Sky Full of Bacon

Fanesca is just one of the Easter treats you’ll find in this Time Out piece by me.

And speaking of Easter, check out FOSFOB (friend of Sky Full of Bacon) Cathy Lambrecht here.

Got a really cool comment (not that they all aren’t!) on the Healthy Food video which would otherwise go overlooked:

What a wonderful film. The only thing negative I have to say is that in all the years I grated potatoes with my Grandma, Great Aunt, Aunt, Mother, Sisters, Cousins etc. to make Kugelis, I never had one of those fantastic power potato grinders, just one of those little skillet like grids that took a lot of skin off my knuckles too! My Gran said it adds to the flavor.

You really captured the spirit, and time and place. You caught the trials of Jurgis from the Jungle, the enclaves of the huddled masses, the growth of pride when Lithuania became a country after the First World War right as the Lugenhoppers were starting to make it in America, the difficult and complex motives, stories and choices made by the displaced persons and post Second World War immigrants, the struggles in Chicago inthe 1960s, the fear, the racism, the justified concern of loss. Geeze. You caught it all for me, a 1/2 Lugen, 4th generation, suburban raised (but Bridgeport, Cicero, Marquette Park descended), non-Lithuanian speaking Chicago-loving Brazilian Resident Kugelis maker. Damn. I wanna’ shake your hand.

Consider it shaken, virtually. Thanks.

And watch for a big announcement soon…

Like the pizza at the auto show, today’s post is just a whole bunch of stuff thrown together:

• First off, thanks to my post on Tuesday about when a review is a review, I was a last-minute invitee to WBEZ’s Lunchbox series of online media guy chat thingies, along with a real Ocean’s Twelve of local food media folks— Kevin Pang (who dropped the only major news of the thing, that the Trib food section is about to get all reinvented, including him being Mr. Cheap Eats, which was always the best part of it anyway), Steve Dolinsky, Sula of the Reader and Sudo of Chicagoist, Julia Kramer of Time Out, Mike Nagrant, David Hammond, and Audarshia Townsend of 312 Dining Diva.  It lasted an hour, but you can read the transcript in ten or fifteen minutes, it was a lively discussion not unlike Nagrant’s and my five-part year end chat a few months back.  (Well, not unlike if you don’t count A LOT SHORTER.)

• No Beard nomination for me this year, but there are very good things in the video category (which is what I entered), including one I’ve linked to many times, Liza de Guia’s Food, Curated.  I asked her which she entered and she couldn’t remember exactly, but here are a couple of them:

Notes from a Lone Acre: 1 Dude. 1 Acre. Many Little Anecdotes. from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Brooklyn’s Urban Beekeepers: Breaking The Law For The Planet (Part I) from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Also nominated were my supporters-linkers the terrific site Serious Eats, for this portrait of a farmer who sells at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York:

Last is a site called Alwayshungryny (yes, it was all New York this time), who don’t let you embed and also didn’t tell me which specific videos they entered, so go here and just watch whatever you please.

• But I do have some other exciting announcements coming up.  It will perhaps be no surprise that one of them is strongly bacon-oriented… and is taking place April 10. It’s sold out, so you either know what it is and have tickets… or it kinda doesn’t matter.

• Another announcement with international flavor will be coming later in the week…

• Finally, watch for next week’s Time Out Chicago— I’ll be talking ethnic Easter traditions around Chicago.

So I was invited down to Crain’s Chicago Business last week to comment about the food scene or something. I had actually just bought a couple of new dress shirts so I put on a nice green one. Which turned out to be a bad choice, since they were planning on shooting green screen, which means, anything green would vanish and be replaced by the background. Personally, I’d have gone for the floating Cheshire Cat head effect, me looming over the city as a literal sky full of bacon-devotee, but they didn’t like that idea, so they dug out a sweater. A sweater with a big ribbed collar that looked like it came from an 80s Star Trek movie:

The sweater was also twelve sizes too small, so I wound up having to sit completely immobile so as not to pop the snaps, which has the cheering effect of making me look like The Food Blogger With The Tiny Head Who’s Too Fat To Get Up From His Chair. Which, honestly, I am not. Though I did go to The Purple Pig afterwards.

Anyway, some nice plugs for Sky Full of Bacon in the piece, as well as rare footage of me on camera, as I’d look if I were being swallowed by a giant mollusk. Check the piece out here; I’m only in the video at top.

A jibarita at La Bombonera.

