In the heart of Chicago, hardy food full of comfort

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CHICAGO — On a recent visit to help my son settle into his apartment off Lake Shore Drive, I opened the fridge to look for something for breakfast. Skunked!
On his way out the door to register for classes, he said, “Mom, try Valois on 53d Street . They have the best breakfasts, it’s a friendly place, and cheap. Just don’t worry about the nutrition thing.”
Caffeine deprived, I whined, “How am I going to find it?”
“Just look for the sign that says, ‘See your food.’ “
Creeping along in a jumbo jet of a rented car, I turned onto a main shopping drag, and just a block later, there it was, Valois Cafeteria See Your Food.

It was warm and bright inside. The smell of coffee was almost as satisfying as a sip. Setting down my coat before I joined the line of hungry patrons, I glanced at the plate of the man sitting at the next table. Was that mashed potatoes, gravy, and scrambled eggs? He noticed me peering at his plate.
I just had to ask, “Excuse me, sir, are those mashed potatoes and gravy on your plate?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s exactly right,” he answered in a broad Chicago accent.
“Is that a specialty in Chicago?” I asked.
“Not particularly — but you can get it anytime you want here. Would you like to join me for breakfast,” he said with a smile.
And with that I spent the next hour sharing a meal, talking about family, politics, sports, and, of course, food with John Casillas, a major in the Army Reserve. Casillas, 47, has been coming to Valois (vuh-loyz) for breakfast “almost every day since 1988.” That is, when he isn’t deployed to Korea, Kuwait, or Iraq.

Sitting down with people you don’t know is a tradition at Valois.
The range of outfits in the line of customers included teens in hip-hop gear, professors in tweed, city workers in overalls, and women in fur coats. Everyone dines here. According to Bill Bogris, who works here with his uncle Gus Sellis and co-owner Spiro Argiris, more than 80 percent of the customers are regulars and some eat multiple meals here each day.

There is nothing American about the village of Ahladokambos in Greece, where Sellis and Argiris are from, and nothing Greek about the menu at Valois. But adorning some of the walls are murals of Greece alongside famous places here in Hyde Park .

This is down-home American cooking with heavy Southern touches. For breakfast, there are grits and gravy, eggs every which way, huge raised biscuits, and pancakes the size of the 10-inch plate (three to a serving). You can choose sides from pork patties, links, or bacon — some customers choose all three. “This is the food your mom made on the weekends for breakfast — only we have it every day,” said Bogris.
The lunch and dinner menu could be a page out of the classic Fanny Farmer cookbook: stews, pot pies, meat loaf — all comfort food, all the time. “See Your Food” is exactly what you do at this 86-year-old restaurant. The line cooks perform like athletes. The sound of spatula scraping the griddle is a constant. The place is clean; the food is real and real cheap.

My scrambled eggs, grits, links, coffee, and biscuits cost $5.23. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, and broccoli to go cost $5.75. The beef is rare and sliced just before you eat. I asked Bogris how they can serve this food at these prices. “You give people good food at reasonable prices they are going to come back,” he said.
A similar dining institution is Carson’s Ribs, a famous barbecue restaurant downtown . This is a large place with high ceilings. The walls are covered with photographs of local and national celebrities who come to dine. There is usually a long line and just so you won’t die of hunger , there is a big sideboard with baskets of rye breads, crackers, and an enormous mound of chopped liver. There was no line on this evening, but I swiped a smear anyway. It tasted like the real deal.

I was urged to go for the sampler: ribs, pork, and chicken. Everything was moist, delicious, and had been smoked on the premises. There must have been 300 grams of protein on my plate, which was not tarnished with anything green. The meat comes with a side of Carson’s famous cole slaw, which is treated like a salad. A waiter offers ground pepper .

The potato offerings are numerous: au gratin, baked, double baked, skins, french fries, french fried sweet potatoes, or a vegetable. The baked potato was so big it made me wonder about the fertilizer. For good measure we got a side of the fried sweet potatoes, which have a light seasoning of sugar and cinnamon. They were unique, crispy, and delicious.

Next to us was a table of men laughing, gnawing ribs, and licking the sauce from their fingers. This is not a delicate dining experience. There was a young Japanese woman, with her shopping bags and guide book , sitting alone. She was making her way through her plate of food in a most decorous manner with a fork and knife — but she might have been the only one in the place doing so . A group of girlfriends came in, sat down , and immediately began singing and slap-clapping a rhythmic version of “Happy Birthday.”
My advice: Do not go to these places with a card-carrying member of the nutrition police. You want to enjoy your demise. Give in, then get out your sneakers, and walk it off.

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