Bon appetit: Downtown Skokie cooks up diverse restaurant scene
Delroy Powell owns De-Jred, a Jamaican restaurant in downtown Skokie. De-Jred is one of many ethnic restaurants that has opened in downtown as a starting point to transforming the area. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 15, 2012 9:09AM
No one would ever mistake downtown Skokie for Walt Disney’s Epcot Center in sunny Florida — especially in the dead of winter — but they share at least one recipe for success.
Walk a short ways in the heart of either one and a new and different international cuisine awaits.
The Epcot Center serves its delicacies in the grandest fashion, of course — as part of a World Showcase area with a collection of global-themed pavilions.
The more modest transformation of downtown Skokie is still in the making. But anyone paying attention can’t help but notice the changes that have already occurred.
The well-received Tub Tim Thai Restaurant was the first of the ethnic eateries to open on the Oakton Street strip in the heart of downtown. That was about six years ago, and since that time, it has become surrounded by other ethnic fare offered by restaurant owners drawn to Skokie because of the promise of its future.
The nearby Illinois Science + Technology Park now has more than 1,000 employees, giving downtown restaurants a new daytime market. In only months, a CTA Yellow Line station is scheduled to open in downtown Skokie, a new means to bring more people into and out of the downtown area.
The emergence of an ethnic restaurant district in Skokie seems ideal given the village’s demographics. But only some operators said they were drawn here because of the village’s stunning diversity; others said that they simply believed the market would grow and wanted to benefit from that.
Village planners realized early on that bringing restaurants to downtown was essential in launching a revitalization. Economic Development Coordinator Tom Thompson said the village didn’t go out of its way to recruit different types of restaurants — rather, that formula emerged.
But Skokie seems to know what it has with its downtown. A recent village advertisement reads: “Appetizers in Afghanistan. Main Course in Mexico. Dessert in Dublin.”
For the last two years, the village has sponsored a “dine-around” event introducing people who work in downtown Skokie to the variety of cuisine there, an opportunity for them to restaurant-hop along major streets.
A recent promotion running through May 31, “Downtown Skokie 5” provides customers with an incentive for frequenting downtown businesses including restaurants. A new Facebook website on downtown Skokie — www.facebook.com/DowntownSkokie — regularly serves up information about downtown dining.
By offering incentives to downtown property owners for exterior and interior building rehabs, the village helped ignite interest in downtown economic development. Several downtown operators — most of them restaurants — have taken advantage of village grants to build or enhance their businesses.
The development of diverse downtown dining adheres to the recommendations of a village-commissioned report about marketing downtown Skokie. Even so, the prescribed recipe has been cooking a little more quickly than some imagined.
“It has been a bit of a surprise that there’s been this kind of development this fast considering the economy,” Thompson said.
The village lists 17 restaurants as part of its downtown. Some of those eateries are located more than just a few blocks from Oakton Street and Lincoln Avenue, traditionally considered the heart of downtown. The village, however, has expanded its geographic definition of downtown Skokie and is working to “link” areas.
Additionally, the village’s downtown Skokie restaurant list includes a few chains — Subway, Taco Bell and Dunkin Donuts, although only the former sits in the traditional confines of downtown.
The vast majority of heart-of-downtown eateries are independently run restaurants with cuisine ranging from American to Armenian, from Italian to Afghan, from Jamaican to Mexican. The latest eatery — the Siunik Armenian Grill — joined the group just late last month.
This week, our menu includes tasty Jamaican, Thai and Italian fare — all available within a handful of blocks of each other.
4901 Oakton St.
Skokie’s first Jamaican restaurant opened in late 2009.
Authentic Jamaican cuisine includes the popular jerk chicken, of course, but delicacies such as oxtails and butterbeans, curry goat, snapper, and brown stew goat are served as well.
Owner Delroy Powell, 59, was a retired mechanic who worked for Avon before he opened De-Jred.
“We didn’t have a Jamaican restaurant in Skokie so I thought it would be a good fit here,” said Powell, an Evanston resident, who was born in Jamaica.
Although he first looked in Evanston, Powell found the rent more reasonable in Skokie and concluded the downtown has a future.
“They had the new train station coming in so I thought that would be good for the business,” he said.
Like many of Skokie’s independent restaurant operators, Powell was inspired in his love of cooking by a family member. He came to the United States in 1979 after having built up a childhood of eating good Jamaican food.
“My mom did all the cooking,” he said. “She was pretty good, and I have one sister who is a great cook.” He has family members helping out at the restaurant, a common recipe for downtown Skokie’s new ethnic eateries.
Serving up an informal dining experience as well as offering take-outs, De-Jred has received positive word of mouth including on the popular Yelp website.
“I have had nearly everything on the menu and taken friends and coworkers there,” one enthused customer writes. “It’s got the spice that people crave with the home-cooking quality that everyone needs.”
“My goodness was this place great,” raves another satisfied customer.
Powell said that he always dreamed of having his own restaurant although he admits it’s been more work than he thought — even more than when he was a mechanic.
But the satisfaction from his customers — some of them who are trying Jamaican food for the first time — has made the decision worth it, he said.
