For those who work downtown and live on the Northwest Side, North Center can be a convenient stop for a take-out dinner on the way home. We recently checked out two nearby spots to see how they compare:
Sola3868 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-327-3868, www.sola-restaurant.com
The deal: After 5:30 p.m. -- or a few minutes before -- you can order from the restaurant's take-out menu or from any of the menus on their Web site. A friendly person takes your order, takes your credit card information, then lets you know when it will be ready.
The offerings: Everything on the regular eclectic Asian-accented menu, including delicate items like tuna tartare, salmon carpaccio, truffle fries, composed salads and timbales. Main courses range from beef short ribs to seared fish to oven-roasted chicken.
The pickup: As we neared the neighborhood, we called the restaurant to make sure the food was ready and gave a description of our car. As we pulled up across the street from the restaurant, a server came out to our car with two bags and a credit card receipt to sign. Couldn't have been easier, especially with one sleeping child in the car. All containers were a sturdy rectangular plastic; they fit perfectly into the plastic straight-sided Sola take-out bags -- one for hot food, another for cold. Nothing spilled before we got home.
Our meal: Everything was terrific, except the texture of the fries. We should have known better than to order fries as take out -- which get soggy from the steam in most enclosed containers -- but the Parmesan truffle fries sounded so good. When we bit into the now-soft fries, my son asked, "Why didn't we get the crispy kind?" That didn't stop us from devouring the whole generous container of fragrant, skin-on fries before we even got home. Salads arrived home perfectly composed: Asian pear, blue cheese and candied walnuts atop Belgian endive and arugula looked just as they should and awaited their dressing that came in a separate container. The sea greens -- hijiki with sesame and water chestnuts -- also arrived intact with an excellent sweet dressing. Mac and cheese, still hot in a creamy white cheddar sauce over perfectly al dente elbows, was a big hit with the kids and their mom. And finally the bone-in oven-roasted chicken breast was moist, juicy and full of flavor, set atop a bed of barley and a velvety reduction. The meal also came with a selection of whole-grain bread, flat crackers and a fresh pretzel roll.
Last bite: With curbside tip, the meal came to $48.67 and fed two kids and two adults easily with robust, tasty, beautifully composed dishes that we could not have easily produced on our own. It felt like a mix between comfort food and a special-occasion dinner.
3745 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-4920, www.traderjoes.com
The deal: Walk into Trader Joe's, head to the prepared foods case in the refrigerated aisle and assemble your meal.
The offerings: Lots of salads, sushi, wraps, chicken salad, fresh breads, smoked salmon, cold sodas and an assortment of baked or frozen desserts.
The pickup: Much like a typical grocery store experience except Trader Joe's presents most prepared take-out foods in one spot, including its cold drinks. For baked desserts, you need to go to another section and for frozen desserts or wine you move to another. But even with the after-work rush, it only took about 14 minutes to gather it all and check out. Our cashier -- ultra-pleasant and friendly -- even noticed that we bought sushi and helpfully got us some chopsticks.
Our meal: The Asian chicken wrap offered a nice combination of spicy shredded chicken with bok choy, bean sprouts and red peppers in a chile tortilla. The fresh noodle salad with a cilantro ginger dressing and crushed peanuts was nice and garlicky and refreshing with excellent noodles. Wild smoked sockeye salmon on the fresh multi-grain harvest bread made for an excellent appetizer, as did the currant and almond chicken salad on the bread. Our whole baked chicken was well cooked and seasoned (and tasty even when cold). The ginger peanut noodles, on the other hand, lacked any flavor at all -- as if someone had forgotten to add the sauce. And the sushi platter featured rice that was at once pasty and grainy. Both my kids, who usually love maki, refused to finish their pieces.
Last bite: Despite trying to hit our $45 limit, our total bill came to only $37. Still, those uneaten dishes were no bargain. The rest of the food, however, was a great value for the quality. The best surprise? Chilled cans of Hansen natural sodas (without high fructose corn syrup, woo-hoo!) in flavors like strawberry-kiwi, cherry vanilla and root beer checked in at a mere 45 cents a can.