Jason Schumer

Best of Bronzeville 2018

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Best Sunday Night Dinner

Yassa

As the temperature begins to fall, the time to drop pins in Google maps on all the places that will feed and warm your stomach approaches too. If you want the transcendental, light-a-fire in your body experience, head towards King Drive to Yassa.   

Sundays are reserved for meals shared with family and relatives. When I popped into Yassa on a Sunday evening, I didn’t step into a restaurant, but a space reminiscent of a living room ripe with the spirit of multiple families coalescing.

The word ‘restaurant’ originates from the French word restaurer, which translates to “restore or refresh.” At Yassa, more than just our guts are restored from hunger pain. Yassa is the first Senegalese restaurant in the city of Chicago and is owned by couple Awa and Madieye Gueye. The doors opened in 2004 on 79th street, later relocating to Bronzeville due to a fire that destroyed their old location.

Tonight, while I dine at Yassa, I order two dishes clearly meant to be the quintessence of pleasance. Maffe is a stew cooked with cubes of lamb in creamy peanut butter and tomato sauce with potatoes, carrots and yams, which I paired with jollof rice. Every ingredient tastes slow-cooked, and loaded with shimmering flavors swirling in a fatty, oily, and smooth stew. Lamb meat comes sliding off the bones like skirting down a freshly zambonied skating rink.

Dish number two is the Yassa fish: whole tilapia marinated overnight in onion, garlic, mustard, lemon and top-secret spices only known to the kitchen, grilled and topped with onions and green olives served with a side of plantains. Rip the bone right out and scrape every piece of fresh fish fiber from the spine. I’m here to tell you it isn’t just the Maffe’s collapsible at-the-touch-of-the-fork lamb, or the tilapia’s crispy on the outside, tender on the inside meat that holds all the attention.

At Yassa, your sides will also be fighting for the lead role (and maybe winning the spotlight). The plantains are the perfect pairing for the tilapia and provide a taste and texture that makes one quiver. Your taste buds oscillate between melt-in-your-mouth fish, and firm then juicy on the inside plantains. Don’t forget to wash it all down with one of several Yassa house-made beverages: bissap, ginger, baobab, or honeydew and pineapple. If none of these drinks sound right for your throat canal, you probably won’t mind Yassa being BYOB.

This isn’t an article about the success of long-term coupling, but one thinking on how food can be flavored by people and their environment. One clue as to why Yassa feels and taste as good as it does is the relationship behind it. (Leo Williams)

Yassa, 3511 S King Drive. SundayThursday, 11am10pm; Friday and Saturday, 11am11pm. (773) 488-5599. yassarestaurant.com

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Best Gift Shop

Absolutely Anything Essential

Jason Schumer
Jason Schumer

When you take the plunge into Absolutely Anything Essential’s garden unit space, the first thing you notice are the various aromas.  It’s something like homemade cookies meets a bushel of roses meets the morning after a rainstorm. If you look around, you’ll start to realize why. Shelves are lined with every self-care product you didn’t know you needed: from body scrubs and lotions to Girl Scout cookies and bath teas.

“Every item in here is [from] a small business, and we just work together as a collective of small businesses, like a family,” said store manager Zae Gregory. Her mother, Kenya Renee, owns the store. “The majority of us are African American––some of us are from [Bronzeville], some of us are from other states, and we’re all just coming together.”

Gregory really means it when she says “coming together.” Vendors frequently come by the store to meet customers and to host weekly classes. You can actually make many of the products that are for sale right on-site.

“We also have a lot of paint and sit classes, where you can BYOB and paint and just have fun, and we love doing that,” Gregory said. Body scrub, candle and lotion-making classes are crowd favorites. Your best chance of getting a seat is Saturday, when there can be up to three vendors hosting classes throughout the day.

Absolutely Anything Essential has been in their current space for two years this October, birthed out of Renee’s love of crafting.

I think she [Renee] just woke up one day and was like, ‘why not have a store.’ When she’s bored she makes body scrubs and stuff,” Gregory said. “She was making products and selling them and popping up at different events with a table, so she was like, ‘Why not make this real?’”

The mother-daughter team also has plans to expand their operation to include a black-box theater in the upstairs space attached to the current store. It will feature open mic nights and other community-sourced performances.

“If they want a small intimate space, they have it,” Gregory said.

While it may be the smell of wildflowers and chocolate that draws customers in, it’s the sense of family and community that makes Absolutely Anything Essential so special.

“When customers come in, they understand the story—like OK, my mom and I built it from the ground up,” Gregory said. “But when they come in and realize the spirit, and who actually made your products –– like who made your soap? How long did it take them? And I’m the only one here now, but usually vendors come in, so usually you get to meet the person who made it, [and] it just puts a lot of perspective on the items. You appreciate it more.” (Francesca Mathewes)

Absolutely Anything Essential. 3251 S. King Dr. Wednesday–Saturday, noon–6pm; Saturday, 11am–6pm; closed Sunday–Tuesday. (312) 238-9447. absolutelyanythingessential.com

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Best Outdoor Museum

Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art

J. Michael Eugenio
J. Michael Eugenio

Milton Mizenberg moved to the Oakland area over thirty years ago. After teaching himself how to repair his new home, he turned to the empty lots around him. With the help of his new neighbors, they cleaned up the lots. Milton then began to make abstract chainsaw sculptures out of the felled trees, filling the lots and founding the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art.

Now spanning over three lots, the outdoor museum and garden have become a point of pride in the 4100 block of Lake Park Avenue in Oakland. In Williams-Davis Park, directly across from the outdoor museum, stands a bronze cast sculpture commissioned by the city, titled “Restoration.” Its inscription reads, “This sculpture is dedicated to the men and women who remained in the Oakland community during difficult times and worked hard to restore its former beauty.” Mizenberg once said in an interview with YouTube channel Chicago Revealed, “Oakland made me a great artist.”

J. Michael Eugenio
J. Michael Eugenio

Since Mizenberg’s death a few years ago, his son, also Milton, now maintains his home studio and sculpture garden. Along with neighbors, some of whom helped Mizenberg Sr. clear the lots back in 1988, they’ve been working to preserve his sculptures and legacy. They understand the sculpture gardens to be a pivotal feature that ties their community together. A recently awarded South East Chicago Commission grant has helped them begin the long process of preserving the sculptures, many of which have weathered with time. (J. Michael Eugenio)

Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art, E. 41st Pl. and S. Lake Park Ave. Open all the time, but best observed during daylight hours.

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