South Side Cheap Eats: Cal-Harbor Restaurant and Lounge
By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 5, 2007 7:22PM
One of the nuances of reviewing restaurants is that you don't want to draw attention to yourself. This means that you don't want to break out the camera and notepad until absolutely necessary. It was a lesson we thought we learned at Pilsen's Fogata Village last summer. Then we entered the Cal-Harbor Restaurant and Lounge, in the Historic Pullman district, with the notepad and camera in plain sight. What followed was a dialogue straight out of an Abbott and Costello routine:
Waitress #1: What insurance company do you work for?
Waitress #2: Pete, you got an insurance investigator in here!!
Waitress #1: Are you an insurance investigator?
Chicagoist: Um, no.
Waitress #3: You work for the building commission?
Waitress #1: Why you got a camera, then?
Chicagoist: Just taking pictures, ma'am.
Pete (the owner): Where's the insurance man?
Waitress #1 (pointing at Chicagoist): It's this guy here. But he's not an insurance guy.
Waitress #2: What insurance company do you work for?
Waitress #3: He ain't no insurance guy. He's just a guy with a camera!
Pete: You're not an insurance investigator.
Chicagoist: No, sir. Just here to eat. No need to be afraid.
Pete: I'm not scared of nothing, except cancer. I have eleven guns and 68 rounds of ammunition in the back. Let 'em come.
Chicagoist: That's great that you exercise your Second Amendment rights, Pete. But if we can get back to the business of feeding me, that'd be great.
Pete: It's OK. You have to understand, I'm a crazy Greek.
Waitress #2: So you never told us what insurance company you work for?
Anyone who announces to a packed restaurant that the kitchen is armed has a unique grasp on reality, as if the stark contrast of Pete's jet-black hair and snow-white mustache wasn't enough of an indication. After making our formal introductions, Pete is actually an affable fellow and not as trigger happy as he initially appeared. Once Pete and company knew the true nature of our visit, they went back to the business of ignoring us until frustration showed on our face. In short, eating at Cal-Harbor was like eating at any other Greek-owned diner in the city limits. At prices stuck in a twenty-year-old time warp, it's even better.
We decided to keep our order simple: a bowl of chili, a cup of coffee, and the "Cal Harbor" skillet. The coffee was hot, with that touch of saltiness one expects in diner coffee (an old diner trick to clean coffee pots is to use a mixture of salt and ice as a mild abrasive). The chili was also piping hot, and came alive with a liberal addition of hot sauce. The Cal Harbor skillet was a mash of hash browns, link sausage, onions, peppers, and two melted slices of American cheese, served with poached eggs and dry Greek toast on a plate. Sort of defeats the purpose of calling it a "skillet," huh? Otherwise, it's a standard skillet recipe, only with a different neighborhood/landmark name attached.
Cal-Harbor is split into two levels. The lower level and entry is the diner, with an open kitchen set up like a maze. We never saw Pete again, so we assume he got lost in the back trying to find his guns. The upper level contains table seating and a small bar with Bud on tap. Aside from the Historic Pullman District, there's nothing else going on in the neighborhood. Having been in business for thirty years, Cal-Harbor is both the high and low point of the neighborhood's restaurant scene, unless you count Phil Stefani's Pier 37 Bar & Grill, overlooking Calumet Harbor on the site of a golf course.
If you like diner culture, it's worth a trip to Pullman to visit Cal-Harbor Restaurant and Lounge. If you're more the high-maintenance type, we suggest you lower your expectations before taking the trip to 546 E. 115th St. Cal-Harbor is open Mondays through Saturdays from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., and from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Sundays. Their phone number is 773-264-5435.