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Woodlawn neighborhood gets a little more robust

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Woodlawn has a new coffee shop, writes David Sisco Casey in the Chicago Weekly:

"The technometropolis that is South Campus Residence Hall may have just opened its doors last year, but its effects on the neighboring Woodlawn community are already palpable. As the university's population moves south of the Midway and outside the safe confines of the main quad and the student ghetto immediately to the north, businesses in Woodlawn will have to decide whether and how to change to meet its new residents' needs. Robust Coffee Lounge is a months-old café that embodies one direction Woodlawn could be heading: a continuation of Hyde Park. The walk to the place will give you a good idea of the issues facing expansion south of campus--the lounge rests in a half-vacant building across the street from two deserted and unkempt lots.

It's clear that the owners of Robust were taking a risk in opening this coffee shop"... (read more)

Robust Coffee Lounge, 6300 S. Woodlawn (773) 891-4240

This story was submitted by first-year SoonKyu Park

Finals were over. The sun was shining, and it was warm outside for the first time in a while. Some people were actually wearing shorts. I hadn't been out of Hyde Park in a month and had to go somewhere--somewhere exciting and different.

So, without a plan in mind, I got on the 55 Bus and started thinking about all the places I could go. Of course, Chicago is a big place, and there were many possibilities: Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Pilsen... But there was another place that I hadn't yet visited that seemed really popular among my friends: Lakeview. So Lakeview it was.

Forty minutes after I left Hyde Park, I arrived at the Belmont station on the Red Line. I got off the train and walked along Belmont Avenue until I came to North Halsted Street, which is the main drag. Although it was a Tuesday afternoon, there were quite a number of people milling about. I could instantly tell that the scene was different from the Loop or the Magnificent Mile. There was no Nieman Marcus or Nordstrom. Instead of skyscrapers stood three-story brick buildings and quirky shops and cafés.

Then I came across a huge thrift store called the Brown Elephant. I had to check it out. (Who could pass on a good thrift store?) The staff was busy, running around sorting the donations that had just come in. I wasn't interested in clothes, but in the kitchenware section I found shelf after shelf of mugs and dishes in great condition and bought a few coffee mugs. Then I saw the furniture section, where I came across a large couch and a reading chair for $35 each. If I had had a car, I would have taken them both back with me. I promised myself that I would come back if I get an apartment in the future. When I was leaving, I learned that all the proceeds went to running the Howard Brown Health Center, a medical center that provides health services to the LGBTQ community. I left the Brown Elephant feeling great.

Then I had dinner at the Chicago Diner, a famous vegetarian restaurant. Even though I am usually not a big fan of vegetarian cooking, the polenta lasagna I got was delicious. The price was reasonable, with most of the entrée around 10 dollars. The best part, though, was by far the peanut butter cookie-dough milkshake. They also had a vegan pastries and cakes, but I was too full to try some.

Overall, the trip to Lakeview was fantastic. It was refreshing to see a neighborhood so different from downtown or Hyde Park. Whether you are looking for a change in scenery or a cheap dining hall table, you will not be disappointed. And, of course, there is great food. After all, it is in Chicago.

Eating the Habañero

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Submitted by first-year Teddy Kent

In Little Village, the city's second most popular commercial strip, an unassuming restaurant is deceptively bold. A goat's skull sitting on top of their oven was just the start.

You eat the pepper. There's no question about it. In territory unknown to us, with a food unfamiliar to us, you eat the habanero. I grabbed it, sized it up, and let it hang from my fingertips as all the possible disadvantages of eating it rushed through my mind. I took a decent sized bite off the end, and tore off a piece of tortilla and grasped the table with my other hand in anticipation...

Birreria La Barca would not cause many people to take a second look--its unassuming taqueria-like storefront, combined with a woefully misspelled entry in Google (Bereara?) would further throw people off the culinary trail. But once inside, it is clear that La Barca asserts itself. If the goat head sitting above some of the kitchen equipment was any indication, La Barca was going to offer up a unique experience.

The waitresses were warm and patient, and my CSLTC buds Alice and Juan and I split a plate of birria. This is roasted goat at its full-flavored best. Accompanied by handmade tortillas and two housemade salsas on the table, the goat along with the accompanying juicy consommé was delicious. The goat's varying texture only made each bite like trying a new batch. The flavors were made even more powerful by the addition of dried peppers, whose innards opened to add another dark and deep level of roasted, mellow heat. The little, pinky-like green peppers which also adorned the table, however, packed a wallop of a punch. The waitresses enjoyed watching Juan and I add these to our tacos and see the moments where we were hit with the spice. We gladly sopped up the birria until there were neither juices nor tortillas to have anymore.

