Sky Full of Bacon


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Canada remains ever vigilant against American invasion at Fort George, near Niagara Falls.

People often ask me before I go to another big city if I plan to eat at [INSERT EXPENSIVE TASTING MENU PLACE HERE]. The answer is almost always no, for two reasons: one, I feel like I should be true to my school and spend those bucks on the people I cover in Chicago, not go chasing the shiny thing in New York. But two, I don’t feel a burning need to go eat the food of guys in New York who’ve staged at Alinea and Mugarritz and basically have the same background and outlook on international modern food as plenty of chefs here. If I’m going somewhere different, I want to eat what’s really native to and reflective of that area. Barney Greengrass means New York to me more than Eleven Madison Park does, so that’s what I want to go have.

Up to a point, anyway. So for Toronto, the most interesting thing to try for me was Chinese food; 20 years ago, before so many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, I went to a place in Toronto’s urban Chinatown, but that’s now dwarfed by the area out in Markham and Richmond Hill, where hundreds of import businesses are served by dozens of Chinese restaurants in strip malls. But for Montreal—if there’s such a thing as Quebecois food, it’s at top restaurants like Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, so I did what I never do and got two high-end reservations back to back at those two places (actually Liverpool House, Joe Beef’s other concept, though as far as I could tell the concept is “Exactly like Joe Beef two doors away”).

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Montreal will be in part 2, Toronto in this post. But first—we had to drive there. And driving toward great food up through the back end of Ontario is a somewhat dispiriting experience, punctuated by rest stops whose choices are almost Stalinistically identical (Tim Hortons, KFC, Taco Bell, a convenience store called Marché). From there it got culinarily worse, as we went to Niagara Falls, the town of which is a nightmare of alleged fun attractions (wax museums! Dino mini-golf!) which even the kids couldn’t put behind them fast enough. More attractive for certain was Niagara-On-The-Lake, but it’s a typical weekenders’ quaint little shopping and eating town, take Napa and replace all the wine geegaws with maple syrup gewgaws. We had lunch and walked around and shopped a little, and we were done.

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Finally, Toronto in time for dinner. Online I found a noodles joint called Chinese Traditional Bun that sounded promisingly funky, down some steps into a ratty little room, but with ladies making food right by the entrance. They looked at us like we had to be lost, but we convinced them we weren’t and sat down. We had pretty good xiao long bao, soup dumplings—well, Liam had most of them:

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There was also this interesting, sandwich-like thing with lamb in it. It was good, and very unusual— I wonder if it’s a Chinese thing or was invented in Toronto and has no antecedent back home to speak of. [UPDATE: see tweets at bottom.]

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But the best thing was dan dan mien, with housemade noodles (below). Scissors were provided to cut them as you ate. I also ordered something that said it was a lamb stew with Chinese bread in it. I don’t know what Chinese bread is, there were lots of little pieces of what looked like pasta in an enormous, fairly flavorless bowl of weird lamb cuts. Sometimes the price of experimenting on something new turns out to be that you have to waste a huge bowl of something in front of the people who made it, alas.

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On the way there we had spotted a tiny window where a guy offered lamb skewers, so on our way back we ordered the minimum order of four and watched as the guy took them out of a home freezer, rolled them in cookie sheets covered with spices, and grilled them by hand over an electric grill. This would have been more novel if I hadn’t had basically the same thing in Chicago a few weeks earlier at the skewer place in the Richland food court next to the Chinatown Square mall, but it was cool, nevertheless, to buy street food like this on the teeming streets of Chinatown.

We wanted to get to Montreal early in the week so as not to have all the driving back at the very end, so our last stop in Toronto for the time being was hitting a place in Markham for breakfast dim sum on the way out of town. We’d actually stayed in Markham, 20 years ago, when it was farm country and the TV series of Anne of Green Gables had been shot nearby (never mind that it’s set in P.E.I.) Now it was a busy suburban area loaded, absolutely packed, with strip malls of Chinese-oriented shops.

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I knew there was a knockoff of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung nearby, but an article in The Globe & Mail steered me to a place they said was both better and less likely to be packed, 369 Shanghai Dim Sum. Indeed, at 11 we were the second table there, though it filled up fast. First choice was xiao long bao… which were the best I’ve ever had. I’m a little leery of saying that, since there has been a lot of xiao long bao obsessiveness online, so I didn’t haul out the micrometer to measure the wrapper. I’ll just say: most delicate wrapper, best tasting soup, you can’t argue with that.

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Most of the other things we had evidenced similarly quality, from shrimp dumplings to pastries filled with pork. At one point I saw something interesting on a nearby table, a bao with kind of a ridged top, something like a croissant, and quietly asked the waitress what it was, not wanting to seem intrusive toward the other table. “This?” she said loudly, sticking her finger right into the middle of their plates. I said yes and she explained that it was a snail. Or snails. I couldn’t tell if she meant it was just shaped like a snail shell, or actually had snails in it. I decided not to inflict an order of those on the family, but I still wonder.

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Renee with the menus at John’s Chinese BBQ.

Coming back after a few days in Montreal I planned another Chinese-palooza with my friend Renee Suen, who writes for Toronto Life. As someone who often guides other journalists, radio hosts, etc. to places in Chicago, I was delighted when I told her that we had gone to 369 Shanghai Dim Sum based on the Globe & Mail piece by Chris Nuttall-Smith— and she replied “Yeah, I took Chris there.”

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Piri-piri chicken.

We planned to meet for more dim sum the next day, so the night before we tried something else we don’t have in Chicago— we went to a Portuguese grilled chicken and meats place called Piri-Piri. To be honest, it wasn’t that different from all the South American grilled meats places we have, but it was likable enough.

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You have not tasted the power of my Dragon Fu-sion!

Since we’d had Northern dim sum, Renee wanted us to try Southern dim sum too, and she directed us to a place called Dragon Boat Fusion Cuisine, which was packed and barely able to contain the crowds that hovered around the host stand and which she had to beat back out of the dining room regularly. We waited a half hour but finally sat, and it was worth it. Things maybe weren’t as delicate as at 369, which being Northern-style uses a different kind of wheat wrapper anyway, but they were well-made and the fillings were a cut above any that I’ve had here, from something as basic as pork in an egg white wrap to the BBQ pork bao and this cool-looking thing you dipped in mustard and plum sauce:

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Custard buns.

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BBQ pork pastries.

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Yes, there were children deciding what to order.

We were full but not done; Renee wanted us to try one of her favorite dishes, something called “King of King’s Pork” at a Hong Kong BBQ place, John’s Chinese BBQ. It’s a hunk of meat somewhere in the vicinity of pork belly, double-glazed in a honey sauce. And it’s awesome, the ultimate meat candy.

