For the sake of argument, I do not live in Chicago, and I have not lived inside the actual city at anytime in my life that I can remember. I was born in Chicago which in effect would make me a native Chicagoan, but we moved out to Villa Park before I entered school, so my first real memories only date back to then. Currently, I reside in the far south-west suburb of Bolingbrook, which would mean absolutely nothing to most people if it were not also the home of one of the most infamous ex-cop husbands of a missing woman. And to answer the question, yes I have met him. Ok, so not actually met. I stood beside him while waiting for my oldest daughter to meet me after a Christmas concert at the high school. I didn’t realize until it was too late just why there was that open space right in the middle of the crowded lobby.
All this extraneous crap aside, I do consider myself a Chicagoan, and if asked outside of the state of Illinois where I live, for simplicity, I will say Chicago. I know this drives many folks who actually live within the confines of the actual city of Chicago a little nuts, but if I find myself in a conversation with someone from this area, I will clarify my situation. The reason I still consider myself a Chicagoan is because unlike many people who grew up in the suburbs, I have always made the city a part of my life. I have had friends who would not travel to the city unless absolutely necessary. And even then they would be reluctant. I work in the city, and I attend sports events and concerts in the city, but if this were the only extent of my city travels, it still might not be enough to stake a claim as a Chicagoan. I can honestly say that I love the city of Chicago, and although I don’t actually reside there, I do consider it my home. I am comfortable walking the streets and searching for those out-of-the-way spots that make the city what it is. This past Monday, Maureen and I found a real gem. A small little place that is so unassuming that we missed it on our first pass, but with a big name. Big Star.
Officially in the Wicker Park Neighborhood, just south of the Damen stop of the Blue Line, Big Star is a mexican restaurant that is nestled in the shell of an old service station. The name of the restaurant is painted on the outside of the building like an old grocery store advertisement, and the old plain theme carries right through the front door. It looked like the inside of a garage with bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling and muted grey painted brick walls that almost perfectly matched the concrete floors. The only thing missing was the naked women on the Bosch Tool calendar. But in the middle of this garage where the Jiffy Lube rack should have been, there was a large wooden bar.
We were greeted at the door by a casually dressed hostess who told us that the restaurant was cash only. Luckily she also pointed out the cash machine conveniently located directly to our right. For a Monday night at around 5:30 the place was already quite packed, but we were able to find two seats at the bar near the sound system that consisted of an old record player just a step above a Close ‘N Play, and very similar to what I recall having in my old basement apartment back in college. The playlist for the day consisted of scratchy albums by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn.
We had read about this place in Time Out Chicago, a local magazine that touted the best of all things Chicago, and the draw of the pork belly tacos is what brought us here. Like the decor, the menu was also quite simple and to the point with very few choices to make. Maureen ordered a Margareta that was not too shy on the power and I opted for the $1 Schlitz on tap. Of course it only came in a 7 oz glass, but it was still the deal of the day, unless you optioned for the $2 Blatz can. Before our tacos arrived, we ordered what I can only describe as a hubcap full of chips which were homemade and freshly pulled from the oil, then topped with sea salt and lime juice. I kept things traditional and ordered just the aforementioned pork belly tacos, while Maureen adventured into braised lamb tacos and pork shoulder tacos with pineapple. Everything was very good, and we both decided it was worth another visit. It was even vegetarian friendly so my sister Laura could join us for the fish or pepper tacos. We figured our food bill was all of about $17, the tacos were $3 each while the stack of chips that were too much for just the two of us to finish were just $2. Although we did continue to snack on them long after our stomachs told us we should stop. Once you added in our drinks, our total bill was $33. As always, it is those damn drinks that drive up the bill.
As we gathered ourselves up to leave, others were already jockeying to take our place at the bar, and it was almost inevitable that we were going to get a little too friendly with the other patrons that were now double parked looking for a space to eat. For those who don’t want the challenge of inside dinning, there is also a convenient walk up window where to go orders can be placed. With that lumbering full feeling in our guts, Maureen and I headed north into the Bucktown area to walk off our meal. We stopped and watch a little kickball game that was in progress at a small park before finding ourselves looking in store windows with more space than clothes. Maureen pointed out the obvious to me. The less clothes in the store, the more expensive they will be. We finally settled down in a tavern called Lemmings for a couple more beers before heading back to the car.
These are the type of dates that make me feel like the city is also my home. Maureen is a true Chicagoan, a south-sider born and bred. She is adjusting to her new life out in the suburbs, but it is only a matter of time before we relocate back into the city itself. If I had not gotten married right out of college, I would have settled down in the city along with many of my friends. It may take me another ten years, but I will become a true city guy someday.
And then I too will probably snub my nose up at all those suburban folks that call themselves Chicagoans.