But our waitress had a different idea--she was having too much fun to let us leave on just the birria. Watching us eat the peppers gave her an idea. She coolly walked back to the kitchen area and brought out a wooden bowl, far too big to carry what was in it. A bright orange habanero, waxy in its phosphorescence, sat. Now it was understood exactly where we stood in the restaurant. We were no longer customers and they no longer servers, but they were the courteous people to take us into their restaurant, and we were the gringo guests, obliged to try whatever they put in front of us. She calmly brought out a glass of water and a tortilla without prompting, and leaned on the counter as Juan, Alice and I looked at one another.

This isn't so bad," you think to yourself. "It's starting to get a little worse," you declare a few seconds later. And goodness knows, those are the last words of some brave souls. Because what hits you not seconds, after realizing the pepper is going to be pretty spicy, is the most full-fledged spice one will likely ever experience.

Gnawing on the tortilla does not help quell the spice, but instead eliminates the space in one's mouth that the spice permeates. Water helps more than one would expect--not only for its illusionary respite, but for its temporary distraction from the taste bud inflammation. "My mouth is on fire" is an oft-repeated phrase in today's society, but if you can actually imagine dousing your tongue in gasoline and lighting it up, this probably would best approximate the feeling.

The waitresses goaded Juan to take a bite of the habanero, too. Juan, partly out of solidarity, partly out of the dumb curiosity that I also shared, and partly at the pressure of the waitresses, joined the pepper eating. He took a small bit off the outside. He smiled, knowing that the heat was not there yet, but would soon come. But nothing. Shockingly, Juan seemed immune to the heat. He asserted it wasn't even a little hot. Then, Juan came to a conclusion that surely explained things--he hadn't eaten any of the middle, where the seeds lie in waiting. Juan mustered up some courage and took another bite. The same smile crept onto his face. And it didn't go away. He started to move his hands in a circular motion, signaling to us that the heat was coming. And through the smile on his face, Alice and I both knew that there was pain behind it.

Five minutes later. I am rationing out the sips of my water, strategically trying to figure out when this heat would leave. I turn around, and Juan is pacing outside the door of the restaurant. He catches the attention of everyone, who sees him, coatless, trying to douse the spice with the brisk, crisp air. Juan comes back in, convinced that it at least helped a little. We spent the next fifteen minutes laughing, laughing in pity, laughing in pain, laughing in our stupidity, laughing at our laughing. Of course, laughing only made the pain worse. The waitresses hid smirks on their faces; we were clearly their entertainment today.

An old Hispanic man sitting in a booth behind us had been watching the whole ordeal. He asked the waitress for a fresh tortilla, and stood up, with his leather cowboy-like hat looming over everything. Grabbing the remainder of the pepper (about a third, including the stem), he was handed the tortilla by the waitress, went back behind the counter to slather on some refried beans onto the tortilla, and plopped the rest of the pepper on the tortilla to create a taco. Tacitly acknowledging us, he took a bite. Poker face or not, I was convinced the heat wasn't getting to him. Another bite, and no reaction. Eventually, he cracked a little smile and took off his hat and fanned his face. But he didn't truly mean it. It was clear by the theatrics and timing that he was just trying to make us laugh a little. That grizzly old veteran of a man must have had his fair share of peppers in his life.

We had conquered a little of the unfamiliar this day. Hubris had gotten the better of us--I will be the first to admit this. Pride and swagger, I learned, as exhibited by the old man, can only be gained through experience. This was my first habanero pepper, and I don't know if it'll be my last. But what is clear is the neighborhood dubbed "Little Village" might just have big pride.

Chicago Downtown Farmstand Interior.png

(photo from Chicago Now's Garden Blog)
In honor of the last day of Losing the Farm, an excellent history class on the globalization of food production in the 20th century, I biked up north to the Urban Farm Stand for some locally-grown goodies. Though most of the neighborhood farmers markets left Chicago along with October's Halloween decorations, Chicago's Downtown Farm Stand is open year round to satisfy those cravings for organic Tomato Mountain sauce and brussel sprouts (don't tell me I'm the only one who has them!).

Located just south of the Randolph Street Metra stop, this non-profit has been providing commuters to and from the Loop with vegetables and baked goods produced no more than 280 miles from the city since it opened in the fall of 2008.

And speaking of newly-purchased brussel sprouts in tomato sauce...


