Sky Full of Bacon


So next week I will again be subbing on Grub Street Chicago, so watch for me there. In the meantime, though, I am finally back at my desk after various midwestern journeys, here to report on things strange and marvelous:

Yah’s Cuisine

The very last thing I shot for my barbecue video was the standup with Peter Engler in front of the original Leon’s Bar-B-Q location on 79th. Afterwards I asked him to suggest somewhere to eat in the area and he smiled mischievously and said, you may not want this after talking barbecue, but… how about vegan soul food? I know there has been a little discussion of such places on LTHForum but I must admit I hadn’t really paid much attention to the vegan scene on the other side of town, unaccountably…

Would it be too much to say that I’m itching for an excuse to get back? No, it would not, and this was even with Peter apologizing that it wasn’t nearly as good as the first time he went (the proprietress Yah herself was absent that day, and anyway, it’s probably all fresher and hotter on weekends). Even so, I loved the nutty corn cakes, the greens with a surprising depth of pot likker for being untouched by pork, the fresh watermelon-ade. Seriously, a contender for my top ten list this year even on an off day, and that much more of a reproach to the wan home-cooked vegan plates of blah mostly served on the north side. There’s meatless magic happening here.

Yah’s Cuisine
2347 E 75th St
Chicago, IL 60649
(773) 759-8517
www.yahscuisine.com

Village Inn, Middlebury IN

No, not that Village Inn, but an unrelated actual small town restaurant. Heading to a film festival in Ohio, I finally had a chance to use a book I got last Christmas called Cafe Indiana. The woman who wrote it, Joanne Raetz Stuttgen, has two of them, one for Indiana and one for Wisconsin, both identifying small town cafes and diners where the food is made the old way and the people are especially nice. I mapped out several spots along 80/90 and lunchtime struck near Middlebury, not too far from the Ohio border.

Lunch was freshly made, no industrial shortcuts, but it was pleasant, not dazzlingly good. But then we ordered pie…

I ordered blueberry sour cream, my friend Irv ordered rhubarb cream. They were wonderful. The crust wasn’t as perfectly flaky as Hoosier Mama’s, say, but the combination of bright in-season fruit and a slight tartness in both cases was homey, yet with a touch of sophistication, an almost musical counterpoint. One of the best ten-mile detours I’ve ever taken, and while there I learned about something else I’d never heard of— Bob Andy Pie. I asked what it was, and neither of the waitresses seemed to know— they said it was kind of like pumpkin pie. I wondered, persimmon? Paw paw?

Of course, the internet knew— Bob Andy is a simple custard pie with cinnamon that rises to the top making an attractive layered look, common in the Amish country of Indiana (which is exactly where we were). Like Hoosier Mama’s sugar cream pie, it’s a “desperation pie,” one you make when you’re out of fruit or anything else that might make a better pie.

Guess what I’m about to make.

Village Inn
107 S Main St
Middlebury, IN 46540
(574) 825-2043

Further Adventures in Massillon and Wooster, OH

For some unknown reason, there are two different old movie festivals in Ohio, and I’ve been to both some years. The one in Columbus has always also been an interesting food trip, the one in Massillon, on the outskirts of Akron, has been more an exercise in defensive eating, Massillon home mainly to fairly generic burger-and-salad-bar family restaurants. But slowly I’ve found things in Massillon worth eating, like the Swenson’s Galley Boy, an old-school double-decker drive-in burger native to the Akron area with mayo and bbq sauce on it— but more than the sum of its parts. I also found an Akron BBQ chain that has opened just down the street, Old Carolina Barbecue, and if not the greatest barbecue I ever had, is certainly real enough to be satisfying, its Southern Pride smoker (the same used at places like Smoque) visible from the dining room.

But the most interesting find was one some friends of mine, who seem to have been bitten by the food bug after being exposed to me (and Swenson’s) last year, turned up. Taggart’s Ice Cream wasn’t a secret to me, since it’s one of the few places in the Massillon area (actually Canton) listed at Road Food. The ice cream is all well and good, but my friends discovered the real gem on the menu, the total retro surprise tucked away in the sandwiches column: a genuine “ladies who lunch”-style cream cheese-olive-walnut spread sandwich on rye bread:

I had a grandmother— not this one, the other one— who used to make cream cheese and black olive spread. I kind of loved it but it was also one-dimensional, tasting as much of building materials or adhesives as food. With more pungent green olives in this one, and who knows what other culinary tricks, this brought one of grandma’s Depression-era staples to life. It couldn’t have fit the old movies we were seeing better. Another olive spread sandwich, Countess?

