By Michael Nagrant
Like Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna’s late-nineties riot grrl group, Painted Lady Organic Eatery is fierce, provocative, political and touched with a bit of girly girl pink. Though if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys blood-spattered shots of Chicago roller-derby chicks (photos of which adorn almost every flat surface here), then you might not dig this spot.
Then again, this organic cafe/restaurant from the Bleeding Heart Bakery folks, Michelle and Velentin Garcia, doesn’t need you. Ukie Village’s confederacy of hoodied hipsters, hand-holding girlfriends and sleeve-tattooed citizens will keep this place in business for at least two Johnny Cash lifetimes.
You need it, though.
In these dark times of restaurant openings filled with ubiquitous walnut wainscoting, plush micro-suede-backed chairs, custom chandeliers and forty-dollar-plus entrees, the personality, price point and quality of food served at Painted Lady is a punk-rock present. It’s a kick in the teeth and a shot to the heart of the cabal of Egyptian-cotton-clad high-minded chefs and Zegna-wrapped money-grubbing restaurateurs wronging this city’s dining denizens.
Clad with aforementioned bloody photographs, paintings of muscular arrow-pierced hearts, teal green racing stripes and a white tin ceiling that hangs over wood-bench-seating and mid-century-era chrome and formica dining tables, the interior is just plain fun. Like a barber shop or the best cafes, it’s a clean, well-lit spot, a welcoming informal community gathering place where the incessant buzz and warm glow from an orange neon “Tattooing” sign subs in for your standard-issue fireplace.
Serving it up to staid antecedents like the Chicago Diner, Painted Lady’s organic, local and sustainably focused menu doesn’t pass judgment. There’s room for everybody, from your garden-variety vegan to your protein-coveting meathead.
Mac and Cheese, a capacious ceramic bowl filled with creamy tender-shell pasta and laden with a goat-cheese roof dotted with caramelized specks of crunchy goodness from the broiler reconfigures your childhood memories of the blue-boxed version from Kraft.
Given an absent mind and an empty stomach, svelte wedges of deep-fried sweet potato—accompanied by slightly fiery BBQ dipping sauce studded with tangy and sweet whole cranberries—disappear in seconds. Grass-fed meatloaf with a moist, beefy interior and a glistening, crunchy caramelized exterior topped with a tangy, chunky mountain of tomato chutney banishes the rumble once caused by your mother’s arid gut-bomb mistakes.
The pebbly, chewy, oven-roasted flatbread with smoky streaks of oven char is better than what you find at most full-time pizzerias. While there are a ton of topping combinations to choose from, the undecided will love the freegan-friendly “Dumpster Diver,” which is topped with all manner of toppings or as the menu says, “If we got it, it’s on it.”
My favorite was the version topped with sweet, jammy, caramelized red onion, translucent crunchy flecks of bacon and a garlic cream sauce whose savory salty pungency and richness counter-intuitively cut through and staved off the potential heaviness from generous hunks of melted goat cheese.
No matter how much you eat, whimsical menu item names like “Trailer Park Cassolet” and “The Ultimate Kung Fu” salad and the “Leaning Tower” caprese salad make you pine for the stuff you didn’t have room for.
The service, which for some might be a showstopper, is DIY, from grab-your-own silverware to placing your order at the counter. On other hand, since the restaurant doesn’t have to employ a full-service wait staff, it’s a good bet that menu prices, which average a wallet-friendly ten dollars, will stay that way.
Forced to order at the counter, you’ll be glad you got a close look at the wood-trimmed glass case full of shiny chocolate cake, gooey vegan raspberry crumble bars and chocolate- and sugar-lacquered croissants.
As for me, full off a round of stomaching sating savory eats, I grabbed a dark chocolate-and-raspberry-filled brioche to go. It didn’t last the ride home. Minutes after leaving the restaurant and after a few greedy bites of the pliant dough, it struck me, with a little bit of heat, the brioche might be the perfect accompaniment to a plate filled with seared fat lobes of foie gras. Now, that would be totally punk rock.
Painted Lady Organic Eatery, 2018 West Chicago, (773)327-6931.