Anyone looking for a lunch or breakfast experience several cuts above the norm would do well to check out On the Side, a charming fast-casual restaurant in a tastefully rehabbed vintage storefront in downtown Elgin.
Upon entering, we noticed original exposed brick walls, gray-painted wainscoting, hardwood floors and a collection of artfully framed mirrors on one wall. Color and black-and-white photographs taken by two local photographers adorned the opposite wall.
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On The Side74 S. Grove Ave., Elgin, (847) 214-2323, onthesiderestaurant.com
Cuisine: Contemporary American lunch and breakfast
Setting: Rehabbed vintage storefront with fast-casual format
Prices: $6 to $9
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday; closed Wednesday
Menus change weekly, according to chef-owner Tom Creighton, who in a midlife career change switched from sales to the restaurant business but not before he trained at Le Cordon Bleu and the French Pastry School in Chicago. That training was evident in the lunch dishes we sampled on a recent weekday.
As with most fast-casual formats, the customer orders food at the counter, picks up a number card and returns to a table to await delivery of the dishes, either by the owner or the chef de cuisine himself. The wait was short. Our orders arrived on small aluminum baking pans, a nice vintage detail.
The lunch menu consists of a sandwich combo that includes a side and beverage, or an alternative combo of any three sides and a beverage. Four entree salads served with either a brioche roll or a spicy corn muffin are another option.
All sandwiches, usually about five choices, can be ordered on a white steak roll, wrapped in a flavored flour tortilla or pressed into a panini. I chose honey soy glazed chicken with chow mein noodles, pea pods and shredded cabbage topped with light peanut sauce as a panini.
The sandwich was one of the most unique I've had anywhere, and that's saying a lot. The good-sized sandwich on crusty Italian white bread contained a generous amount of chicken chunks, and I loved the crunchiness of the vegetables and chow mein noodles. While I'd originally intended to take half of the sandwich home, I ended up eating the whole thing at one sitting.
My side was a tasty and healthy mixture of bulgur wheat with roasted vegetables, which on this day were carrots, bell peppers and mild onions. A light citrus vinaigrette was the perfect dressing. This is just one of several vegetarian items sprinkled throughout the menu.
My companion enjoyed a barbecued pork wrap with caramelized onions, cheddar cheese and mixed greens. The house-made Memphis-style bourbon barbecue sauce had just the right tanginess without being too sweet. Kudos to Creighton and his conscious effort to dial back the sugar.
As the side, she ordered what turned out to be a superior version of macaroni and cheese. Creighton's twist was al dente penne with a three-cheese sauce, a mild and creamy blend of Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan -- delicious and comforting.
All desserts are made fresh in-house and are likely to include bread pudding, individual-sized cheesecake, chocolate fudge cake with bourbon caramel sauce, muffins, cookies, scones and brownies. Cinnamon rolls are reserved for Fridays, and on Saturdays beignets are made to order.
We tried the cheesecake and the brownie of the day, taking both to go for a later time when our appetites returned. Both were excellent -- not surprising, considering Creighton's pastry school training. The individual portion of cheesecake sat on a graham cracker crust and came accented with a three-berry sauce.
The breakfast menu would have to wait till another visit. Tempting items listed include homestyle hash and eggs, biscuits and gravy and homemade granola.
Creighton also offers off-site catering for groups of all sizes. He primarily caters breakfast and lunch social and business occasions but also can do themed menus for special events.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.