By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
Nana just has to be a comfort food place, doesn't it? But who knew that Nana's comfort style was organic, foodie Mexican? My friends have been trying to get me to go to this gem for a long time. My cop friend Mark even sent me pictures of the food, but I'm a Cubs fan, I don't get to Bridgeport naturally. But this is a serious job, so we took the trek to West 33rd and South Halsted streets and reconfirmed the level and depth of hidden-in-plain-sight food options that live in our great city of neighborhoods. Nana is homey and classy with a South Side accent, a neighborhood corner feel and a menu that plays big. She looks great too with walls of exposed brick, local artwork and opened, floor-to-ceiling doors.
An exterior view of the dining room at Nana.
Photos provided by the restaurant.
On the menu
||Housemade Granola With Fresh and Dried Fruit
||Mac and Cheese
||Crispy Fried Quail
The menu boasts sustainable organic and local and, unlike half the places in the farm-to-table movement, this one actually is. The menu is spectacular. Start with some crispy chickpea frites — greaseless, ground chickpeas molded into rectangular, crunchy, light pillows with a garlic aioli and a fresh date argodolce drizzled with harissa honey. Or the amazing pulled pork nachos. Expect a huge plate with plenty of tangy pulled pork, fresh Chihuahua cheese, grilled Greek olives and Shishito peppers that are mostly mild with the occasional bite to be interesting. When cheddar truffle mac and cheese is on the menu, especially at a place called Nana, it's hard to pass up, so I didn't. A heaping portion of al dente campanelli pasta drenched in fresh, white cheddar sauce with plenty of truffles (but surprisingly little of the advertised thyme biscuit breadcrumbs), it is the overstuffed La-Z-Boy recliner of comfort foods.
There are only a few entrees at lunchtime, but they only need a few. I have to go back for the grilled laughing bird shrimp and fried oyster po'boy because I went with the crispy pan-fried soft shell crab over poblano cheddar grits with a poached duck egg and fiddlehead fern salad with shellfish hollandaise. The crab was prepared perfectly with tastes and textures complimenting each other like my Cubs never can. The meat choice was grilled hangar steak, served in bite-sized chunks over a bit too bland cauliflower puree with grilled ramps and yucca fries. The meat was tender, a good trick with hangar steak, and full of carnivore flavor, but it needed a little zip and (also like my team) didn't get much from its mild plate mates.
The restaurant serves a breakfast menu most of the day, which must be how it got on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives." We tried the take on eggs benedict, or Nanadict — perfectly poached eggs with chorizo served on sturdy, little cornmeal mounds called pupusas, instead of English muffins, and poblano cream instead of hollandaise. Another winning combination but again, spiced sparingly.
The surprise best in show went to the vegan lentil taco dinner. Three, double handmade corn tortillas filled with spiced lentils instead of meat and served on a platter ringed with generous dollops of grilled pineapple salsa, lime-cabbage slaw, radishes and guacamole created complex layers of flavor and texture. The obligatory black beans and white rice were there, but I bet they don't get finished a lot. On the other hand, you are going to want to lick the pineapple salsa part of the plate. After all this we nearly passed on dessert, but it's hard to pass on a housemade shortbread bar, covered in caramel and then chocolate and sprinkled with bacon bits over whipped cream with baby Jell-O shots around the plate. This is what a Twix bar dreams of being when it grows up. Just a great place — warm, friendly and delicious and what going to Nana's house is supposed to be. It almost makes me want to be a Sox fan. Almost.
Lagniappe: Robert Johnson's crossroads are supposed to be outside of Clarksdale, Miss., at Routes 61 and 49. At least that's what Bob Dylan and Wikipedia say. Mine are a little closer, at Grand and Milwaukee avenues and Halsted Street. Here within 50 yards of each other sit La Scarola, Piccolo Sogno, Emmit's Irish Pub, Richard's Bar and the Iguana Café. If I lived there, I would never leave. If you live there, please, invite me over.
Drive a few blocks west to May Street and stop in Bari for a sub. You can't miss it because it is strategically located next to D'Amato's Bakery, which also serves an old school and terrific lunch menu. Bari is one of the Italian groceries in the city that has been doing it right for almost 40 years. Anybody who remembers going to "the Italian store" when they were kids will smell, then feel, that memory when they hit the store. The subs come from 9-inch to 3 feet and are perfect. Meatballs are just like grandma made if she came from southern Italy like founders Joe and Grace Pedota did from the town of Bari long ago. The subs are thick with fresh, rich meats and cheeses. Try the Italian with hot capicola, Genoa salami, mortadella and plenty of thin-sliced provolone. Take the drive to the crossroads — and keep going, you never know what you might find.
3267 S. Halsted St., Chicago