Eating at 3 a.m. is a pleasure born from necessity. Something happens -- be it workers getting off the late shift, chemistry finals the next morning or 12 shots of Jameson -- that keeps us awake while the rest of the world soundly sleeps. At that hour, it's not about tasting delicious, otherwise we'd all be kicking back duck consommes. It's eating whatever's available, usually with sodium, starches and animal fats, to power through semi-lucidity.
In elastic jeans, I took a long night's journey into day.
Jeri's ticks off every box required of the night owl diner. The counter is in a perpetual state of vague stickiness, and the laminated one-sheet menus are on their last legs. But this is Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" off the canvas and in living color, in its 50th year of calling you "Hon" on the corner of Montrose and Western avenues.
The restaurant takes pride in its ham, baked and sliced off the bone in the kitchen daily. Unlike versions coated with honey or pineapple, this ham takes the cloved and savory route. Late at night, the straightest line from hunger to satiation is a side order of ham -- just meat, three to an order, thick and griddled, without extraneous nutrients and carbohydrates that just get in the way.
The ham is offered any time, but one dish becomes available only after midnight.
"So why do you call it The Mop?"
"It helps mop off your drunken state,” said Jeri's owner Frank DiPiero. "I don't think a salad's going to help at 2 a.m."
There's no evidence a grease bomb is more effective at alleviating your stupor than a wedge of iceberg lettuce. But the idea that oil soaks up liquid, counterintuitive as it sounds, is at least a fun explanation. It doesn't always have to be logical.
The Mop is illustrated on a menu placard by an old, bedraggled janitor in rags, holding a bucket and a dripping mop. That sounds about right. From a base of biscuits and pork sausage gravy, the cook slings atop crispy fried hash browns and chunks of straight-from-the-fryalator bologna.
It's an adrenaline shot of sodium-fueled flavor, satisfyingly sloppy and warm, with a cow's worth of butter in the potatoes and cream in the gravy. That the deep-fried bologna is the most restrained ingredient should offer some clue.
357 N. Western Ave.; 773-604-8775
Open 24 hours
Restraint is not a bad trait.
Like neighbors Chi Cafe or Sweet Station, Ken Kee is Chinatown's answer to Denny's, trafficking a massive menu full of the wok-fried rice and noodles of Hong Kong. The common thread at these places is efficient service, which can be translated at non-Cantonese restaurants as brusque and indifferent. You will never have a waitress interrupt you midmeal to ask: “Are you enjoying everything?” Your arms will get tired flagging them down, but at least the food arrives quickly.
Late at night, Chinatown restaurants get taken over by college kids with food-first mentalities. Rarely do I encounter drunken buffoons. Tapioca bubble teas outnumber craft cocktails, this much is for sure.
While salt-and-pepper anything or beef drenched in syrupy black pepper sauce sounds nice, I'm in a health-mindful state and opt for congee, the boiled rice porridge. Ordering congee doesn't make me grandpa; even the cool kids, huddled over their smartphones and ignoring each other at the table, warm themselves over steaming bowls. They dunk into this the footlong, crispy crullers called youtiao.
Soupy boiled rice porridge doesn't sound like the sexiest choice, but blandness isn't a trait of the Cantonese culinary canon. You'll find preserved "thousand-year-old" egg and lean pork the classic combination, served at any congee restaurant worth its salt. Despite the gelatinous texture and ammoniated taste, it adds a certain eggy richness. And the pork strips fill the meaty void that's been empty since ... three hours earlier? As restorative sustenances go, it's the Chinese equivalent of chicken noodle soup.
2129-A S. China Place; 312-326-2088
Open until 12:30 a.m.
The swarming, claustrophobic madness that is Au Cheval fades away at midnight on a recent Tuesday. The dining room, on Saturday nights a dozen humans away from a fire hazard, is now half empty and filled mostly with restaurant industry workers getting off their shifts. At this hour, Au Cheval in the West Loop becomes what it unintentionally parodies: the familial neighborhood greasy spoon, not the red-hot haute diner crushed under the weight of its popularity.
After last call for its full dinner offerings at 11:55 p.m., the kitchen switches to a more compact menu that includes its vaunted cheeseburger and fried bologna sandwich. The one late-night-only dish sold is chilaquiles, a craggy edifice of superthick, fried tortilla wedges balanced onto itself as a topological impossibility.
It's an awe-inspiring work of architecture that explodes into angles like a Frank Gehry sculpture, every nook and cranny revealing a different surprise. There might be a dollop of sour cream on one chip, an ice cream scoop of guacamole another, and shavings of wafer-thin jalapenos and pickled red onions throughout. Just for kicks, how about a gravy boat of warm salsa verde on the side? Part of the fun is digging halfway down and unearthing a fluffy mound of scrambled eggs wedged within a crevice. In one cast-iron skillet, there's more texture within than most of the mushy, homogeneous 3 a.m. food where teeth aren't a prerequisite.
But don't think mushy, homogeneous, lowest-common-denominator food is a bad thing ...
800 W. Randolph St.; 312-929-4580
Open until 1 a.m. Monday – Saturday, midnight Sunday
At last, I've eaten at the Diner Grill, which satisfies one more requirement for North Side residency. Here's an all-night restaurant that sticks out anonymously; you know it's there, and yet you don't really know.
My vague notion after driving past it a million times on Irving Park Road is that bar-goers swarm here like June bugs to a porch light. It's a fair assessment. The diner, an old train car retrofitted inside a shoe-box building, emits a cold fluorescent white out onto the street, a Bat signal for the sloshed.
But I came here sober, which makes me an anomaly.
For years I've heard rumblings about the legendary Slinger, on the menu since the 1970s. Its contents remained a mystery to me, and I asked good-natured Kenny Coster, who mans the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift behind the counter, to make one for me sight unseen. With food like this, it's best to be surprised.
As it turns out, you could file the Slinger under shock and awe, the kind of dish dreamed up when some bored cook riffles through the pantry and throws everything and anything onto a griddle. Here, Coster fried a heap of hash browns, then threw on two frozen discs of hamburger. Cheese went on the burgers, then a ladle of beef chili, and two eggs were fried. Each component gets layered on to the next, until a bubbling brown mass the size of a catcher's mitt sizzled on the grill top. With one deft scoop, the ghastly heap gets transferred onto a white plate. It looks like something from a medical show.
As a snobbish critical assessor of food, I'm aghast. As a Homo sapien evolved over 200,000 years, my brain appreciates the Slinger the way my knee jerks from a reflex hammer. It is what it is: breakfast, lunch and dinner in a car crash. Like a Snuggie blanket, you're embarrassed to be seen with one, except once you try it on it feels cozy and, dare I say, soothing.
Once you get over the outrageousness of the premise, it becomes an oversize bowl of decent chili with potatoes and eggs. The greater shock is just as quickly the Slinger appears, the plate is three-quarters gone. It's time travel voodoo. You tell yourself, "Just one more bite and no more," but again and again it doesn't register.
On a busy weekend, 100 Slingers are served in a night. Those who finish the plate get an autographed certificate -- a smiling Kenny Coster flashing a thumbs up -- that doubles as written proof for insurance claim officers. Inscribed on the certificate: "Don't ask, just eat!"
It's a sound philosophy for eating at this late hour. Question nothing. Rationality is overrated. You're here because of natural selection. Don't ask, just eat.
1635 W. Irving Park Road; 773-248-2030
Open 24 hours