Sky Full of Bacon


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Sometimes people express the notion that my dining life is so much more interesting and exciting than theirs. As if they couldn’t largely do the same; it just takes the will to drive too far for things too strange to be entirely comfortable. But sometimes, once in a great while thankfully, you get one that just goes completely, comically, tragically wrong from start to finish. Here’s a story like that.

I was, I admit, feeling a bit sorry for myself; Twitter was full of friends on business trips or food media junkets to Vegas or Napa, my sister the world traveler had just posted pics of herself with camels in Abu Dhabi and antelope in Senegal, and I had a tub of salad greens in the fridge. I had serious cabin fever and nothing to do about it. Well, we could at least be travelers of a sort in our own city by going to Chinatown. I picked out a place called Yan Bang Cai, fairly new on Cermak, and we headed there. Chinatown was hopping, but a couple of tables were open and we get pointed to table #1.

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The view from Table 1.

I’m just slow enough on the uptake to realize that us four fairly large non-Asians have been squeezed into a table the size of an elevator (and we got the shaft, ba-dum ching!) So my plan to go out and see the world means I am now squeezed even closer face to face with my family than we were at home, and basically afforded a close view of two walls while behind me, in the distance, I can hear a restaurant. It’s sort of like the vantage point you have on a music festival like Lollapalooza— from the Porta-Potties.

They’re obviously short-staffed, but we manage to get a set of menus. I had done some reading beforehand and had some dishes in mind. But I instantly realize I’m not going to find them— I’ve been given the most hilariously dumbed-down white people’s menu ever, full of Chinese-American classics like Shrimp Toast and Almond Chicken. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a guy in a sombrero and a big droopy mustache telling you to try the Taco Burger, seenyore, it’s muy bueno!

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At least give it this much: it had a note advising you there was an “authentic” menu too. Though when we ask for it, in another first-in-a-long-time we’re told they’re all in use and we’ll have to wait for one. But eventually we get it and it’s a hoot in its own way, with its page telling us which dishes were particular favorites of which Chi-Commie leader (Mao, Deng Xiao-Ping, etc.) when he visited the salt mining region of Sichuan. So we order some things… and commence to wait in our Porta-Boothie.

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And wait, quite a long time. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who had to, the Chinese punks in faux-hawks, skinny black jeans and tennis shoes, looking like the cast of a John Woo remake of West Side Story, who were making the most noise had time to go smoke a few times out front. Finally, one dish— a twice-cooked pork (i.e. pork belly) dish with cabbage and hot sauce arrived.

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It was the best thing we would eat that night— not that much of an achievement since that list would prove to be shorter than we expected. But I really liked the kind of braised, or at least wilted and softened up, cabbage in the spicy oil. We pretty much finish it, and then… we wait some more. And more. We pass the one hour mark. Next, at least 20 minutes later, we get potstickers, gummy and pretty poor, and “small plate chicken,” which comes out smelling like Indian curry.

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It’s all right, but I’d rather have good Indian food. Or middle-eastern or lots of places where they know how to do more with a chicken than this, which is kind of stew it to death. Nevertheless, we eat a fair amount of it, because it is the last food we will actually see there. Many more minutes pass, we’ve been there well over an hour, and we begin to consider scenarios of giving up. Put money on the table and walk away? I give it serious thought for the first time in years. We’re about to go when a waitress comes out. We tell her we just want our food wrapped and the check, if she can cancel the remaining dishes. Oh no, it’s already cooking, we’re told.

Perhaps she believed that. I will be charitable. Since one is soup with noodles, I don’t believe it’s really so much cooked as assembled, but let’s assume she thought that was true. We give in and sit down.

At an hour and a half we know, though, that nothing was cooking at that moment twenty or more minutes earlier. We will never get out. We are doomed to the smallest table in the slowest Chinese restaurant on earth, unable to see the actual restaurant as Plato’s cave-dwellers see only shadows, not the thing itself. My butt hurts from sitting. The only redeeming thing I can think of is that the kids are old enough to be both patient and self-possessed; if this had happened when they were five years younger and whinier, it would have been a hundred times more miserable.

One more dish arrives and we ask for it to be packaged up, and please bring the check. The check of course charges us for the last remaining undelivered item, which we want to see about as much as cholera at that point. We get her attention and point the error out. It’s on its way. Of course it is. But we cannot argue. Just package it to go, please. I’m sure at that point she ran back and told the cook to make a salt miner’s eggplant fast, or they’d lose the sale.

So at an hour and 45 minutes we finally can wedge ourselves out of the booth and leave with a full meal’s worth of leftovers. If Deng Xiao Ping had had this experience on a state visit, he’d have flooded the salt mines out of pique. Some of this I can’t fault them for— they were clearly short-handed in front, and evidently in back and on the sides, too— but I can fault them for so manifestly not thinking about it from the customer’s point of view in any way shape or form, like even admitting that it had been, and would continue to be, a loooooong f’ing time for the food. There’s really no choice; Yan Bang Cai wins Sky Full of Bacon’s lowest award, the GFY.

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They shoulda sent us a rescue squad!

In the last few years there have been several documentaries which sought to explore the world of food at its very highest level. Such films as Jiro Dreams of Sushi and El Bulli: Cooking in Progress show how working with food and seeking perfection can become a kind of spiritual quest.

