One of my favorite fried chicken places in Chicago is Harold’s Chicken.
The first time I ate at Harold’s was about twenty years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t even remember which one I went to the first time. It was somewhere on the south side, perhaps around 71st and State. I ordered the 1/2 chicken dinner. They literally gave me half a chicken. When they asked me if I wanted hot or mild sauce, I asked for the mild sauce because I wasn’t sure how hot the hot sauce would be or if I would even like it. I watched as they prepared my order. I got my half chicken with French fries on a slice of white bread and a small Styrofoam cup of cole slaw that was warmed by the chicken–I’m used to eating my cole slaw cold. Then the cook put the mild sauce on the chicken, the fries, and the bread with a two-inch paintbrush. Yes, the kind you and I use to paint your house. I suppose it’s sanitary if they only use it for putting hot or mild sauce on chicken. I loved how well chicken tasted that I often went back to Harold’s Chicken to eat. I think the paintbrush added that je ne sais quoi.
The first time I ate at Harold’s, I thought the slice of bread was a rather peculiar addition to the meal. I mean, it was underneath the chicken and the fries, so the sauce dripped all over the white bread. But when I ate the slice of white bread, it was delicious! Now, I look forward to the slice of white bread.
Over the years, I have eaten at other Harold’s Chicken restaurants. And I always order the half-chicken dinner with fries, warm cole slaw, and the one slice of white bread. When I taught at Columbia College Chicago, I often ate at the Harold’s on Wabash and Balbo. You could actually sit down and eat there, but it was always so crowded and homeless people would always ask for money. After a while, they just ignored me–probably because I just ignored them. My only real complaint about this Harold’s Chicken was that they didn’t put the mild or hot sauce on the chicken with a paintbrush.
Well, now it can be told. First, you must admit that you have a problem before you can solve it. My problem? I like to retrace my steps all the way back to my youth.
So tonight, I went to El Gallo de Oro, bought a steak burrito, and parked in Marquette Park by the Rose Garden to eat it, as I am wont to do. I used to do it all the time, but tonight I compared scenarios.
The first time I bought a burrito at El Gallo de Oro, I lived down the block at 3006 W. 64th Street and I only paid $2.25 with tax. But that was twenty-seven years ago. Today, I paid $6.06 with tax. Today, I barely finished my burrito, but twenty-seven years ago, I would also order two or three tacos or tostadas on the side. I would practically inhale all this food and I ony weighed 140 pounds, compared to my 180 or so today.
And Marquette Park isn’t the same, either. No one cruises through the park like in days of old. This used to be the place to hang out, to see and be seen by everyone. I don’t think anyone even noticed I was there tonight. Not even the police car that drove past me driving the wrong way.
On the plus side? I felt very safe there in my solitude reminiscing about my days of old when I was young and naïve and wouldn’t realize that the grease from the burrito had dripped on my shirt until the person I was trying to impress would point out the grease stain. Okay, I don’t miss the dripping grease all that much. I’m much older and wiser now.
While I was in Mexico, we went to several malls, which were very much like many American malls I have visited, only newer. Since finding a restaurant that was appetizing for my sons and the rest of us was was a huge challenge, the mall provided the perfect solution with their eateries and their variety of restaurants. Each one of us could order our favorite food at different restaurants. My sons chose Subway, not surprisingly. I wanted to try new food that I had never eaten in Mexico before. I found a Chinese restaurant in a hidden corner near one of the mall exits. I just love Chinese food! But I suspected that Mexican Chinese food would be different from American Chinese food. And I was right. The choices on the menu were different and I didn’t recognize all the entrees. But true to the Chinese restaurant tradition–even in Mexico– I was served very large portions and at a very economical price compared to the surrounding restaurants in the mall. An elderly Chinese man served me. He understood all of my questions about the menu. However, he barely spoke Spanish and had a difficult time communicating to me. I think the best Chinese restaurants are the ones where the cooks only speak Chinese. Yes, even in the U.S. Well, the food was delicious! But I was hungry a half an hour later. Yes, even in Mexico! I was disappointed that they did serve green or red salsa. I mean every restaurant in Mexico serves salsa!
