Wednesday, September 11, 2013


The Chicago Bears had their season opener at Soldier Field this past weekend, hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. I'm generally indifferent to football, and last Sunday was no exception. Nonetheless, the city was alive with optimistic expectation and its sidewalks filled with team jerseys. I was spending the day on my bike enjoying the vibe. My girlfriend had a meeting in Lincoln Park, so we though it would be a good idea to bike down early and spend a little time on the lakefront.

It wasn't the best of days, a bit overcast with a stiff wind pounding waves along the shore. After enduring about an hour of wind whipping, we grabbed a bite at Lito's Empanadas on Clark Street. Lito's owner is from Colombia, but his small counter service storefront isn't there to serve South American immigrants. Rather, it's on a fashionable and gentrified stretch of Clark near Diversey. The empanadas were excellent, though, crisply fried on the outside, yet having a grease-less inner layer enclosing the delicious fillings. My girlfriend prefers hers baked, so she suggested that next time we go to the place run by the Argentinians just up the street.

Our hunger pangs satisfied, she headed to her meeting while I pedaled off on a semi-directionless bike ride through the neighborhood. I lived nearby for a few years back in the 80's, but haven't spent much time here since then, so I was curious to see what had changed, and what was the same.

My meanderings took me past a stretch of sports bars on Webster that were, needless to say, quite rowdy on a football Sunday. It was then that I started to notice that not everybody was wearing a Bears jersey. Not only were there Bengals colors, but Cleveland, Detroit and Green Bay had their representatives as well. I also noticed several bars flying the colors of Ohio State and the Universities of Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

Chicago is the center of the Midwest, and it's tonier precincts are a landing place for the young and the successful. They are migrants in every sense of the world, looking to improve their lives by moving to a place with more opportunity. The principal difference is that their place of origin is typically farther up the ladder and more comfortable than that of migrants from other shores. I realize that's a gross simplification, that there are tech, medical and other highly skilled jobs that are often filled by immigrants. Often, of course, this is because they were a little farther up the ladder back home as well, and could afford to study at U.S. universities, of which Chicago is blessed to be the home of several.

My companion's meeting was over, so we hooked up again and returned to almost the same spot where we had our empanadas. The next store over is the cleverly named Del Seoul, which found its niche a few years back selling that wonderful Asian-Mexican but only-in-America invention, the Korean taco. Kalbi, BBQ pork or sesame-chili panko crusted shrimp served over warm corn tortillas and covered in kimchi. It's a small miracle of multiculturalism.

Like Lito's, Del Seoul opened on this stretch of Clark to serve the general public and introduce wonderful and formerly exotic food from home to increasingly sophisticated palates. The truth is, Del Seoul is more L.A. than Seoul in its inspiration (the first Korean tacos happened when somebody had the brilliant idea of combining L.A.'s iconic taco trucks with K-Town's BBQ), but the flavors are authentic, even as they mash things up even more with Koreanized versions of Montreal's poutine and Vietnam's bahn mi, creating whole new hybrids that I'm not even sure they have in L.A. At the same time, they've added more traditional meals to the menu, and the fair number of Korean students from nearby DePaul University that were earnestly tucking into these reminders of home attested to their quality.

Chicago, where migrants come from Korea, Mexico, Colombia and Michigan to mix and mingle and seek a better life than they had back home. How did I get so lucky as to be born here?

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