The Run Down

This guide has you visiting West Ridge, a quiet residential North Side neighborhood that's home to a vibrant South Asian, Jewish, and Eastern European community. You'll start with a hike on a 20-acre nature preserve, build a wooden fort, and end with Balkan street food.

1. Hike @ West Ridge Nature Park

2. Balkan Eats @ Toscano

1. West Ridge Nature Park

If I had to choose my least favorite street in Chicago, it might be Western Avenue. It’s a massive thoroughfare in the middle of the city that cars treat more or less like a highway. Its most remarkable feature is the ungodly amount of used car dealerships across nearly the entire stretch.

But it has one thing that makes up for it. If you take this street to the West Ridge neighborhood, amidst that urban doldrum, there’s a 20-acre nature preserve — a sweet reprieve from the sounds of the city, and it’s where we start this guide.

The entrance is right on Western Avenue. Across from it are autobody shops and a few vacant storefronts. If you weren’t looking for it, there’s a good chance you’d zip on by without much thought.

For those who live here, though, this quickly became an essential feature of the neighborhood after it opened in 2015. Before then, it was an overgrown plot of land owned by Rosehill Cemetery next door.

The park features a looping paved trail. While you can hear the sounds of cars as you start your walk, those quickly fade as you get deeper into the park.

West Ridge is a family-oriented neighborhood. If you’re coming with kids, this is an incredibly exceptional park. The parks department runs a program called Storywalk, where kids can enjoy a children’s book as they walk the trail.  You follow the path, and along the way, you find these story signs, each sporting a page from a children’s book.

It’s genius, really. The little ones get to burn off energy on the trail, with the added thrill of stumbling upon the story’s next chapter.

Halfway through your walk, you’ll come across a park within the park. It’s a natural play space where traditional play structures like slides and monkey bars give way to large logs, sticks, and other natural elements.

You’ll find both adults and kids enjoying the space. On one end, a couple was sitting on log stools and having a picnic on a makeshift wood table. On the other end, a group of kids was building a wooden fort and acting out what I can only imagine was some sort of Lord of the Flies situation.

Continue on the trail as it loops a 4.5-acre pond.  If you’re looking for something other than a brisk walk, the pond is stocked with bluegill and carp. There are fishing access spots across different points of the trail where you can get a view like the one below. 

2. Toscano

The West Ridge neighborhood is particularly renowned for its large Jewish, South Asian, and Eastern European communities. Walk 15 minutes north of the park, and you’ll find yourself on Devon Avenue, home to the best  South Asian cuisine in the city. Walk 15 minutes south, and you’ll discover Toscano, a restaurant that’s been a staple of the Balkan community for years.

Sandwiched between a Subway and a laundromat inside a strip mall, Toscano has served traditional Balkan and American fare for over a decade. You might be asking, “Isn’t Toscano Italian?”

You’d be correct. When the original owners were getting started, they stumbled upon a picture of the famed Italian region of Tuscany during the renovation. They took this discovery as a lucky sign, and thus, the new venture was christened ‘Toscano.’

Toscano is a family-owned restaurant. Upon entering, you’re likely to spot various members of the family — be it the father, son, or mother — casually lounging in the dining area and chatting with friends and patrons, all while keeping an eye on a Bosnian show flickering from the TV mounted on the wall.

Order at the counter and choose from a simple list of 12 or so items. It mixes typical American options like cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and Italian Beef with traditional Balkan cuisine like burek (meat and potatoes encased in phyllo dough — pictured above) and a cevap sandwich.

This is their cevap sandwich and signature dish. It’s a big pile of homemade sausages between a light, buttery, and slightly crispy bun.

It comes served with a side of onions, sour cream, a bed of fries, and an addicting sauce called ayvar. Ayjvar is a spread made primarily from pureed roasted red bell peppers mixed with garlic, olive oil, and vinegar. The result is a rich, sweet, tangy, and slightly smoky spread you’ll want to have with every bite.

The sauce was so good that it got me going down an internet-search rabbit hole trying to understand why this wasn’t at least Siracha-level popular in the US. I didn’t get a clear answer, but this definitely made the lineup in my condiment rotation in the future.

As for the sandwich, this is one you’ll remember weeks from now as you rummage through your fridge, thinking of a late-night snack. Then you’ll think back to your time at West Ridge Nature Park and realize it’s time to do this guide all over again.