I haven’t posted one of my 50 Places Not Talked About on LTHForum for a while, because most of my new places in the last few months were those 14 supermercado taquerias I posted about the other day. And while there were probably enough new places on that list to get me to 50, it would have been boring to finish off the list in one post.

But that doesn’t mean I had my eyes shut all that time.  In fact, I noted a number of places as I was scouting out the supermercados, including several new Cuban or South American places on the northwest side.  One of them, I found interesting enough that it turned into a blog post at the Reader, so go read it there.

In the meantime, a quick followup to my Bolzano Meats post: take some thin slices of guanciale.  Heat in microwave for about a minute, to sweat some fat out.  Dice and place on pizza:

I don’t know if there was such a thing as guanciale pizza before, surely there was, but I was very happy with my possibly-not-original invention.  P.S. Just did a search, should have guessed.  Mozza, whose menu is visible in the entrance at La Quercia, has a LaQuercia guanciale pizza.

Eddie Lakin, a former fine dining chef turned burger guy, talks about how to make the perfect old school burger and fries a few weeks after the opening of his hotly anticipated Edzo’s Burger Shop in Evanston, in this 7-1/2 minute short produced for the Chicago Reader. Read more here.

Edzo’s Burger Shop from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

I made a pastrami. More here.

At least, we’ll see if we can earn that title today.  First up: I have a blog post at the Reader, with an outtake of the most entertaining character in my most recent podcast: 75 Years of Gefilte Fish. Please read it!

Some milestones that make me happy: #11/A Better Fish has passed 1000 views at Vimeo (between its two versions— there’s a bleeped version I made for the Shedd, too); and both #10/Prosciutto di Iowa and #1/How Local Can You Go? have passed 2000 views each.  On the other hand, the new one, #12/In The Land of Whitefish, is just sort of sitting there, so if you like it, tell somebody, Tweet it, pass it along, pass somebody famous in the hallway and tell them about it, whatever!

If you liked my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody, check this out.

In a move I expect to affect absolutely no one, I’m turning off comments on old posts because the only people who post new comments on anything more than a couple of weeks old are spammers, and they tend to glom onto a few posts and totally assault them with keerap month after month. If you actually want to comment on something old, email me or something.

Actual content to come soon…

I have a piece about Nunavut Arctic Char at the Reader’s blog here, complete with an outtake from the current Sky Full of Bacon video podcast, A Better Fish.  Check it out, it’s the story of why a certain fish suddenly turned up on menus all over town (and all over the internet).

Speaking of podcasts, while I was in Wyoming saying nasty things about Julia Child, the La Quercia podcast passed 2000 views at Vimeo to become the third-most-watched to date, which is cool, to me anyway (hey, I like to know that it’s not all downhill from somewhere).

Also, one of those blogs that cleverly asks the right questions to lure other writers into writing the blog for them asked me an irresistible question; here’s my answer.

This week’s Save This Restaurant column in Time Out Chicago is about C.J.’s Eatery in West Humboldt Park, whence came the shrimp and grits seen above, and it’s by me.

It sometimes seems as if there are no more food discoveries to be made in Chicago. The truth is, while it may be harder these days— though far from impossible— to find unknown places in Chicago, there are all kinds of unexplored suburbs around the city, especially in less-traveled-by-internet-users areas like the south suburbs. So don’t think it improbable if I say that as far as I am concerned, the best middle eastern food in Chicago is in an area that has gone almost entirely undiscovered (with one exception) until now— that at least half the times I’ve stopped for food there, I’ve had middle eastern food that for brightness of flavor, freshness of preparation, and the hospitality with which it was served handily surpassed almost any middle-eastern meal I’ve ever had within the city. After repeated middling experiences at what I’d long considered the best of them in the city— Salam— and adjusting my expectations for middle-eastern downward, the food in and around Bridgeview has given me new hope for the existence of an authentic, lively example of this cuisine in Chicago.  I chronicled these explorations and discoveries in my Time Out “Taste Quest” last week; this will offer some notes and further explication of that piece, which I would recommend as the primary, easily referenced primer for the explorer.

