Tourists in Chicago know downtown, with its Magnificent Mile shopping, modernist skyscrapers and the lakeside Museum Campus. They may know some of the glitzier neighborhoods, too: tony Lincoln Park, leafy Hyde Park or Lakeview, with gaudy Wrigleyville and Boystown, the LGBT mecca.
But in a city of 2.7 million and 77 community areas, there is significantly more to see of the Windy City than the brochure-ready neighborhoods. Chicago made it through 2020 because Chicagoans across the city made their city work. In 2021, make a trip off the tourists' beaten path.
Near the site of the planned Barack Obama Presidential Center is South Shore. Note the Art Deco high-rises and the placid Jackson Park Highlands District, which is full of big trees and turn-of-the-century mansions and is great for strolls.
Chicago has its own style of barbecue. In a densely packed city, proprietors have adapted with a piece of indoor equipment called an aquarium smoker — boxy with a smokestack and see-through sides. Pork ribs are king in the onetime "Hog Butcher for the World," but Chicago's signature cut is the "rib tip": little cartilaginous spectaculars hacked off from St. Louis-style ribs, and sold with fries and white bread.
At the Slab Bar-B-Que, meat is marinated in a proprietary rub for 48 hours and then smoked. Tonya Trice, who runs the business with her husband, James, suggests saucing the tips in mixed hot and mild sauce. "It gives you that sweet barbecue sauce that we use regularly and the kick of spice, just to give you that little bit of heat," she said.
Take the barbecue and some firewood to the South Shore Cultural Center, once a segregated country club before the Chicago Park District bought it (the Obamas married there in 1992), and then to its bucolic 6-acre Nature Sanctuary, one of 50 natural areas in Chicago's parks. Built on an artificial peninsula on Lake Michigan, it's a prime birding spot, with wetlands, woodlands and lakeshore oak savannas — not to mention fire circles, where you can watch night fall over the city's skyline.
Chinatown and Pilsen
Chinatown is just south of downtown and packed with shops, restaurants and the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, which includes a permanent exhibition on Chinese immigration to the Midwest.
Triple Crown Restaurant is a dim sum banquet hall. Second-generation owner Spencer Ng serves up shu mai (made here with Berkshire pork), shrimp dumplings, spare ribs and chicken feet. Char siu bao (barbecue pork buns) could be substituted for the chicken feet, which Ng concedes are a lot of work to eat. "But it's amazing flavor," he said. "If I was eating and wanted to work, I'd eat some chicken feet."
Over the 20th century, Chicago's Southwest Siders became predominantly Mexican American. Little Village, or "La Villita," has the largest Mexican-born population in Chicago. Pilsen, next to Chinatown, switched from ancestrally Bohemian to Hispanic. Today, it has rapidly, and complicatedly, gentrified.
Taquerias, panaderias and paleterias endure; vendors sell tamales on the street. One of my favorite restaurants is Pollo Express, where the chicken is adobo-marinated and grilled over charcoal. Carnitas Uruapan is worthy of its omnipresent lunch line.
Also check out the National Museum of Mexican Art. It reopens July 1 with a show of Mexico City painter Carmen Chami's works and "Nuestras Historias," drawn from the museum's permanent collection, with Mesoamerican and colonial artifacts and contemporary, modern and folk art from both sides of the border.
Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village
Chicago's Puerto Rican community is centered in Humboldt Park on the West Side; the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture features rotating exhibitions. In any Puerto Rican restaurant in Chicago, you can find a signature sandwich: the jibarito, in which deep-fried flattened green plantains replace bread, encompassing meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato and aioli. Steak is traditional, and the more garlicky, the better.
Meanwhile, nearby Ukrainian Village lives up to its name, with pierogies aplenty. The permanent collection at the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago includes textiles, Orthodox regalia, historical exhibits and a large array of Easter eggs.
Next door, the choir at Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church sings liturgies in the language, and the sanctuary itself is awe-inspiring: all blue and gold under a dome, with beautiful icons. Now in its 50th year, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art has rotating works.
Uptown and Albany Park
Argyle Avenue in lakeside Uptown is the center of Chicago's Vietnamese community. Dang Tran opened Uptown Pho three years ago, after immigrating from Ho Chi Minh City.
Pho-making is complicated: Tran's process takes seven to eight hours, starting from cooking the beef bones on the stove. He recommends the combination pho, with eye of round steak, flank steak, tendon, tripe and meatballs; the bun cha noodles with egg rolls; or the grilled pork chop with pork skin and a sunny-side-up egg and rice.
Tran never figured he would open a restaurant, but after saving money, he took the chance. "It's better than working for somebody else," he said. "Even though you're working through some hardship, in the end, you get the reward for your hard work."
Inland, past the historically German warren of Lincoln Square, is Albany Park, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. A large collection of Middle Eastern and Persian businesses is located along Kedzie Avenue.
Cousins Mohammad Morra and Waer Omar immigrated from Palestine and Jordan as teenagers and have run Feyrous Pastries since 1984, stocking Levantine goods and a wide variety of baklava. Omar bakes the phyllo dough from scratch with high-protein flour, layering it eight to 16 times with butter in between, preparing the pastries with walnuts, cashews and pistachios and flavoring them with rose and orange water. They sell individually, but they make great gifts by the box.
Aaron Gettinger lives and works on the South Side of Chicago.