We've had an unusually early and warm spring in the Midwest so far this year. When the weather gets like this following the doldrums of winter, I often get the urge to explore areas of the city that are normally away from my typical routes, especially if there are hidden food gems to discover. It was one of these urges and some unexpected free time on a sunny Thursday morning recently that led me to the Roseland neighborhood of the city to find some allegedly-superior donuts, vouched for by no less of an authority than Uberchef Grant Achatz, who last year declared the apple fritters at Old Fashioned Donuts (11248 S. Michigan Ave.) the best he'd ever eaten. Other than a stray Internet post here or there, OFD seems to be operating largely under the local foodie radar - I suspect this is mostly due to its location. Now, I was vaguely aware that Roseland had a reputation for being one of the more downtrodden areas of town, but, being a Northsider by birth, that was about the extent of my prior knowledge. Both my wife and my mother-in-law gave me the same reaction when I told them I had gone there to get donuts, which was "you did NOT go to Roseland, did you? That's the most dangerous neighborhood in the city!". As it turns out, they weren't entirely correct - according to relevant crime statistics, it's actually only the 2nd most dangerous neighborhood (behind Englewood). Had I known this ahead of time, I might have reconsidered my options, but it's probably for the best that I forged ahead in pure ignorance.
Anyway, this was my state of mind as I exited I-57 and headed eastbound on 111th Street towards the golden fried prizes of my destination. At first, everything appeared to be fine - there were lots of small, tidy houses, some a little rough around the edges, but nothing much of note. When I turned the corner to go south on Michigan, however, I had the sudden impression that I'd been transported to the Bronx. Although many of the historic old buildings on this strip (which was once the main commercial hub) have survived, most seemed like they had seen their heyday around 1950 (indeed, the neighborhood was at one point a vibrant part of the city). A number of shady-looking characters milled about on the sidewalks, hanging out in front of what were now discount clothing shops and mini-marts. It was in one of these worn historic buildings (possibly part of Gately's Peoples Store, an old department store that my mother-in-law told me they frequently visited when she was younger) that I found OFD, in a simple, undecorated, whitewashed room with a few tables, sharing space with a hamburger stand. As far as the patrons that were present, I was clearly in the racial minority, but no one seemed to pay much notice, and I got in line to place my order. I knew I had to get an apple fritter, which were only about $2.80 a piece, and I also opted for a half-dozen donuts: 3 glazed, 2 chocolate, and 1 orange-frosted. All told, I spent less than $10 and left with 2 large bags of goodies and enough spare change to pacify the panhandler that approached me as I returned outside.
I was still planning to have lunch (it was around 11:30), so I only sneaked a couple of bites in the car to see how everything tasted while they were still warm out of the fryer. First up was the glazed donut. Wow! All it took was one piece for me to recognize that this was not your average bakery item. The dough was yeasty, fresh, and sweet, with the perfect amount of glaze and a little bit of grease soaked in like a sponge. The chocolate donut wasn't bad (I still prefer Zettlmeier's in Tinley) and I'd definitely recommend the orange-frosted variety, but the apple fritter was pure, off-the-charts blisstonia.
You can see it in the photo above. For one thing, it's HUGE - almost the size of a dinner plate. In spite of its state fair size, all of the elements contained within combined to create an almost transcendental eating experience: the tart apple, the crunchy pecans, the rich glaze, the browned and crisped dough. There was no doubt in my mind that this fritter-to-end-all-fritters was worth not only the death-inducing calories, but also the drive to unsavory locales. Should word get out to the foodie population at large about OFD's offerings, there may well be an economic Renaissance yet in Roseland.
The second part of my voyage took me to a nearby neighborhood with a slightly better reputation, the more-industrial South Deering just a mile or two further east (see photo above). It was here that I'd find Hienie's Shrimp House (10359 S. Torrance Ave.), an old fried chicken, fried shrimp, and pizza joint recently chronicled in the Chicago Tribune by food writer Kevin Pang. The focus of the article was the well-known hot sauce that Hienie's serves with its fried food and chicken wings. Apparently, most people who frequent the place simply refer to it as "Hienie's hot sauce", even though they don't actually make it there (that distinction belongs to a bulk foods producer). The sauce comes in two varieties (hot and mild), has a sharp mustard flavor not commonly encountered with other hot sauces, and arrives with your order glowing an unnatural shade of reddish-orange that didn't carry over well to my photograph below.
I opted for the mild sauce to accompany my entrees, which were a fried chicken breast, fried shrimp, and fried perch. Fries came with both the chicken and the seafood (yes, I could have lived with one set of fries), plus a cup of not-bad cole slaw and a nearly inedible roll that I tossed aside after a desultory nibble. I spend the next 15 minutes enjoying the majority of my food while watching a parade of mostly blue-collar workers (garbage men, police officers, transit employees, construction workers in fluorescent vests, etc.) come in to get their fix. I have to say that I liked the shrimp best, much better than what I got last October at Goose Island Shrimp, for example - it was nicely breaded, not greasy, and went well with the mild sauce. I also would get the fried chicken again, although I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim it the best in town as some other people have. The perch and fries were both so-so, improved by the addition of the zingy sauce. Speaking of the sauce, I wouldn't mind having a little back at the Commissary; however, it's somewhat difficult to find. The manufacturer doesn't appear to sell it to retail outlets and Hienie's gets it by the industrial gallon jug (which I believe they'll let you buy in a pinch). At some point, I plan on visiting the other Hienie's location (it happens to be in nearby Orland Park) to see if I can purchase less than a jug; if so, come by and I'll share some with you...