I picked up Local Flavor imagining it was one of these books that lists a bunch of places to visit in the Chicago area. You’ve probably seen the type. On one page is a picture of a quirky landmark and on the facing page, a few paragraphs tell you why it’s worth a trip. A good example is 111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss. I like these books. They’re fun and they give you ideas on how to spend your weekends. But it turns out that isn’t the kind of book Local Flavor is meant to be.
Instead, Jean Iversen has written a Chicago history book, digging into the stories of eight ethnic neighborhoods and showing how a great restaurant can shape the blocks around it. It isn’t a travel guide. Some of the restaurants Iversen focuses on aren’t even open anymore. Her interviews and conversations with the owners, cooks, staff, and customers of these restaurant give a street level look at how communities develop through family, hard work, and the love of sharing a meal. And these folks are definitely not afraid to share; each chapter ends with a recipe or two, giving away the secrets of signature dishes.
Won Kow in Chinatown served American Chinese food since 1928 until it closed in February. Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap in Little Italy/University Village is still going strong after 89 years. Nuevo León and Cantón Regio in Pilsen continues on despite a devastating fire. The famous Parthenon, birthplace of flaming saganaki, unexpectedly closed in 2016. Another birthplace, this time of the Puerto Rican-inspired jibarito sandwich, Borinquen closed as well. Red Apple Buffet‘s locations are mainstays of Milwaukee Avenue’s Polish Corridor. Hema’s Kitchen, predicted to close after six months, instead kickstarted the development of the Little India area on Devon. Noon O Kabab offers a place in Albany Park for a small but loyal Persian population.