It’s no secret Chicago takes its egg rolls very seriously.
The Tribune has extensively chronicled the history behind the iconic Chicago-style egg roll, defined by the addition of peanut butter in the filling. The dish has been a fixture at Chicago’s Chinese restaurants for decades, popularized by Chinese American restaurants large and small.
As former Tribune writer and current WBEZ reporter Monica Eng explored in a 2013 Tribune article, “Though dim sum chefs in Hong Kong produce a similar snack called a spring roll, the egg roll, as we know it, is a creation of early Chinese American restaurateurs who used local ingredients to create Chinese-ish foods that would appeal to American diners.”
But if you wander around predominantly Black neighborhoods on the West and South sides, you’ll notice a completely different kind of egg roll — one that uses the same wrapper, but then leaves nearly everything else behind.
The most common filling for these egg rolls is jerk chicken, and since it began to pop up in the city five years ago, it has become nearly ubiquitous on menus of Black-owned restaurants and dozens of non-Chinese establishments across the city.
Here are five great egg rolls from Black restaurateurs you can find around the Chicago area.
1) Dinkey’s Lucky Rolls at Bobby’s Video Poker and Slots
One of the people most responsible for the current egg roll boom is Ernesta Berry, who goes by the nickname Dinkey the Egg Roll Lady.
“Egg rolls have been a family thing since we were kids,” Berry said. “My grandmother used to make ground beef egg rolls all the time.”
When Berry and her sister, Lekia Lowery, opened L&B Soul Kitchen in suburban Bellwood in 2012, they served egg rolls that were similar to the ones their grandmother used to make. As Berry explained in an October article by Mike Sula for the Chicago Reader, “I called them soul rolls.”
But by 2015, she realized that soul food sales were lagging, and her customers became far more excited about Caribbean-rooted jerk chicken. “Soul food was going so slow,” Berry said, “but I noticed everyone was loving jerk chicken, so we decided to put it in an egg roll.” The jerk chicken egg roll was born.
When fresh from the fryer, the crackly wrapper is dotted with delicate bubbles from the oil. The chicken filling is both juicy and intriguingly complex, with just enough chile heat to perk up each bite.
Berry didn’t stop at jerk chicken. She has continued to come up with new filling ideas year after year. “I make 79 different flavors of egg rolls,” Berry said proudly. With Greg Hudgins, she and her sister helped open Tastee Rolls, though Berry eventually decided to strike out on her own.
Currently, you can order Berry’s egg rolls at Dinkey’s Lucky Rolls, located inside Bobby’s Video Poker and Slots in suburban Hillside. But Berry is getting ready to open a new restaurant at 3652 W. Chicago Ave. within the next two weeks called, appropriately enough, The Egg Roll Lady.
2) Tastee Rolls
The tiny restaurant that popularized the jerk chicken egg roll is still bringing in the crowds. Though her sister left, Lekia Lowery is currently manager and head chef of Tastee Rolls.
Owner Greg Hudgins couldn’t be more bullish about the future. He’s already opened a second location in Chatham, and he hopes to expand out of state soon.
Each location offers dozens of different fillings, from shrimp and cheese to garlic Parmesan chicken. The iconic jerk chicken egg roll ($4.25) is the bestseller, and a worthy place to start. But my favorite option is actually the Italian beef egg roll ($4.75), which is stuffed with tender beef, gooey cheese and spicy giardiniera.
3) BigCity Cheesesteaks
Brian Hicks, owner of BigCity Cheesesteaks, said he opened the restaurant in Hammond, Indiana, to serve (as the name suggests) cheesesteaks. It was his wife who initially persuaded him to start serving egg rolls.
“I was skeptical,” Hicks said. “I hadn’t seen a restaurant around here serve them.” But once he added the dish to his menu in January 2020, he never regretted it.
“My customers love them,” Hicks said. “I sell roughly 400 to 600 on Saturdays. I have to get in at 6 a.m. to freshly roll them.”
You won’t find jerk chicken here. Instead, Hicks said the most popular egg roll is the cheesesteak ($3.75), which arrives stuffed with sauteed beef, molten cheese and chopped bell peppers. But he’s also proud of the gyro egg roll ($4.50) and the BigCity egg roll ($4.50), which is filled with bacon, pepper jack cheese and hot peppers.
Hicks said he’s always trying to come up with new fillings. “I’m actually trying to come up with a new one right now, maybe a seafood one,” Hicks said. He’s also considering opening another restaurant that focuses exclusively on egg rolls, because business has been so good.
4) Jay’s Backyard BBQ
Even barbecue restaurants are getting into the egg roll game. Jay’s Backyard BBQ in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago serves a variety of smoked meats, from tender rib tips to jerk chicken. But the shop is probably best known for the Obama sandwich, a righteous combination of jerk chicken and jerk steak covered in Provolone cheese and heaped together on a bun.
So it makes sense that while the shop serves a very good jerk chicken egg roll, what you really want is the Obama egg roll ($4.55). The crispy covering shatters with each bite, giving way to a deluge of cheese and plenty of juicy, spicy meat.
5) 3Kings Jerk
You can find egg rolls at essentially every jerk chicken restaurant in Austin, and there are a lot of them. But I’m partial to the ones served at 3Kings Jerk. Like at the best places, the egg rolls are fried to order, leaving the wrapper extra crispy, not greasy. Obviously, jerk chicken is the most popular option, but that’s just the beginning. You can also score egg rolls stuffed with cheesesteak, jerk shrimp, and shrimp and broccoli.
Source: Chicago Tribune