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My delight in it was slightly diminished by the display in the foyer as you enter the restaurant: an assortment of shark fin skeletons, a reminder that this is the real Chinese cuisine, eating endangered species to this day in north America. China really has set up shop in this corner of Canada, on a scale well beyond the ability of food writers or much of anyone else to fully comprehend.

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At Fort George we saw them fire this…

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In honor of these guys, Canadian paratroopers who dropped on and right after D-Day.

ADDENDUM: from a couple of friends via Twitter:

Play

Airwaves Full of Bacon 13: Smoked Salmon Tasting With Ethan Forman of H. Forman and Son, London • Paul Fehribach of Big Jones on His Southern Cookbook • Michael Nagrant on Life as a Restaurant Critic in 2014

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It’s the very far from fat free episode!

(1:40) First up, David Hammond and I taste smoked salmon with Ethan Forman of London’s H. Forman and Son, makers of superior smoked salmon which you can find at Eataly, Whole Foods, and a number of north shore delis including Kaufman’s, Upper Crust, and Once Upon a Bagel.


Sashimi cut.


Paul Fehribach with caul fat for making chaudin.

(17:25) Then I talk with Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, who has The Big Jones Cookbook coming out next year, based on his extensive research into southern food. I’ve written several times about his digging into old food ways, like here, here and here. A longer version of this interview was at the Reader here and here.


Salt-rising bread.


Pancit noodles at Isla Pilipina.

(36:10) Then I talk with Michael Nagrant, reviewer for Redeye, about reviewing and the restaurant scene in 2014, and we mention lots of things along the way. Here are links to things he wrote about: the chicken-donut sandwich, North Pond, Isla Pilipina, Laughing Bird, Publican Quality Meats, Bohemian House, Tete Charcuterie, and MFK.

So contrary to what it says in the podcast it doesn’t look like my last appearance on WGN Radio is available online, but here’s the episode of Outside the Loop in which I talk about the food journalism scene.

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A photo my son Liam took of the zoology building at the University of Chicago.

From the news our food scene seems like it’s entering a more corporate-concept phase— steak houses and ramen shops from the best-known restaurant groups, every day something interesting closes to reconcept as standard Italian, and so on. It would be easy to think that we weren’t going to see much in the way of personal restaurants this year.

And yet somehow we’ve had three restaurants open within the past year that seem about as good as they can be at giving three chefs who’ve been around the scene a while a platform for the expression of their mature selves, personal and without significant compromise. One is The Radler, for longtime Vie #2 Nathan Sears, representing his notion of a German beer hall with fresh food, meaty yet light and winning. One is Parachute, from Beverly Kim and her husband Johnny Clark, a Fat Rice-like hipster cafe with Korean flavors and fine dining execution. And surprisingly, the third is Matthias Merges’ A10, in Hyde Park.

The surprising part is not that Merges was capable of such a thing— as the guy who ran the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s for 14 years, he seems capable of pretty much anything. But his first two concepts were just that, concepts, and that seemed to be the direction he was going. Yusho seemed very smartly thought out as a kind of refined-Japanese-comfort-foody bar, and the concept was independent enough of who was actually cooking there that it would be possible to replicate at least a few times without losing quality— and so there’s one in Las Vegas, and one coming soon to the same stretch of Hyde Park as A10. His second place, Billy Sunday, seems less well thought out— I liked the drinks (a tonic-based cocktail program) a lot, but the food (helmed by John Vermiglio, formerly of Table 52 and G.E.B.) seemed a weird mess of things that didn’t go together, or with the setting.

But the point is they both seemed conceived in terms of how to market them to a certain audience in Logan Square. Very smartly so, but still. A10 also originated in a business deal— Merges was approached by the University of Chicago, which is trying to redevelop 53rd Street to help make Hyde Park more attractive to prospective students and job candidates. (You see U of C security all over the street at night, giving the entire neighborhood a kind of Universal City Walk feel even though there are plenty of non-U of C businesses along there.)

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So A10 seemed like a smart concept for the neighborhood, contemporary Italian with French and just plain modern touches. (The A10 is the highway that connects Italy and southern France, so the French part is more like the Rhone and the Riviera than Paris or Burgundy.) But it’s a surprise that it also turns out to be one of the best Italian restaurants in town, and the clearest example yet of how Merges’ Trotter heritage translates to more accessible and reasonably priced food.

I should say that Vermiglio is the official chef here as well, so I have no idea who’s responsible for what exactly, but Merges did walk in soon after we arrived on Friday night, incidentally blowing my cover (I’ve interviewed him and videoed him for Key Ingredient; he sent us a couple of extra things and stopped by to say hi). In any case let’s assume a meeting of minds between the two of them on an approach to food. The salads seemed like pure Trotter’s, with hair just mussed a little for Italian rusticity— a blend of cucumber, melon, red pepper puree and grilled onions, or kohlrabi and apple slices shaved with downy parmigiano, the kohlrabi sourced, we were told, from the Cook County Jail’s gardens. Simple height-of-summer produce dressed just enough and no more, and despite the efforts at seeming more casual, nearly as perfect-looking as they would have at Trotter’s (note the spacing of the tiny bits of chopped green whatever on the kohlrabi salad above). I should note, though, that there was an exception to this that didn’t delight in the same way, a kale salad with tonnato dressing and pumpernickel (pumpernickel is the new Italian bread, apparently, to judge by this and Cicchetti). It was heavy and wintry, but that’s our fault for ordering it I guess, more than theirs for having the apparently-inevitable-at-the-moment kale salad on the menu.

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More than one restaurant has gone downhill after the salad course in peak season, but not this one— the pastas, made in house, were superb. The best was this gemelli with some kind of sauce involving oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes, some kind of roe (bottarga maybe, under another name?), saffron (I think that was in the pasta itself) and lemon. I’m not sure of the precise composition of it, all I know is that it sang, it absolutely shone of lemony brightness with an undercurrent of brine and cello-deep notes of tomato. I want it for an alarm o’clock every morning, to jolt me into the light.

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My son Liam had bucatini carbonara, which he pronounced excellent (I’ve made it many times; he quizzed the waitress to see if it was heavy on the pepper like mine is), and we also nibbled on green tomato lasagna with blue crab and bearnaise sauce— I wondered if green tomato lasagna would mean the pasta or what was in between them, but it proved to be the latter. I don’t think anything was either French or Italian about this, except the basic idea of lasagna, but what it did remind me of was the one thing that I had really liked among the food at Billy Sunday— their version of a hot brown, which was heavy on sliced tomato and mornay sauce, as I recall it. There was also a special of corned short ribs with cabbage, which turned out to be what that would make if you think about it— a reuben in a pan without bread, basically.