I had vaguely known for some time that there were middle eastern restaurants down in this area (which, to help set the scene, is located straight south of the city on Harlem avenue in the 80s and 90s, mostly; or in foodie terms, it’s about a mile southwest of Chuck’s). In fact Salam even had an outpost here at one time. The Arab community here— mainly Palestinian— originated in Chicago’s oldest middle eastern area, which was in the South Loop, and for many years they were the shopkeepers for the south side black community, both necessary and resented by the local population (a la Korean bodega owners in black neighborhoods today). The community moved over time to the area around 63rd and Pulaski, and there are still some remnants of it there; I took part in an event during the time between the abandonment of Chowhound and the launch of LTHForum in which several of us ate our way up and down 63rd, checking out the restaurants and shops that existed then. However, when the best known to us of these, Steve’s Shish Kabob, closed up around 2006 (eventually reopening somewhat to the southeast of Bridgeview), the whole south side Arab community kind of fell off the local foodie radar.

To get back to its history rather than mine, the community had started looking for a place to build a mosque as early as the 1950s, and a Bridgeview mosque was built in the 1970s. The Bridgeview mosque has inspired controversy which is best understood by perusing the Chicago Tribune’s series of articles on it from a few years ago, but whatever may be happening inside it, the commercial activity around it remains warmly welcoming to the outsider, if to judge by appearances, rarely seeing many from the Irish, Poles and Lithuanians who also live in the area.

The first place I visited, a bit to the south of the main area, was Al-Basha in Palos Heights, which seems to have been around for a number of years, to judge by both the slightly worn decor and the very relaxed air with which regulars were being served. First impressions were not promising— and it took long enough to get our order taken that they had a long time to sink in— but all doubts were swept away once food arrived. Everything— falafel, kifta, the bowl of complimentary pickles— just sparkled a little brighter than any I’d had locally for some time. Tastebuds that had been lulled into slumber woke up, ready for duty. The food was as jaunty as the chef in the window:

Al Basha
7216 W. College Rd.
Palos Heights

A month or so later my wife and I were in that area again and I suggested we just pick and try another random unknown spot. She’s the one who found Albawadi Mediterranean Grill in a strip mall parking lot on 87th. If I had one knock against Al-Basha— besides the fact that smoking is still allowed in restaurants in Palos Heights, shock, horror!— it would be that the menu seemed to offer only the expected standards of middle eastern cuisine. Albawadi proved not only to be at least Al-Basha’s equal in flavor but to show more ambition with an extensive menu that includes everything from meat to seafood, and begins with a relish tray centered around a wonderful garlicky eggplant dip (something like the Turkish imam biyaldi). The grilled meats were outstanding, perfectly done, while the decor led to a rather amusing moment:

Al Bawadi is located in a former fast food building, which they are in the process of expanding so that they can have a nonsmoking original building and a separate hookah room. The building looked vaguely Alamo-like, but I couldn’t quite place it, so after our meal I asked our waiter if it had been a Mexican restaurant. He clearly thought I was asking if the meal we had eaten was Mexican food, and, eyes bulging in disbelief and dismay, carefully explained to the astonishingly stupid gringo (who somehow knew baba ghanoush and falafel by name, but apparently believed them to be salsa and chips), that the restaurant was Jordanian-Palestinian. Eventually I got out of him that the building had once been an Arby’s, but I’m not sure I ever convinced him that I hadn’t mistaken his place for Senor Sombrero’s.

Albawadi Grill
7216 W 87th Street
Bridgeview, IL 60455

At this point, 2 for 2 on random picks having turned out to be pretty damn wonderful, I decided I had a mission to try every middle eastern place down here. As it turned out, Albawadi turned out to be the best by a comfortable margin, and indeed I would anoint it the best middle eastern restaurant in Chicagoland— and thus the one to visit if you feel inclined to make a trip down there and check the area out. And since the menus tend to be fairly similar from place to place, that’s not a bad strategy. All the same, there are several other worthy places worth noting, and without duplicating the Time Out article (which extends to groceries and sweet shops), here are a few more restaurants which warrant attention (and which I will number as part of my series of 50 places previously undiscovered by LTHForum and the local foodie community generally):

21. The Nile
This is a second outpost of a restaurant that still exists on the 63rd street strip (the similar-named place in Hyde Park may have been related once as well; or “The Nile” for a middle-eastern place may be
“Great Wall” for Chinese restaurants). The cafeteria-like atmosphere is nothing to get excited about, but the bustle behind the counter suggests that they’re doing more than lazily serving up falafel— mensef was the special one day I came in here. (The specials board is in Arabic, so you have to ask.) I didn’t have the mensef, I wanted to just try the regular menu (and being on deadline, I had another lunch ahead of me that day, so I didn’t want to order big), but the shish taouk was grilled spot-on perfect and the falafel were bright and flavorful. It’d be worth checking out again.

