-Grubbing in Chicago
Where the locals eat and drink.
Get your drinking faces on and while your at it work up some major munchies because were headed to a classic Chicago neighborhood bar that takes both its drinking and eating very seriously. In fact its the last of that type on the stretch of Southport that goes from Addison down to Irving and is filled with commercialized, corrupted scenes of spots where there are more Blue Moon's and Martinis drunken than Guinness' and shots of Jameson consumed. Where you'll find more sushi and salads than chicken wings and burgers. Like the rest of the city, the business district of Southport has a whole bunch of trendy bars, boutiques and hair salons. Not much going on in these parts for the All American male, unless you like to go to see play's, but then I guess your not really an All American male who loves good regional food like Po' Boy's and BBQ and prefers to eat them with classic American microbrews while watching some football or taking in the scene on Southport on a hot summers day. I keed, I keed. Which brings us to the last of a dying breed and one of my favorite Chicago neighborhood bars.
The best bar in Lakeview
Toon's has been around since 1989 but the corner of Southport and Byron has been home to a bar since the neighborhood was heavily populated with Germans back in the day. I guess from the story's I've been told was that Doninger's Tavern was a low key place with quite a few local "drinkers" that had only one bartender who was quite a character himself. So then when Doninger's was no more, it was bought by a longtime friend of mines dad who turned it into Toon's. The name came from the cartoons that were once painted on the outside wall of different bar paraphernalia like beer mugs and cocktail glasses and I always loved driving by it as a kid. As time went on the bar was eventually sold by my friends dad to one of his longtime employees who worked at his other bars and he pretty much kept it the same. Which was the way to go. The current staff here is super freindly and ready to make sure your first visit makes you a regular.
Toon's has two rooms and has always had a real shuffle board
Danny Beck is from Kansas City and along with his partner Dene Lencioni they are the current owners of Toon's Bar & Grill. When you hear his story or at least when I did, I thought damn dudes done it up bigger and badder than Bourdain. Over the years he has lived a life most people would only day dream of while sitting inside your cubicle. Danny went to college at KU in Lawrence so the fun started in his early 20's attending a great university in a really live college town. What was that? You bet it is-Toon's is a KU bar and you can catch all Kansas Jayhawk basketball games there and there's not a better spot to do so. Toon's will be rocking come March when the conference tournaments start and then after them when people start dancing to the madness. Do I think KU will win it all? no comment.
Watch all KU games at Toon's while you eat and drink like champs
It was after his days at KU that Danny decided to live up life the right way. Screw getting a real job and working 9-5 and never being able to rise up from where you started. Danny took his ass to the Caribbean where he lived and worked in St. Thomas for a couple years before relocating to Florida. He spent his time in both spots working in the restaurant/bar game and then after a few years decided to make his way to Chicago. Danny then settled in working at both Toon's and Nick's Beer Garden, which is also where his partner worked. Danny also attended classes at Kendall college learning the tricks and trades of the culinary world. After making a name for himself he was then given a job to be in charge of Planet Hollywood Chicago and then moved to Las Vegas to run the PH there. After Vegas it was a stop in Nashville and then back to Chicago to run the House of Blues and eventually he would buy Toon's with his partner Dene and settle down with his family here in the Windy City. It was his goal to have a neighborhood place with a nice selection of good beer on tap and also a place where to go with that good brew, you can get some great grub. Toon's has 15 beer's on tap.
Great Lakes Xmas Ale on Tap during the Holiday Season
But what about the food? It's amazing how much good eats come out of that small ass kitchen. The kitchen over there is smaller than most little brats from the Northshore's closet space. I'm talking maybe 10 by 10 feet at most so they got some grill space and a fryer and some room to prep what needs to be done and it leaves very little room to move. Danny is a student of food and loves it like me. During his time at HoB and while in the south he developed a love for New Orleans style food and all things Cajun. So part of the menu is influenced by this cuisine like the fact that since late January up thru Fat Tuesday the specials board has featured different gumbos in celebration of the upcoming Mardi Gras season. You would never expect it by just looking at the bar from outside but inside they serve one of if not the best bowls of gumbo in the city.
Toon's usually has Gumbo on the specials board
"No shorts cuts" should be the motto over there and the Gumbo is an example of why. It's not easy to make a real deal batch of goodness and it takes time and passion. Its also one of those foods much like BBQ and chili that can cause a war of whats real, whats not and how its supposed to be or or how its not. Well your going to get a gumbo with a broth deep in flavor along with whatever is in it on the day you visit. I've enjoyed a chicken version and a shrimp, sausage and crawfish one as well. You cant ask for anything better on a cold winters day watching the snow fall away with an Abita at your side. Its smokey, rich and full of flavor.
Its not just a NOLA themed menu there's also all the classics of good American bar food. One of the more interesting things to try is their chili. I usually don't like it from most spots in Chicago and wouldn't expect a bar on the northside to do anything close to good but Toon's once again proves why you don't judge a book by its cover. I never would of thought of it but they use crumbled Italian sausage as their base meat in the chili and its served with the must haves of cheese, sour cream and chopped onions and with a side of tortilla chips. The onion rings are about the only thing they don't do from scratch and its easy to understand why when you see the space they would have to toss and coat onion rings all day. Nonetheless they still have an excellent beer battered brand that you must eat with the housemade BBQ sauce.