After making so many shorter films about food, I wanted to find a similar subject which would allow me to explore food at the highest, most artistic and spiritual level. That’s why I am excited today to debut the trailer for my upcoming release, Edzo Dreams of Cheeseburgers:

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The estimable Alan Richman has a piece up in which he decries a new tendency toward what he calls egotarian dining experiences. What is that exactly? Well, I’m not sure by the end and I’m not sure he is either, which I think is an honest reflection of his conflict. Basically he wants to disapprove of chefs who do too weird things, too egotistically show-offy things… and, it seems, too Redzepi-influenced things full of twigs and bizarre combinations. The problem with his piece is that he keeps having to acknowledge that some of it is pretty great.

What we have, it seems to me, is a movement that’s letting chefs just put themselves and their influences and their journey of personal discovery out there, almost uninhibited by normal commercial concerns. And so, guess what? Give chefs their heads and somewhere some of them turn out to be fatuous blowhards who forgot to make it taste good, or forgot that people might not want a pig’s blood tree moss pudding. (That’s never happened in a glitzy downtown spot, of course. Well, the blood moss pudding hasn’t, anyway.) Yet when I think of what we have in Chicago that kind of resembles what he describes, I can’t think of any place currently operating that landed on that side of the tightrope. We have by now a small movement of these experiential restaurants where the chef is on stage and you’re the participatory audience, and so far, to put it bluntly… none of them suck. None of them are full of crap. They’re all pretty wonderful, really, each in a way that could only come from that chef. (We also have, in Iliana Regan, what Richman says this movement never has: “Not once have I seen a female chef prepare such food.”)

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Salad with beet macaron.

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Tom yum soup in coconut noodle.

Maybe we’re just lucky, but anyway, that brings me to 42 Grams, the new restaurant version of Sous Rising, the underground restaurant I wrote about (and mostly loved) here. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said then; the restaurant version hasn’t traveled far from the underground version in either distance (it’s downstairs from their apartment) or approach, though I do think the increase to full-time service has, unsurprisingly, sharpened technique and the menu, and I thought the lesser courses had mostly gone away (one came back in a new context, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt is young and his influences can be picked out— especially when he does a classic El Bulli trick (the espresso espuma that you can turn upside down and not spill… which I saw Ferran Adria demonstrate two days later). But where the young chef who overuses powders and gels is becoming a cliché (more than one chef has said to me some version of “They want to make molecular cuisine before they know how to roast a chicken”), Bickelhaupt has technology under his control and doesn’t forget to make things taste good. The “espresso” comes as a scene change into dessert, just as the meal started with the wit of a gelled cocktail, but what’s in between is mostly simpler, less visibly tricky, and focused on the simplicity of a star ingredient— meltingly sweet and gentle uni on a circle of brioche with maple cream underneath, sushi meeting biscuits and gravy; or the flavors of tom yum soup curled up inside a coconut noodle. Inventiveness is almost entirely in the service of producing delight.

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One time it wasn’t at Sous Rising was with an intense peccorino romano crisp which, I wrote, “sort of crossed the line from cheese smell to puke smell.” It is a rule, of course, that if you write 1000 words of praise the chef will only remember the criticism in passing. At a bigger restaurant that might just mean him muttering to his staff that “Hey, Mr. Puke Smell is in tonight.” But much of the point of 42 Grams is that you’re right there with Bickelhaupt, his wife Alexa and the two cooks helping him; she’s taking you through it course by course and the cooks, though focused on the task at hand, are right there too. So one course was introduced by way of telling the story of a writer who came in and said a dish smelled like puke. So I was offered a new (and frankly much better) variation, the Flaming Hot Cheetos version, while the others got the regular one.

And this to me is why this kind of dining is so much fun, such a magical experience well worth the cost (you are basically getting a private chef experience for eight people). The egotarian chef of Richman’s piece probably would have banned him for saying that, refused to serve him cured lichen ever again, but in Chicago it’s playful and intimate and theatrical and about having a party, not giving a symposium. So the food critic stings with words, and they respond in food.

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Me and my Flaming Hot Cheeto.

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Foie and scallop with blueberry and oxalis at Senza.

Barely a week later I went to Senza, which is known for two things: it’s gluten free, and the chef, Noah Sandoval, had worked at Schwa (actually, he was in the Key Ingredient video we shot there). Which potentially meant a third thing: a rare serious restaurant somewhere near the cutting edge, in Lakeview where restaurants are rarely serious and never cutting edge.

So after 42 Grams, maybe that’s cutting edge for Lakeview. It is a tasting menu, and it has some very fine courses with a lot of creative (but not egotarian!) touches, but I wouldn’t put it out as far as Schwa in terms of wild-ass crazy creativity— no chocolate and parsnip desserts. As for the gluten free, that’s a complete success— most of the meal you simply don’t think about the absence of anything, and the few things that are clear gluten-free substitute dishes— a loaf of surprisingly convincing black bread, a terrific agnolotti, a chocolate cake— were entirely satisfying; you never had to squint to convince yourself something was good. The agnolotti, in fact, was maybe the best dish, a melt in your mouth texture with the combination of lushness (a truffle slice, a parmesan crisp) and bright fruit (kumquat, huckleberry) that was a consistent approach throughout the meal.

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Other standouts included a lamb dish with both tender loin and a gamier chunk of belly, and a dessert— the kind that Richman describes as horse feed— in which oatmeal was joined with bright fruit flavors, pine nut foam and a meringue stick (I think it was meant to evoke something classic on a stick but I can’t figure out what now). Service was attentive and neighborhoody in the best sense, welcoming as if you were someone they’d expect to run into around the neighborhood. And it included one thing that floored me at the time, though in retrospect it makes perfect sense from their point of view of keeping a tasting menu on track. They don’t have valet parking and the best I could find was a two-hour spot two blocks away. When I needed to go feed the meter, they took down the location and description of my car, and someone ran out and fed it for me.