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Desserts were a little anticlimactic, fine but not as creative-seeming as the savory courses; they included a nice coconut panna cotta and, as at Yusho, soft serve (chocolate malt, which had a lot of barley tang). One other thing I noted about A10— the staff seemed a little older and enthused to be there. A lot of people have wanted higher-end choices in Hyde Park, but I suspect servers from the other restaurants around the area have wanted it even more than most, hoping to make more money than you can at, say, Mellow Yellow or Ragin Cajun. For now, at least, A10 has very interactive and conscientious service which is happy to see you.

A10
1462 E. 53rd
773-288-1010

http://a10hydepark.com

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Salt for your fries?

When I ran across Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs & Fries in Edgebrook, I thought I might have discovered a place right under the noses of many of the more active remaining LTHers who live on the northwest side. Turns out that Rene G, who lives in Hyde Park, had actually been there and eaten a Japanese dog with seaweed salad (!) there, and there are a handful of other mentions, though more about it opening soon (a year ago) than about how it actually turned out to be. Actually, you know who didn’t mention it? The guy who wrote the best hot dog in every neighborhood post at Thrillist, and tried to find every dog spot doing the Hot Doug thing of more exotic dogs. Oh well, it probably wouldn’t have beaten out Superdawg for that area anyway.

Still, let’s give it a nod, it’s always good to know a better dog and burger joint in every neighborhood, especially one close to something you might do, like bike on the forest preserve bike trails at Devon & Caldwell; and while I like the sleepy-50s feel of that area (I spent a few moments reading the 80s and 90s clippings on the front of the Filipino restaurant on Caldwell there), I can’t say it’s a bad thing that something from this century has opened up along there, too. Great smoky Polish, good-looking burgers (haven’t had one yet), the chili dog was decent but the homemade chili a little watery, eating it was a race against time before the bun fell apart; there are more exotic dogs on the menu, fresh-cut fries— served saltless so you can salt them yourself from the exotic salt bar— and good-looking shakes, plus a message about sustainability in the wood they used for their tables, or something like that. Always happy to know about one more dog spot that’s pushing the envelope and trying to do something unique.

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Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs & Fries
5419 W. Devon
773-775-2545
www.ivyschicago.com

Barbecue at Mariano’s. I wrote about the sushi bar at the Lawrence/Ravenswood Mariano’s recently, and after a couple of more visits around meal times, all I can say is Eataly missed a bet not being located here. The place gets packed every lunchtime and every night, it may not say the best things about a neighborhood if its local wine bar is where you also get toilet paper, but the neighborhood has embraced it for all those purposes. I’m going to be a little contrarian on barbecue though, at least contrary to my usual position vis-a-vis Mike Sula, who usually blasts a new barbecue place and then six months later I find it’s not bad. Sula had generally positive things to say about “Todd’s BBQ” here even if he could never find out if there actually was a Todd.

Me… well, sure, it’s high among supermarket barbecue, of that I have no doubt, because how much supermarket barbecue isn’t simply meat that’s been sauced and got no closer to smoke than the Pall Malls rolled in the meat cutter’s sleeve? They use a Southern Pride smoker, which has the potential to make real barbecue, so give them points for that right off the bat.

I ordered brisket and pulled pork; the brisket was pretty good, if awfully loose and floppy, like it had spent a lot of time in a warming drawer steaming itself. Still, I’d put it on the thumbs-up side. The pulled pork (which was, incidentally, chopped, not pulled) didn’t have enough smokiness and basically, like most supermarket pork it didn’t have much flavor, but what flavor it did have was a little off, industrially vaguely unpleasing. The sauces (in help yourself bottles at the counter) were all way too sweet, but that’s easily remedied, just buy your own of something better. There’s rotisserie chicken behind the same counter which doesn’t appear to get smoke, and some other chicken, it appears, going on a gas grill. Anyway, a fair showing but better really isn’t that far away; I will probably drive an extra mile or so for Smalls or somewhere instead. On the other hand, if one person wants barbecue and the other wants sushi, this is the place.

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I did two roundup lists for Thrillist lately, the first on hot dogs. I didn’t think there was really any way to rank hot dogs, given that you’re mostly using the same basic materials (a conclusion someone else came to shortly after), so I decided the sensible thing was to pick one good spot in 25 different neighborhoods. The north side I could pretty much cover from past experience, but it meant Son #2 and I had to make a couple of runs to the south side, trying one dog at each of several places.

Good news, bad news. The good news is that there is one glorious stretch for hot dog-dom on the south side, and that’s 35th street near Comiskey, not too surprisingly, with three joints— 35th Street Red Hots, Johnny O’s, and Morrie O’Malley’s— making as good a dog as can be found anywhere.

The bad news is: it was surprising how mediocre the rest of the south side was. In particular the natural casing dog, with its snap releasing the garlicky juices, was almost impossible to find at places you’d think would have them like Donald’s (pictured above), Parisi’s, Fat Johnnie’s (which somebody ranked as best in town once) and so on. I had a lot of lukewarm dogs in every sense, crowned a few tallest midgets like Fat Johnnie’s (at least it has atmosphere, same for Parisi’s; Donald’s didn’t make it), and am forced to the conclusion that the best dogs are mostly on the north side, except for that one great stretch of 35th.

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Another list was southern and soul food. I only had to try a couple of places to fill out the list, but it was harder to do that, because you can’t go try four soul food places in one trip; more like try one, lay on the couch the rest of the day.

So it was a bummer when we went a long way for one that turned out not to be very good, like Dan’s Soul Food & Bakery on 79th. It had some good Yelp reviews and sounded promising from what they said. And it could have been if they’d ever discovered the salt shaker, or hadn’t discovered instant mashed potatoes. in other words, if it had more soul! But it was just bland, and used a couple of dispiriting shortcuts.

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But I did try some better things, and I stand by all the soul food places on that list. Back on the north side, Carriage House is a place that didn’t get a fair shake the first time I went there. Son #2 basically didn’t want to eat anything, and it kind of ruined everyone’s evening. So I wanted to try it again and when he got invited to a baseball game the rest of us went. The idea is to evoke Carolina Low Country cuisine, more than the deep South food more common here, and when it does that it can be very good. The balls of braised pork topped with country ham above, for instance, were great, and so were smoked/glazed chicken wings and the fried chicken thigh (though at small plate prices of $9 for one piece of chicken, it makes any of our new fried chicken joints look like a bargain).

The problem came with things that just seemed like upscale food without any interesting southernness. A shrimp and pork belly pie sounds like a deep, savory pot pie kind of thing full of funky, fishy pork and shrimp goodness— but turns out to be two empanadas, basically, tasting mainly of dough, for an absurd $16. The menu needs an editor’s hand that says, does this one make your eyes roll back in your head with Southern flavors that sing of the heritage of the south, or could you imagine having this same experience, basically, in any kind of restaurant? There are enough things that do the first that the ones that do the second need to stop dragging them down.

