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South Branch takes salad up notch with Black   Bleu Wedge with chunks skirt steak go with hearts romaine

South Branch takes salad up a notch with the Black & Bleu Wedge, with chunks of skirt steak to go with hearts of romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, bacon chips, Gorgonzola and blue cheese dressing. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times photos

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South Branch Tavern Grille ★★

100 S. Wacker; (312) 546-6177;

Hours: Open at 11 a.m. Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner.

Prices: Appetizers, $8.99-$11.99; salads, $13.99-$14.99; burgers, $10.99-$11.99; entrees, $13.99-$16.99.

Try: “Black & Bleu Wedge” salad, fish tacos, burgers, pork chops.

In a bite: Smack dab on the Chicago River, South Branch (from the owners of Sweetwater) for dining either outside (in season) or inside has a good vibe (and the outdoor covered bar is a magnet for local office workers). The cuisine style, which is contemporary American (salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, eclectic entrees), has quite a few good things going for it. The prices are reasonable, and the food has some surprisingly interesting and tasty moments. Having all those flat-screen TVs smacks of sports bar, but the food rises above and beyond that cliche. The beer list rambles through ales (pale, Belgian, India pale, English style) with a purpose (know thy customer). The wine list isn’t shabby, either. It is well thought out and offers a nice selection of reds and whites by the glass and bottle. Check the website for the reservations policy, which reads like a mystery novel. More of an adult scene.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: October 27, 2011 12:30AM

The Wendella boats glide silently by, their top decks packed with colorfully dressed tourists. From my vantage point, an outdoor booth shaded by a canvas canopy, the boats were so close I could almost reach out and offer a french fry or two.

This is how it is while dining alfresco at South Branch Tavern Grille; the atmosphere is the river and the buildings that rise up on either side. (To snag one of those choice booths, I had to start my lunch at 11:15 a.m., a time not too far removed from when I had finished breakfast.)

South Branch draws a lunch crowd that any restaurant in the city would kill for. As the day wears on, the crowd thins out. A few stragglers at the outdoor bar, an office worker or three having an early dinner before catching a train back to the suburbs.

Inside South Branch, the atmosphere — with its sprawl of booth and tables, flat-screen TVs and uplighted polished tree branches — is downright cosmopolitan. This is not fine dining (the prices are too reasonable to slot it there), though the dining is low-key fine.

The makeup of the menu is as broad — it flows from the usual arrangement of appetizers, soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches (“and such”) into a half-dozen entrees — an “every person” stew of choices that is as much about variety as it is va-voom.

Having said that, I will quickly add that South Branch has one of the most appealing selections of salads that I have seen. From Waldorf to Cobb to one called Cowboy, somebody decided that it was time to up the ante by eschewing the arugula and going for a field of greens that are a lot more creative. For example, one salad called the Black & Bleu Wedge was a knife-and-fork fantasia of hearts of romaine dressed to thrill with sliced cherry tomatoes, crispy chips of bacon, Gorgonzola and blue cheese dressing. The “black” part of the name has to do with meaty chunks of grilled skirt steak sprinkled along the sides. Definitely an entree salad, or plenty for two to share.

“Signature burgers” kick off with a classic patty melt, then pretty much go into burgers every which way, each getting a variation on the theme of avocado, bacon and various cheeses. Nevertheless, the meat was the treat. Two were sampled, South Branch and Northwoods. The former goes with Swiss cheese, avocado and bacon. The Northwoods tops the thick and meaty patty with Cheddar, barbecue sauce and strips of bacon. Both made use of a sturdy pretzel bun, which despite the four-finger squeeze held up from start to finish. Burgers (and sandwiches) come with a choice of side (fries, veggies). The fries were so-so. Go with the thick-as-a-brick garlic mashed potatoes.

And then there were the Baja fish tacos. No bah-hah humbug with these tacos. The fillet of blackened tilapia was as hefty as I have come across in a fish taco. Even the slew of cabbage couldn’t deep-six the fish. Laid out on a flour tortilla along with a spicy chili aioli along with a smattering of Pepper Jack cheese, this was a case of fold ’em and hold ’em and finish them off.

Should the after-work (or pre-opera) crowd be looking for something a bit more substantial, the entrees include pasta, seafood, one steak (skirt), prime rib and pork chops. A matched set of thick chops got a proper apple cider glaze. Cozying up to the chops were a glop of apple chutney, asparagus spears and a mound of those excellent garlic mashed potatoes. The kitchen at South Branch has its act together.

If you are a diner who cannot live without dessert, you will not get a thrill at South Branch, because the only dessert listed on the menu goes by the moniker of Baked Cookie Dough: chocolate chip cookie dough with ice cream and chocolate sauce. You’ve seen it before. I did not try it.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780) News Radio.

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