One more I’ve been to lately:

Analogue. Everybody loves this new Logan Square bar with an oh-so-hip unmarked entrance, and is praising their Cajun food as the best ever. I think they’ve been drinking! Okay, I’m not dissing it. It was pretty good. I went early on a Tuesday– one of those times when the bar is so empty that having the lights so low seems kind of silly; you just want to say, go ahead and turn a light on so you can see your work, folks. Anyway, I liked the drinks quite well, and I liked the Cajun food fine. The biscuits are genuinely great. The gumbo was good and had pretty good depth of flavor. The fried chicken sandwich was hard to judge because it was drowned in too much one-dimensional hot sauce, and on boring white bread; I was more impressed by Parson’s handling of such classic Southern stuff. So, as a non-barfly who ate early in my drinking, I find it kind of wildly overhyped by some— but that said, compared to the boring burger bar I just had open near me, I admire its ambition and the food is certainly above average for the genre. So this isn’t a diss, just a tempering of expectations. No need to serve me a Flaming Hot Cheeto next time I come in, which I will.

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Photos mostly by Liam Gebert.

I’ve had it in my head to build my own woodburning pizza oven since I went on a camping trip with my son Liam’s class at Angelic Organics a few years ago. (He goes to that kind of school.) They had a home-built one, very rustic and hippie-looking, and referred me to the bible for people who want to do this, Kiko Denzler’s Build Your Own Earth Oven. Denzler convinced me I could make a cool stone oven for about $25… but the book didn’t come with the land to do it on. And I couldn’t see anywhere on my Chicago property that I, or the adjacent houses, could feel happy about an oven sitting there hot enough to bake bread in… 24 hours after the fire went out.

Then I heard about the Kettle Pizza, which is designed to fit onto a Weber kettle (either 18″ or 22″). It’s basically a metal ring with an opening, nothing more than that (okay, it has handles and a thermometer too), but it’s just enough that you can build a fire around 6-700 degrees (or even more), heat up a stone, slide pizzas in and out, and get something like a Neapolitan pizza off your Weber kettle for maybe $200 or so.

Here’s how the first dinner went:

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I use a Weber chimney so I lit that, then poured out the hot coals in a C-shape at the back and tossed on some hickory chunks. Wood will burn hotter than charcoal, and I also wanted to see if I could use the more readily available hickory without a margherita pizza tasting like Texas brisket, or if I needed something like oak that doesn’t produce a smoke flavor. Then you put the ring on, set the stone in the middle, and cover it.

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Then off to make pizza #1. The night before I had made the standard dough recipe from Mark Bello, of New York’s Pizza a Casa school. Later I’ll dabble in 00 flour and stuff like that, but for now I wanted to try this reliable recipe using regular all-purpose flour, which I already knew worked in my oven. I made a margherita with some fresh mozzarella I’d picked up at Eataly on Friday.

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I went back out to check on the temperature and… it was only around 550 degrees. My fire was too small. Carefully I lifted and balanced the kettle on the edge while Liam poured in more charcoal and topped it with some more hickory. There were many possible disasters at this point, so I tell you this so you can avoid having to do it ever.

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Back out in a few minutes and the temperature was now off the scale, which tops out at 700. So 750-800 degrees, as high as most woodburning restaurant ovens. In pizza numero uno went!

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We waited 2-1/2 minutes, peeking through the slot. We could see the crust bubbling at this end, but I had been told it would cook faster nearer the fire (duh) and you needed to spin it halfway through.

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Well, so 2-1/2 minutes at this temperature was quite a bit more than halfway through, it turned out; the pizza was already black bubbles at the far end. Still, after being put back in to cook the other end for a moment, it looked pretty good for a first try.

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Pizza #2 was a recipe that I’d gotten from Bello himself when I went to a party he was cooking at here in Chicago. You put down olive oil mixed with honey (very quickly, since they separate again instantly), some sauteed onion, black pepper and hunks of taleggio cheese.

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This time we timed the twirling better, barely a minute and a half for each side…

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Then topped with some olive oil into which I’d shaved some Australian truffle.

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We sat down to eat at this point, the first pizza still hot. How were they? They came out very well for first tries. I think I spread the crusts too thin, and a little more bread would have helped, but they were definitely in the ballpark for Neapolitan pizza. A few thousand more and who knows?

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I had two more pizzas to make, another margherita and a Hawaiian which was meant to test how it cooked something covered with more ingredients than the margherita or other minimalist Neapolitan pizzas. Unfortunately, on this cold day by the time I got back out there the oven temperature had fallen down to barely above 500. But, of course, the stone retains its full heat for much longer. So I knew that this pizza would burn on the bottom before the top was done. I wound up holding it on the pizza peel up to the dome for a couple of minutes to get it done. I also realized that there was another tool I would need— a long brush to sweep the burnt semolina meal off the stone. The last two pizzas were less than ideal, but still were eaten happily, basically coming out like the pizzas I’d been making up to this point in my regular oven.

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And so, conclusions:

1) The Kettle Pizza works and is money well spent.
2) They say you want their stone because the one you have is only designed for indoor oven temps, so you might as well. It’s thicker, which is good.
3) Build a big fire that will last as long as you cook.
4) Turn earlier than it looks like you need to.
5) Hickory is fine, it didn’t taste like barbecue.
6) I like my new Kettle Pizza!