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Anyway, in the course of this piece there was one long trip down south that I was so happy I made. I had actually gone to Maple Tree Inn when I first moved here, somewhere around 1990. It was kind of a Cajun diner in Beverly then, run by a self-taught cook (who learned during the Cajun craze of the 80s) named Charlie Orr. It was one of my very rare trips that far into unknown territory for food back then, and memorable, though I assumed it was long gone in later years. I was surprised when LTHers remarked on it and it turned out to still exist in the southern suburb of Blue Island, in an old speakeasy building. Charlie passed away in 2010, but his family still runs it.

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The house special Voodoo nuts, andouille sausage around garlic cloves.

And it’s pretty great. Not just for the extremely well-executed classic Cajun food— my crawfish etoufée was as good as I’ve ever had, well-balanced and full of life— but for the total package of being in a vintage building on a sleepy, stuck-in-the-50s strip in a small town. We sat on the veranda, which is newer and sunnier, but there’s an equal case to be made for the dark tavern front room which includes an 1890s original carved bar. If you ever want a getaway from the city that’s actually fairly speedy to get to (I thought it might take hours, but we zipped right down there at 5:30 on a weeknight), yet feels like you’ve gone off to Wisconsin with some New Orleans thrown in, it’s highly recommended.

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Valois Cafeteria. You may think that I’ve been everywhere. I want people to think I’ve been everywhere! That’s part of the brand image! But there’s always another somewhere, isn’t there, and probably the most famous place left in Chicago I’d never been— famous enough that it had a book written about it— was Valois Cafeteria, the Greek steam table cafeteria line place not far from the U of C. I’d never been because everybody considers it a breakfast place, really (there is a conspicuous silence on the virtues of any other meal here), and the logistics of hauling yourself to breakfast all the way on the other side of town aren’t that favorable when you have hungry kids and plenty of places serving the same thing in between.

But Son #2 took a computer camp at U of C and he loves breakfast joints, so there we were one morning at last. How’s the food? Standard, I’d say. You could certainly have it elsewhere, and closer (to me), Greek diner food. But even on a fairly sleepy morning with not that many people in the place, you could see why it’s more than a diner, it’s the heart of a community. If you’re a college student, it feels like they’re going to take care of you and make sure you get fed. If you’re a working joe with just a few bucks for breakfast, the Greek guys behind the counter in their white uniforms look like the staff of the Ritz, ready to take care of you with military precision. I thought it was interesting that it has a reputation as the great integrated place in a segregated town, because I thought the staff was maybe the most clearly defined by race I’ve seen anywhere— the Greek guys cook, the black lady takes your money, the Mexican ladies clean up. Those lines don’t look like they ever get crossed. But it’s a well-oiled machine that helps a whole community run. God forbid anyone should ever look at that and decide it needs changing.

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Life in the shadow of the Bomb at Valois.

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Play

Airwaves Full of Bacon 12: Making Vodka at CH Distillery • Restaurant Designer Karen Herold • Lisa Shames on Chicago Social’s 2014 Restaurant Issue • Ramadan Dining With My Halal Kitchen’s Yvonne Maffei

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This is the episode whose theme is no theme! Well, I’ve just been doing a lot of interviews lately, and here’s some of them.

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(2:04) First up, I go inside CH Distillery, Chicago’s first distillery and tasting room, in the West Loop, and learn what’s brewing and distilling there from owner Tremaine Atkinson. Although you expect whiskey and bourbon, it’s interesting to learn that vodka, rum and amaro also play significant roles.

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(21:08) Next up I talk with restaurant designer Karen Herold about how she makes restaurants work for success and to keep people wanting to come back. We talk about the design for Balena in particular, but you can read more from her about specific restaurants in the second part of this interview at the Reader.

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(39:26) In Episode 3 I talked with Chicago Social dining editor Lisa Shames about 2013′s restaurant issue, and she’s back this time to talk about 2014′s. Lots of restaurants get talked about in this including Cocello, Nico, Cicchetti, 42 Grams, Dusek’s, A10, Tanta and The Radler.

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(54:48) And it’s Ramadan, so I talk about the fasting and the feasting that happens this month for Muslims with Yvonne Maffei, who has a halal food blog, My Halal Kitchen. We met at an event organized by Chicago Foodways Roundtable at Khan BBQ. Other restaurants she mentions include Usmania Chinese, Delhi Darbar (D.D. Kebab House), and Tahoora.

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Finally, as I mentioned I’ve been on WGN Radio twice recently with guest host James VanOsdol; I appeared with Barry Sorkin to talk about BBQ, and solo to talk hot dogs.

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The Radler. I love Vie and feel deep sympathy with its core philosophy, I’ve known Nathan Sears who was its #2 for a long time, and a kind of casual but updated German beer hall sounded right up my alley. So why didn’t I love The Radler the first time? Things were nice enough (except the fried spaetzle, which I think are too dry, like getting Chex Mix as a side at dinner) but somehow it didn’t click for me that first night, even things others loved like the onion tart were just… nice.

And that might have been the end of it, if I didn’t know the chef and respect his work. You try a place, it’s okay, you’re done. But there had to be more, I thought. I wasn’t going to give it up that easily. A month later I went with another friend.

I loved it. I felt entirely in tune with its philosophy. Back in one of my podcasts Nathan had said “Germans eat tomato salads, but you never see a tomato on a German menu,” which to me is the most succinct expression of this restaurant’s reason for being: things grow in Germany, which don’t fit an American idea of German food, but there’s no reason not to use them. (He’s also joked, or not joked, that it’s really an Italian German restaurant, Italian techniques and desire for fresh ingredients applied to German dishes.) So you get some slices of summer sausage with a salad and spring peas, or fritters with a beet puree and fava beans. What the hell is that? A kid might put that jumble on a plate, you think. Except it’s great, the combination of salty cured meat or friedness and spring green freshness. Another example came at a all-veal dinner he did with Scott Manley at Table Donkey & Stick: slices of pink veal tossed in a tomato vinaigrette, as light and fizzy as a big hunk of cow could possibly be.

So how can a place be magical twice but strike you as a miss the first time? Is it because the seasons changed? A little, I think, things were greener the second and third time. Did I mature as a human being and a diner in a month? Hey, who am I to say. But mainly, I think it just goes to show that restaurants aren’t movies or plays or books or concerts. They’re ineffable, they’re about the moment on a certain night different from all other nights, and sometimes the moment just doesn’t work when it should. After three visits The Radler is one of my favorite new restaurants, maybe the best new restaurant of the year, doing wonderful stuff that’s different and full of life and freshness, with the stalest of ethnic cuisines. It has an easy atmosphere in a sometimes pretentious scene, it has a fine beer list of Germanish things which actually go with food because they’re not all IPAs. So go. And if it doesn’t work for you, wait a month and go again.