Toon's Chili...gets my approval
Beer Battered Onion Rings go great with the house BBQ sauce
I'm always having trouble deciding what to order when I'm over at Toon's but one thing I usually just cant pass up are the real deal New Orleans style cheese fries. Just like the ones you'll find at the bars in New Orleans being chowed down by hammered patrons in them. In New Orleans cheese fries are done by loading a blend of shredded cheeses on top of a mound of fries, they are then placed under a broiler and melted down into one of the best drunken eats of our great states. I've been to NOLA and I don't remember the cheese fries at F&M being nearly as good as the ones at Toon's. One way to tell if a places takes its food seriously is the use of fresh cut fries. I wouldn't hesitate to call Toon's spuds the best bar fries in Chicagoland and their cheese fries the best in Chicago. If you like chili cheese fries, you gotta get them at Toon's. Other apps I have to have are the pulled pork quesadillas and the fried shrimp on a bed of those fries. Hell even the pickles that come on the side of every dish ordered are some of the best I have ever had, made in house. Next time you stop by, tell them you want them fried!
Toon's New Orleans Style Cheese Fries
Pulled Pork Quesadilla's hit the spot, Monday's all apps are 1/2 price
Popcorn Shrimp with dipping sauces and their perfect pickles
-KingT's Wing Fling
When I told you Toon's had the barfood down pat the wings are where we start. I've been on my wing fling for years now and have sampled Buffalo wings from 100's of spots around town. If your a Winger like me and also love your sports then you might of heard the recent "best Buffalo Wings in Chicagoland" contest over on Sportsradio 670 the Score. Well when you include places like BW-3 and Wingstop in the discussion, you've already got me questioning your knowledge and have people questioning the nomination process. Guess where I go when I have to get my wing on? I have always loved the Birds Nest and their most excellent wings but over the past year they had their title taken by Toon's. Where I go to calm my wing fiends. In fact one of my friends who is as knowledgeable as it gets when it comes to regional eats and is from Buffalo originally said this "No doubt about it, Toons is this Buffalonian's current choice for wings."
Real Deal Buffalo Wings from Toon's and the best in city
Word spreads fast when around Chicagoland because Toon's wings have been featured in the Tribune and named best in city by 100's of food lovers like myself in a very short period of time. Your going to get textbook Buffalo Wings when you eat them here. The wings are big and meaty so its important they are fried perfectly, well they are. The next step is the sauce which needs to have the perfect balance of hot and sour and made with the basics, butter and vinegar laced hot sauce. Everything about Toon's Buffalo wings are the best in city. Even the blue cheese dressing is the real thing with chunks of blue cheese and by far the best of its type I have had. Danny also makes an in house KC style BBQ sauce that can be had on the wings. His BBQ sauce is some of my favorite out there and if you mention chibbqking they'll make you up a batch of KC-BBQ wings that they finish on the grill. They aren't on the menu due to limited grill space. I'm getting really hungry. Not surprisingly The Score's Wing contest didn't even include Toon's or Bird's Nest as contenders. Pfffft!!!
KC BBQ Wings, Thursday is Wing Night ($2.50/basket)
The burgers of Chi
Just like any other joint that is considered to have good bar food they do up a fine burger at Toon's. Nothing frozen or pre-formed here. If you decide to go the route of a burger you'll get a fresh hand patted, half pound beauty available in a variety of ways and served with the fresh cut fries and plenty of them perfect pickles all on a wonderful bakery baked bun. If you go on a Wednesday they'll be just $4 along with $3 drafts, cant beat that. Especially when those $3 drafts include some real nice beers.
Surf & Turf: Toon's burger paired with fried catfish
KC Burger Special comes with bacon, cheddar and plenty of BBQ sauce
Wednesday is burger day at Toon's ($4) pictured is a black and bleu burger
-The Sammy's of Chi
Continuing with the theme of NOLA and other southern delights on the menu are the Po' Boy's and other sandwiches which are all outstanding. You will also find a wonderful ever changing selection of sammy's on the specials board along with the everyday goodies. One of my favorite sandwiches is the fried oyster Po' boy which is on special thru Fat Tuesday and always ordered with extra pickles by me. When it comes to the sandwich selection you pick which one sounds good and it will be. There's a fried buffalo chicken Po' Boy that is excellent as well as a grilled Cajun dusted Po' Boy that is as good as any grilled chicken I've had. Not pictured is the catfish Po' Boy and that's great too. I haven't tried the grilled portabella shroom sandwich but I bet I'd like it if I was a veg-head.