Other friends turned up another culinary attraction nearby— the university town of Wooster about 20 minutes to the west. It’s funny, I had gotten so used to Massillon being stuck culinarily in the 70s that it almost bothered me to see the world I normally live in, the foodie world, encroaching on my annual escape from obsessive foodieism. But Spoon Market was a very nice deli that would do any neighborhood in Chicago proud, full of things like La Quercia prosciutto and Jeni’s ice cream and serving fried kale chips alongside deli sandwiches.

But the real must-stop in Wooster is Tulipan, a Hungarian cafe and pastry shop. Reports on the goulash and paprikash for lunch were good, but the thing to go out of your way for— besides the note-perfect mittel-European setting, again, most appropriate for all these old movies made, so often, by refugees from central Europe— was the pastries, like this classic, and really splendid, walnut torte, not too sweet or gooey, a reproach to all the overdone yuppie cakes and cupcake trucks of our time:

Oh, to have a shop around the corner like this one… One of the mysteries of Chicago is why there isn’t much Hungarian food here; but it’s all over the area near Cleveland, and in my experience, always worth checking out, for dessert if nothing else.

Taggarts Ice Cream Parlor
1401 Fulton Rd NW
Canton, OH 44703
(330) 452-6844
http://taggartsicecream.com/

Spoon Market
147 South Market Street
Wooster, OH 44691
(330) 262-0880
http://www.spoon-market.com/

Tulipan
122 South Market Street
Wooster, OH 44691-4839
(330) 264-8092

* * *

And on to the best things I ate in the last quarter (for previous lists, click the category “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” at right). As always, Key Ingredient dishes are not included because they’re one-offs and you can’t go eat them; and I probably could include a couple of things from the Green City Market BBQ or the LTHForum picnic, but those too are kind of one-shots and anyway, I was concentrating on enjoying myself, not memorizing the profile of everything I tasted. Hey, it happens.

• Corn cakes and greens at Yah’s Cuisine (see above)
• Corn cakes of a different sort at bacon dinner at L’Etoile, Madison WI (report to come)
• Olive nut sandwich, Taggart’s Ice Cream Parlor, Canton OH
• Sour cream blueberry pie, Village Inn, Middlebury IN
• Octopus salad and grilled mackerel at Izakaya Yume
• Cold soba noodles, Ruxbin
• Grilled quail stuffed with garlic sausage, Nostrano, Madison WI
• My homemade strawberry-mint-basil jam (inspired by a Dale DeGroff cocktail)
• Burger and fries at Walt’s in Wichita
• Ham spread and cracker at Brobeck’s, Kansas City area (I forget which burb)
• Baozi buns at ING
• Short ribs and other stuff at Perennial Virant
• $6 chorizo tamale, Green City Market
• $1.50 tamale, Garibay Tamales
• World’s simplest lobster roll, New England Seafood Market
• Biryani-like something or other at Chaihanna, Buffalo Grove
• Sausages from Bavarian Sausage, Fitchburg, WI, as cooked by me in speedy choucroute garnie

Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *


$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

Tags: , , , ,

When I first moved into my neighborhood, many years ago, there was exactly one place to eat (at night, anyway): a hipster burger place called Planet Cafe. A few weeks later I was exploring the area further up Lincoln, and spotted a picturesque Italian restaurant, rambling over two or three storefronts and bathed in a warm, welcoming Tuscan light, called La Bocca della Verita… the mouth of truth.

At the sight of it my heart ached with jealousy— why didn’t my neighborhood have one of these? The oh-so-life-in-the-big-city neighborhood Italian joint, presided over by the sturdy Italian mama and making comfy plates of what we then all called Northern Italian food. (Though we didn’t really know what that meant, except things did have basil scattered on them, and didn’t come buried in the lead weight of old school red gravy.) For me, at that time, it represented everything about what life in the city was supposed to be– cosmopolitan, continental, yet cozy at the same time. It was right up there with used book stores and the three-story Rose Records and checking out tiny theater troupes for $7 a ticket (anyone else see The Book of Blanche?) and art movies at the Fine Arts, among things that were What I Moved To This City For.