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Kinmont. I had a great dish by Duncan Biddulph, chef of Kinmont, recently— a kind of fish soup or stew with a puckeringly strong tamarind bite. But it wasn’t at Kinmont— it was at the Reader’s Key Ingredient Cook-off party, and I clearly wasn’t the only one who liked it, since it won among the tamarind dishes and I think won the whole thing. It was a well-crafted and imaginative dish, but when I went to Kinmont, the seafood restaurant Biddulph helms from the Element Collective group (Nellcote, Leghorn, etc.), only half that equation was at work there. Well-crafted, yes— everything was well-executed, certainly, but imagination seemed much more tightly reined in. The first thing we had was the most satisfying— a trout dip, relatively simple but timeless, smoky trout and cream cheese and bits of onion and greens in perfect proportion. It not only fit our mouths perfectly, it fit the faux-midcentury-Wisconsin lodge atmosphere just as well. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely wild about the concept going in— the faux-lodge thing has been done before, in a Lettuce Entertain You way, at places like L. Woods or The Canoe Club on Halsted a decade and a half ago— but at least it was being carried off really well here by this group.

Clam chowder was likewise nicely executed, satisfying, then the main courses came… and they were perfectly good pieces of fish, cooked just right, and no more. Is that enough for a concept? It’s true to that food, but I couldn’t get that excited about a straightforward fish place that, say, makes McCormick & Schmick look really puny, but no more. It’s nice that they’re dedicated to sustainability, and I’m sure there’s a market for a pretty straight fish place as there’s a market for conventional steakhouses, but that kind of safe business dining doesn’t excite me… and when I know the chef can do more interesting and eye-opening things, I wish they were on the menu of his restaurant.

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Laughing Bird. Is this finally the Filipino moment? We seem to have enough places trying to make Filipino flavors accessible through other styles of food (Pecking Order with fried chicken, Smalls with barbecue) and Laughing Bird gives us a nice, hip Filipino spot with a familiar chef (Top Chef alum Chrissy Camba, recently at Bar Pastoral). Hey, Portuguese-Macanese worked, why not this?

I hope it works. It’s not cohesive yet, at its best pulling off Filipino flavors with fine dining finesse, at its least successful (the pancit noodle dish, surprisingly) coming off like an overpriced version of delivery Thai. That’s the death for any attempt to do cheffy Asian food, the $16 dish that’s half as good as the $8 version. But the good was good enough that you hope it has the time and finds the audience to work its way to a menu that works as well as Fat Rice’s does.

A plate of charcuterie was interesting, ranging from super-smooth chicken liver to a block of grilled meat that, nobody wanted to say, was surely inspired by the ubiquity of Spam in parts of the world where Americans went in WWII. I’d have liked more Asian flavors (and fewer French or Jewish deli ones)— Mike Sula liked the little cubes of adobo gel, but I couldn’t taste anything in them. Octopus with dinuguan (a blood-based sauce) was great, though, and I especially liked the “crispy pork a la Nadim,” which seemed a train wreck by its description: a tough little piece of tonkatsu (breaded pork) atop some Manila clams in a broth the color of a fire engine, with braised fennel at the bottom. Our server, the bartender, told us to eat it all together, and he was right— that spicy rich broth brought the gnarled pork to life and the fennel gave it complexity that made me wonder why bland things like bok choy are so common in Asian cooking when fennel exists. It was a wow dish; will it and a few others make the awkward space (the former Tank Sushi in Lincoln Square, which is about big enough to play softball in) and somewhat inexperienced servers (the bartender had previously been Tank’s delivery guy; that said, he was a great host) work in time? Here’s hoping.

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Sushi counter at Mariano’s, Ravenswood. Mike Sula reviewed, and had unaccustomed praise for, the barbecue from the mega-Mariano’s at Lawrence and Ravenswood, and I live as close to it as he does, so I might as well toss in my two cents. I didn’t hit it for the BBQ, though— I was still detoxing after this— instead I went to the sushi counter. And like him, I’m surprised how entirely respectable the grocery store version can be. It’s mostly rolls, but you can get sashimi and nigiri with pretty nice quality fish, and at least the dragon roll I had was done well, not gooped up as has become the common practice. It’s not Katsu, but it’s certainly as good as a better neighborhood sushi spot.

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Disclosure: I was recognized every time at The Radler and comped this or that, including the veal dinner. The others were all paid for, though there might have been a comped dessert at Kinmont, I can’t remember for sure.

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Airwaves Full of Bacon 11: Local Goes Industrial • Farmer Eric Stiegman on Local Beer • Adrian Miller on Soul Food • 10 Years an Internet Foodie, With David Hammond and Rob Gardner

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Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.

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Ryan Kimura, Dave Rand and Gary Lazarski, Local Foods.

(2:20) I start off talking local food with, well, Local Foods, a distributor based in Chicago which is building a warehouse and retail space on Elston in Chicago to bring farmer produce directly to restaurants and customers. Here’s the Reader piece I wrote from this interview.

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(17:38) Then I talk with an Illinois farmer trying to grow the ingredients for local beer. He’s Eric Stiegman of Mammoth Malt, and I met him at an event at Jared Rouben’s Moody Tongue Brewing Co.; I wrote about Stiegman here. (You may remember that I spoke with Rouben in Episode 4.)

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(22:44) Adrian Miller is a Denver-based writer who just won a James Beard award for his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. (And check out the Kickstarter for his next project.)

Here are links for the Chicago soul food places he or I mention along the way: Ruby’s, Morrison’s, Pearl’s Place, Macarthur’s, Soul Vegetarian East, Yah’s Cuisine.

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(43:45) And finally, May marks the 10th anniversary of a group of us founding LTHForum.com, the Chicago food chat site. I figure nobody wants to hear the history of a website, so I grabbed two of my comrades, Rob Gardner of The Local Beet, and writer for the Sun-Times and everybody else David Hammond, to talk about it all on a more universal level— how did we all get into this business of talking about food online, and how has it changed our lives? I think it’s a pretty fun and funny conversation (that incidentally demonstrates what things were like back then when we’d get together).

It took place at La Quebrada in Cicero, and here is the 2002 Chowhound thread in which I recount my first visit there (David links to the Rob/Vital Information post that sent me there).

Thanks for listening and passing the word along about my podcast!

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How they mark the boxes at Morrison’s Soul Food.

