them. Mom and pop restaurants abound; so do temples of fine cuisine. Everyone has an opinion and no one is wrong.
For the visitor in search of a gastronomic experience of cheap eats, decision-making can be bewildering. There is one way out: ask a native. Where is the best stuffed cabbage, the most ethereal vegetable mousse, the meatiest ribs, or those hot dogs that explode in the mouth like a roman candle? The question has no one answer. It has dozens.
And here are mine .
Boris. Polish. Sturdy-looking families huddled over bowls don't seem to notice the raspberry walls or trellis ceiling that makes you think you're in a garden. Attention is glued to the eats--the honey-sweet millet bread, oniony potato pancakes and the heavenly combination plate of pierogi (dumplings stuffed with sweetened pot cheese, pork and sauerkraut). The duck blood soup is an adventure. What lies beneath its murky surface is an intriguing blend of pumpkin pie spices and dried fruit. Taste of Poland sports a mean stuffed cabbage roll, sausage, and dumplings while the Warsaw-style duck is roasted to non-greasy perfection and stuffed with apples. Drinks are as generous as the entrees. No one leaves broke or hungry. 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; to midnight Sun.-Thurs. 7420 N. Milwaukee Ave., Niles. 647-9700.
Carson's. The Place for Ribs. American. What is served here is training table food reminiscent of the '50s. Protein outweighs the carbohydrates and the drinks are not shy of shots. Look for heaping slabs of thick, juicy baby back ribs smothered in a tangy sauce. Strip steak is grilled to perfection and the battered walleye fillets mock the notion that frying is a mortal sin. Butter the size of tennis balls, creamy anchovy dressing on a mountain of iceberg and sweet-sour slaw offset the meat. Be sure to order the au gratin potatoes and for a sweet finale, the goldbrick sundae. Entrees run around $12. Waiting in line is eased with plenty of chopped liver and cocktail rye in the bar. The service is brisk. Mon.--Fri. 11 a.m. to midnight: Fri., Sat. to 1 p.m. Sun. 2 to 11 p.m. 612 Wells St. plus other local and suburban locations. Check the phone book. 280-9200.
Casbah. Despite the North African name, Armenian and Middle Eastern food is served among arches and murals, candles and oriental carpets suspensed from the ceiling. Great control over the spices and fine ingredients handled by skilled hands endear this jewel to adventurous diners. Entrees ($10 to $15) include soups or salad, vegetable or pilaf. Appetizers are meals in themselves with baba shannouj (spiced eggplant dip), garlicy and acidic; spinach and cheese beoraks, and hummos (chick pea pure'e). Entrees (around $9) include sarmakashlama (stuffed grape leaves with lamb), maslube (spiced rice cooked with lamb), cauliflower and pine nuts and pastilla (ground almonds, eggs and cornish game hen wrapped in puff pastry). The tabbuleh (a parsley,lemon and bulgar salad) is more lemony than oily, the lamb kibbee is fresh and chewy with bulgar. The baklava splinters under the teeth. Chase it with some lusty Turkish coffee. Mon.-Sun. 5 to 10:30 p.m. 514 W. Diversey St. 935-7570.
Chicago Dogs. American. Neither the Sears Tower, the Mies van der Rohe apartments along Lakeshore Drive or the stately Wrigley Buildings can compare to this unique, edible wonder, the Chicago-style hot dog. Constructed rather than assembled, they spawn imitations. Many establishments serve them according to Hoyle including Fluky's, 6821 N. Western Ave. and Wolfy's Drive In, 2734 Peterson Ave. The real McCoy is a boiled beef dog piled high with (in this order) catchup, mustard, onions, pickle relish dyed green to match the Chicago River on St. Patrick's Day, four thumb-sized peppers (incendary and explosive) and celery salt. This feast is served on a poppy seed roll. Perfect cheap eats for bar hoppers, the dogs go well with a chaser of cheddar fries. Such a deal for under $2.50. Chicago Dogs is open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 64 E. Chicago Ave. 944-1800.
Eli's. American. The cow is more sacred here than the politicians who upholster the red vinyl booths and never tip the piano player. Impeccable ingredients simply but carefully prepared make proprietor Eli Schulman and his restaurant in the shadow of the Water Tower a landmark. Best bets include prime steaks (T-bone, sirloin, strip, butt), scrod broiled with herb mayonnaise, chicken parmesan and calves liver sauteed with vegetables. The latter will convert any liver-hater. The cottage fries are worth the calories; so is the melt-in-the-mouth New York-style cheesecake (plain, studded with chocolate chips or fruit) made on the premises. Entrees with relishes, salad and potato run between $12 and $18. Service is courteous and table-turning approaches art. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. dinner daily 4 to 11:30 p.m. 215 E. Chicago Ave. 642-1393.
Healthy Food. Lithuanian. Here love is measured in quantity: coffee cups have no bottoms and sour cream comes in scoopfuls, not dollops. High-tonnage best describes the food. Soups such as cream of beef and sauerkraut are as rich as the pumpernickel and rye, so dense they scream for air. Pork roast with a peppery dressing, blynai (eggy pancakes with applesauce), and kugelis (an oniony cross between pudding and potato pancakes) are just some of the goodies served by sturdy waitresses to families and cops. The strudel leaves crispy calling cards on the tie, the cranberry crumb cake is more like a buttery-rich struesel bar cookie than cake. Bring a team and pop for the bill. You'll get change back. 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. 3232 S. Halsted St. 326-2724.