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I’ve been jonesing to get back in the business of searching for great unknown pizzas since long before the condition of the streets would permit it. To recap from past installments, the point is to look for unheralded, authentic old school pizza joints in different parts of the city where our pizza heritage may have survived. The quest is open-minded, but it’s pretty clear that the main focus is on thin crust joints with at least 30-40 years of heritage behind them, who still make them the way they made them back then. The methodology followed by collaborator Daniel Zemans and myself, as summed up in an earlier installment:

Our modus operandi is to order thin crust sausage, thin crust because it’s more common and takes less time, sausage because it best shows off the skills or tastes of the restaurant, if they make it themselves or even if it merely shows their own taste preferences and the level of quality they’re willing to pay for… Our main method for identifying them is simply searching Yelp for ones that give off clues that they might be promising. Every pizza place has somebody calling it the best pizza in the world, that doesn’t tell us anything; we’re more interested in comments that a place makes its own sausage or does something else that gives a clue that there’s blue-collar craftsmanship at work here.

And as Zemans tersely summed up the main indicator of good pizza neighborhoods: “Multiple generations of Italians.”

This time we (Zemans, me and fellow Serious Eats contributor Dennis Lee) decided to try the suburbs straight south of the city— literally across the street from the city in one case. For me part of the point was to finally hit one of the places that inspired this kind of quest when I spotted it years ago. I didn’t go to Roseangela’s in Evergreen Park then because I went here instead. But nine years later I was determined to go. Otherwise there was an embarrassment of riches in this area, and once we narrowed it down to six roughly along 95th between Beverly and Oak Lawn— Roseangela’s, Fox’s, Palermo’s, Phil’s, Barraco’s and Nino’s in Alsip— we pretty much just chose the final three randomly (or because Zemans had already been to a couple). So don’t say “Why didn’t you go to X, it’s great!” We know that. We may hit the other three some other time. These are the three we hit this time.

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Roseangela’s

Roseangela’s in the suburb of Evergreen Park at 95th and California has been around since 1955, and on this Thursday night it was doing a business; we’ve never run the risk of having a long wait to eat at one of these places before. Fortunately it was possible to order for takeout and then wait in line, so we sat down minutes before our pizza came out.

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I remember being perplexed in the early days of Chowhound by mentions of “cracker crust” Chicago pizza, vs. “foldable” New York thin. I had had Chicago thin but it was usually thicker and doughier than this; this is a true cracker crust, in both flavor and texture a spot-on double for a Saltine cracker. In other words, it didn’t really have any flavor— like tendon in Chinese soup, texture was everything, and it was a perfect crackly base for a super-thin pizza. The tomato sauce was tomato sauce straight from the can, the sausage didn’t have much flavor besides pork and salt, but was high quality and satisfying, and the cheese was maybe a little heavy for old school pizza, but certainly within range. Sometimes the highest praise you can give is “there’s nothing wrong with it,” which doesn’t sound all that much of a compliment, but it is one: this is a textbook example of its style in every department, we were very happy with it and agreed we would order it if we lived near it… but kind of feared that the evening had peaked with the first and would only go downhill from there.

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Roseangela’s Pizza
2807 1/2 W 95th St
Evergreen Park, IL 60805
(708) 422-2041

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Phil’s Pizza

Also doing a business that night was Phil’s Pizza on Ridgeland (aka Narragansett) in Oak Lawn, though this time it was delivery; there were two older delivery guys, one black, one the very picture of Souside Irish white, and we wound up chatting with both of them in between deliveries as well as the manager that evening as we waited to eat ours. Turned out we had just missed a crew from Chicago’s Best, who had shot video in there earlier in the afternoon. Besides trading pizza lore (Zemans and the Irish guy talked arcana of the early days of Giordano’s down on 63rd) and personal favorites, I got to take a look at what I first thought was another classic Faulds oven (see our first expedition) but turned out to come from another manufacturer, who Zemans said was a Chicago company but is now based in Connecticut. (Sadly, they now make the conveyor belt pizza ovens used by places like Domino’s, rather than these Ferris Wheel-style behemoths, and their site even trumpets that they just installed the obviously inferior kind at Comiskey Park. Infidels!)

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The pizza when it came out was obviously a much greater deviation from the thin crust of our imaginations—thicker crust, much thicker blanket of cheese:

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We didn’t have much hope for it when it came out of the oven, it looked like pretty generic pizza designed to fill you on bread, much like Positano’s in the first installment, but I have to say that even if it wasn’t our style, it was better than the sum of its parts, especially thanks to excellent sausage. Between the ingredients and the very friendly, obviously conscientious service, you could see why everybody who grew up on it loves it and has kept it in business all these years.

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Dennis attempts a cheese pull.

Phil’s Pizza
8932 Ridgeland Ave
Oak Lawn, IL 60453
(708) 599-4747

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Nino’s Pizza

I picked Nino’s in Alsip just because nobody beyond a few Yelpers ever seemed to have heard of it, compared to our others which seemed at least somewhat known. (Turned out there was a story about it in the Sun-Times 5 years ago, based on the fact that the dad was still running it in his 80s— he has since passed away— while the son ran Lettuce Entertain You’s Frankie’s Scallopine downtown.) We thought we’d arrived too late for it, as they were mopping and vacuuming, but they proved to be very accommodating about not only letting us in but letting us order deep dish as well as thin before the kitchen closed.