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The 2004 Chowhound Westernathon, some long-gone Indian restaurant where the last diehards assembled after 14 hours. How ancient is this history? We were taking food pictures on actual film, that’s how ancient.

Ten years ago, something beautiful was released to the world when, through careful planning and calm consensus, LTHForum…

no, that’s not how it happened. It was crazier and more haphazard than that. Let’s go back. To Chowhound. Chowhound c. 2002 was where a bunch of us, though we weren’t an “us” yet, first started talking about food and, more importantly, meeting about it with strangers. We would meet for lunch, at Spoon or La Quebrada or Kang Nam or “Little” Three Happiness or Los Mogotes or Vito & Nick’s or whatever the enthusiasm of the moment was, and order the weird things with no concern— as we would have had with normal people— that something might gross somebody out. I learned so much and experienced so much in such an intense short time. But more than that, I came to feel that the city was mine at last. A decade after moving here, I no longer felt like a Kansan temporarily working here but that I belonged to the city, I understood the city, it wasn’t something too big and alien to ever comprehend. You want to know where to get great tacos? Here. I read a post about it. I made a movie about Maxwell Street. I’m the guy that knows Chicago.

But Chowhound was an imperfect vessel for our aspirations. The management didn’t like us planning events on the board, they didn’t like us seeming like a clique (even though we tried to be as welcoming as possible). I didn’t think they were necessarily wrong by their lights— we were taking something public and impartial and making it our clubhouse, even if we’d welcome anyone into it. But at the same time, I didn’t feel obligated to spend the rest of my days answering the same questions from tourists over and over, either, as remains Chowhound’s primary purpose. We outgrew it, plain and simple.

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Me and the late Will Philpot, for whom the Will Special sandwich at Riviera was named, at TAC Quick, 2004. No idea who the mom and kid are, or who took this picture with my camera.

For a while we planned events on an email list, open to whoever wanted to be on it, but that was cumbersome, too; and there was an incident when Jim Leff (“Big Dog” of Chowhound) read some minor bitching about Chowhound on it and came unglued about its real purpose being ragging on him. It was time to declare independence from New York, and twelve of us became the core group behind it. I suggested that we launch our own discussion board and researched open source software we could use; Gary Wiviott got his hosting company, a bunch of Turkish guys, to install PhpBB (the fact that they also installed a Turkish character set would prove to be a problem years later), Seth Zurer put up the first logo which led me to design one that would be more distinctive (and easier to do on things like T-shirts), and through April and May of 2004 we slowly fiddled around with it, debating board organization, getting our feet wet with a few practice posts (here’s mine, a thread that was still active as of last August).

We were getting closer to going public when Rob Gardner mentioned it to somebody (Monica Eng, probably) in the press. Suddenly we were public before we meant to be. Hastily, we had to tell the email list what we were up to— and within about 24 hours, we suddenly had a board that had 125 or so members. In retrospect not at all a bad thing, to be off to a running start; and a very good thing to instantly not just be one homogenous group of friends but a large group with many varied interests, who from the start engaged in multiple conversations and revealed new sides of themselves that Chowhound’s more limited focus had not made room for.

We declared the date of that announcement, May 27, 2004, the official public launch date of LTHForum. Was this LTH’s golden age? You could argue it wasn’t, since unbeknownst to 97% of users, it kicked off with a big fight over who “owned” it, who would be the Big Dog, loudly argued on the sidewalk right in front of Little Three Happiness itself, as a legless beggar in a wheelchair, clueless about the argument but happy to join in the shouting, yelled something like “You tell it to The Man! The Man always be tryin’ to rob you!” (I kid you not— or at least so I was told, I was out of town that weekend.) The issue of ownership (of what was supposed to be a communal hobby), and egos more generally as we started to get media attention, would simmer for years behind the scenes and eventually split us apart three or so years later. When the issue became public I had people tell me we should have nailed ownership stuff down right at the beginning, to prevent the embarrassing situation that finally ended the old LTHForum. In which case, I said, none of it would have ever happened at all. It was never about (phantom, to this day) internet riches; there’s nothing ownership would have given any of us that was worth more than a few good years of collective creative ferment and shared enthusiasm and adventure. Certainly none of the things I’ve done since— Sky Full of Bacon, Beard award, writing for Grub Street and the Reader, whatever— would have happened without it. (You can get a sense of what we were like in this podcast I asked Michael Nagrant to do with us.)

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Road trip to Milwaukee: Jake’s Deli, 2004.

It had its few years, and life moved on (remarkably, this blog has been around almost twice as long as I helped manage the many unique personalities of LTHForum in their interactions; only one of those seems like an eternity). A version of LTHForum exists, and some people still use that in that generous, open-spirited way and discuss things in detail that nobody else is talking about, and bless them for it, while others use it in, well, ways that end in screaming in Thai restaurants. Which is pretty much 180 from the spirit in which it was founded, I’ll just say that. But some friendships from those early days have lasted the decade and more; and in any case it’s a very good thing that the comrades of those days have spread out across the world and infiltrated all kinds of things from media to local organizations and farmer’s markets.

For me the legacy of that time is everywhere that LTHers have spread the gospel that Thai and Mexican food matter, that great food is all over the city, that there’s so much that’s interesting out there to taste and do and it all should be talked about in many different ways and places. It’s Cathy at Culinary Historians, and Hammond at the Sun-Times, and Melissa Graham with Purple Asparagus and Rob Gardner with The Local Beet and Seth Zurer with Baconfest and on and on. It’s the next generation of food writers— apparently 10 years is long enough for a next generation— for whom Burt’s and Lao Sze Chuan and Cemitas Puebla and the Will Special (whoever Will was) and mother-in-laws and 30s style burgers (wherever that description comes from) are just part of the fabric of the city, places we all go and things we all eat, naturally, impossible to imagine a time when people didn’t. We all reap the benefits of that intensive, creative, crazily obsessed time, and take what we gained then with us to whatever we do now. That, it turns out, was the only part of LTHForum that anybody ever truly owned.

So I look back in fondness on this tenth anniversary, and thank all who were present at the creation or close enough, we happy few, we band of brothers (of both sexes). Let’s go grab a bite sometime.

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LTH kids in the doorway of Podhalanka, 2004.

So I did a couple of best of’s for Thrillist, this one of the best Italian beef in Chicago, this one of tavern cut pizza, and this one of barbecue. Mostly I had a pretty firm idea of what I thought the best for each list should be. But in each case, I felt there were a few places in each category that I had been meaning to try forever, and I should try before I passed definitive word on that category. Some made it onto those respective lists— Villa Nova lived up to its pizza rep, I was delighted to find that Duke’s on south Harlem, which I had blown past to go eat middle eastern food for ages, was as good as it was and used live charcoal for its sausages, and Green Street Smoked Meats turned out to be surprisingly good BBQ as well as by far the most faux-atmospheric fake honky tonk in town, one of those places like at Disneyland where it’s so dark and midnight-feeling inside that it’s disorienting to walk into straight from sunlight and early evening; you feel like you just blacked out for several hours.