Hue. Vietnamese. Forget the Formica tables and plastic booths and savor the handcrafted food served with a flood of dipping sauces. Rice crackers, steamed into delicate, floppy discs with shrimp and fresh coriander are the open-face dumpling appetizers. Beef sticks, skewered strips of meat flavored with lemon grass are chewy and satisfying. Entrees (around $6) include garlicky chicken curry smothered in carmelized onions, crispy rice, a cross between an omelet and pancake, and chao tom, an dish that needs a hands-on demonstration. Ground shrimp patties wrapped around pieces of sugar cane are deftly removed to tissue-paper-thin rice paper and sandwiched with fresh chopped vegetables. The sugar cane during all of this work becomes an adult lollipop. Sweet rice dumplings in warm coconut milk provide a soothing finish. 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tues.-Sun. 1138 W. Argyle St., 275-4044.
Le Francais. French. Haute cuisine reigns supreme with some nouvelle touches. Prepare for intensely reduced sauces, mousses stuffed into just about everything, and a stellar array of pates and terrines, not to mention pastry. Food is theater and the flurry of activity makes intimate te te-a -te tes impossible. But for one great meal, it's perfect. Chef/owner Jean Banchet and his wife, Doris, run a tight ship and a visit is worth the time (plan on about three hours), money (about $75 per head), and calorie count (astronomical) unless one has willpower or arrives with a ravenous army. Appetizers and entrees change daily and include gratine'e of mussels with truffles and pasta, roast loin of venison with chestnuts in grand veneur sauce and sea bass stuffed with lobster mousse. Not to be missed are the flourless chocolate cake and puff pastry with fresh raspberries and caramel sauce. And if you cannot finish your meal, relax. Leftovers are wrapped, twisted and shaped with aluminum foil into various art forms. Advance reservations required. Tues.-Sun. 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. 269 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling. 541-7470.
Le Perroquet. French. Come here for intimacy and if you prefer dancing after dining instead of feeling full. The food is light, innovative and titillating. it is exquisitely served in a setting of muted tones, plush velvet banquettes, and Persian rugs. Owner Jovan Turboyevic stands guard and one will never find table hopping or conventioneers. Prix-fixe lunch ($15.75) and dinner ($38.50) include ethereal vegetable mousses and entrees such as sauteed soft shell crab in season with chive buerre blanc, grilled lotte, and scallops or swordfish with periwinkles. Duck with port wine and pear is one of Turboyevic's fortes. Just as seductive is pate' of goose with pistachios and steamed sole with sea urchin sauce. Surrender to floating island with raspberry sauce, almond souffle', a bittersweet chocolate mousse with cr eme anglaise or any ice cream or sorbets served in pastry cups. A tray of decadent truffles signals the meal's finale. Advance reservations required. Mon.-Fri. noon to 3 p.m. Dinners Mon.-Sat. 6 to 10 p.m. 70 E. Walton St. 944-7990.
Lou Mitchell's. American. This is the coffee shop that went to heaven. Be prepared to stand in line but the turnover is fast and the pacifiers--a piece of warm doughnut, a box of Milk Duds, a slice of orange--are on the house. Expect freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice, double-yolk omelets (around $4) filled with goodies like apple/cheddar cheese or broccoli with hash browns, deep-fried French toast and waffles made with malted milk. When was the last time pure Vermont maple syrup, whipping cream instead of coffee cream, homemade raisin toast slathered with too much butter or homemade bittersweet chocolate ice cream that makes a mean malted graced any menu? The guy passing out the Milk Duds is Lou himself. 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sat. 565 W. Jackson Blvd. 939-3111.
Pizzeria Uno/Pizzeria Due. Italian. Both restaurants, within one block of each other, are owned by Ike Sewell, the father of Chicago's deep-dish pizza. Thick, crisp pie reigns over everything in these grottos with walls of graffiti. Hallmarks of Sewell's success are real tomatoes (not just the sauce), imported cheeses and spicy Italian sausage crumbled all over the pizza. Get the deluxe and ask for a doggie bag. Or take one home. The prebaked pizza weathers the most turbulent of airplane rides and needs only a freezer or oven upon arrival home. Uno at 29 E. Ohio St.; Due at 619 N. Wabash St. Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m. to 1:20 a.m.: Sat. to 2:20 a.m. Uno is closed Sun., Mon. Due is not. 943-2400 or 321-1000.
Tania's. Cuban. In the rear of a grocery store, this delightful place jumps with live Latin music on the weekends, blushing waitresses in frilly blouses and customers wearing sunglasses. Conversation is in rapid-fire Cuban and the guy walking around with the cordless telephone is the owner, Elias Sanchez. Diets be damned with a hearty bean/rice diet. White bean soup so thick it can support a spoon. The ground beef hash (picadillo) comes with fried bananas and the sauteed pork (masas de cerdo fritas) is addictive. When the bartender remembers to add the Triple Sec, the margaritas are crisp and lethal. 2659 N. Milwaukee Ave. 11 a.m. to midnight daily, 235-7120.
Margaret Sheridan is a food writer for The Chicago Tribune.