While in Mexico with my sons, we ate a lot of Mexican food. Even though I had warned them in advance that Mexican food in Mexico was different from Mexican food in America, my sons were shocked that everyone served them Mexican food. But it was nothing like what they had expected. They were surprised that very few restaurants served steak tacos (de carne asada). And all the food was cooked with the spices already in them. They didn’t want any spicy food. They didn’t even want to try the tamales because they had never seen them or heard of them before, although you really can’t have a Mexican party in the U.S. without tamales. It’s the law. When we were at a Mexican restaurant while we were on the road, I also warned them not to expect the waitress to put a basket of tortilla chips on the table. That’s an American custom!
The last time I went to Mexico in December, I didn’t worry about food because I was alone and I adapt well to different environments. I ate everything my family served me, causing my one cousin to note that I was really Mexican. Anyway, feeding my sons posed a unique challenge. My cousin suggested taking them to a pushcart vender who sold hot dogs and hamburgers our first night in Celaya. I thought it was an excellent idea. Until I saw the vender preparing a wiener with a strip of bacon wrapped around it. I thought for sure that my son wouldn’t like it. But he ate it and said that he liked the way the hot dog tasted with bacon. We also went to Pizza Hut, Burger King, and McDonald’s quite often while in Mexico, much to my disappointment. I really thought that I would get away from fast-food restaurants for a while. Well, I wanted to take my sons so they could experience Mexico, and despite the culture shock, they enjoyed the trip and said they would go back again. 🙂
Today, my sons and I went to a restaurant for supper. I often take them out to eat when they visit me. One, I’m not a very good cook. Two, I’m too lazy to cook and then wash the dishes afterwards. And three, I want my sons to know proper restaurant etiquette and protocol. My oldest son who is eighteen hardly eats out with us anymore because he’s at that age where he prefers to be with his friends. My twelve-year-old fraternal twins and I go to a restaurant at least once a week. I always make sure they learn some new fact about restaurant dining. Today, we discussed how the restaurant pays the waitress a very low wage, so she depends on tips for most of her income. Why do I do this? Because when I was a boy, we never went to restaurants. Mexicans just didn’t go to restaurants. It was cheaper to eat at home or bring your own food to the park, to the beach, to wherever. I want to save my sons from some of the embarrassment that I endured the first few times I went to restaurant because my parents had never taken me to one. I had to learn the hard way.
I must have been about eleven or twelve years old the very first time I went to a restaurant. I had found a dollar at the park and I thought that I would like to go to a restaurant. Since my parents would never take me, I would go by myself. I knew exactly which restaurant, too. There was one on the corner right by Peoples Theater at 46th and Marshfield. This restaurant caught my attention the very first time because a car had crashed halfway into its front door. I actually saw the accident, which made it all the more exciting. The next summer, I rode my bike past the restaurant minutes after another car had crashed into it. About two months later, yet another car crashed into it. Somehow, this seemed like a restaurant where I wanted to eat. Often, I would ride by on my bike and stop to look at the menu in the window. Of course, I would always listen for cars that were about to crash into the restaurant. So when I found the dollar I knew I could afford to eat there. For sixty-five cents, I could order the cheeseburger with fries and a Coke. And still have change leftover.
Well, since I had never eaten at a restaurant, I walked in and didn’t know what to do. I was staring at everyone in the restaurant when a waitress approached me. She asked me if I was lost. I said that I came to eat there and showed her my dollar. Well, actually, I handed it to her because I didn’t think she would serve until I paid first. She put my dollar back in my pocket and asked me where I would like to sit. I said, way in the back somewhere, away from the front door and windows, lest another car come crashing through. The waitress was very nice to me, took my order, and later brought out my food. She kept coming back to ask me if everything was fine. When I finished eating, she asked me if I wanted anything else, which I didn’t, since I couldn’t afford anything else. Later, she brought me this little piece of paper which I didn’t understand. It said check at the top, but since I didn’t speak English that well, I recalled that the only time I heard the word check was when my parents talked about getting paid for work with a check. After the waitress left me the check, I never saw her again. I waited for her to come back so I could pay her. I looked all over for her. I went to bathroom and I didn’t see her anywhere. I didn’t understand why she would give me a check when I didn’t do any work. I waited for her patiently. I’m not sure how long I waited, but it was a very long time because I started feeling hungry again. Finally, I just left–with the check and my dollar.
