To the casual observer, the Far Southwest Side is nothing but bungalows and fast food joints. It has streets like runways, people and cars blurred into one another, sublimated into peripherals, into what might be seen through the windows of planes coming in to land at Midway Airport. It is nothing but urban sprawl, Chicago’s outskirts, flyover country.
Entering its streets, which stretch themselves languorously from the Stevenson Expressway in the west, this casual observation shifts. It’s sly, and not dramatic, but from the rows of houses and swaths of airport property the landscape becomes more interesting. Here pokes a colorful storefront, exclamations in Spanish; there waft the smells of Poland, Silesia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic. Visible snatches of a Chicago past and present rise too: discount stores of all types; mom and pop businesses; pizza, crusts thin and thick. To the northeast, the skyline rises, a visual reminder that even at this far outpost, Chicago is still a sum of all its cultural identities.
In essence, this Southwest Side is a focus of cultural convergence and turnover, as much as anywhere else in Chicago. Yet it doesn’t wear this reality openly. It’s hidden in plain sight, perched on a front porch, behind screen doors, wearing many faces and a blue collar. The melding of American and foreign is encapsulated here.
If you visit the Southwest Side, be prepared to experience Mexican roasted goat right next to deep-dish pizza, and eclectic local record dealers in the same zip code as quinceañera supply stores. Be prepared to rub shoulders with all kinds of people, and, most importantly, if you’re visiting the Southwest Side, be prepared to go back.
BEST SPOT FOR AN EARFUL ABOUT SOUL MUSIC: Record Dugout
Owned and operated by Steve Batinich, Record Dugout has been peddling records, comics, and memorabilia since 1989. Aptly named, the store seems carved out of the storefront it inhabits. Inside, there is little rhyme or reason, just boxes and boxes of used records, dusty and eclectic. A rack of stacked 45s sits in the center of the store, next to a display of used baseball cards. Yet, amid the clutter, there are hidden gems here that keep the devoted neighborhood regulars coming back: soul deep cuts, fifties rock, classic jazz, and country. Regulars come, some as many as four times a week, to buy vinyl, or even to sell their own records on consignment. With its front desk lorded over by employee and part-time WHPK DJ Bob Miner, Record Dugout is the soundtrack of the Southwest Side, put to vinyl. Record Dugout, 6055 W. 63rd St. (773)586-1206. (Jack Nuelle)
BEST CHEAP WHOLESALE FOOD: Continental Salvage
Sitting in the elbow of 63rd and Cicero, almost catercorner from Midway Airport, Continental Salvage has been a neighborhood staple since 1965. Started by Mickey Rojas and still owned and operated by his son Ron, Continental is a food and home goods mecca for the surrounding community. Receiving goods from manufacturers’ overruns, overstocks, and closeouts, Continental Salvage offers name brands at far cheaper prices than chain supermarkets, as well as a variety of thrift items. Continental Salvage is a mingling spot, a comfortable, standard shop, run by family with a family feel. Better yet, products change daily, so your yield will always be a surprise. Continental Salvage, 6333 S. Cicero Ave. (773)581-8100. Monday-Friday, 8am-9pm; Saturday, 8am-8pm; Sunday, 9am-7pm. continentalsalvage.com (Jack Nuelle)
BEST GOAT: Birrieria Zaragoza
While not the only place in Chicago where birria, a tender Mexican meat stew, is featured on the menu, Birrieria Zaragoza is arguably the most authentic, and unarguably the best. Juan Zaragoza, a former employee of the Chicago Tribune, opened the tiny restaurant as a way to encapsulate and preserve the flavors of his childhood in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He follows a specific and time-honored recipe, taken from his hometown of La Barca. His goat, seasoned only with kosher salt and the family-perfected special mole, then roasted for twelve hours, is delicious. It’s a little leaner than lamb, melting like butter off the bone, and sharp with flavor, especially when paired with the homemade tortillas, salsa, and onions and cilantro. Selling meat by the plate, in tacos and quesadillas, and even directly off the bone, Birrieria Zaragoza does goat, and does goat right. Birrieria Zaragoza, 4852 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday-Friday, 10am-7pm; Saturday, 8am-7pm; Sunday 8am-4pm. (773)523-3700. (Jack Nuelle)
BEST THIN CRUST: Vito & Nick’s
Family owned and operated for over eighty years, Vito & Nick’s is a South Side institution. Founded in 1923 as a tavern, it grew over the years until it was serving the standard Italian fare and thin-crust pizza that’s made it famous today. The pizza has been pretty much the same since 1946, known for it’s delectably crispy crust and its Chicago-inspired specialty varieties, including an Italian beef, complete with giardiniera and peppers. Adorned with a uniquely Chicago aesthetic (a wide bar, huge colored glass fixtures, strings of Christmas lights) and brimming with family welcome, Vito & Nick’s serves hometown food for the South Side soul. Vito & Nick’s, 8433 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-1am; Sunday, noon-11pm. Cash only. (773)735-2050. vitoandnicks.com (Jack Nuelle)
BEST SLICE OF POLAND NOT ACTUALLY IN POLAND: Szalas
There is no more eager representation of traditional Polish culture in Chicago than Szalas. The place looks like a chalet straight out of the Polish highlands. The ambiance here is as important as the food. Patrons must pull a bell cord to enter the restaurant, costumed musicians can often be seen playing traditional music, and there’s even a replica miller’s waterwheel. This is not to say that the food is overlooked. Owner Maria Szalas and her staff seek to serve traditional highlander fare—hearty plates straight out of the Carpathian Mountains. Expect huge portions of classic Polish dishes, from borscht and pierogies to sausage and potato pancakes, plus a full selection of Polish beers, which the waiters will bring you in their traditional garb. Szalas Restaurant, 5214 S. Archer Ave. TuesdaySunday, noon-10pm. Bar open until 2am. (773)582-0300. szalasrestaurant.com (Jack Nuelle)