Englewood’s Dream Cafe and Grille is built around fresh, made-from-scratch, and locally sourced food, but it is not trying too hard to impress you. It’s one of two storefronts in a neglected little strip mall, and only a single canvas sign above the doorway betrays its existence. “Opening this spring, (Serious this time),” it says. Even the logo, featuring the Chicago flag, is inconspicuous.
Inside Dream Cafe retains the low-key look. Save a few charming details (a chalkboard menu, tables painted by a local children’s art class), it’s plain and clean. A modest flow of people trickles in and out, picking up sandwiches and homemade cheesecake for dinner. The manager, a veteran of Hyde Park’s Dr. Wax records, plays smooth soul music at low volume.
Perhaps the Dream Cafe’s appearance is so muted because the focus rests firmly on the food itself. Everything is made-to-order in plain view behind the counter. The chicken sandwich is served still bubbling from the fryer on a crumbly yellow bun. The homemade fries are cut thick and salted just right. Down to the last leaf of lettuce, everything is absolutely fresh. The house style is comfort food, minus the usual sense of unhealthy excess and executed with an elegant simplicity. Everything is served on red plates that somehow demand to be photographed.
But you can’t talk about Dream Café without talking about the eggrolls. By far the most extravagant dish, the Supreme Dream Eggroll Trio proudly tops the menu. For $3.99, you can sample fillings of jerk chicken, collard greens, and mac & cheese, no substitutions. The paired dipping sauces—applesauce, honey-sriracha, and buttermilk ranch, respectively—are just as formidable.
The eggroll trio is the brainchild of culinary genius/madman Chef Russell Moore. Along with Howard Bailey, the Dream Cafe’s owner, Moore has been serving fresh, healthy food to Englewood for over two months since the cafe’s opening on Martin Luther King Day. Beyond the name, MLK inspires the cafe’s sense of community pride and civic engagement. In addition to sourcing his produce locally, Bailey has offered free soup for ballot receipts on Election Day, and free appetizers for Selma ticket stubs.
The Dream Cafe’s fate is tied to the eggroll trio, certain to become a signature item just by virtue of its weirdness. The weirdness is risky, perhaps, topping off a much more conventional menu, but there’s no doubt that it’s justified. The unlikely marriage between the fried, flaky wraps and the southern fillings quickly becomes natural. The sauces are good enough to warrant use on fries when the eggrolls run out. Picking a favorite is akin to picking a favorite child, but the taste of thick, savory mac & cheese filling against cool ranch might have a slight edge.
While the sandwiches and entrees are quite impressive, these transnational monstrosities are something special. The eggrolls are so excellent, in fact, that they cast a slight shadow over the rest of the menu. The two-word menu items like “Cheese Burger” and “Veggie Tacos” are hard-pressed to match the ostentatious splendor of the appetizer.
One wonders whether Chef Moore might be holding back, whether he might profit from venturing farther off the deep end, whether the Dream Café might not demand a little more flashy self-indulgence. Then again, more culinary pyrotechnics would risk losing sight of the unpretentious simplicity that defines the restaurant. Perhaps the Dream Café is destined to serve good, straightforward American and Caribbean food, crowned by one exceptional novelty item. It would be greedy to ask for more.
Dream Cafe and Grille, 748 W. 61st St. Mon-Sat, 11am-8pm. (773)891-5334. dreamcafeandgrille.com
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 1, 2015
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the address of Dream Cafe and Grille. It is 748 W. 61st St., not 748 W. Halsted St.