To this day, I feel embarrassed about what I did that day. But, hey, I didn’t know any better. In order to atone for that faux pas, I teach my sons the proper way to eat at a restaurant and the importance of tipping. When I explained this ritual to my sons, Alex told us how his friend Jack didn’t understand tipping. Jack’s family went to restaurant eat. There were a lot of people, so Jack’s father left a hundred-dollar bill on the table for the tip. When they got home, Jack told his dad, “You forgot this on the table,” and handed his dad the hundred-dollar bill!
You can’t go to Taco Loco anymore. But I often do. If only in my mind. I remember it well. On the corner of the public parking lot at the northeast corner of Wabash and Balbo, in the shadow of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Sacrificed to expand the parking lot and Chicago’s dwindling parking availability with four more parking spaces. I should post a picture to show you where it used to be. In the 1960s, we often drove past it. We, as Mexicans, always wondered who would name a Mexican restaurant Taco Loco. We never ate there because Mexicans didn’t eat at Mexican restaurants in the 1960s. They only worked there. In fact, I never even heard of any Mexicans ever eating in a restaurant. If we ate outside of the house it was at someone else’s home or we brought our own tortillas, bolillos, carnitas, peppers, and salsa. When my parents divorced, my father would pick us up for visitation in his flourescent-avocado-green 1971 Ford Maverick. Sometimes we would drive southbound on Wabash past Taco Loco. I was always curious about Taco Loco, a small, white brick building that didn’t look very well-maintained. In fact, it always looked like it was about to fall over until they knocked it down.
As an adult, when I could finally do everything that was prohibited by my parents, I finally went to Taco Loco. I loved their food. Let’s just say that forbidden fruit tastes the best! No one who worked there was a native English speaker, if you know what I mean. Luckily, I spoke Spanish. I ate there whenever I was downtown. The food was really cheap, too, especially if considered that this was a downtown restaurant. In 1992, during the World Cup semifinals, I was eating, sitting near the window. I saw some drunken soccer fans across the street, waving German flags and singing German songs. Suddenly, they ran out of songs to sing and they started shouting, “Baseball sucks!” They were scaring me. Luckily, they didn’t see me and their bus came right away.
When I taught Spanish at Columbia College Chicago, I often ate there after class. Then one day, the Spanish coördinator told me that I had to take my Spanish classes on a field trip. I wasn’t sure where to take them. When I tried to arrange a trip, we couldn’t agree on a time because every student was a full-time student. And many of them also worked. Talk about complications. So I’m sitting in Taco Loco eating enchiladas when it occurred to me that I could take them to Taco Loco! We were only a block away from our classroom and we could meet in Taco Loco instead of going to class. This actually worked out well for everyone. Since Taco Loco was open 24 hours, we met there for our 9:00 a.m. class. Everyone ordered their food in Spanish from the non-English-speaking waitress and they spoke Spanish as much as possible. Even the Spanish coördinator liked our destination for the field trip. No one else had ever thought of going to Taco Loco. I guess I’m just a trailblazer. I can’t help it. 🙂
Bridgeport is a neighborhood unlike any other in Chicago. Actually, there are two Bridgeports: the mythical, political Bridgeport that every Chicagoan hears about since starting school and the earthy, gritty Bridgeport that contrasts sharply with the mythical, political version.
In grade school, we learned all about Bridgeport, which is the birthplace of five Chicago mayors, including the present Mayor Richard M. Daley (Richard da Second). Bridgeport didn’t invent machine politics; they merely perfected machine politics, reaching its apogee in Mayor Richard J. Daley (Richard da First). Bridgeport is also very near the geographical center of Chicago. Many south siders often went to the White Sox games at Comiskey Park in Bridgeport. When I was a student at Holy Cross School, no school field trip would be complete without first driving past Mayor Daley’s bungelow at 3536 S. Lowe Avenue. Bridgeport was the Mecca of the south side. Every Chicagoan made a pilgrimage to Bridgeport at some point in their life.
