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Local Independents Invading Logan Square Area!

It seems like it’s always news when a big chain opens up an outlet in our neighborhood or town. In recent years examples around here (on Chicago’s northwest side) include the Home Despot that opened up at Kimball Avenue and Addison Street (mere miles from another location at Elston Avenue and Logan Boulevard and still another on North Avenue), and the Quiznos that opened (and has since closed) on Milwaukee Avenue just north of the Logan theatre. CVS pharmacies, apparently challenging Chicago-based Walgreen’s, are opening up all over the city.

Is receiving less initial fanfare just part of being a local, independent operation? Is the march of chain stores inevitably going to choke out almost all locally owned, “ma and pa” businesses? Sometimes it’s hard to conclude otherwise. I try to avoid giganto-corp outlets and chain restaurants whenever possible, preferring to support the little guys even if it means spending an extra dollar to do so.

Of course it’s easier for me to do so than it is for many other folks. I live in a varied urban community near several major streets that are home to a vast array of culturally diverse businesses. I can walk up to the Korean Chicago Food Corp on Kimball, in which I don’t even know what half the selections are. I can get a Cuban sandwich, jibarito, or good quality Mexican, Chinese, Thai, or Polish food at a number of places within walking distance, a fact I often take advantage of. Living in Oak Brook, Illinois, or Bumblesticks, Iowa, wouldn’t provide anywhere near such an array of options located so conveniently.

On this note, I would like to review — and highly recommend — three newcomers to the greater Logan Square area. From what I’ve seen, they have received far more attention online than in the major media outlets. They are a coffee shop, a corner pub, and a boutique wine/food shop, all about a year old, and they epitomize the neighborhood spirit that’s hard to come by with larger chains. Can you really get comfortable enough at O’Divey’s Faux Irish Pub to know the staff by name? Since it’s very rare that I go to Starbucks (not to single them out, but they have come to symbolize this trend), I wouldn’t know how many of their employees last long enough to get to know their respective regular customers. But I’ll guess most of these regulars don’t know those store’s owners, whereas visiting any of the following places more than a handful of times almost assures you the chance of meeting the owner(s).

Having split from the original MoJoe’s Café in Roscoe Village, MoJoe’s Hot House opened up on Belmont Avenue about two blocks east of the Kennedy Expressway, one block west of the six corner intersection of California Avenue, Belmont, and Elston. The names of the two establishments are similar, but they essentially have nothing else in common. Barbara Clifford, who was co-owner of MoJoe’s Café, and Mike Foster, who worked there, wanted to open up a new coffee shop independent of the original. Although Barbara and the original MoJoe’s owner were longtime friends, the latter’s personal problems soured (to put it lightly) the working relationship and motivated Barbara and Mike’s quest to open their own place in which to carry on the café/music venue concept. “It was a good lesson about going into business with a friend,” Mike said.

In talking about the location for MoJoe’s Hot House, Mike explained, “We were mainly looking in Avondale and Logan Square, as we lived in the neighborhood already.” The new establishment is far roomier than the original. The first floor features a small stage in the back for musicians (Monday night, for example, showcases jazz). The main floor is fairly fifties in style, with an assortment of chairs, couches, and tables, artwork, old concert posters, and a definite aviation motif on the walls. Bookshelves are lined with titles that one can check out. I borrowed and read Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X this summer. There’s even a basement, although it’s fairly Spartan. The Chicago Underground Library plans to start using it for storage (separate from Mike’s own library upstairs), workshops, and meetings.

The usual lineup of bagels, croissants, scones, and other bakery items is complemented by simple sandwiches and soup (the latter coming from Kuma’s Corner, described below). I’m usually good for a mug of black coffee and a day-old muffin (for a dollar). In the evening I opt for the coco-maté, a dusty-chocolatey brew with a slight hint of licorice originating in South America. I remember the first time they recommended it to me: the first floor was fairly packed and the volume was quite loud due to the fact that a dating show (whose name I didn’t overhear) was being filmed there — so I headed downstairs. A couple of people came and went as I quietly passed a few hours reading Mother Jones and writing while listening to the chaotic shuffling of feet and the same CD being played over and over again for the filming.

After finishing my second cup, I headed up to leave the mug at the counter. The filming crew was taking a break on the stage and most everyone was on the steps watching. “How’d you like the maté?” Mike asked. “Some people say they get a strong effect from it.” I agreed that it was heady (you could say South America’s got a thing for stimulants), and I definitely felt it in my system as I went for a walk along Logan Boulevard on my way home.

About 100 feet west on Belmont is Kuma’s Corner, a new pub in a space that was previously a biker bar. It has a long bar, a dozen tables toward the back, and this summer a patio/beer garden was added outside, shaded by a large elm tree. I had the chance to give Kuma’s its due this past summer during a brief interview I did with Steve Edwards from local NPR program 848.

