Chicago is well known for its diversity, with neighborhoods representing cultures from around the world. This multiculturalism has led to a vibrant and varied food scene, with restaurants offering everything from Italian beef to Mexican tacos to Vietnamese pho. However, one type of cuisine that is distinctly Chicagoan is soul food. With roots tracing back to the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans moved northward, soul food is an important part of the city’s culinary heritage.
What Makes Soul Food Unique
Soul food originated in the American South, created by enslaved Africans out of the ingredients available to them. It is considered a form of “make-do” cuisine, utilizing inexpensive and shelf-stable foods like beans, rice, and greens. But soul food is also lovingly prepared with techniques like frying, braising, and stewing that transform simple ingredients into comforting, flavorful dishes.
Some hallmarks of soul food cooking include:
- Meats: Fried chicken, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig intestines), and fatty cuts like pork belly, neckbones, or oxtails slow-cooked into tender perfection.
- Sides: Macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, yams/sweet potatoes, cornbread, candied yams, fried okra, and rice and beans.
- Breads: Skillet and deep-fried cornbreads, biscuits, hoecakes (fried pancakes).
- Desserts: Pies like sweet potato, pecan, peach cobbler, banana pudding.
- Sauces/Seasonings: Hot sauce, meat drippings, lard, and bacon fat are used for flavoring along with seasonings like garlic, onions, salt, and pepper.
While often associated with “Southern” food, soul food is truly African-American heritage cuisine that also evolved as it traveled north and west during the Great Migration. Cities like Chicago put their unique spin on soul food traditions based on local culture and ingredients.
The Best Spots for Authentic Soul Food in Chicago
Many restaurants in Chicago offer soul food or “Southern cuisine.” However, not all of them provide authentic, homestyle versions made with care and the right techniques. Here are some of the top spots to visit when you’re craving true-to-its-roots soul food in Chicago:
1. Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop
Located in the Bucktown neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop has maintained a strong following since first opening in 1987. Chef and owner Orion Briney hails from Georgia and serves heirloom recipes passed down through generations. This is the place to get classic Southern delicacies like fried catfish, shrimp and grits, juicy fried chicken, and banana pudding. Don’t miss the fluffy biscuits that come with entrées – perfect for sopping up the rich sawmill gravy.
2. Pearl’s Southern Comfort
Pearl’s is located on the West Side and infuses soul food staples with a Louisiana influence. Some standouts include the mouthwatering fried chicken wings coated in a spicy and tangy sauce, crawfish étouffée, and homemade beignets that will transport you straight to NOLA. Owner and cook Pearlie Hall aims to make everyone who walks in the door feel like family.
3. Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant
For an authentic meat-free soul food experience, check out Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant. This completely plant-based eatery on the South Side has been run by the same family since 1982. Menu highlights include oxtail-flavored seitan, slow-cooked collard greens, mac and yeast (vegan mac and cheese), yams, peach cobbler, and fresh-squeezed juices. Despite the lack of meat, all the flavors and soul are still there.
4. Batter & Berries
Batter & Berries in Lincoln Park puts a creative spin on classic dishes like chicken and waffles – opting for a fluffy Belgian waffle with fried chicken on top. Other options include shrimp po’boys, cheddar jalapeno grits, and stuffed French toast made with cinnamon swirl bread. Weekend brunch has live music and specialty cocktails like mimosas and Bloody Marys. With its modern ambiance, Batter & Berries attracts a trendy crowd looking for a unique soul food experience.
5. Luella’s Southern Kitchen
Fried chicken is king at Luella’s Southern Kitchen, which has locations in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park. Expect juicy, crispy fried chicken available in quarters, sandwiches, tenders, on top of waffles – you name it. Other menu favorites include jambalaya pasta, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes. Hush puppies, cornbread, mac and cheese, and collard greens complete the hearty meals. Chef Darnell Reed pulls from family recipes and regional specialties to create a scratch-made soul food menu.
The History of Soul Food in Chicago
To fully appreciate Chicago’s best soul food eateries, it helps to understand the cultural history that shaped them.
Like many African Americans, soul food has its origins in the slave-holding South. Plantation kitchens relied on ingredients like pork and corn, which enslaved people used to create filling, flavorful meals. Soul food staples like fried chicken, yams, corn ponies, and collard greens can be traced back to the harsh conditions of slavery.