WAIT, DEEP DISH? you cry. Yes, deep dish, violating the primary tenet of our past investigations, which is that deep dish is north side pizza and south side is thin. (Never mind that Giordano’s started on 63rd.) Zemans interrogated the waitress to see if we should really go there, and when she described the crust (the same as the thin, just pushed up into the deeper pan) he was pretty much unsold, thinking that the crust would be uninteresting. But then she came back and really advocated it the way she likes it, and we believed that she knew what she was talking about because earlier we were expressing puzzlement at a news story on a rash of catalytic converter thefts affecting the south side and she responded with a detailed and convincing account of the catalytic converter theft racket (it’s the platinum they’re after). So we ordered a sausage deep dish, and, for variety, an Italian beef and giardinera thin (she suggested double sauce for that, pointing out along the way the fact that the thin and the deep had different sauces).

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Again the thin looked breadier and cheesier than it probably was when they opened years ago. I suspect in all of these cases, being in the suburbs has forced them, or simply encouraged them, over time to up the cheese to fit the idea of pizza that people have gotten from chain restaurants in the area (which is very built up, retail-wise); the ones on our first expedition in the city, where retail activity is much lower and fairly chain-free, haven’t dialed it up as much and consequently are closer to the fairly modest pizzas of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s my theory anyway. The other thing about the sauce was that it was very sweet, almost shockingly so; words like ketchup and barbecue sauce were tossed around. We were glad we had the giardinera on ours to cut that aspect of it.

Then the deep dish came.

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We were wowed by this thing, impressive as a crown roast, with its walls of dough surrounding the interior. Yes, it was the same crust, but it was a whole different thing folded into a thick dam of breadiness, too much bread to eat but fun to pull apart, releasing steam and offering the satisfaction of homebaked bread. There was a rough-hewn, homemade quality to this deep dish pizza that was instantly charming compared to the machine-round pizzas you almost always see. And the sausage was terrific— still light on fennel but bright and meaty and cravable, while the sauce was acidic crushed tomatoes, totally different from the sweet sauce on the thin crust. Zemans was still shaking his head at what the hell deep dish was doing here, but we all three loved it and agreed it was one of the best of its type to be had in the city, anywhere.

Nino’s Pizza
4835 W 111th St
Alsip, IL 60803
(708) 423-9100

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Zemans contemplates Phil’s.

Our conclusions: this is a major pizza region within Chicago, tied to its south side heritage but diverging from what it might have been 40 or 50 years ago in several significant ways, notably that the cheese is piled on much thicker. Sausage is taken seriously, even though none of them had the fennel that you take as a defining characteristic of Chicago sausage (and sets it apart from the breakfasty sausage crumble that’s typical in the rest of the country). Which of course means, maybe it isn’t one, nearly as much as we thought. And lastly, everybody was just so darn nice, that suburban niceness, even when they were literally 20 feet from the city in Roseangela’s case. A satisfying and revealing expedition— but the search will continue.

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Specials at Phil’s.

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Making Dim Sum at Fat Rice • Nico Osteria’s Erling Wu-Bower Talks Italian Seafood • Joe Campagna, Chicago Food Snob • Behind the Scenes With Big Head Farm

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It’s still the dead of winter, but we’ll warm up with things like dim sum and Italian food. First up, I go downstairs at Fat Rice as they prepare for Cha Gordo, the Macanese version of dim sum brunch:

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The full, gorgeous slideshow of these dishes is here at the Reader.

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Next I talk to Erling Wu-Bower of Paul Kahan’s Nico Osteria about how you do Italian seafood in Chicago. A longer version of this was here and here at the Reader.

Chinese places I mention include Cai, Go4Food and Chengdu Impression.

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Joe Campagna, former restaurant professional at Charlie Trotter’s, Graham Elliot, etc. and now of the blog Chicago Food Snob, was my guest at lunch for the next segment. We ate at Forno Rosso Pizzeria, 3719 N. Harlem, which I wrote about here.

And I fill in the story of Big Head Farm and the Good Food Festival March 13-15 with (almost completely) unused bits from the shoot that yielded my new film Networking the Land. Listen, then see how the story gets condensed and visualized in the movie:

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I went to the Pleasant House Bakery in Three Oaks, MI after shooting a video which will debut shortly. It is very much like Pleasant House Bakery in Chicago, but with beer.

Things I have eaten lately, in brief, and mostly not in grief:

Dusek’s. I really liked this Pilsen gastropub. I really liked that it wasn’t as crowded and sceney as Logan Square gastropubs. And I recognized that that was because… places like this hadn’t ruined Pilsen yet for places like this. Anyway, most of it was very tasty, a little but not too arty, though as my dining companion Anthony Todd pointed out (he had been here before), what had been a little more rustic was now being plated more pretentiously on long square plates and big-rimmed round ones, which meant that the small plates could pretty much hog the whole table. One dish, also, the General Tso’s Sweetbreads, seem to have gone downhill since he ate there (too much ginger, the sweetbreads now cubic and rubbery— whatever, it’s off the menu entirely now). But pretty much everything else was terrific, especially the Juicy Lucy (a fantastically beefy version of the Minneapolis burger with cheese in the center; see Anthony on it here). Because we pooh-poohed the sweetbreads, they sent us some desserts we didn’t really need, but we were glad they did anyway, especially for something called a ginger cazuela cake, which was made with sweet potatoes, molasses and lots of ginger, a perfect emblem for a meal of refined yet straightforward comforts.