But as Tony Soprano said, remember when is the lowest form of conversation. So I’ll simply note the disappearance of nearly everything on that list except La Bocca della Verita. When I moved here, youthful Kansas emigre, I didn’t know Italian food from Franco-American spaghetti, so a return to La Bocca della Verita after many years was fraught with opportunities for you-can’t-go-to-your-old-new-home-again disappointment, except my expectations were fully primed for exactly that. And they were mostly right. If I know what the delicacy of Italian food is now, what subtlety is, I also know when it’s being made without them. And the food my younger son and I had was, what’s the nicest way to put it, pleasantly clumsy. Gooey gnocchi with trumpet blast tomato sauce. Gluey spaghetti carbonara with guanciale which was flavorful… including the flavor of smoked pork, which guanciale doesn’t normally have. Baked cod in a pool of lemony, garlicky liquid being the best of the evening, but still, most reminiscent of the days when I would be taken to lunch at Riccardo’s, an ancient downtown advertising hangout, and quickly learned to stick to fish as the thing they could damage the least.

I could name better renditions of everything we had. I could imagine someone else getting all Medici on this kitchen. But… it won’t be me, because their welcome to this bustling restaurant could not have been friendlier. The sturdy Italian mama’s smiles and consideration for my son’s wellbeing (even if it meant offering him a 7-Up refill he definitely didn’t need) were pleasures of life and community beyond mere gustatory pleasures. I don’t live in this neighborhood, I am no longer the starry-eyed youth, but for one night again, I felt the palest ghost of long-ago excitement at having places like this— real Italian restaurants, run by real Italians, everybody welcome— just a stroll away on the streets of my new metropolis. So here’s a kiss for La Bocca, and let cold hard Veritas take the night off.

La Bocca della Verita
4618 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 784-6222

* * *

Perhaps it’s Michelinmania, but everybody’s doing lists of The Best Restaurants in Chicago these days. Having launched one such list already, and just being one guy who can only eat at so many places, and what do you care how I rank The Purple Pig, I’m never going to have Gebert’s Top 25 or whatever. But what I will do is write up, as I did last year, a quarterly list of the best things I’ve eaten lately, which is hopefully soon enough that if you felt so inclined, you could try many of the same things I had. (Note: I have not included any of the Key Ingredient dishes, as they were one-offs which you probably couldn’t have. Although there’s at least one you could have something close to— Mindy Segal’s carrot cake at Hot Chocolate— and you’d be very happy if you did.)


Pork tamale from Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero.

• Navy bean soup, cold roast beef sandwich, and the house (Italian) sausage I used on a pizza, from The Butcher & Larder
• Tarte flambee and Paris Brest at Balsan
• Pork belly sandwich at Xoco, especially the second half reheated the next day
• Cassoulet at Leopold
• Brussel sprouts (but not cassoulet) at Maude’s Liquor Bar
• Toscano dry sausage, and others, at Old Town Social
• Rasher and egg sandwich at Owen & Engine
• “Fish taco” (sashimi with tortilla foam) at Perennial Poli
• Grilled salad and short rib agnolotti at Three Aces
• Lobster roll at Shaw’s, which just isn’t the restaurant for me otherwise, but oh man, that’s just dead on perfect
• Kebab sandwich or whatever it is at Mr. D’s Shish-Kabobs
• Leek soup at Rewster’s
• Goat cheese quiche at brunch at Nightwood
• Goat knackwurst at Three Floyd’s
• Chocolate doughnut from Munster Donuts (Munster, IN)
• Slice of sausage pizza at Doughboys
• Slice of ricotta sheet pizza at Italian Superior Bakery
• Coconut chimney cake at Chimney Cake Island
• Potato chips from Grahamwich
• All the tamales at Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero, an LTH discovery no one thought to make an LTH GNR
• Barbacoa, which I’d never had before at Tierra Caliente, but is clearly the backup choice whenever you doubt that the carne asada or pastor is as perfect at that moment as it should be
• Italian beef at Novi’s Beef, Berwyn
• Chilaquiles at Caffe Gaudi
• Montreal-style pastrami at the place in the French Market next to Pastorale
• Housemade pasta with braised pastrami at Inovasi (okay, that was from the last week of 2010, but I had already done my 10 best list before I went there and it deserves mention)

