Four Star Brass Band kicking off the party!

Article by Annmarie Nommesch-Handley

The evening Chicago weather was beautiful for the Northwest Arts Connection / Avondale Neighborhood Association’s 5th Annual Avondale Restaurant Crawl, but our little family was exhausted that Wednesday and debated coming out for the event.  Because we’d enjoyed so many other NAC events and had some serious FOMO, we got a second (or maybe it was a third…) wind and got ourselves over to Elston and Belmont to check out the scene.  We were so very glad we did.

After checking out the NAC website to find that the location was easy to get to, parking was free, tickets could be bought in advance or at the event, and the restaurants were all within walking distance along one of our favorite Chicago avenues, we were feeling more energized.  Elston is one of those diagonal streets in Chicago that harbors hidden and unexpected treasures of all kinds, and I always seem to discover something new.

Brew Brew-photo by Carma Lynn Park

Balloons marked each participating venue since not all were restaurants, so we stopped first at Arts on Elston, where volunteers and patrons gathered outside on the sidewalk eating popcorn and chatting about the works of art inside.  They guided us over to Brands Park to get our tickets for the event, where we met the organizers and bought our tickets as our five-year-old played at the park and got helium balloons from teen volunteers.  There were arts & crafts for little kids and a caricature artist sketching portraits.  It was about six o’clock and while the sun began to dip in the sky, the full trees filtered moving light onto the street and the strolling diners.  It was a beautiful evening and I was happy to be enjoying our part of the city with my husband and daughters and neighbors.

We started our tasting journey at the park sipping two naturally-flavored teas—watermelon and mango—from Brew Brew Coffee & Tea.  The vendor excitedly told us about their other beverage creations and invited us to visit the shop.  We walked south with the kids and I noticed that, although the sidewalks on both sides of Elston were crowded with patrons, the event had a relaxed and calm feel that warm summer evening.  I think everyone was enjoying an event that had a less harried, more neighborly feel than the enormous Grant Park events.

Flamenco Chicago dancers and guitarist-photo by Rosetta Magdalen

While enjoying the evening stroll and chatting with friends we’d seen along the way, we stopped to check out the performers from Flamenco Chicago dance studio, with a flamenco guitarist, performing on the corners of California, Elston, and Belmont.  We took photos and our girls danced along with the music as passersby and drivers paused at red lights to enjoy the swaying and rhythmic movements and the brightly colored ruffles flying along with the percussion.

Our next stop was for gnocchi alla romana at Pisolino Italian Café on Belmont, which was a surprisingly light and fluffy semolina dumpling with amatriciana sauce and pecorino cheese, a rich tomato sauce with a hint of bacon flavor.  Across the street we visited the Peterson Picture Company, which has been in business there for over 50 years helping art lovers design and create that most important finishing touch on their art, keepsakes, and other imaginings.  The staff was very friendly and I know I’ll be back to take advantage of their competitive pricing and to shop local.  Double our pleasure at the same venue was Mirabella, another Italian eatery new to its home on Addison, just east of the expressway.  Word from the NAC organizers was that Mirabella is the “Gene and Georgetti’s of the Northwest Side.”  They were serving skewers of caprese—fresh marinated tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese, which was the perfect follow-up to the gnocchi.  I was in heaven.

The Handley family at Taqueria Traspasada-photo by Carma Lynn Park

Next was chicken and pork tamales or mini flautas, complete with homemade red or green salsas, from Taqueria Traspasada on California and Elston, which were some of the best I’ve had.  My husband and I grew up on the South Side, so we consider ourselves amateur connoisseurs of Mexican cuisine, and Taqueria Traspasada’s tamales, in our humble opinion, had the perfect balance of masa and filling, while the filling had lots of flavor to balance the savory masa and the spice of the salsa.  I can’t wait to go back there.  The dining room is casual enough to bring your whole family to dine too.

After that we turned west to head over to DMen Tap, whose name had us all curious.  We were not disappointed when we arrived—they had their own spectacular food truck parked outside which read “DönerMen, DMen Tap,” while the bar itself was decked out with heavy-metal/Dungeons-and-Dragons-style décor, like skulls, daemons and swords, album covers, Ouija boards, and crisp, original paintings of under-worldly figures.  The bar itself served craft beers on tap, but the most wonderful surprise came from the little window at the back of the room where German imbiss (street food) was being served.  We got a tasting of German currywurst with house-made fries, which was an amazing combination of Indian spices in a rich tomato sauce with a German-style, lean, flavorful sausage.  The story of how that cultural combo came to be was posted next to the food window, and told of how the dish was invented in post-war Berlin.  DMen was a truly delightful stop as it was one of the most original neighborhood establishments we’d visited in a long time.  We’re looking forward to going back to try more of the food on their unique menu, as well as more of their beer selection.

As we headed back, we saw the UpBeat Music & Arts students performing outdoors in the Burger King parking lot, as well as vocalist and guitarist Hassan El-Tayyab.  We tasted acai berry ice at Fruit Paradise, which was like a more-exotic version of Italian ice, had frozen coconut milk paletas from Paleteria Arco Iris (who will come to your party to sell their wonderful homemade paletas too!), and were serenaded by the Four Star Brass Band while we crossed the street to try to catch a final few restaurants before the event’s close.

Jesse Ortega at Allstate-photo by Carma Lynn Park

After racing to Honey Butter Fried Chicken to taste their fried chicken nachos (a dish that was featured in the recent Chicago Tribune’s, “Eat This Drink This; 101 tastes and toasts to try right now,” 2017 edition), and finally, Parachute’s spicy and multi-faceted green gazpacho, we finished the evening in the park.  We munched sweet/spicy and cheesy/savory-flavored popcorns, courtesy of Dell Cove Spice Company, and enjoyed the park swings.  The sun had set, the air was still warm, and a few more late-comers hurried to Parachute to try their offering before the event ended, in our opinion, too early.  Despite our earlier fatigue, I could’ve gone on walking, tasting, and enjoying the Northwest Side talent for another few hours at least.

This NAC / ANA Avondale Restaurant Crawl event was my favorite NAC event so far, not only because I enjoyed the evening so much, but also because it gave me a chance to experience, in the span of a two-hour Wednesday evening, many of the wonderful talents and flavors my own backyard has to offer.  We’ll definitely be back to visit these businesses, which made me feel good about giving back to my own community by “shopping small.”  Thanks again, NAC and ANA, for putting a spotlight on our neighborhood’s best!