Dusek’s
1227 W 18th St.
(312) 526-3851
dusekschicago.com

Little Goat. I keep puzzling out Little Goat diner. I’m convinced that somewhere here is a near-brilliant adaptation of Stephanie Izard’s big-popping flavors approach to mainstream, middle American food. But something conceptual or executional hasn’t worked on past visits. Finally I found the dish that made it all make sense: it’s on the lunch menu and called pork belly pancake, though I had it for late breakfast. It’s basically kind of a savory pancake like you’d get in certain Chinese restaurants, topped with some tender pork belly and then kimchi and some crispies of some sort, piled four inches high. (There’s a pic here, but mine was neater and tidier.) It sounded like a gut bomb, and certainly still has the like-everything-in-the-pantry-mixed-together approach that seems to be Little Goat’s trademark, but it was surprisingly light and delicate, both in texture (all that pile on top is as fluffy as snow) and in the balance of kimchi heat and sweetness and porkiness and comfy pancakeness.

Little Goat
820 W Randolph St
(312) 888-3455
littlegoatchicago.com

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Sing’s Noodles. Speaking of Chinese pancakes, that was one of the things we had at Sing’s, a new spot in Chinatown run by the guy who used to be in the window stretching noodles at Hing Kee, Liu Chang Ming. (I always knew him as the guy who looked like he belonged in a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon— he has the square face and broad smile of many of Miyazaki’s human characters.) Anyway, we ordered lots of noodley things and were generally happy with the noodles; the problem was that few if any of the dishes as a whole had the depth of flavor and Chinese funk of what I’m used to at places like Lao Sze Chuan. (Also, bummer, we tried to order soup dumplings but didn’t get them, unless they have really dry soup dumplings.) The dish with the chipped noodles below, for instance, looks a lot more flavorful than it was, and so was a duck soup. So maybe this is a place to go when you have visitors, so they get something a little tamer that will be still be satisfying, plus the floor show of seeing the noodle-stretchers at work.

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Sing’s Noodles
2172 S Archer Ave
(312) 225-2882
singsnoodle.com

Chengdu Impression. I got more of a kick from this new places from a nephew of Tony Hu in Lincoln Park, which expanded my better Chinese delivery choices from about two to three. The LTH thread has focused on offal exotica, but I had to order more conservatively for the family. Even so, I was impressed with the complex flavor of a standard Chinese-American dish like Yu Shiang Chicken, and one as simple as it sounds called Pork Fried Noodles. On the other hand pot stickers had little variety of flavor and were encased with what seemed to be genuine Naugahyde, and I had mixed feelings about Twice Cooked Pork with Pancakes, which would have been better with more starchy pancake and fewer slices of fatty pork belly, no really it would. Well, whatever, it was probably the most authentic-seeming Chinese meal I’ve ever ordered by phone, close to the best I’ve had on the north side at all, and a very happy find.

Chengdu Impression
2545 N Halsted St
(773) 477-6256
chengduimpression.com

County Barbeque. I went to a PR event for new bartender Mike Ruble, but it also gave me a chance to try a barbecue place that reviewers like Mike Sula hated when it opened. And you know what? Six months on, it’s a lot better, as is often the case with barbecue spots. I thought there was respectably strong smoke flavor and good moist texture in almost all the meats, which include brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, ribs, sausage, chicken (probably the least exciting) and more. I also liked some of the more gimmicky but amusing bar snacky things like the bacon and barbecue parfait, and the general arty-take-on-a-honky-tonk feel, which is faux as all get out but entirely pleasant to kick back in. On Twitter a discussion of barbecue included me observing “Almost any BBQ place today would have been the best BBQ place on the north side in the 90s.” County isn’t on the north side, but it just shows much better the scene has gotten when the upper middle of the pack is this solid.

County Barbeque
1352 W Taylor St
(312) 929-2528
dmkcountybarbeque.com

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Bub City. Speaking of faux-BQ, my experience with County and being downtown gave me the urge to finally check this downtown pseudo-honky tonk out too. And I’d say it’s respectably decent and within the spirit of good BBQ, based on one sampled meat (pulled pork, above), but a little more like a big foodservice operation kicking out food that’s been held for a while, a bit lifelessly, at what are definitely downtown prices; County, admittedly much smaller, had a more polished hand with the final dishes, and how to give barbecue some nicer-restaurant gloss. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have had this downtown in the 90s too, and in this case I can say that pretty definitively, since in the 90s I was eating at the bar in this exact spot, Frankie Z’s, which had decent, but far from stellar, barbecue chicken.

Bub City
435 N Clark St
(312) 610-4200
bubcitychicago.com

Commonwealth. I love my neighborhood, Roscoe Village, but I can’t wait to escape it to go eat. And this new, vaguely farm to tableish bar at Roscoe and Damen, unfortunately doesn’t provide strong reasons to change that. It’ll be pleasant enough when I need a nice enough bacon cheeseburger, but it just feels ten years behind places like Dusek’s, from a world that hasn’t even discovered pork belly sliders yet, and ten steps below it in ambition.

Commonwealth
2000 Roscoe St
(773) 697-7965
commonwealthchicago.com

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Pasta al Gusto. Another spot in my hood (hey, it was the Polar Vortex, I tried not to drive), this is the kind of Italian-American food, or maybe Mexican-Italian-American food, where they’re happy to put grilled chicken on top of any Italian classic you want. I ordered lasagna, fairly indestructible, and it was fine though I feel like you should make lasagna with ground beef, or with spinach, but not both; I ordered a salad, with grilled vegetables, which was really pretty nice. But it all kind of felt like mall Italian, serviceable and fresh enough but with no real feel for the magic of Italian food, hence the willingness to throw grilled chicken breast onto everything. My hope is that the subs on the menu might be pretty decent (UPDATE: No); even if the bread isn’t Damato’s-level, just being able to get a decent Italian sub in my area would be a great leap forward.