I will have more to say about 2010 and the food world shortly (if you recall this time last year, I won’t be alone), but the year’s end calls for a ten best list. (I don’t know who these people are who publish them in mid-December; I was still checking out new restaurants last week, hoping for one last glimpse of transcendence.) If you look at other people’s lists, whether of 10 or 100, there’s one obvious point made which is that this was a great year for casual yet culinarily serious joints, big on pork, beer and ampersands. But where some seemed content to make up lists entirely of these mid-upscale joints (understandably, they’re easy to leave contented), I still have my populist LTH/Chowhound side, too, and I want to make sure to take note of our city’s (and nation’s) richness of ethnic dining and other kinds of small joints, that can’t afford a PR firm… or an ampersand. If that means some much more acclaimed spot gets bumped to the second ten, well, what a great city we’re in that the second ten can have places on it like The Purple Pig or Old Town Social or The Southern or Kith & Kin.

Anyway, here, in reverse order, are my ten best, which as always must be things that were new to me in 2010:

10. Beef shawerma at Taza Bakery. Middle-eastern food had grown increasingly boring. And it seemed boring for the folks making it, too. Then I had the beef shawerma at this place on Devon just east of Kedzie, in a big fluffy blanket of freshly-baked bread called tannur, and it was full of flavorful meat and tart sauce and crisp vegetables, and it reinvented and reinvigorated a staple lunch. And the people aren’t bored, they’re standing there making bread all day long, you can watch them at it.

9. Wild boar or Stromboli at Gaztro-Wagon. Speaking of meat rolled up in bread… much as I like the guys involved in the whole food truck thing and wish them well, I have to admit that not being a barfly, food trucks are not personally critical to my lifestyle. But take Gaztro-Wagon merely as a sandwich startup in a storefront on the way to my kids’ school, and it was one of the best pieces of news of my food year— always interesting combinations served gooey hot in delectable soft and chewy sort-of-naan, for nearly always less than $10 a throw. As with Phillip Foss’s Meatyballs, Franks N Dawgs, or Hot Doug’s, granddaddy of them all, it’s the kind of high-low innovation that makes this city such a great place to eat… too often despite the best efforts of city bureaucracy.

8. Charcoal chicken at Taqueria Ricardo. I actually found Taqueria Ricardo late in 2009, but held off posting about it until I could compose a comprehensive guide to the semi-hidden world of supermercado taquerias, the taquerias inside Mexican grocery stores around Chicago.  Several are quite good but by far the most elaborate and interesting and varied in town is this one on Diversey near Kostner, where they make genuinely, no-charcoal-or-gas-involved wood-grilled chicken and even rabbit, along with excellent seafood soups, taco al pastor, and a wide variety of other Mexican dishes.

7. Blackbird. I wanted to finally check out Mike Sheerin’s food at what is, to my mind, the most influential Chicago restaurant locally (even if others have more of a national profile), little suspecting that his era at Blackbird would come to an end fairly quickly.  But whatever it becomes under David Posey (seen in this week’s Key Ingredient, incidentally), I’ll remember the unexpected refinement and delicacy of dishes like his marvelous sturgeon and escargot or peanut gazpacho, not to mention the mindbending desserts of Patrick Fahy. And I’ll eagerly await Sheerin’s own venture The Trencherman.

6. Tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay and other dishes at Aroy Thai. After falling into a rut with much-beloved Thai places like Spoon and TAC, dishes like the fiery, pungent soup tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay brought back those heady days when we LTHers were first discovering the world of Thai secret menus and non-Americanized Thai in all its spicy glory.  I’ve been back almost half a dozen times since.

5. Doro wat at Queen Makeda. It took going to Washington, D.C., but I finally had a genuinely great African meal at this invitingly homey (despite the big TV playing C-Span) Ethiopian restaurant a few steps from Ben’s Chili Bowl and other tourist magnets.