When I told my mother that I was planning to buy a house in Bridgeport, she cringed and told me that I would regret it. For some unknown reason, I was drawn to Bridgeport. Besides, this was the location of the only house I could afford using the GI Bill. But before I bought this house, I checked out the neighborhood first. I drove past the house several times, at different hours of the day and night. Every time I drove past my future home, the block was extremely quiet. I never saw any movement in this vicinity at any time. I was sure that I was moving into a good neighborhood. After all, this was Bridgeport. So I bought the house, much to my mother’s disappointment, and I moved in.
This was when I saw the earthy, gritty side of Bridgeport for the very first time. You don’t really know a neighborhood until you move in and you live there 24/7/365. It was only then that I saw the seedy side of Bridgeport. My house was situated next to an alley that ran alongside the length of my house, an alley that everyone in the neighborhood used as a shortcut. I always heard whomever walked through the alley talking, at all hours of the day. Then one day, I noticed that Bridgeport had a gang problem and my house was right the border between two gang turfs. My neighbor always tried to start a fight with me by pointing to my camoflage shirt, a remnant from my Marine Corps enlistment, and tell me, “Hey, man! The war’s over!” I would ignore him and walk past him quickly. It was about that time that I learned that there were two sides to Bridgeport. And I lived on the wrong side of Bridgeport! I lived on the side where the public housing projects were located, the only white projects in the whole city of Chicago!
While I lived in the Marquette Park neighborhood, I had developed certain habits and I thought I could continue them when I saw all the stores, shops, and restaurants that were available in Bridgeport. I really thought that I would enjoy all these places that were within walking distance of my house. I went to Lina’s Italian restaurant that was less than one block from my house because they served authentic Italian food. Or, so I thought. When I entered the restaurant, I was greeted by Lina herself. I asked for the beef ravioli because I love authentic beef ravioli. Lina said, “It takes too long to make.” I said, “That’s fine. I’m not in a hurry tonight. I brought a book that I can read while I wait.” “Well, I’m not going to make ravioli just for you. Why don’t you order something else?” So I did. But I went back a few times hoping to eat ravioli, but she always refused to make it.
I once needed a button sewn on my winter wool coat, so I went to a tailor on Halsted Street. The tailor said, “You want this button sewn on? Why don’t you buy yourself some needle and thread and sew it on yourself?” He didn’t understand that I didn’t want to sew it on myself and that I was willing to pay him to sew the button on for me. He continously refused, so I left.
I went down the block to the barbershop that appeared to be in a continous state of disrepair, since at least the 1960s, judging by the newspaper clippings on the wall. There were no customers in the store, so the barber was sitting in a chair. When I entered, he stood up and said, “How may I help you?” I told him that I wanted a haircut. Well, he wasn’t giving haircuts that day. So I left.
Then, I went to the 11th Ward Office because I needed garbage cans for my house. They refused to give me garbage cans because I didn’t appear as a registered voter within their ward even though I had just moved there. I left without garbage cans. This was certainly a fine welcome to Bridgeport. I eventually adjusted to life Bridgeport. You just had to learn not to have too high of expectations.