To call Kuma’s a corner bar with food would be a gross injustice, as the food is creative and well executed and the beer selection very good. The changing menu features an excellent mussel appetizer, make-your-own mac & cheese (which I recently had with Andouille sausage and bacon), steak salad, and the best burger around (complete with a fried egg on top — very good even if it sounds over the top). The fries are served with jardinière-infused ketchup and jalapeño mustard. Kobe beef sliders are another big hit. And although I haven’t had it, friends have told me their steak special is likewise excellent. Needless to say, I recommend getting a bite to eat here sometime; one of the great things about Kuma’s is that the kitchen is open late, even on weekdays.

While a good selection of whiskies (specifically bourbon) lines the shelves behind the bar itself, the eclectic selection of beer is also definitely a focal point, heavily emphasizing Belgian (and Belgian style) and small-craft brews from the Midwest and beyond — 3 Floyds brewery in Munster, Indiana, for example, is well represented with Robert the Bruce (scotch ale) and Alpha King (pale ale) on tap as well as the not-for-the-faint-of-heart Dread Naught IPA available in a 22-ounce bottle. The chaotically creative packaging of these brews fit right in at Kuma’s, but it’s the quality that keeps them in rotation and popular among patrons.

While owner Mike Cain and most of the staff sport their fair share of tattoos and piercings, the clientele here comes from all walks of life. Young, old, blue-collar folks and suits sit side by side with the tattooed customers; white, black, and Hispanic individuals converse cordially. As diverse as Chicago is, you usually don’t encounter such a mix under a single roof the way you do here. And that, to me — along with the well-executed food, hand-crafted beer, and small-batch bourbon — is what makes this a great corner tavern. Ample parking along Belmont is another plus.

Just south of Logan Boulevard on California lies an emerging strip of restaurants a bit off the beaten paths of Milwaukee and Fullerton Avenues in an otherwise largely residential area. Joining the established Buona Terra and Sai Mai restaurants, a new upscale sushi joint opened up late last year, as did Provenance, a boutique food and wine shop. Tracy Kellner had thought about opening something like this for a couple of years and in early 2005, she decided to go for it. “I felt that the neighborhood needed something like this and was puzzled why no one had done it yet,” she said via email. “I served and bartended for close to ten years, but worked in a customer-service related corporate job for seven years before opening Provenance. I learned about food and wine first from working the restaurants, but love to cook, dine out, and entertain, so I did a lot of reading and research on my own over the years.”

There’s a surprising variety of food and cooking items to be found here, in addition to the expected wine accessories, olive oils, chocolates, cheeses, and Red Hen breads. There’s a selection of sea salts, pastas, fresh vegetables, meats (salamis, chorizos, Amy’s sausages), pastas, even milk, eggs, pâtés and other spreads, as well as frozen tuna and salmon filets and Belgian beers (Stella Artois and Unibroue’s Belgian-inspired beers from Quebec spring to mind). At Provenance you could assemble a good spread of food for a small party all in one stop including beer and wine, which is pretty much the idea.

The wine selection likewise covers a lot of ground, with selections hailing from South Africa, California, Oregon, Australia, Austria, and Germany. Of course Spain, Italy, and France are also well represented. Sparkling wines, as well as port and sherry, are available. There are no “grocery store” wines (think Yellow Tail or Kendall Jackson) to be had, but a bargain table of $10-and-under bottles offers better value, even if the labels might be unfamiliar. The rest of the wines range mostly from $10 to $30 and are naturally food friendly. A variety of gift baskets are available for the holidays, and can be shipped as well.

Provenance’s website lists upcoming events, ranging from casual free weekly wine tastings on Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. to more focused and more formal tastings. A December tasting highlights wines to take along to area BYOB restaurants Treat, Bon Soiree, and Think Café. Another event will feature Unibroue’s beers being poured by a brewery representative along with cheeses complementary to their unabashed ales.

“I really like the collaborative process, and if my business is successful, other area businesses are successful,” Tracy conveyed via email. “Word of mouth is a great tool — I send people over to places like Fleur, No Friction, Stellaria, Buona Terra, Fonda del Mar, Hachi’s, Bon Soiree, Hot Spot, and Treat all the time, and I know other business owners do the same. It’s particularly important for me to talk up the various BYOB restaurants in the neighborhood, for obvious reasons.” While some of these places aren’t BYOB (Buona Terra and Hachi’s, for example), they are in Provenance’s immediate neighborhood.

Whatever you might think of the demographic changes taking place in Logan Square, the addition of these three establishments is definitely a good thing for those who make the effort to visit them.

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