“Ethnic food” is a phrase usually reserved for cuisines from foreign countries other than those in Western Europe. We don’t apply the term “ethnic food” to French or German food, but we readily apply it to Mexican or Thai food. The restaurants on the following list might be termed “ethnic,” but whatever category we place them in, they offer a way to get to know another culture by eating their foods.
In a world where the possibility of global conflict increases every day, it’s never been more important to connect with those who are not us — and, of course, it’s always fun to experience new tastes.
Jibek Jolu (Kyrgyz)
If you’ve had Kyrgyz chow in Chicago, odds are high that you either had it at the home of a friend from Kyrgyzstan or at Jibek Jolu. Much of the Jibek Jolu menu is solidly in the comfort food category. At Jibek Jolu, you can have dumplings — a universally beloved food — prepared in many ways, including Manty, which frequently includes meat with a mixture of finely chopped fat for flavor and moisture. The dumpling-like Pelmeni is made of unleavened dough, rolled thin, stuffed with ground beef and onions, and served with yogurt sauce. 5047 N. Lincoln, Chicago, 773-878-8494
Lutnia (Haute Polish)
When you think Polish food in Chicago, your mind probably conjures images of Polish sausage with potatoes, a platter of pierogi, perhaps a stein of beer. Polish food is more than that, of course, and at Lutnia, you can enjoy Polish cuisine served on white tablecloths beneath golden chandeliers. Carefully prepared dishes such as Frog Legs in Garlic Parsley Butter and Roast Goose with Sauerkraut and Pears set this place apart, as does the tableside preparation of Caesar salad. You’d expect to see Polish food presented in this refined atmosphere in Warsaw. Surprise! You can also be served haute Polish food like this in Chicago. 5532 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, 773-282-5335
Maxwell Street Market (Regional Mexican)
On weekends, you’ll find people lining up at food stands at the Maxwell Street Market, which has been in Chicago since the 19th century. Now, the character of the market is largely Hispanic, as Chef Rick Bayless himself confesses, “I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m in Mexico when I eat there.” Here, you’ll taste Mexican food that’d be hard to find even at Bayless’ places, food from regions as diverse as Michoacán, Jalisco and Oaxaca. Though we have eaten (I cannot say enjoyed) Eyeball Tacos at the market, there are other uncommon and much more delicious Mexican foods at this Sunday-only market. We suggest the one-two punch of the Tamal Oaxaca, a huge square of corn meal enfolding tender chunks of chicken with salsa (unbelievably good), and a smoothie of nopales, cool and sweet, made from cactus paddles — very complimentary to chili heat. 800 S. Desplaines St., Chicago, 312-745-4676, every Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
NaKorn (Home-style Thai)
If your perception of Thai food is that it’s mostly chili heat and raw vegetables, NaKorn is here to show you otherwise. Mina Sudsaard, who co-owns NaKorn with Sam Rattanopas, says, “If you ask me where you can find the greatest Thai food in Thailand, my answer is Mom!” This focus on home-style Thai cuisine sets NaKorn apart from just about every other Thai restaurant in Chicago: The food is more likely to be cooked than raw, and the chili heat is dialed way down. The Grilled Sliced Tenderloin features rolls of the meat, filled with vegetables, composed beautifully on the plate; Mina’s Braised Short Ribs are served in a bowl of umami-packing broth, laced with flowers. It’s Thai like you’ve probably never seen anywhere else in the Chicago area — and it’s looking very good. 1622 Orrington, Evanston, 847-733-8424
Nepal House (Himalayan)
Tucked just above India and just below Tibet, Nepal is a Himalayan country. Because it’s so close to India, a culinary powerhouse, some of the foods at Nepal House (like samosas and tandoori chicken) will remind you of similar dishes from the subcontinent. There are others, however, that are mainstays of traditional Nepalese cuisine, such as Momo (the Nepalese national dish, a dumpling filled with meat or vegetable) and Nepali Khasi (bone-in goat meat simmered in Nepali spices). With two locations, you don’t have to go far from home to feel far from home. 2601 W. Devon Ave., Chicago, 773-681-0200; 1301 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-922-0601
Northern City (Northern Chinese)
Growing up in Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s, Chinese food meant Cantonese food: chow mein, fried rice, sweet and sour chicken — all good, but representing just one region of China. Northern City specializes in the foods of (you guessed it) Northern China. Predictably, they have their own style. Lamb with Cumin is a spectacular dish, the aggressive spice holding its own against the flavorful, lush meat. We’ve also enjoyed Crispy Duck, cut into pieces and fried crunchy, the kind of tasty food that appeals to even picky eaters. The menu rewards exploration. 742 W. 31st St., Chicago, 312-842-9677
Sayat Nova (Armenian)
Sayat Nova, Chicago’s first Armenian restaurant, opened in 1965. It’s likely that some of the dishes, like hummus and baba ganoush, though very familiar to most of us in 2017, would have been quite exotic in Chicago over a half-century ago. Now, there are other Armenian specialties on the menu that you’re not likely to find at your standard Middle Eastern restaurant, such as Red Lentil Soup and Kufta, a savory lamb meatball dish served in warm mint-yogurt sauce. There are also kebabs of beef and other meats, but whether you branch out to new tastes or stick with what you know, get a side of Tourshee, an assortment of pickled vegetables because … pickles. 157 E. Ohio St., Chicago, 312-644-9159
Because Morocco is a country with a lot of Mediterranean coastline, Moroccans have been welcoming foreign visitors to their land for centuries, affording ample opportunities for new foods to be introduced, refined, and made characteristically Moroccan. The signature dish of Morocco is tagine, which refers to a conical ceramic cooking vessel as well as the food cooked within it. Basically, the tagine is packed with meat or fish, vegetables and a grain, such as couscous, and cooked for hours to let all the flavors marry and create a dish that’s tastier than the sum of its parts. Though Moroccan food is flavorful, it is not spicy; if you want to heat it up, a little harissa (red hot sauce) will do the trick. 4027 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, 773-427-9130
“Yassa is the national dish of Senegal,” says chef/owner Awa Guèye, “and that’s where we got the name for the restaurant.” Yassa is a simple place, but the food is so good and the folks serving it so welcoming and happy to see you that you’ll want to stay and eat everything on the menu. Both Chicken and Lamb Yassa are marinated overnight in garlic, lemon, and other spices and then grilled — simply delicious. To drink, there’s Sorrel, a sweet beverage made from dried hibiscus flowers. This place, which may seem just a little out of the way, has received “Check, Please!” recognition, and it’s well worth the trip from wherever you’re coming from. 3511 S. King Drive, Chicago, 773-488-5599
Yemen Shibam (Yemeni)
Saltah, the national dish of Yemen, can be enjoyed in few Chicago restaurants, but of course they serve it at Yemen Shibam; it’s vegetables, frequently root vegetables, a meat like lamb or chicken, seasoned with fenugreek, served very hot in a clay bowl. Ougdah is a stew with lamb or chicken and lots of veg; in fact, like much Middle Eastern food, Yemeni chow is very veggie-forward. As at many places serving a relatively small population of foreign-identifying citizens, particularly Muslim citizens, no alcohol is allowed, so go with a cup of Yemeni tea with milk. 4807 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, 773-993-0518
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David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bankand dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.