Hyde Park Shenanigans
I’m excited to say that tonight I will actually be cooking dinner for the first time in what seems like ages. It feels like I’ve been running around the neighborhood (not to mention the city), but at least in doing so I’ve eaten at some Hyde Park places, some new, some old standbys, and realized that maybe there are more restaurants in Hyde Park than I give it credit for.
According to their website, Backstory is a café and social center serving the Woodlawn and Hyde Park Neighborhoods of Chicago.
* sandwiches made to order
* soups made from scratch
* slow-drip coffee
* loose leaf teas
Free Wi-Fi, Vegan, Organic and Halal Options available
Visa and Mastercard accepted
As much as I want to keep this place a secret (prevent it from being invaded by high schoolers), I want it to stay in business. An inexpensive, organic, vegetarian friendly cafe in walking distance from school? Sure, at 61st and Blackstone, the area seems pretty shady, and there is absolutely no way you’re going to find this place unless you know exactly where it is. You have to walk to the midway, then down Dorchester, then cut across until you see a small red building. On the side, the words “Backstory Cafe” are scrawled on a blackboard. You open the door and all of a sudden you’re greeted by music, voices, and the heat, which is on pretty high. Back Story is part of Experimental Station, where there’s also a community garden and a farmer’s market during the summer. Basically, it just doesn’t feel like you’re in Hyde Park.
Their specialty is slow drip coffee that they pour through a filter. No fancy espresso drinks of anything like that… BUT, the coffee is pretty good. They also have cookies, muffins, scones, etc. all for 1 or 2 dollars each.
(That 10-15 minutes warning on the blackboard is completely off. It took them all of 3 minutes to make my sandwich and dish out my soup.)
Of course, if you really want to eat something, you should grab one of their laminated menus and make your selection with a dry erase marker. They have recommended sandwiches (only 5$!!), but you can also create your own for 6$. You can put literally whatever you want… when I went with Henry he got roast beef, hummus, mustard and mayo (I know, strange), provolone, and numerous other oddities.
When I went with my friends Kaitlyn and Becca, neither of us created our own sandwiches. I ordered the marinated tofu sandwich with grilled tofu, lettuce, tomato, and garlic mayo. Usually I hate mayonnaise, but I figured it would be good in this sandwich. The sandwich was huge, served on giant, chewy pieces of multigrain. The tofu was satisfying, and the greens were fresh—my only complaint was that despite the garlic in the mayo (which really contributed more of an aftertaste than anything else), it was a bit bland. I went and asked for some mustard, and it was instantly better. Next time I might build my own sandwich.
Becca ordered a sandwich (don’t remember what it was called) that had hummus and a pile of vegetables, which included beets. I didn’t try it, but seems to me like it could have been heavier on the hummus. The thing is, Backstory is exactly the kind of place where you could request extra hummus and they would be happy to do it for you.
The sandwiches were all delicious, but it was really the soups that blew everything else out of the water. Backstory serves two kinds of (mostly vegan) soups every day, and when I went up to pay, they had just finished making a giant pot of carrot ginger soup. I really wanted to try the wild rice lentil, so Kaitlyn and I got both kinds to share.
I’m pretty picky about my vegetable soups because we make them a lot at home (thanks, Deborah Madison), but these were absolutely fantastic! I really can’t rave enough about them. The first bite of the carrot ginger it didn’t seem like the ginger taste was too strong, but the spice became more and more pronounced as I continued to eat it. The carrots were almost cloyingly sweet, but in a good way. It was also thick and not too pureed, with big chunks of carrots left in. The wild rice lentil was completely different, but really hearty, also with chunks of vegetables. Vegetarian comfort food, like chicken noodle soup. I can’t wait to go back and see what other soups are being offered.
I’ve been here multiple times with my dad, but ordered the same thing almost every time. When I ate meat and was able to stomach huge amounts of food I would order their Southern Sampler, which has gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and a corn muffin, and I could eat it all with only some discomfort. Recently I’ve gotten blackened catfish a lot, which comes with your choice of two sides.
This time when I went with Henry I decided to try crawfish etouffee, which I’ve actually never had. I’ve always been hesitant because I know it’s roux-based and probably really rich. I said to him, “I know it’s the health freak in me, but I realized there are no vegetables in what I ordered.” He answered, “It comes with a corn muffin… corn is a vegetable!”
He ordered a shrimp po’ boy… I personally still don’t understand the appeal in eating breaded food on bread. The etouffee was pretty good, except for some reason I was really embarrassed ordering it. I always am when I’m ordering something and am iffy about the pronunciation. The waiter also couldn’t hear me at all because I was speaking too softly, and thought I wanted gumbo. I was happy enough to see that there were peppers in it! Yes! Vegetables. Aside from that, it was pretty spicy. The crawfish were tiny, which surprised me, but pretty flavorful, and you know I love soupy food with rice. The corn muffin, on the other hand, was completely stale, which is disappointing, because theirs are usually good. I had one of their johnnycakes that they give out for free instead of bread to make up for it.
If you haven’t heard of Valois, I’m surprised… It’s one of Obama’s favorite Hyde Park places, one that serves breakfast cafeteria-style until 4 PM. He used to get steak and eggs here, and it’s listed on a board that says “Obama’s Favorites.” Apparently when he was elected, they offered free breakfast and there were lines around the block. Even when you have to pay, you don’t have to pay much, and there are always lines. Actually, I’m ashamed that I haven’t been here more… It’s a Hyde Park standby, after all. The problem is you cannot be indecisive. You have to know exactly what you want, tell them, take a tray, pay and take it to a table. Other than pancakes, omelets, grits, roast chicken, mashed potatoes, broccoli, sandwiches, and a fridge full of desserts (I spied rice pudding in there!), they have pretty much anything you want. I wasn’t that hungry, but I ordered a veggie omelet (mushrooms and peppers) and grits, just because I haven’t eaten them a lot. The omelet was huge! I guess that doesn’t really surprise me. It did have American cheese melted all of it. Major plastic factor, but you don’t come to Valois for a gourmet meal.
My food only cost 4$! Next time I’m just going to get the most random stuff. I’ll say something like, “Can I have broccoli, scrambled eggs, coffee and rice pudding?” Next time I’ll go for breakfast and make sure not to have eaten anything prior, and fully take advantage of the cheap food and humungous portions.