Fried Oyster Po' Boy on special thru Fat Tuesday
Buffalo Chicken Po' Boy
Grilled Cajun Chicken Po' Boy
Its not over folks, Toon's takes all of its space and puts it to good use. This is why out back behind the bar in the little two car parking lot you'll find a smoker where they do up real smoked BBQ items such as ribs, pulled pork and turkey breasts smoked with wood and those are just the everyday items-food specials come from the smoker too. Screw the fact there isn't but room for a 10 by 10 foot kitchen, they just smoke some BBQ out back. Once again you would never know it (unless you got a whiff of the smoke from out back) but the longtime corner bar at Southport and Byron also has some of the best BBQ in the city and certainly the best of any bar. Danny is from KC and is a true student of BBQ. He's been all around the country in search of it and seeking out tips and advice from some of the best like Mike Mills on how to perfect it. So there isn't a day that goes by where you wont find Danny and his top notch staff smokin' out back.
Smoker with a full house of chicken, ribs and pork (Pic by Jim Quinn aka Grub Seeker)
Along with those many fine sammy's mentioned above there's another one to be had. The staff will smoke turkey breasts and uses the meat for an amazing turkey sandwich that is sure to have even someone like me who's not big on turkey, loving it. When I had my 1st fried turkey about 6 years back I knew I was done with the baked stuff. Great stuff it was moist and full of flavor from the homemade rub with the perfect touch of smoke, which goes really well with turkey. You can try it the Jive way and the pulled turkey comes topped with BBQ sauce, provolone cheese, bacon and fried onion straws or get it with just the BBQ sauce on top.
Turkey Breasts Smokin' away
Pulled Turkey Sandwich made with smoked turkey breast
I've had the ribs quite a few times from Toon's and never had a bad batch. Sure like any other real deal BBQ place the goodness can vary depending on when your getting them since you don't make real BBQ in 15 minutes. I've had them fresh off the smoker and when ordered from the lovely female servers and they always make my mouth drool. I think the best batches have perfect smoke flavor and were just in between from being too chewy and too loose making them just right. When you consider this is a neighborhood corner bar (in Lakeview) putting out ribs like that, its damn impressive. Look I love Twin Anchors and its history and old school charm and will even eat their tasty Baked (not BBQ) ribs (if your paying) but there's no way they have the best ribs in Chicago and there's no way they have the best ribs at the bars. That honor belongs to Toon's. Danny being as he is from KC has even spent the past years perfecting a KC style BBQ sauce that is one of my favorites out there.
Toon's Ribs are real smoked BBQ, nothing baked or boiled here
Friday is rib Night ($10 for 1/2 slab)
Smoked Ribs ala Toon's
But even after all the great grub previously pictured we haven't even gotten to Toon's signature move in the food game. Going on for over ten years now has been the Toon's all you can eat crawfish boil done up just like they would down in Louisiana. In fact its gotten so popular that its not just a one time thing anymore they have quite a few during the crawfish season. With it being the very early start of mud bug season there was a small boil of 250 pounds there on Super Bowl Sunday and it was da bomb. Who Dat?
a cooler full of mud bugs, sausage, corn and potato's
In just another fine example of taking everything seriously Toon's will order their crawfish from Louisiana and have them delivered live the day of the boil where they are picked up at O'Hare that morning. When they get back to the bar with the mud bugs Danny and his team of super cooks get to work by throwing the crawdaddy's into pots of spiced water along with halved heads of garlic, corn, potatoes and three types of sausage. The tubed meat's thrown in were andouille, kielbasa and Child's Play hot dogs (the cheap turkey/chicken/pork kind) of which the Oscar Meyer like hot dogs actually came to very good use. One of Danny's buddy's Mark introduced me to this little trick to make cheap hot dogs actually edible. The dogs absorbed a high percentage of the spicy crawfish infused cooking liquid thus packing them full of flavor with everything in the pot making its mark in them.
Video from Super Sunday
The boils work like this. You pay your $25 and you grab a seat at any of the tables layered in newspaper and take a bucket and throw what you in it from the cooler and bring it back to your table and dump it out and start chowing down. Also included in this wonderful must do eating deal are all the red beans and rice you care to eat. Its all in the family with the Beck's as Danny's lovely wife Annie takes care of a few of things fro the Bar including the creamy red beans and rice packed with the perfect amount of smoke flavor from a whole lot of sausage. I would pay $20 to eat the beans and rice alone all day while I drink $3 High Lifes and watch sports.
Mrs. Toon's magnificent Red Beans & Rice
If your looking at these crawfish boil pics and starting to get an itch for them well you need to mark off Saturday March 20th on your calendars. That is the date of the next crawdaddy extravaganza over at Toon's and it also happens to be the Saturday of the opening weekend of the NCAA Men's basketball tournament. I can hardly wait. Come catch me and lets throw a few back and kill some crawfish and watch our tourney sheets closely. I also have a special offer to all my readers from the peopel at Toon's. I met Danny thru the neighborhood and being known by the same people and he's a big follower of S'C&C and would like to offer all of its readers a 20% discount on all food bills thru next Friday. So in case you were wondering where you were gonna spend your Fat Tuesday...you now know. Holladay.
Toon's annual crawfish boil is a blowout each March
Toon's Bar & Grill
3857 North Southport Avenue
Chicago, IL 60613-2823