The coronavirus pandemic has hit the restaurant industry hard.
But some Chicago food spots have remained surprisingly busy — sometimes even busier — during the pandemic. These are not just large chains with drive up windows, but independent neighborhood joints that often serve unique and indulgent comfort foods to go.
We recently visited four of these small spots to find out what they’re serving and why folks are willing to travel and wait in long lines for their food.
Jibaritos Y Mas
This little spot opened in 2017 and showcases Chicago’s very own Puerto Rico-inspired sandwich — the jibarito. The sandwich features deep-fried green plantain planks in place of bread, with various fillings like pork, steak, chicken, sausage and seafood salad. The restaurant attracts lines around the block at its original Logan Square location and lots of new fans at its Lincoln Park outlet, which opened this spring.
“We were really scared when this started because we thought that everything was going to be down, but it was the opposite,” said Jenny Arrietta, a manager at the Logan Square location.
Last week, Cook County Sheriff Department workers were the first customers through the door at 10 a.m. They ordered crisp alcapurrias (deep fried ground plantain and meat fritters), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and, of course, the namesake sandwich that’s finished off with a schmear of garlic oil.
By noon, lines had formed outside the colorful corner storefront with customers standing on sidewalk markings spaced six feet apart.
Arietta said she feels bad when so many people are waiting outside.
“Sometimes, when it’s raining, and they are still standing out there for 25 or 30 minutes getting wet, I worry,” she said. “But I guess they just really want a taste of the island, this food and the way we make them feel like family when they’re interacting with us.”
Ironically, the city of Chicago announced on the day we visited that anyone coming to the city from Puerto Rico has to self-quarantine for 14 days, making this taste of Puerto Rico in Chicago even more special.
Jibaritos Y Mas has three locations in Logan Square, Dunning and Lincoln Park.
Hickory smoke beckons from Lem’s Bar-B-Q smokestack, and it’s hard not to heed the call. That may be why Carmen Lemons, who co-owns the 66-year-old joint that’s famous for rib tips, has been watching lines wrap around her green and white building all summer.
“The lines just got longer during the pandemic, and I’m very blessed that they want to come to Lem’s,” said Lemon, who took over the business with her sister, Lynn Walker, after their father, James B. Lemons, died in 2016. “People want something they can’t make at home. To fix ribs, you’ve got to get charcoal and a grill. They don’t want to do that. They want something so they don’t have to work that hard.”
Instead, her crew does the hard work, firing up the aquarium-style smoker early in the morning to cook racks and racks of ribs, links and their famous rib tips.This Chicago-style cut uses the unctuous gristly ends that are left over after trimming baby backs to tender delicious effect — especially when topped with Lem’s sweet, spicy and slightly vinegary sauce.
Last week, Jerome Frazier came in from south suburban Crete for “rib tips, hot links and chicken wings” in his old neighborhood.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, and I like to come back to support where I came from,” he said. “There are a lot of barbecue spots between here and Crete, but I guess you go back to your roots.”
To keep ordering simple, and make sure everyone waits their turn, Lemons said she’s sticking to her policy of not taking phone orders. And lines may look even longer these days, Lemons said, because she’s only allowing three customers in the shop at a time “for safety.” She has also recently shortened the hours at Lem’s to close at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., instead of after midnight, during the coronavirus pandemic.
“But I think I’m going to keep it that way,” Lemons said. “I think these shorter hours are better for us, and we’re doing just as much business.”
Lem’s Bar-B-Q is located at 311 E. 75th St.
Oak wood smoke permeates this 92-year-old institution on the shores of the Calumet River. And while COVID-19 took Calumet Fisheries long-time manager Carlos Rosas this summer, customers — new and old — have been flocking to the fish house from miles away.
“It caught us by surprise,” current manager Javier Magallanes said. “But I think it’s because people don’t have to drive to work and eat there every day anymore, so they have more time to try other foods. So they research online, and they see we have a James Beard Award and we were on the Anthony Bourdain show and they come out. They make it a day trip.”
That is what Steven Moulter and his family were doing on a morning last week.
“We came from Lakeview,” Moulter said, “I have been wanting to come here for about 20 years and never found the time. So, today was a beautiful day, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Moulter was there to buy fried shrimp, scallops and fish, along with some of Calumet’s house smoked fish that Magallanes said has proven a fan favorite during the pandemic.
After Calumet Fisheries, Moulter was headed to another South Side institution for dessert.
“We’re going to Roseland for apple fritters at Old Fashioned Donuts,” he said. “You got to support these places. You can’t lose something like this. It’s Chicago history.”
Calumet Fisheries is at 3259 E. 95th St.
Home of the Hoagy
On a recent afternoon in front of Home of the Hoagy in Morgan Park, Eugene Weathersby was leaning on his white SUV with a receipt in his hand.
“I’m waiting for two sweet steaks and an order of fries,” he said. “I’ve been here for about 20 minutes.”
The sweet steak he was waiting for is the house special, and it refers to a Chicago classic. The sandwich starts with chopped ribeye steak slathered in a special sweet sauce, griddled with onions, topped with American cheese, sweet relish and hot peppers all tucked into a fresh hoagy roll.
“I just know that it’s delicious and mouthwatering,” he said.
Moments later, owner Denise Brown arrived at the restaurant’s side door to join her cooks in the kitchen on the line.
“We’ve seen business boom,” said Brown, whose father, Roosevelt McCarthy Jr. started the restaurant in 1969. “Every day since the pandemic’s been going on we’ve been super busy. Tons of call ins and walkins, and I can’t hardly keep enough help to keep up.”
Brown attributes the crowds to the eatery’s two signature sandwiches: the hot sweet steak and the cold hoagie.
“I try to stick with all the ingredients we started with, so it’s definitely expensive. But that’s because I stick with all the good fresh daily products we started with in the beginning,” she said. “Plus, everything is made to order. We don’t cut any corners, and so it can be slow but it’s good.”
She said it also helped that they’ve been offering their signature Chicago comfort foods throughout the pandemic: “When the city shut down and most of the restaurants weren’t open, one of the customers came in and said, ‘You all are the dopest place open right now.’ ”
Home of the Hoagy is at 1316 W. 111th St.
Monica Eng is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @monicaeng.