Pasta Al Gusto
1648 W Belmont Ave
(773) 281-3663
pastaalgusto.com

Mini Hut. My sister visited for a few days and then I had to drive her to Midway. Far be it from me to waste that kind of mileage, so I used the opportunity to finally hit Mini Hut, widely-acclaimed by people who were expressing a preference for old school fried chicken over all the newfangled places that have opened recently. And I have to say, for that style— a light-colored thin coating on the skin, like you often find at cafeterias and old style coffeeshops; maybe I should dub it 50s-style chicken— though it may not be my style, this is an excellent example that makes the case for that style pretty impressively. They’ve actually heard of putting salt and pepper in the coating, as so many barely do, and they know how to fry it and leave it juicy. The place is nothing to look at (it has the air of a seedy pool hall) and more than a little hard to find (it’s off Archer on a street you can’t get to from Archer), but from the number of people working a kitchen barely 10 feet long, you know they’re serious about their chicken.

Mini Hut
6659 W Archer Ave
(773) 586-2115

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Other things I’ve eaten and published lately:
I ate very soul-filling cassoulet at Sunday Dinner Club.
And this Rick Bayless restaurant’s historical meal.
I tried burnt flour pasta and pizza at Quartino.
I did half of this Thrillist list of things to check out on the south side.
Check out El Azteca for pretty good Mexican steak.
And I talked to a blogger about doing a food podcast here.

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In this Sky Full of Bacon video produced for the Good Food Festival, I visit an organic farm in Michigan to see how they’ve made connections through the festival— and why farming matters, to them and to us. (13:44)

Chicago’s Good Food Festival, now in its 10th year, connects food producers with investors, advisers, sellers and customers. I visit Big Head Farm, an organic blueberry farm in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and talk to farmers Karen and Jody Warner about how the festival has helped them make connections and grow— and why they chose the life of a farmer in the first place. (13:44)

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Um, yeah.

November and December felt like a zillion new places opened and I didn’t have time to go eat at any of them. I’m trying to catch up now, not only with new places but with places that everyone’s been to but me:

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Wood. I used to live not far from here in Lakeview, but boy, I never eat in Lakeview. It’s a mystery how a neighborhood full of disposable income, one assumes, just never seems to have anywhere in it that you need to eat at, when ratty old Logan Square is coughing up new must-try places like fur balls. But Senza finally made one destination stop in Lakeview, and a lot of people have told me Wood, despite the tee-hee Boystown humor of the name, was another.

Not quite, I think. I think it’s a very solid neighborhood place, which is what Lakeview needs more of first before it worries about rivalling Randolph Street. From the name I expected a driftwood and foraged branches interior, which it has a little of but a lot more disco and smoked glass mirror. Foodwise, I would call it classic, a little behind the times (not a bad thing when the times it’s taking you back to were good times) but extremely well executed. A half chicken— one piece fried, one confited— reminded me of the great chicken at the short-lived Kith & Kin. A venison dish— again done two ways, a sausage and some loin, with crispy spaetzle— could not have been better cooked, the sausage cooked to a supple done-ness that many here still overcooking sausage could learn from. Small plates, I should say, were plenty big; a beet salad would easily work as a starter for two. Nothing blew my mind, nothing changed how I viewed cuisine, but for upscale comfort food, an admirable place. Every neighborhood should have one.

Wood
3335 N Halsted St
(773) 935-9663
woodchicago.com

Gather. I also expected more rusticness here— from descriptions, including the communal dining, I envisioned something kind of weathered barn-y, like Farmhouse or Grass Fed Beef in Bucktown— so I was surprised by the sophisticated look of this Lincoln Square spot. Which extended to the food; I was still puzzling why Wood felt like 2004 to me, but I started to understand a little better what I meant when I saw the plates here with their brilliant beet purees, their dribs and drabs and crunchy little nubbins on top. But it’s not just a matter of visual presentation; I felt they were aiming more ambitiously for cutting-edge flavor combinations (and hit the slightly preposterous menu notes of our time more often, with ramp aioli and pork belly with caramelized milk and such things).

Does every neighborhood need that? I don’t know, but Lincoln Square went from not having it to having it pretty quickly with Goosefoot, Elizabeth and (much more modestly priced) Gather, so it seems the question is settled. (And settled in another way by the closing of La Bocca della Verita, the kind of Italian place that used to be the epitome of neighborhood dining in this town.) Overall, I found Gather lived up to its promise of sophistication pretty well. A charcuterie and cheese platter was well put together for contrasts; dishes like the pork belly and sturgeon with salmon caviar and blinis as an accompaniment were thoughtful and interesting and certainly pretty well executed, if not quite as sharply as at Wood. My only advice would be that the communal seating up front is better than the tiny boxed-in seating area in the second room, which makes getting up to go to the bathroom a communal project.

Gather
4539 N Lincoln Ave
(773) 506-9300
gatherchicago.com

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Phil Rubino and Mike Sheerin in the kitchen at Cicchetti.

Cicchetti. When I heard that Mike Sheerin was going to an Italian place, it didn’t sound that promising— someone with his training, and his cutting-edge inclinations at Trenchermen with its eccentrically avant-garde comfort food, seemed unlikely to be happy cranking out standard Italian dishes. And it wasn’t promising that Cicchetti was named for a style of bar food from Venice, but the food wasn’t really like what those places actually seem to have (or so my friend Kenny Z tweeted, and based on what I saw, I believed him).