After the play last night, I ate at La Humita, which serves Ecuadorian cuisine, at 3466 N. Pulaski Avenue, 773.794.9672. I had never eaten Ecuadorian food, or at least I don’t really remember if I did. I ordered the pork chops and they were good. So were the vegetables. They have live music on Fridays and Saturdays and karaoke on Thursdays and Sundays. Okay, so my review is a bit terse. Now you know why I don’t write restaurant reviews. Anyway, here is their website:
When I lived at 3006 W. 64th Street, I always used to eat at this great Mexican restaurant that was exactly one block away. El Gallo de Oro, 2952 W. 63rd Street, 773.737.8101, has been there since at least 1981 when I moved back to Marquette Park after being honorably discharged from the Marines. This Mexican restaurant serves real Mexican food cooked by real Mexicans to other Mexicans who patronize the restaurant. That’s how you can tell if a Mexican restaurant is really good: by how many Mexicans eat there. I remember once going to Milwaukee and my girlfriend suggested that we eat at a Mexican restaurant, either La Perla or La Fuente, but she didn’t know which one was better. We ate at the one where all the Mexicans ate! And it was great Mexican food! So are you wondering which restaurant was better? Well, I honestly can’t remember because I drank a few too many bottles of Negra Modelo. Anyway, El Gallo de Oro has great Mexican food, and I say this after having come back from having eaten Mexican food in many Mexican restaurants and Mexican homes in Mexico. Well, lately, I’ve been going to different Mexican restaurants in the Chicagoland area, or Chicagolandia as I like to call it since we have so many Spanish speakers here, and I’ve been ordering the enchiladas de pollo. Today, I tasted the enchiladas at El Gallo de Oro and they were ¡sabrosísimas! This is a great Mexican restaurant.
When I still lived in the neighborhood, I ate there several times a week. Of course, everything I needed in the neighborhood was within a two-block radius. The cleaners, the gas station, the locksmith, the used bookstore, Aldo of Italy my barber, and of course, El Gallo de Oro. I went to the locksmith exactly once, but it was nice to know that he was always available even though I dreaded the day that I would actually need him. Aldo of Italy cut my hair once a month before I ate at El Gallo de Oro. Aldo always loved speaking to me in Spanish while he cut my hair until I fell asleep. Anyway, again, I loved the attitude of the Mexicans at El Gallo de Oro. They were typical Mexicans who loved to brag about their food and service. I especially loved their sign in the window: “La competencia es buena, pero nosotros somos … ¡más chingones!” In English, The competition is good, but we are … ” Okay, I’m not sure how to translate the last two words, but you could tell who was Mexican and who wasn’t by how they reacted to the sign. Of course, at that time the FCC let a lot of profanity get aired on all the Mexican radio stations. So the sign remained in the front window for many years until about two years ago. I rather miss that sign. That’s the thing about Mexicans. They have chutzpah!
One time, I told my father, brothers, and sister that I had a special surprise for them for our Thanksgiving dinner that year. They were so curious, that I caved in to all their questions and told them my surprise beforehand. “We are eating Thanksgiving dinner at … ” and I paused for dramatic effect … “El Gallo de Oro!” “But we want turkey,” my sister shouted. “Yo quiere guajolote,” said my father. “Un momento,” I said. “El Gallo de Oro is serving turkey burritos on Thanksgiving Day!” After a little grumbling, they finally agreed to my Thanksgiving dinner plans! Everyone got to eat turkey, I got to eat at El Gallo de Oro, and my father got to eat so many jalapeño peppers that sweat poured from his forehead profusely and he had to keep asking for more and more water. Well, El Gallo de Oro managed to satisfy yet another finicky Mexican family–again!
My favorite all-time Mexican restaurant is Azteca Tacos in Pilsen, 1836 S. Blue Island Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608, 312.733.0219. I’ve eaten there many times over many years. I was still in high school the very first time I ate there. My father and I went to the Fiesta del Sol when it was still on Blue Island Avenue. Rather than eating at one of the vendors from the fiesta, we went to Azteca Tacos and ordered our food through the window with wrought iron grating as we stood on the sidewalk. It was kind of like eating at a restaurant in México. Authentic Mexican food is served by authentic Mexicans. The food is so delicious–¡Riquísima!–and they serve you large portions. It’s like being in México. Street merchants walk in to sell you everything from chiclets to blankets. Once an elderly man came in with a boom box and a book with a list of songs in Spanish. I picked two songs that I recognized and he sang them for us. I paid him $10 and he left the restaurant with a smile. I like going there with my friends because it’s a nice place to hang out for a few drinks. Granted, it doesn’t look like a luxury restaurant,the seats in the booths are worn down a little, and the bathrooms remind me of México, but the food and the ambience make up for everything else. You have to go there at least once in your lifetime!