But others didn’t quite make the cut— or didn’t come anywhere near. Here’s my report on the ones left on the cutting room floor.

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ITALIAN BEEF

There were several Italian beefs I felt I should try, including Duke’s and Bari (both of which made the list), and my son Myles had a day off from school the day I had open to do it, so we made an Italian beef expedition out of it, hitting both those places and more, eating only as much of each sandwich as seemed necessary to be able to write about it. Another one I wanted to try was The Patio on Taylor Street, and as long as we were there I thought we might as well establish a baseline and get a few pics at the original Al’s a few blocks east, so we started there. I don’t rank Al’s #1 but it’s clearly top-tier, and Myles really enjoyed it.

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The Patio.

Commenters on the article plumped for The Patio but as far as I could see, its only merit is for people who think Al’s small, $7 or $8 sandwich isn’t enough food. For $6 at The Patio you get a bigger sandwich, but it has none of the spark that Al’s has— it’s a plain, fairly drab broth, and the meat is ordinary (but there’s lots of it!) Not top ten material, clearly.

Now, after the article came out people listed lots of their own choices in the comments. Some I flat out disagree with; Buona Beef isn’t much good at anything, and while Portillo’s is better, I still don’t think its beef is exciting enough to make a top ten, though I might give it a spot in the next ten. While the guy who suggested some place’s beef and cheddar croissant, well… One that really intrigued me, though, was Serrelli’s Food Mart in Elmwood Park. Now, being down the street from Johnnie’s may be as unpromising as being down the street from Al’s, but Serrelli’s is mainly an Italian grocery, and it’s primarily known for selling its premade Italian beef to people for their own parties at home— there are big tubs in the refrigerator case.

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That said, they also have a sandwich counter inside, so I ordered a beef there. I watched as the guy got out some fresh roast beef, portion controlled with white paper, and dropped it into the broth. A few minutes later:

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The bread was good. The broth was as good as any in town, full of bright spice flavor. But the sandwich was done in by the unmistakable fact that the beef had just met the broth moments before; it had no real taste of its own. Admittedly, I was there at a very off-peak hour, which makes me think that this all might be better at lunchtime when the meat’s been in the juice for a while in anticipation of faster turnover. Even moreso, it’s probably better at home, when you make it and let it sit for a while. There’s promise here, for sure, but an IB from the counter at almost 3 p.m. was not a contender that day.

The Patio
1503 W Taylor St
(312) 829-0454

Serrelli’s Food Mart
6454 W North Ave, Elmwood Park
(877) 385-2333

TAVERN-CUT PIZZA

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There were only two pizzas I felt I needed to try, after trying so many Great Unknown Pizzas, and only one was open for lunch, so I went to La Villa, which is just down the street from Smoque. (The other, as noted, was Villa Nova in Stickney, which made the list.) It’s really more of a banquet hall— there was a funeral lunch the day I went, but credit to our waitress for knowing how to keep a small order from getting lost behind the table of 30— and initially I was impressed by the pizza, which had a handmade, biscuity crust which was on the more substantial side of thin crust.

The problem was that after the crust, there just wasn’t much zip to this pizza. Both the sausage and the tomato sauce were too mild to make much of an impression. This wouldn’t be a bad pizza if it was your local delivery choice, but I can’t recommend it for any great distance of travel, which is essential to making a list like this.

La Villa
3632 N Pulaski Rd
(773) 283-7980

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BARBECUE

I actually had two barbecue lists in the works— one for Thrillist and one for Where Chicago which isn’t out yet— and of course I wanted them to be different in a way that was tailored to their respective audiences, so I’m not going to give away ones that didn’t make the former but did make the latter. Except that I do want to encourage people to check out one that made the latter list, which is Uncle J’s on 47th. If it sounds like Uncle John’s… yes, it’s his daughter and her family. Joe Roy turned it up in this Serious Eats article on the heirs to that beloved, now-closed BBQ spot, and I have to say, it’s awfully close. Maybe a touch Uncle John’s Lite, smokewise, but it jumps to being one of the best places that’s also pretty accessible (a pretty quick jaunt from 43rd on the Ryan). Anyway, the tips and links will bring you back pretty quickly to Uncle John’s (though that may not be so necessary; check out this intriguing bit of intel at LTHForum).

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And I’m going to put in a word for another place that didn’t make either list, but I think deserves more respect than it got by being stuck in a bro-bashing train wreck of a thread at LTHForum, which also takes Mike Sula’s review as gospel, untried, which isn’t fair, I think. Admittedly, I had an unusual experience of Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville, which was that a PR rep and the chef stopped by my house with a box of things to try. (Curiously, they left off the Asian side of the menu that Sula describes entirely.) So take this hack plug with whatever tub of salt you want. But I thought the brisket and the smoked chicken were quite good, and I thought the housemade sauces had some real kick and complexity (I saved a couple of them for future use when the meat was all gone). The chef, a former steelworker turned midlife BBQ guy working long restaurant hours, has a good story, too (I wonder if a bit of the LTH antipathy has to do with perceived loyalty to a rival midlife BBQ guy). Anyway, if you actually try it for yourself and agree with Sula (who didn’t slam it as badly as some places), fair enough, but I think it deserves more of an actual trial than it seems to be getting. Again, we come back to Mike G’s Axiom of Modern BBQ: almost any BBQ place open right now would have been the best BBQ on the north side in the 1990′s.

Uncle J’s Bar-B-Q
502 E 47th St
(872) 244-3535

Old Crow Smokehouse
3506 N Clark St
(773) 537-4452

I have eaten many things lately and written about them widely; find out about Italian beeves and thin crust pizze at Thrillist, go try this neighborhood Mexican thing I wrote about in my last regular column piece for Serious Eats Chicago, and so on. Here are some more:

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Boka. Well-off older people in Old Town and Lincoln Park have a new clubhouse and its name is Boka. Some might find a disconnect between Lee Wolen’s artful, slightly precious food and the more hipster room, which has the funky Tim Burtonesque touches of another Boka Group spot, Girl & The Goat. But a packed, silver-haired Boka on a Saturday might be an argument that coherence is overrated; Avec has always had a disconnect for me between Italian-German comfort food and its severe Swedish sauna decor (and lack of comfort), and it’s taken that disconnect all the way to the bank. I suspect Boka will too, for a long time to come.