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Happily what seemed Cicchetti’s likely pitfalls turn out to be the best things about it. The food is only vaguely Italian— inspired by the casualness of bar dining, and some Italian ingredients, but far from pasta and red sauce in final effect (except for Nonna’s Meatballs— is that Nonna Sheerin or Nonna Rosenthal?) There’s obvious Italian inspiration for octopus, dyed black with squid ink and sitting in a sea of polenta, but the polenta is so buttery that it seems more French. While the pickled sardines on pumpernickel (run through a pasta machine into a flat crisp) seems more Nordic than Neapolitan:

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Italian cuisine is giving Sheerin (and sous chef Phil Rubino, once of Highland Park’s short-lived Moderno, most recently of Acadia) a base to play with, and some dishes are simply very good Italian (the saffron risotto was great, and exactly what it said it would be), but nothing about it restricts them to a single cuisine’s palette of colors or to its familiar forms. Sheerin sent out this plate of carpaccio (disclosure), and at first glance it might seem a relatively conventional Italian antipasto:

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But then he explained how it was made— Painted Hills flank steak was glued with meat glue, then allowed to age like salumi for a few weeks. So a little of his WD-50 heritage there, crossed with Trenchermen cured meats. And the dish, on closer inspection, is as artfully plated as a dish at Acadia, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself as strongly; while the dabbed aioli (or whatever it was) again seemed more French or Nordic than Italian. This is the kind of steak dish I thought Next Steakhouse might offer as a buildup to the big meat course, an imaginative play on steak that uses its familiar accompaniments, takes the meat in a different direction, and offers the pure sensory satisfaction of beef without knocking you out for the evening. Instead, it’s here, and it’s terrific.

So Cicchetti, best new Italian restaurant in town? Not exactly (and that’s even if Nico hadn’t just opened). It’s more a personal restaurant, a reflection of its star chef and his high end skills, than you would have ever guessed from the name, the concept, and Sheerin’s hired-gun role— yet somehow it’s also as comforting and unthreatening as “Italian restaurant” promises. (The same is true of the design, which manages to mix rustic and big-city-sophisticate notes successfully.) You could take your Nonna here, where Trenchermen would have had her scratching her head, and still feel like you’d been somewhere adventurous enough for you. That’s a great combination that deserves to triumph over its nondescript location in an anonybuilding in the Northwestern medical complex.

Cicchetti
671 N Saint Clair St
(312) 642-1800
cicchettirestaurant.com

The Dawson. Design was also a redeeming factor for this Billy Lawless project, which looks from the outside like a massive River North bro bar, except further west. (The infamous chicken fried steak that wasn’t fried had jaundiced me against it too.) I went there for the Between Bites reading with David Hammond, Nick Kindlesperger and others, and afterwards a couple of us grabbed a bite downstairs. The downstairs bar was sleeker and chicer than I expected, with a kind of 19th century industrial gaslight look; I was immediately impressed that there was more going on here than I’d expected.

The drinks were excellent, but the food only fair. The menu has something for everyone, pork belly tacos and crab cakes and pickled onion rings, but if anything stands out, we never really found it. Chestnut ravioli, big as a bathroom tile? Not bad, not delectably memorable. Crab cake? Plenty of meat, but had a canned tuna taste that didn’t deliver on the richness of crab. A burger topped with bacon and tangy white cheddar, too greasy, somehow not quite making those basic elements into a satisfyingly indulgent whole. Overall, I’d say my opinion of the place went up from seeing it, it’s not a hack bro bar as I feared, but the food needs time to find its focus and sharpen the dishes to adding up to at least the sum of their parts.

The Dawson
730 W Grand Ave
(312) 243-8955
the-dawson.com

The Brixton. Two letters away from The Bristol, and located in the Andersonville space that was Brasserie 54 that was Premise that was In Fine Spirits, and after all that, two seconds after walking in the door I felt like they’d finally found the restaurant that made sense in the space again, the neighborhood gastropub that Premise didn’t want to be. Kevin McMullen, who was at EL Ideas for a while, is the chef, and the things I tried mostly hit the right note for the space of seeming approachable but dressed up a little (as in the squid ink Jackson Pollock splatter all over the plate of a very tart lemony octopus dish). I liked the octopus and a silky chicken liver mousse a lot; I was a little disappointed that brussels sprouts with pancetta sat in a puddle from having been steamed, roasted would have been better. Andersonville isn’t as low on first-rate neighborhoody places as Lakeview, but it’s not overrun with them yet either, and The Brixton is a creditable, approachable addition to the list.

The Brixton
5420 N Clark St
(773) 961-7358

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Limoncello at Cicchetti.

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Making Cassoulet With Sunday Dinner Club • Chicago, Turnip Butcher To the World • Gus Couchell of Greek Islands on the Mediterranean Way of Life

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It’s the dead of winter episode, and first up I hang out in the kitchen as Sunday Dinner Club (sibling to Honey Butter Fried Chicken) makes cassoulet… 500 portions of cassoulet for about 20 dinners in the next month and a half:

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Christine Cikowski, and duck confit.

I wrote two posts at the Reader about this process, with lots more pictures; you can read them here and here. If you’re interested in going to one, email club@sundaydinnerclub.com

Afterwards, Josh Kulp of SDC and I talk a little about the Alinea Baby fuss. I wrote about it, less as a serious incident than as a social media sensation/goof, here.

Next I talk to Adam Shprintzen, author of The Vegetarian Crusade:

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A longer and somewhat different version of the interview appeared here at the Reader. The vegetarian dishes or restaurants I mention include ma po tofu at Lao Sze Chuan, which of course is not vegetarian overall, the dosa at Udupi Palace and chole bhatura (below) at Annapurna.

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Finally, I talk with Gus Couchell, owner-manager of Greek Islands in Greektown.

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