An incomplete guide to sketchy dives

Pete Mortensen

I can hear the complaints already: “You call that a sketchy restaurant? I’ve eaten at a place where they’ll serve you human toes, no questions asked.” “You call that a sketchy restaurant? You just can’t deal with the way it looks. The people are really nice.” “You call that a sketchy restaurant? I own it.”

To address these and other complaints, I would like to point out that 1) I am not interested in eating human toes, I am interested in finding cheap, high-quality restaurants that aren’t trendy, a chain or particularly inviting. 2) The looks are what make a restaurant sketchy – quality of food and service staff has nothing to do with it. 3) I consider “sketchy restaurant” to be a term of endearment, not one of degradation. This article is written out of love, not fear or criticism.

A sketchy restaurant needs to fit the following qualifications: 1) One identifying sign on the building should be either hand-painted, semi-burned-out neon or a movable letter sign with missing letters. 2) The food must be top-notch and extremely affordable. 3) Refills on soft drinks cannot be free. 4) My parents would never venture inside unless I encouraged them.

So, without any further ado, is a guide to three sketchy restaurants in Evanston and Chicago that you should definitely check out.

Chicken Shack Inc., 925 Ridge Ave.

(847) 328-9360

For those of you who have never seen the Chicken Shack, I highly recommend you check it out. Not only is the building tiny stucco shack located behind a strip mall on Emerson St., the roof is bright red and the signs look handmade. The magic, as in all sketchy restaurants, is to be found inside. The menu features every configuration of fried chicken you can conceive of, from half- and whole-chicken meals to the ominous “Chicken Stubs.” (No, I don’t have any idea, and no, I don’t want to know. They’re only $3.64, if you’re interested.) They even serve livers, giblets and gizzards, which are surreally listed on the menu under shrimp. As for the food itself, it’s outstanding. All chicken meals are served in a box, sit atop two pieces of cheap white bread (5 cents for each additional piece) and are covered in french fries. This allows for a delicious mixing of drippings onto the bread, which makes a tasty treat when all of the chicken is gone. Beyond that, the place has an RC Cola machine, which sells Cherry RC. You need to go. Cost: $4 to $7 per person.

Cross-Rhodes A Restaurant

913-1/2 Chicago Ave.

(847) 475-4475

Though its look is not as immediately intimidating as the Chicken Shack, Cross-Rhodes of Evanston still manages to misspell its name on both of its movable-letter signs (including the delightful sign on the side of the building proclaiming “CROSS- HO ES”). Serving predominantly Greek fare, Cross-Rhodes serves the highest-quality food of the three establishments I’m reviewing. In fact, I get the feeling my parents would consider eating there until they actually enter and notice the worn-down, dirty floor, the watered-down consistency of the liquid soap and the suspect contents of the ketchup bottles. (They notice these things, I swear.) While it rates low on the actual sketchiness scale, the food is outstanding and the restaurant is obscure enough to qualify it for the list. There are two things you should do while there: 1) Order some variety of Greek sandwich. I had a cheese souvlaki (pork kebab) sandwich the last time I visited and have not been happier in some time. My roommate says the gyros they serve are the best he’s had in Chicago. 2) Order some Greek fries. For only $1.50, you will get an enormous order of steak fries topped with a delicious “Lemony Herb Dressing.” They taste like vinegar-topped fries extended to the best extreme possible. The last fry is usually fought over. Cost: $6 to $10 per person.

Muskie’s, 963 W. Belmont Ave.

(773) 477-1880

Located in the shadow of the Belmont El stop, this fine imitation of a diner features more burnt-out neon than I thought possible for one single establishment. And yet, there it is. Unlike most diner-imitative places, very little about Muskie’s is nostalgic; one television played nothing but an infomercial for a local “attorney,” a la Lionel Hutz of “The Simpsons” (potential slogan: “Yes, he can actually practice law!”) while the other played the adult contemporary digital cable radio channel. No jukebox favorites here, folks. The food is that unique mix of several kinds of food, from Italian to Greek and back again. The gyros are piled with more meat than their low price should allow, and the milkshakes are so thick your mouth will dry out from them. (Fortunately, Muskie’s provides very large straws, which are up to the task.) Though the shakes are on the pricey side (about three bucks), they are well worth the expense, especially when they kindly provide the leftovers from the mixing cup. As for deals, they have a special for a leg-and-thigh roast chicken dinner with fries and a feta cheese salad for $2.99. That can’t be beat. If you eat it, which you should, sit at the counter. You won’t regret it. Cost: $4 to $8 per person. nyou