As at The Lobby, Wolen’s food is clean, precise modern food, executed flawlessly, that makes fairly classical flavors seem like they were just invented. Octopus in a pork broth that, as Mike Sula said, would make a great bowl of ramen (below); delicate yet muscular loup de mer (above) with artichokes and olives; his celebrated roasted chicken with brioche under the skin— there are resemblances to Izard’s hit-all-the-flavor-receptors-at-once approach, especially since every dish has its spot of citrus for a sweet note (which gets a bit expected when you try everything, like I did), but it’s all much subtler, more contained. You have to look at the menu description to see how complex the dishes can be, and that, rarely, there’s never anything on the plate that’s just there to fill you up— every vegetable, every little bit of something green, is in there for a clear reason in the conception of the dish’s overall flavor. (It has to be the fewest starches I can remember seeing on plates like these, ever.)

Once or twice a dish seemed to lack pop— I wanted more briny rusticness from the salt cod ravioli— but mostly you admire what he can do within the bounds of restraint and a dish plated in a neat little circle. Nobody colors within his own lines better at the moment than Wolen. The kitchen was a little slow on a packed Saturday night, but the room full of people happy to be there didn’t seem especially concerned by it. Disclosure: we dined like real people, but I was known to them, not least because I had just interviewed Wolen, and he comped us to a complete set of the available desserts. I also attended Boka’s 10th anniversary party. On the other hand, Wolen, and especially Boka partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, seemed to know a lot of people there that night, so that probably was close to a typical experience…

1729 N Halsted St
(312) 337-6070

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Homestead. The rooftop restaurant above Roots Handmade Pizza has promoted its previous #2, Chip Davies. The menu still looks a lot like Chris Curren’s, with some dishes carried over or evolved, but what I liked best was the new spin Davis brought to many of the dishes, of middle-eastern flavors and ingredients such as green almonds (which could have been favas if I hadn’t been told). The middle-eastern tinge gives Homestead something distinctive to hold onto as it otherwise serves up nicely comfy kind-of-rustic-Italian dishes like the orecchiete with smoked oxtails, or roasts a chicken but puts it in a tagine broth with golden raisins, which you might see anywhere otherwise. If we ever have a nice day and people can sit on its patio, it will be exactly the sort of unpretentious summer neighborhood restaurant experience that everyone hopes for in Chicago. Chris Teixeira’s desserts seem a bit too fancy for the room, but hey, disconnects and all that; I admire that he keeps the sweetness damped down and the combination of a chocolate one and a carrot one, after the rustic food, was pretty great. Disclosure: this was a media dinner, which my son and I attended.

1924 W Chicago Ave
(773) 904-1145

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Les Miserables. As long as I’m disclosing, the same son and I went as guests on opening night to Drury Lane’s new production of Les Miserables, after seeing the movie some months back. 20 years ago, I saw it at the Auditorium Theater, from about six blocks away it felt like, and watching the famous revolving stage moving from that distance had all the excitement of watching a chair swivel. Better seats and a more intimate production made this a far more satisfying experience, a thoroughly professional one (led by a Valjean, Ivan Rutherford, who had been in the Broadway production’s long run and done it 2000 times around the country by now, and is, shall we say, very comfortable in the role), where the focus was on the actors over the (handsome but not overly expensive) setting. The slickly pro cast had two particular standouts, Mark David Kaplan giving the rogue Thenardier more humor and rascally charm than Sasha Baron Cohen’s muggy performance in the movie, and the one major example of race-neutral casting, Quentin Earl Darrington as a most ominous Javert, a regular Darth Javert in stentorian James Earl Jones-tones that set Javert even more apart from the citizens in the story.

http://www.drurylaneoakbrook.com/live-theatre/

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Isla Pilipina. I went to Isla Pilipina in a rather memorably titled LTH post many years ago, but hadn’t returned until almost a decade later when we went with some friends, who had just visited the Phillippines. Anyway, it is a very different place a decade later, much more professional in the manner of any well-run, well-packaged Asian restaurant, and packed on Saturday night. We ordered tons of food (with kids, there were eight of us), including two 20-piece orders of lumpia (devoured almost entirely by the kids), funky kare-kare (oxtail and green beans in peanut sauce), lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly with a kind of gravy), fried chicken, grilled sirloin with a Filipino marinade tinge, garlic rice, pancit noodles and more (the spaghetti with hot dogs in it, which the kids were enthused about based on description, came late and went untouched, alas). Anyway, suffice it to say that it will not be another 10 years, and Isla Pilipina quickly zoomed to where it should have been all along on my list of Asian neighborhood gems.

2501 W Lawrence Ave
(773) 271-2988

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Paco’s Tacos. When I put Zacatacos on a Thrillist list of south side places, several people suggested Paco’s Tacos instead. But a year or so ago, for a Grub Street list, I had tried the two back to back and it was no contest. Titus of Tweets of Taco said, you need to go to the original Paco’s, inside a supermercado. So I gave it a try. We stood in a good-sized line. A guy behind us seemed to be talking legal advice for his crew on his cellphone, or maybe that was our recent Breaking Bad-viewing coloring the conversation. We got our tacos. He’s right, these are much better than other Paco’s, and rank highly among south side steak tacos. Still think I’d pick Zacatacos first, but always worth knowing another one.

4556 S. Ashland
(773) 523-9745

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Taqueria Coacoyula. I spotted this place driving down Fullerton and thought it said it offered breakfast tacos, which would be a great find if true (and good). I must have conflated the signage, which does reference breakfast on weekends but not tacos. Still, I gave it a try at lunch, paying 50 cents extra for hand made tortillas. And I would still rate it a find, making very satisfying salty steak tacos in chewy, delectable freshmade tortillas, and doing a nice job on pastor tacos even without a cone (but lots of pineapple tossed in). That stretch of Fullerton (Austin to Cicero or so) is full of good things worth exploring, including this steak place, this modest comida, the tacos de canasta at La Chilangueada and more.

5823 W. Fullerton
(773) 237-2730

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Detroit Kabob House. Cathy Lambrecht and my kids and I tried to go here once after she did a canning demo for their 4-H chapter, and they chased us out 15 minutes before closing. But we tried again at lunch recently and got a decidedly better welcome, and I’m glad we went back. They don’t use charcoal like some of the Bridgeview-area middle eastern places (or ones in Detroit, that is, Dearborn), but even on gas grill, they did a terrific job grilling kebobs and other meats. I was less excited by the sides— baba ghanoush was fine, Jerusalem salad kind of a mess— but it’s a definite stop along the Niles stretch of Milwaukee for some simply, expertly grilled meats.

9021 N Milwaukee Ave, Niles, IL 60714
(847) 967-9100

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