(I ate these at my desk while reviewing Phy-Sci lectures)

Let me know if you find any more seasonal surprises around town... perhaps at the Christkindlemarket?

But note: The Farm Stand will close for an annual winter break on Wednesday, December 23, 2009, and will reopen on Monday, January 11, 2010.

A Garden Story

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Story and Photos by Kat Li


Picture #1: All Are Welcome.


Just a couple of blocks east of the new South Campus dorms rests a beautiful community of growth and sharing. The community centers around the 61st St Community Garden, a green anomaly in the wasted, industrial expanse of the south side of Chicago. The garden hosts over 100 families in  Hyde Park and Woodlawn; faculty from the university and long-time residents of the  neighborhoods bring their families and friends together to this free, open space.



Picture #2: All of the residents will have to uproot their plots and personal ties to the garden very soon due to the university's plan to use the area as a staging site for construction vehicles.


Every Saturday, a farmer's market is held in the streets, allowing local businesses and gardeners to meet and exchange. As the days get colder, the market is moved into the Experimental Station, a building that serves as a venue and a kitchen for gardeners, community members, and whoever would like to rent out the space. Connected to the Experimental Station is Blackstone Bicycle Works, an after-school program for kids in the neighborhood that incorporates them into the business of bicycle-recycling and -repairing. All of the bikes from the university's new "ReCycles" rental program were made at Blackstone, and my own old-fashioned but perfectly functioning bike was a bargain at $65.

Earlier this afternoon, my friend and I walked over to the Backstory Cafe, where we enjoyed a buffet brunch of fresh food and a live jazz duo. Berry scones, spinach and pecan salad, candied pears with cottage cheese, buttery croissants, and apple cake were only some of the options on the table.


The community is a beautiful fact of life for the residents of Hyde Park and Woodlawn, as well as for the students and for the faculty of the university. But every time that I walk through the garden,  meet a friend for a meal or a cup of tea at Backstory, or accompany a friend to peruse the market produce, I wonder if it will be the last time the community will really be a cohesive whole. With the garden gone and replaced by looming construction vehicles, transporting supplies in and out of the site, the area will be much less safe and much less welcoming. This community of neighbors is the only thing that brings the university and the south side residents together, the only consolidation for the university's dichotomous relationship with it's location. What will happen to our relationship after the garden is gone?


Picture #3: The garden community surrounds Andrew Carnegie elementary. These days there are always young neighborhood children running about, in and out of the bike shop, the cafe, and the garden. With the construction staging site, children will no longer be safe to play and explore in their own community.




To learn more about the garden visit the website dedicated to telling the stories of the garden and covering the issue with the university. This link will direct you to the video documentary interviews with the gardeners themselves: And everyone keep an eye out for a special screening of a compiled documentary version of the story at Doc Films sometime in the near future.


Visit the garden. Eat at Backstory. Learn about bikes at Works. Say hi at the farmer's market. Become conscious of the beautiful community surrounding our campus; become a part of the neighborhood.

From Cobb Hall to the Corn Fields of Illinois

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Students are learning how Chicago is fed in hands-on Environmental Sciences program

When fourth-year Peter Smutko got hungry during his summer job, he would simply pull a ripe tomato out of the ground, brush the dirt off on his shirt, and eat it. Smutko received a crash-course in where food comes from and farm life while interning at Sandhill Organics as part of the Feeding the City: The Urban Food Chain program.

Work-days at Sandhill, a small-scale, local operation, began at 7 a.m. and ended around 5. In addition to collecting data to share with his classmates and Professor Pamela Martin back on campus in Autumn, Smutko weeded, harvested and planted the 40-some acres of zucchini, cucumber, carrots, kale, beets and asparagus with several other seasonal farm workers.

"Kneeling all day on my knees made me sore, but by the end of the summer none of it hurt," he says. The jobs may have been menial, "but none of it seemed onerous by the end. I felt like I had done something more substantial with my day," when the families participating in the farm's co-op would drive up to the farm to pick up their boxes of fresh produce each week.

Smutko was just one of more than a dozen University of Chicago students to intern on small farms throughout the state last summer, collecting data for the Feeding the City classes and group research project on the energy uses of small, diversified farms using sustainable growing practices, according to Martin, the project's leader and chief instructor, and Esther Bowen, the graduate student who devised of the program with Martin after researching the energy efficiency of local food productions with Martin as an undergraduate.