“It’s all about having a love for cooking and knowing the right amount of spices and seasoning,” Powell said. “It’s as simple as that.”
8018 Lincoln Ave.
The green sign along busy Lincoln Avenue grabs your attention; the food at Eclissi keeps the attention of many who come inside.
A small and cozy little eatery, Eclissi serves up traditional Italian fare under the ownership of chef Ruben Villanueva, 40.
The blackened tuna, a lunch time sandwich favorite, was well in demand on the day of a visit.
“I think we inspired people,” he said. “We give good food and others want to come and offer good food, too.”
Villanueva served as chef at a handful of fine restaurants in the area from Avli Mediterranean to Trattoria Trullo, from the Saddle and Cycle Club to Smith & Wollensky.
In branching out on his own, he selected a small space with an intimate patio just to the north of downtown Skokie’s busiest intersection — Oakton and Lincoln. Eclissi recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Born in Mexico, Villanueva traveled Italy by foot in 2000, learning Italian culture firsthand. He also learned authentic Italian cooking and wine that would pay off when he opened his first restaurant.
“I wanted to open in this area because people on the North Shore are really good eaters, they’re really good foodie people,” he said.
Villanueva learned to love cooking from his grandmother although he didn’t get to practice her recipes much when he was growing up.
“In our tradition, a man cannot be in the kitchen. If they find a man in the kitchen, it’s not good,” he said.
He would occasionally practice cooking when he was by himself, he admitted, but it wasn’t until later that he knew this was his calling.
“I love to do this. I love to cook,” he said. “And now I can make my own decisions. I can make my own food. I can make my own calls. It’s very exciting to have a place that’s my own.”
It’s also exciting for those who eat here whether it be for lunch or for dinner.
Mark Delcase and Jay Samuelsson, manufacturer representatives for heating and air conditioning systems based in Niles, were having their first sit-down lunch at Eclissi.
“Everything is delicious so far,” Delcase said. “All of these good restaurants really open up a lot of choices for us. It’s great.”
Chris Panagakos of Edison Park in Chicago has become a regular of Eclissi, visiting there at least once a week to pick up or dine in.
“The quality of the food is some of the best I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “I keep saying when I win the lottery, (Villanueva) is going to be my private cook. I’m liking that there’s more restaurant life coming around in Skokie. This place in particular blows so many restaurants out of the water.”
Villanueva believes such a reaction comes from the spirit he brings to his kitchen.
“Cooking is not what you do for a living. Cooking is a passion,” he said, echoing the enthusiasm of many of the new downtown Skokie restaurant owners.
“What you do in here is about love. In the kitchen, it’s not this ingredient or that ingredient. It’s the love in what you’re doing.”
Tub Tim Thai
4927 Oakton St.
Thai food has become fairly ubiquitous in the Chicago area so when Tub Tim Thai opened six years ago in downtown Skokie, some may not have considered this a cause for celebration.
Then they tasted the food.
There was an immediate buzz about the restaurant, a family-owned Thai place cooking up authentic cuisine in an informal and comfortable setting.
Tub Tim Thai features popular dishes that can be found at other Thai restaurants, but it also offers rare authentic Thai food more easily found on the streets of Bangkok.
Local ABC television last year featured Tub Tim Thai and paid special attention to its Meang Kum appetizer made of fresh Chapoo leaves topped with roasted coconut, sun-dried shrimp, diced ginger, shallots, lime, peanuts and Thai hot pepper on the side served with its original sauce.
Guy (Krai ) Jirathitikal, 30, has been running the restaurant for more than a year.
“The economy has hurt us a little bit, but on weekends, it’s always a full house,” he said. “People still have to eat and they like good food.”
Born in Thailand, Jirathitikal remembers his uncle cooking delicious food in the backyard. His aunt’s friend, who was involved in the Skokie restaurant, always loved to cook and had great recipes to share.
Tub Tim Thai’s menu is filled with those recipes — dishes from Thailand and the basis for meals that Jirathitikal ate growing up.
According to the restaurant, Tub Tim in Thai means a ruby, “a glorious gem in the sea of vast Thai restaurants in a city that loves its ethnic cuisines.”
The restaurant certainly has attracted devoted diners as evidenced by a solid lunch and dinner crowd on most days.
Husband and wife Louis and Susan Irmo, who own an insurance business in Skokie, recently enjoyed lunch with friend Mike Farrenkopf at Tub Tim Thai.
“I could never have imagined this,” said Farrenkopf about the downtown ethnic restaurant district that has emerged. “Skokie was greasy spoons and not much else back in the ’60s and ’70s. And lots of greasy spoons.”
The afternoon diners said they have been impressed and more than a little surprised by the large variety of cuisine in downtown Skokie, although Tub Tim Thai remains their favorite.
“Best restaurant ever in Skokie. Period,” proclaimed Farrenkopf. “And that’s from 45 years of eating in Skokie.”
The ethnic restaurant scene in Skokie demands more attention than one issue of the Skokie Review could contain.
In part two, we examine three more ethnic restaurants, the role different organizations had in shaping downtown Skokie and some of the other restaurants that make up this burgeoning restaurant district.