During the Great Migration in the early 1900s, millions of African Americans escaped the racist South and found new opportunities, culture, and freedoms in northern cities like Chicago. Migrants brought their beloved soul food recipes to Chicago neighborhoods like Bronzeville on the South Side.
Soul food became a cherished connection to Southern heritage and family for African Americans building new lives in Chicago. For decades, home cooks and restaurants serving authentic soul food thrived, especially on the South Side.
In the 1960s and 70s, soul food became popular nationwide during the Black Power Movement as African Americans reclaimed their culture. Chicago soul food icons like Gladys’ Luncheonette rose to fame during this time.
More recently, soul food has received renewed interest from foodies and celebrated chefs for its rich flavors and historical importance. Chicago’s soul food scene continues to evolve with innovative restaurants putting modern spins on heirloom recipes while staying true to cherished food traditions.
Why Soul Food Remains Relevant in Chicago
Beyond just being a cuisine, soul food represents resilience, family, and holding onto heritage for the African-American community in Chicago.
While new waves of immigration diversify neighborhoods, soul food is still a culinary thread tying back to the early days of the Great Migration. For longtime residents and transplant Southern families alike, dishes like fried chicken and sweet potato pie evoke memories of childhood or connections to relatives down South.
In a time when systemic racism continues to oppress Black lives, soul food offers joy, comfort, and a sense of community. Supporting local soul food businesses means nurturing African-American culture and traditions.
Soul food also provides a tangible way for Chicagoans of all ethnicities to celebrate Black history and honor the ingenuity of enslaved cooks who birthed this cuisine. Appreciating soul food helps recognize African-American contributions to America’s culinary story.
From Bronzeville to Bucktown, North Lawndale to Wicker Park, soul food continues to nourish Chicago in more ways than one. Its deep roots in the city help mark the struggles of the past while providing sustenance for the future.
FAQs about Soul Food in Chicago
What is Chicago soul food?
Chicago soul food reflects the migration of African Americans from the South to the city in the early 1900s. It involves hearty dishes like fried chicken, baked mac and cheese, yams, collard greens, cornbread, and peach cobbler. Chicago soul food puts a unique spin on Southern classics based on local culture and ingredients.
Where can I find the best soul food in Chicago?
Longstanding favorites include Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, Pearl’s Place, and Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant. Trendy new spots like Batter & Berries and Luella’s Southern Kitchen also serve creative soul food fare. The South Side is the historic heart of soul food in Chicago.
Does Chicago have well-known soul food chefs?
Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Soul Food was a pioneer of Chicago soul food from the 60s through the 90s. Other icons include Gladys’ Luncheonette, Izola’s, and Edna’s. Today’s soul food chefs like Darnell Reed, Orion Briney, and Thelma Waynos carry on traditions.
What is a typical soul food dinner in Chicago?
Expect a main like fried chicken or smothered pork chops, and sides like mac and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. Finish with banana pudding or peach cobbler for dessert. Big pitchers of sweet tea are also standard at Chicago soul food joints.
Is Chicago soul food spicy?
Some Chicago soul food has Southern/Louisiana influences and can pack some heat. But much of it focuses on soulful, savory flavors. Hot sauce is always on hand to amp up the spice level to your tastes.
Is there vegetarian/vegan soul food in Chicago?
Yes, Chicago has award-winning vegan soul food at Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant. More omni restaurants are offering meatless soul items like jackfruit BBQ and oxtail seitan too. Soul food’s roots in making flavorful dishes from humble ingredients make it adaptable to plant-based diets.
Soul food will always have an essential place at the table in Chicago. Beyond just being filling comfort fare, it tells a story of culture, resilience, and heritage for the city’s African-American community. From longstanding bastions of authentic cuisine on the South Side to modern interpretations around town, soul food continues to nurture Chicagoans from all walks of life. To truly experience Chicago’s diverse culinary scene, savor the flavors of the city’s treasured soul food. Let the rich smothered meats, flaky biscuits, and sweet desserts transport you to a seminal era of the Great Migration when migrants brought the warming tastes of the South to Chicago. Soul food offers a sensory reminder to honor the struggles of the past and the leaders who paved the way for future generations.