"What are the environmental impacts of specific types of agriculture, like greenhouse gas emissions or nutrient runoff?" Bowen, AB '08, asks. "The idea with Feeding the City is that students are involved in real research, and putting together more information about metropolitan food systems."

The program began in Winter, 2009, and is currently accepting interns from throughout the University for the 2010-2011 program.

Real Research

According to Martin, the program will change and improve over last year, principally because the new class will be able to analyze the data collected by current students in the program. So far, Martin says, the data suggests that small, sustainable farms have comparable energy and land efficiency to conventional, mono-crop farms--farms that are not organic and only harvest one or two types of crops (usually corn or soy). This is good news for environmental science researchers like Martin, and any student who is interested in examining how local food systems operate in Chicago.

The program is targeted toward students who are looking for some connection to environment or food in their studies, she adds. "For the science majors, the connection might be wanting to experience more of an applied science, and most of the Social Sciences people [in the class] are interested in the social aspects of food and wanted to understand more of the physical and environmental aspects of food. The key is we really want to have an interdisciplinary class," from math and economics to public policy.

"I'm a public policy major," Smutko says. What made this program stand out for him was the ability to work on a farm all summer and engage "with like minded students who are also into agricultural issues in general."

"We're gaining lots of practical knowledge that I think we generally miss out on as students," he says.

Interested in Feeding the City? 
Please send (1) your resume, and (2) a page or less (double-spaced) describing your background and your interest in the program to:

Esther Bowen, Assistant Program Coordinator •

Materials must be received by 9th week Autumn Quarter. Decisions made as materials received. Please feel free to email with any questions about the program, or to discuss schedule flexibility issues. We look forward to hearing from you!

For more information, and to read students' blogs from their summers on the farm, visit Feeding the City.

carnivalsquash.JPGThe South Campus Dining Hall isn't the only place where students should grab food on 61st St. this quarter; October means 30 more days of Chicago's colorful farmer's markets, among them the 61st Farmers Market at the Experimental Station (6100 S. Blackstone).

The baby arugula sold by Genesis Growers here is so fresh and nutty, It's completely ruined the supermarket stuff for me! For Dennis Ryan, the Market's manager, its the organic tomato jam sold by Tomato Mountain farms that can make or break a breakfast (it tastes like an acidic version of traditional apricot jam, he says). Genesis Growers and Tomato Mountain are just two of the dozen or so distributors who peddle their peppers, leafy greens and eggplant between Dorchester and Blackstone every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nearly all of the farms at the market hail from within a 100 mile radius of Chicago, mostly from Wisconsin and Indiana, according to Ryan.

"We want to support local farmers who grow sustainably, with organic growing practices," he explained. "When you buy local, you're getting produce at the peak of its freshness--so it tastes great--and at the peak of its nutritional value. You're also supporting the local economy."

"We don''t sell food here that we wouldn't want to feed our own families."

And the market offers more than produce that packs a nutritional wallop--for Woodlawn, the neighborhood just south of the University of Chicago campus, it's one of the only places residents can get fresh produce without driving or taking public transit.

View image

The 61st St. Market will move indoors for November and December; in the mean time, check out these links to the market's website, and more awesome area markets:

Sat. 9-2: The Experimental Station and the 61st St. Farmer's Market
Wed. and Sat. 7-1: The Green City Farmer's Market
Thurs. 8-3: Hyde Park Farmer's Market

Fried Plantains as Bread

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What could possibly be bad about that?  More great, Chicago original food, the Jibarito.  The latest issue of Cafe Media features ratings for the best Jibarito:

From their article:  "The Jibarito, a Puerto Rican-Chicago signature dish, is a unique treat: tender seasoned steak, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, cheese and mayonnaise piled into a sandwich composed of two crispy strips of fried, green plantains smeared with garlic sauce...Juan "Pete" Figueroa invented the Jibarito at his restaurant, Borinquen, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood."

Click for a pic:

Cafe Magazine is a Chicago-based Latino lifestyle magazine.

Let the Blog that Works know your Jibarito pick - comments on other Chicago-original food welcomed!

Veggie Dining in Chicago

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There are as many reasons for avoiding animal products as there are people who are vegetarian or vegan. Some skip four-legged critters because they object to the conditions in which they are raised, some observe religious practices that prohibit dairy, and others know that their vegan girlfriends can always tell when they've had an Italian sub for lunch. No one, however, becomes a vegetarian because they want to experience the thrills of menu navigation when they dine out. For vegetarians and vegans, going out to eat is often less about choice and more about elimination. "I'll have the chicken Caesar salad, without chicken please. And are there anchovies in the dressing?" "Beef and bean burrito, hold the beef, hold the cheese. Wait, were the beans fried in lard or in oil?" "Steamed rice and, uh, an extra packet of soy sauce?"

