Those who are new to Northwestern and, presumably, to Evanston, may find themselves overwhelmed with the dining options around town. After a few months of sampling the many fast-casual chain restaurants and upscale farm-to-table options, it’s easy to become disillusioned with the so-called “dining capital of the North Shore.” Bistro Bordeaux and Thai Sookdee are among a long list of beloved restaurants that have closed in the past few years. But if you manage to venture beyond the often bougie and increasingly ephemeral Evanston food scene, you can still find a few savory gems.
Al’s Deli: Cream of Tomato Soup
My Saturday morning routine is as follows: roll out of bed, cobble together a casual outfit that can withstand the unpredictable natural elements of Evanston and head up to Rue Noyes, as the owners of Al’s Deli like to call it. Bob and John Pottinger, the sons of the eponymous Al, can be found slicing deli meats and taking orders at the venerated local institution. The small delicatessen is usually busy on Saturdays, packed with Evanstonians and Northwestern students alike. Pictures of Paris and impressionist paintings line the walls, homemade caramel macarons and rounds of brie sit behind the glass display and the swelling sound of opera fills the room. Some might call it Francophile-kitsch, but these guys aren’t playing around when it comes to their authentic French fare. Al’s Deli is typically lauded for its delicate, impossibly stuffed sandwiches, but I implore you to opt for its deeply satisfying cream of tomato soup.
Al’s cream of tomato soup is a revelation. Pale orange in color and speckled with pepper, the cup of soup fully embraces its hefty cream to tomato ratio. But hey, no one said French cuisine was easy on the arteries. The deep layers of flavor come in waves. Sweetness is the first note that hits the tongue, a trace of the dish’s floral foundation of onions, garlic and herbs. Soon after, the palate detects a resounding richness. Finally, cutting through some of the cream, a fresh hint of acidity from the tomatoes emerges. This satiny soup is served with a pack of Nabisco crackers, but it’s best consumed unadulterated. For $3, you can enjoy a dish that is more than the sum of its simple parts, a warm and comforting cup of soup that blows its Campbell’s counterpart out of the water.
Hecky’s Barbecue: Mac and Cheese
I was in Plex West the first time I tried Hecky’s. The 30-year-old barbecue joint catered a special lunch in Foster-Walker East dining hall, and I was eager to feast on something that wasn’t overcooked or severely underseasoned. Hecky Powell, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Cheryl, greeted students and handed out bottles of his signature barbecue sauce. When I reached the front of the spiraling line, the first thing I noticed was a giant mound of mac and cheese. Ravenous, I scooped the golden yellow pasta onto my plate. On first bite, I was hit with the most concentrated flavor of cheesiness. It’s not the taste of cheddar powder or cheddar shavings, but just cheddar, the essence of cheddar, cheddar in its pure cheddarness.
Admittedly, the texture is not for everyone. The sauce isn’t silky like Velveeta or thin and soupy like Kraft. In fact, it’s hard to qualify it as a sauce at all. The dish is really a perfect amalgam of cheese and pasta, a mushy mound of soft and crunchy macaroni bits stuck to each other through a glue of thick cheese. It’s the gradient of consistencies among pieces of pasta that makes it unique. What elevates Hecky’s iteration of the American classic is the subtle smokiness present in every bite. I have often wondered how Hecky’s achieves this feat of flavor, so I decided to investigate by paying a trip to the restaurant, which is a short walk west of campus on the corner of Emerson Street and Green Bay Road. Walking through the doors, I was immediately entranced with the earthy smell of meat cooking ever so slowly. Perhaps this is the aroma that infuses the mac and cheese, or perhaps there is some secret ingredient that gives the dish its subtle smoky sweetness. The world may never know. What is for certain is that the people at Hecky’s make a mean mac and cheese.
Celtic Knot: Chips with Curry Sauce
Whether I’m feeling good on a Saturday night or I’m cold, tired and bleary-eyed on a Tuesday, I want to go to the place where everybody knows my name. No one knows my name at the Celtic Knot, Evanston’s premier pub, but based on my chip consumption, they will one day.
The Knot has been independently owned and operated for over a decade. It has live music and afternoon tea and storytelling nights and a great selection of standard pub grub. But if there’s one thing that keeps me coming back, it’s their chips with curry sauce. Yeah mate, it’s chips not fries. One could opt for the hearty gravy sauce to accompany the thick-cut, fried potatoes; nearly anything would taste good atop the crispy exterior of the Knot’s chips, which are seasoned with flaky sea salt and reveal a fluffy interior upon first bite. The curry sauce, however, is the true gold standard of chip accompaniments. It’s light russet in color and almost soupy in texture, coating each golden brown chip in a savory sheen. The sauce is both peppery and sweet. I detected a hint of nutmeg, which adds a unique depth of flavor to the curry powder-based condiment.
The starters portion of chips and curry sauce is enough to feed a hungry group, but it’s so good you’ll probably want the basket to yourself. Indulgent? Maybe. Self-care? Definitely.