Coobah (Chicago, IL)
As a current Chicago transplant, I’m inundated with constant chatter and hype over what the latest and greatest hot spots are around the city. The suggestion that this metropolis booms with fabulous food is indisputable… but I’m willing to argue that the best food is served in restaurants that don’t necessarily boast celebrity chefs, $$$$ on Yelp, or “Asian fusion” or “upscale American” cuisine descriptions (sorry, Sunda, Japonais, Hub 51, Sixteen and the rest of the River North gang). Finding the inconspicuous eats isn’t tough, but it certainly requires venturing outside of the travel-worn downtown…
Southport Corridor is my absolute favorite neighborhood in the city. It lacks the pretentiousness of River North, the too-trendy-for-their-own-good auras of Wicker Park and Bucktown, the homicide rates of Englewood, and the frattiness of Wrigleyville, while drawing upon all of the good qualities of each (okay, minus Englewood..) to form something that is uniquely down-to-earth and family-friendly yet teeming with high-quality restaurants and shops.
Enter: Coobah, a quaint eatery sandwiched between a darling, old-fashioned candy shop and Noodles and Co. Hi, my name is Kailley, and I’m a candyaholic. As such, I typically have to put on blinders and an invisible straight jacket to restrain myself from COWABUNGA DUDE!-ing my way into the candy store like a sugar-fiending ninja turtle. My advice: just take a meditative moment to breathe deep and tell your sweet tooth and your carb-lovin’ tastebuds to calm the eff down; they are about to be satisfied in ways a lollipop and buttered noodles simply couldn’t provide.
In the summertime, Coobah’s exterior flourishes with fresh plants and fresh faces dining al fresco. The music and the energy drip out past the patio, pooling and swirling throughout the street. It is perfect.
Inside, Coobah is decidedly eclectic, much like its fare. Paddle fans à la Singapore’s Raffles Hotel crown the bar area, hinting at a modest Southeast Asian influence. Large screens on either side of the bar play an endless loop of ethereal jelly-fish footage. The first time I visited, I found this a bit odd; after several subsequent visits, I’ve come to find the imagery remarkably calming (thus validating the restaurant owner’s evident psychology behind the decision to incorporate them into the ambience). The lighting is dim but warm, and makes for a casually romantic vibe.
While all of Coobah’s food (I’ve tried most of it, but as a creature of habit, I tend to order my favorites ad nauseum) is excellent, there are a few stand-outs worth mentioning:
The guacamole. This guac is made in-house and packs a punch of flavors, the most distinct of which include notes of lime and onion and cilantro. I’ve made guacamole many times before, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how Coobah manages to manipulate their recipe so that you can taste all of the ingredients in every chip-full you chow on. Oh, and the CHIPS… perfectly salted and with a hint of lime, served hot out of the deep-fryer. $6.oo
Chicken negra modelo. This can be found on the “large plates” section of the menu, though the printed description does little lip service to the plate’s intricacies. Coobah scores major points for leaving the skin on their chicken breasts– something many restaurants (and home cooks) fail to do, thus robbing their chickies of rich, juicy flavor. An herb blend was clearly rubbed into the skin before the brining process, allowing the skin to caramelize slightly for an added depth of flavor and texture. The chicken breasts sit atop a generous helping of chilaquiles that bring some heat and smokiness to the plate. Chilaquiles are a traditional Mexican dish in which flour tortillas are cut into thin strips, fried, mixed with salsa and mole, left to simmer until the tortillas soften, and finally finished with cheese (I explain this only because I had no clue what they were when I was first served them). There’s a reason that clichés like “the icing on the cake” and “the gravy on top” exist: a great topping can truly pull a dish together to transform it from “good” to “exquisite.” The dark lager and sweet mustard glaze drizzled over this chicken plate does just that. $19.00
Pina colada bread pudding. Lightly spiced and with a hint of rum, this dessert transports you to a beach-side bar in Puerto Rico. The best part of all? That irresistible hot-meets-cold pairing with a giant scoop of coconut ice cream. If you’re one of those “let’s split dessert” types, be prepared to fight off the other contender Gladiator-style, because you’re not going to want to miss a single bite. $7.00
Honorable mentions: the scallops, the empanadas, and the mojitos.