It all started with the carrot burrito platter at Prairie Joe's.

The inspiration for Cult Faves started with an offhand remark I made in late December 2019 as I was paying for my meal at Prairie Joe’s. I mentioned to Yasmin Dincer-Ubl, daughter of owner, artist, and head chef Joe Dincer, that I thought their Carrot Burrito platter was the best meal in Evanston. She nodded in agreement saying, “Yep, it’s a cult fave.”

My curiosity was piqued. What other meals were favorites within the Evanston community? Evanston supports a robust restaurant scene and foodies abound. A few weeks later, the RoundTable announced Cult Faves with an online article seeking reader input and some restaurant-friendly promotional help to spread the word. Enough readers replied with nominations about their favorites that even covid-19 couldn’t squelch the enthusiasm or readers’ appetites.

Our gastronomic tour starts on Main Street in southeast Evanston. Trattoria DOC is a favorite locale of Camille Zarantonello Blachowicz. She writes, “We have lived in Italy a few times, and I am very fussy about pasta and other Italian foods which I can cook, but usually don’t eat out because I find most places disappointing. The food, wine and ambiance at Trattoria DOC are the closest I have found here to what I knew in Rome. The Bucatini all’ Amatriciana is a delicious plate of bacony, tomatoey, spicy pasta. The pizzas at DOC all have great, thin, well-cooked crusts and Silvio and Gabriele is such an interesting combo of cheese, prosciutto and arugula. The warm and the cool ingredients play off one another. Trattoria DOC is a wonderful find and after this sequestering is not needed, I am going right over for a meal.”

Just a few feet east of Trattoria DOC on Main Street is La Principal. Katherine Gotsick, raves about their Nashville Hot Chicken Tacos. “It’s perfectly spicy, a tiny bit sweet, and dressed with pickled veggies that give it a beautiful balance. If they open up a restaurant that just served this fried chicken, they’d make a killing,” she says.

Crossing Chicago Avenue brings to light three recommendations at two restaurants. James Elish is partial to the Pappardelle Bolognese with Veal and Pork Ragu at Campagnola on Chicago Avenue. Another reader, Mary, also suggested Campagnola, in particular the carpaccio. “I must have it every time. Their sauce is perfect and the meat is lovingly plated and cared for.” Another Mary loves the Mushroom Quesadilla at Lucky Platter on Main Street. “They are lightly flavored with a touch of cheese. And the ginger fruit side is unmatchable. The combination is fresh and expertly cooked. I’ve been ordering it for years.” She notes that while the Mushroom Quesadillas no longer appear on the menu at Lucky Platter, she was told at her most recent visit they are still available.

Moving farther north, Evanston’s main business district offers several recommendations. Lorraine favors the Breakfast Sandwich at Cupitol, which includes a fried egg, Jones bacon, and American cheese on a butter croissant, all for 525 calories.

Hannah is a fan of the Blistered Green Beans and the Chicken (or Beef) Ginger Salad at Lulu’s on Davis Street, a restaurant Hannah has been frequenting since they first opened in Evanston. She loves the flavor of the blistered beans, saying “they’re a bit salty, which I like, and the tofu has the flavor too.  They’re on the small-plate section, but I eat them as I main dish.  Also good for beginning chop stick users, like me.  As for the salads, it’s the ginger dressing and fried wontons that really make it. “

Martha Meyer enthuses about two faves: Singapore Noodles with Vegetables at Lao Sze Chuan on Orrington Avenue and Falafel with Turkish Salad at Habibi In Mediterranean Grill on Church Stret. Ms. Meyer describes the Singapore Noodles with mouth-watering detail, saying, “They can do it without meat for me (a vegan). They have wonderful curry flavor. And the noodles are bouncy! I love the selection of vegetables they include in the meal — mushrooms, onions, peppers, broccoli and maybe snow peas. Yum!”

Her description of the Falafel with Turkish Salad is just as compelling. “First, Habibi In is the freshest and most authentic falafel I have tasted in Evanston. Second, their Turkish Salad is spicy and tomatoey and delish.  What a great place to get a tasty vegan treat.”

Carnivorous diners might welcome Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin’s enthusiastic recommendation about the bits served at Evanston Chicken Shack on Ridge Avenue. This writer was unfamiliar with what exactly ‘bits’ referred to and contacted the alderman for some additional detail. As he explained, in this context, bits are not an anatomical part of the chicken; they refer to random parts that are edible yet not uniform in shape. Ald. Suffredin elaborated, “For the most part, bits are large, but irregularly (in a good way) shaped pieces served in a box. Two pieces of white bread on the bottom with fries on top. Contest over.” 

The gastronomic recommendations continue north to Noyes Street where Gerald Brennan enthuses over Dave’s New Kitchen. Mr. Brennan describes one of his favorite meals: rich minestrone soup to start. Main course is Pasta Aglio and Olio [pasta with garlic, olive oil and Romano cheese] with mushroom, spinach and  zucchini; Bolognese sauce or meatball on the side. Sicilian bread pudding for dessert. When asked why he favors Dave’s New Kitchen, Mr. Brennan was generous and succinct, saying, “I crave Dave’s dishes because they’re made from scratch with fresh ingredients and love and kindness.” 

Reader recommendations continue to the Central Street area where Lynn Trautmann swoons over Asparagus Chicken from Symphony Cafe. She says, the dish is “loads of tender of chicken, served with asparagus, and a luscious tarragon cream sauce. The menu offers it served over pasta, but I request mashed potatoes as a substitute for the pasta. Tastes like a home cooked Sunday dinner. The dish never disappoints, comes with salad and dinner rolls, and is generous enough to satisfy a huge appetite–or provide one to two nights of leftovers.” This sounds like gourmet comfort food – and a delicious option for getting through a pandemic. 

Les Jacobson, a RoundTable colleague, favors Pinto Thai Kitchen on Central Street. Says he, “Their Pinto fried rice is excellent. We have it with chicken and extra pineapple, and they give you enough for days of leftovers. Their pot stickers are excellent, too.”

Reverend Michael Kirby loves breakfasts at Prairie Joe’s on Central Street. “I generally go for the oatmeal or scrambled eggs and bacon. Everything is always hot, fresh, and perfectly prepared. The atmosphere can’t be beat and the service is fantastic! I meet there every two weeks with the Northminster Men’s Breakfast. We’ve been meeting there for many years,” he says.

Ah, Prairie Joe’s … the creator of the famed Carrot Burrito that sparked this story. Why does this writer enjoy this dish at this restaurant? It’s family-run. The people who work there are kind, helpful, and friendly. The atmosphere in the restaurant is unique and artistically stimulating. The carrot burrito platter is fresh, flavorful and fulfilling. It’s delicious and stunningly simple – it’s just carrots – but it never fails to make my taste buds dance with pleasure.

These recommendations include many parts of the city, multiple cuisines, breakfast through dinner, and varying price points. What links them together is the joy and appreciation diners have for meals prepared with great ingredients, but more than that, meals prepared with … dare we say … love. We’ve never needed it more.

The RoundTable encourages readers to support local restaurants and other businesses as much as social distancing and budgets permit.

.