The Nile Restaurant
7333 W 87th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 237-0767

22. Baladi Restaurant
This was one I found by searching the internet, as it’d be easy to miss it on a side street off Harlem.  (I don’t have much use for Yelp generally, but it sometimes at least alerts you to the existence of places that locals have commented on that otherwise have gone unnoticed by the internet.)  The first time I went I had an absolutely fantastic grilled chicken off the specials board (again, in Arabic only), perfectly grilled (do we detect a theme?) and accompanied by a kind of red pepper sauce.  I had planned on a second lunch that day as well but the idea of not finishing that chicken while it was warm and crispy was unacceptable.  Baba ghanoush— not that I needed anything like that with this chicken— also impressed me as smoky and delectable.

I returned about a week later with LTHForum poster Gastro Gnome, who had agreed to accompany me to visit some of the groceries and markets and help me understand where the points of distinction were so I could include a few of those in the Time Out piece.  We started with lunch at Baladi, ordering off the regular menu, and… it was one of those times when the second visit completely fails to show your guest what had wowed you the first time.  Everything (shawerma, shish taouk, etc.) was okay, but nothing sparkled.  So I guess stick to the specials at Baladi; that chicken really was great.  I’m not imagining it.

Baladi Restaurant
7209 W 84th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455

23. Lebanese Cuisine (menu says Lebanese Nights)
This is the only Bridgeview restaurant I tried that didn’t make the Time Out piece at all.  (Al-Basha didn’t make it because it was too far away from the others.) The location is actually where Salam’s outpost used to be, and it was something else in between (as my take-out bag indicated).  I ordered a Lebanese shawerma sandwich (shawerma inside a thin wrap with pickles and so on) and a side of foul, beans.  Running the place (seemingly singlehanded) was a sort of pepperpot lady in a full hijab.  She couldn’t have been more warm or welcoming, and I was ready to love this place… but the food just didn’t do it at all.  The shawerma was kind of mealy and tough, and the foul, despite giving off waves of garlic, was flavorless in that way that only bean dishes can be.  Too bad.

Lebanese Nights
9050 S Harlem Ave
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 430-4377

24. Village Pita & Bakery
This small shop would have been easy to miss in the same strip mall as Albawadi, but I’m glad I didn’t.  They sell a variety of baked goods stuffed or topped with things like za’atar (a green spice of herbs and sesame) or mohamara (a spicy red pepper topping), dirt cheap and, if not mindblowing, totally easy to like.  Not surprisingly, it was the one place where I saw non-Arab customers— the Irish kid delivering Pepsi chimed in to urge me to try the potato filled one.  The owner (you can see his picture at Time Out’s site) clearly takes serious pride in his wares, as he was very insistent, almost worriedly so, that I not under any circumstances microwave the ones I took away (hey, I’d already had two lunches), but warm them on a cookie sheet in the oven.  I did, they made a great dinner that night.

Village Pita & Bakery
7378 W 87th St
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 237-0020

25. Nablus Sweets
I tend to think of things like baklava in terms of David Mamet’s line that there’s no difference between good flan and bad flan, so I included a couple of sweets shops in the piece, but hell if I have any way to tell which is better than the other.  This place stood out for one offering I’ve never seen anywhere else— knafeh, a dish made of warmed white Nablus cheese, topped with orange shredded wheat (once saffron-colored, I imagine), ground pistachios and sweet syrup.  I could only get through half a piece, it was so rich and sweet, but I was assured on the weekends, they line up for it.

Nablus Sweets
8320 S. Harlem
Bridegview, IL
(708) 529-3911

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For my latest restaurant-not-widely-talked-about-on-LTHForum-or-anywhere-else, I was going to write about Amira’s Trio, a Cuban-Puerto Rican spot on Cicero a little north (on the other side of the street) of Sol de Mexico. But there was enough personality and pizazz in this little but attractive and friendly spot, especially given its owner, Vicky Amira, that I saw a chance to sell a piece on it— and so it appears this week in Time Out Chicago’s Save This Restaurant column.

So read it there, and then, believe me, you won’t regret a visit to Amira’s Trio, the archetypal welcoming family-run restaurant, clean and neat enough that you can even take people who don’t share your taste for ethnic dives, as long as they love good, hearty comfort food— and being fussed over by a warm, maternal owner.

Amira’s Trio
3047 N Cicero Ave.

The Cuban-Rican, half Cubano, half Jibarito.

To see more in this series, click Restaurant Reviews at right and look for the numbered reviews.

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