Hyde Park is friendlier to vegetarians than most places in the Midwest, with lots of veggie-friendly menu options at our plethora of Thai and Mediterranean restaurants. The lentil soup at Cedars is made with vegetable stock, and the Snail is happy to make you a pad thai without egg. But if you're looking for something new outside the neighborhood, consider one of these restaurants that are run with vegetarians in mind.

The Chicago Diner is a great place to go to remind yourself that vegetarian meals are rich, flavorful, and creative. From the "Radical Reuben" made with slices of grilled seitan to the "Pan Seared Filet" of sesame tofu, you can't leave the Diner without eating well and bringing home leftovers. Don't leave without dessert--the peanut butter soy shake will change your life. Expect to spend between $15 and $25 for an evening at this Boystown hotspot. The restaurant is tiny and may be difficult for those with mobility impairments to navigate, but in nice weather the patio is open and expands the seating considerably. To get to 3411 N Halsted, take the red line to Belmont, walk east two blocks to Halsted, then north about three blocks to Halsted and Roscoe.

Just a few blocks away from the Diner is Pick Me Up Café, a super veg-friendly spot that's open late every night and 24 hours on Friday and Saturday. The cheese fries should be considered required dining for every non-vegan who wants to truly call herself a Chicagoan. For five dollars the veggie chili pairs nicely with the fries. Where Pick Me Up truly shines, however, is in its breakfast entries. Ask for the mixed berry pancakes vegan-style, and you'll never look back. For the 21+ crowd, some creative cocktails are available. Try the rum punch with frozen strawberries instead of ice cubes! Check out the gigantic bulletin board covered with mementos from previous diners, and bring your own piece of memorabilia to add to the collage. Expect a meal to cost between $8 and $15 here. Take the Red Line to Belmont, walk east a block to Clark Street, then head north to Roscoe.

The Kopi Travelers' Café in Andersonville has a mostly vegetarian menu (with a little tuna thrown in for the pescatarians). They do wonderful things with goat cheese here, and the faux-turkey slices are the best mock-meat I've ever nibbled. Take off your shoes and sit on pillows at the floor level tables, or grab a spot on the sidewalk and enjoy people-watching on Clark Street. Check out the nifty Jalan Jalan boutique in the rear of the café to see clothing, artwork, books, and jewelry from around the world. Expect to pay about $10 for a meal and a cup of tea. Take the Red Line to Berwyn, walk west about six blocks to Clark, then head north a few yards to 5317 N. Clark St.

Farther north still is the bleeding liberal heart of Rogers Park, the Heartland Café. The massive menu leaves me torn every time I go--do I go with the best black bean burger with soy cheese in the city again? Or should I try the soba noodles with seitan? The menu includes information about bread ingredients, and the wait staff is incredibly helpful when you have questions or want to make substitutions. Shh, don't tell--you can run into a number of former members of the Weather Underground and other activists past and present. Live shows and community meetings take place here all the time. Expect to pay about $15 for a huge meal, and bring a little extra for the general store full of books, craft kits, and activist buttons, stickers, posters, and swag. Take the Red Line to the Morse stop, and walk down the stairs on the north end of the platform to step into Heartland's front yard.

Ice Cream Tour of Chicago Neighborhoods

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Mmmmmm....Ice cream.  Ouch, brainfreezeWith a few weeks of (potentially) warm weather, here's my favorite way to check out neighborhoods.  Locally-owned shops carry the flavor of the community.  Hanging outside you see a cross-section of the city get a cup or a cone.

A Nostalgic Evocation:
On a warm summer evening, I walk over to the Penguin - a mom and pop Argentine gelato shop on Lawrence, between a dry cleaners and a Korean restaurant.  I mean mom and pop - mom is running the register, with baby in the stroller behind the counter.  Pop is scooping; the grandfather makes deliveries. Yes, deliveries.  His popeye forearms tell a lifetime of hand-cranking tubs of chocolate, grapefruit, or sambayon (wine).  The Penguin is gone, unfortunately - but there's plenty of tasty, unique frozen spots all over town.

On the subject of tours, sign up for the South Side History Bike Tour - email to register.

The List
The parlors below are my favorites - and will take you all over town.  Warning: Space out your visits to avoid the potential for massive weight-gain and crippling brainfreeze.