Riverside Cafe Deli*Atmosphere: Adorable (perhaps a bit too adorable)
1656 W Cortland St
Chicago, IL 60622
*(not to be confused with the Riverside Cafe in downtown that serves low carb and is located in a hotel)
Okay, now that I've given away the punch line, let me tell you about the unfulfilled promise of an adorable little cafe discovery in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. My husband and I were traveling down to see a friend who had recently had surgery. Because we are still a tad jet-lagged, we were wildly hungry by 11:30 A.M. We passed a darling looking little cafe that just screamed "character" and seemed like the kind of place that makes you feel like a Chicago native, a citizen (rather than a tourist) just by eating there. The window eagerly proclaimed dishes that were "Lite" and "Vegetarian."
As we pushed our way through the glass door were were hit by a kaleidoscope of knick-knacks and doo-dads that all seemed to harken back to some by-gone era where folks drank soda-pops on the front porch and all knew each other's names. Being from Wisconsin, I can really warm to this sort of set-up, but anyone who is a fan of Danish modernism or any sort of modernism really would probably find the decor a bit claustrophobic. But even my husband Terry, whose design taste usually differs from mine, remarked that the place was "really cute."
The food options looked promising. But in contrast to the painted window promising lite and vegetarian, all the lunch options seemed heavy and meaty. Perhaps both the decor and the window adverts were meant to be ironic. At any rate, we seemed able to choose from about 15 different sandwiches of the day, all of which were very heavy. In contrast to the Americana of the decor, most of the menu seemed Latin-inspired. Terry and I decided to try the pulled pork sandwich and the Cuban sandwich (with the works), and a side of BLT pasta salad.
There was no one in line but us, so after settling on the items from the chalked menu board we stepped up to order. And this, folks, is where it all goes down hill.
First, there was a sign on the register that said firmly that all takeaway orders should be phoned-in in advance. Although it may have been stupid to even ask, I was sufficiently cowed, and so I asked pleasantly, "We were just walking by but wanted to place an order to take-away. Is that okay even if we weren't able to phone ahead?" And the woman working six feet from the counter, with her back to me, says irritably, "Yes, placing an order is always okay." All right. So maybe it was a self-evident question, but then again I didn't think I was exactly deserving of her ire.
"What do you want?"
"We'd like one Cuban sandwich and one pulled pork sandwich."
"Everything on the Cuban?"
"It comes with chips. You can pick your own."
"Okay. Can we also have a small side of that pasta salad." (there are no labels)
"Which one? You want the mediterranean or the BLT?"
"Ummm, [looking around, seeing only one pasta salad] I don't know which one it is. It's the one in the middle of the display case. The one in the big chicken bowl."
She makes a displeased grunt in her throat and turns from where she is to come look at the display. "Okay. That'll be a few minutes."
Right in front of where we are standing is a basket of natural chips with three different varieties, so Terry and I pick out a bag of Smokehouse BBQ and sit down to wait. We are, as I said already, starving, so we open the bag of chips and munch a bit. Perhaps some would consider this a violation of protocol, but we thought these were chips that came with our lunch.
Just as we got to the bottom of the bag, a stout woman swung around the counter and pointed at us sternly, "Those chips are not included. Those chips are 75 cents. Only these chips are included (she points behind her)." I apologize, saying that we hadn't been there before, didn't know. But at this point I am getting a little perturbed about how often I have had to appologize and I don't even have my food yet. I am never the happiest gal in the world when I am really hungry, but this was starting to feel like a food nazi experience.
We got crabbed at a bit more when it was time to pay, although I can't even recall what about. By that time I just wanted to grab the bag, get out of there, and hope the food justified the abuse.
As it turns out, no. The pasta from the pasta salad was uncooked to the point of being chalky. Although there were large pieces of bacon visible in the pasta salad, the salad managed to be nearly tasteless. The pulled pork sandwich was as devoid of any flavor as just about any piece of food I have ever encountered. Terry liked the Cuban sandwich better, but if I went the rest of my life and never ate it again, I would be okay with that.
In the end this hopefully cute little neighborhood spot wound up being no more than bland unhealthy food and brash service.