4. Tete de cochon, and many others, at Longman & Eagle. Lots of places shoot onto national lists and win Michelin stars in their first year, but for a neighborhood tavern to have done it really says something about how the cutting edge of our dining scene is shifting away from traditional fine dining. A lot of people expressed surprise when Michelin honored them, but not me, from a slightly shaky start this gastropub or whatever it is had gotten rapidly and impressively better every time I visited (at least four times this year), climaxing (almost literally) with the tete de cochon, which made Girl & The Goat’s pig face a pale reflection. But it’s no mere porkateria, other favorite dishes have run the gamut from scallops to charry grilled anchovies, all pulled off as if they were the house’s specialty.

3. Willi Lehner’s bandaged aged cheddar. I had lots of great cheese on my cheese jaunt (see here and here), but the one that summed it up for me was this one of Willi Lehner’s, as atmospheric and dense with history as a 12th century monastery.  I’m sure tasting it in his actual cave was a big part of that, but it’s just as marvelous at home.

2. Ruxbin. As I wrote: “Ruxbin is not another Schwa— it’s a more down-to-earth neighborhood restaurant, with dishes that sound like fairly plain American bistro food, with a touch of Asian fusion. With its thrift-shop look (like some Korean-American cross between Avec and Chicago Kalbi, with a little Amtrak sleeper coach thrown in), it looks more like the kind of place you’d find in a college town than in money-flashing 2010 Chicago. But besides the similarities to Schwa of being tiny, hard to get into and BYO on Ashland, you get the sense of a comparable degree of intensity, focus, and something like perfectionism in the food.”

1. L.C.’s BBQ/A&M Grill. We had a bunch of barbecue places open this year, and I even like one of them (Lillie’s Q) a lot, but if there’s one thing no restaurateur can do, no matter how savvy and skilled, it’s make a barbecue joint with real history behind it. I tried two places like that this year in which the food came with a side of deep culture and heritage; in Kansas City, it was my new favorite Kansas City barbecue joint, L.C.’s:

While in North Carolina, it was A&M Grill:

There’s so much more than food going on at these places… but there’s also the food, which is wonderful.

I won’t go into a long list of runners-up because I’ve posted quarterly lists here, here and here, but here are some other things I liked enough to jot down in the most recent quarter:

• Galley Boy burger at Swenson’s Drive-in (various locations around Akron)
• Goat-pork-veal sugo and a couple of other things from Girl and The Goat
• Eggplant salad, trout and dessert at Ruxbin
• Many many cheeses on my cheese tour (see links above)
• Butternut squash soup, a taste of trout, and goat cheesecake at L’Etoile in Madison
• Shortrib agnolotti at Ceres’ Table
• Some of the new menu at The Violet Hour (we had them as canapes, so I’ve kind of forgotten what they were already, but… they’re good!)
• Beef shawerma at Taza
• Blue cheese-frizzled onion burger at DMK Burger Bar, which is expensive, but easily my favorite of this year’s nouveau burger joints (besides Edzo’s of course)
• Butternut squash-sage thing at The Purple Pig
• BBQ Meatyballs sandwich
• Stromboli from Gaztro-Wagon
• Pizza from Armand’s, old Elmwood Park place now on Western
• The sauerkraut pie I made out of Pig
• Lemongrass tofu banh mi from Nhu Lan by way of Michael Nagrant’s place
• Sonoran hot dog, Big Star
• Corn and pork cake, Ming Hin

Finally, let me note what a great year this has been for Sky Full of Bacon, full of interesting opportunities from the Reader’s Key Ingredient series to doing Grub Street for a week to things like Baconfest or my cheese junket or being the only Chicagoan represented at the Chicago Food Film Festival. I’ve met lots of interesting people in the food world, eaten lots of terrific things and enjoyed the modest amount of acclaim that my modest work merits. It’s a wonderful life that seems to get better and more interesting with every year, and thanks to everyone who stops by to check it out… like you.

Ten best for: 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

I can’t think of a hot trendy restaurant-of-the-minute opening that has produced more wildly divergent views than Chizakaya, the new izakaya-style quasi-Japanese place which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  The official review-reviews are still pending, but first people on LTHForum went gaga for it, then I and some others went and were much more mixed in our appraisal, then another critic said he felt I was if anything too kind, but then Kevin Pang went and tweeted rapturously about much of it.  With each of these appraisals I’ve questioned my own views— was I too harsh?  Was I too easily gulled by good company and not wanting to be the one at the table who said “watta loada crap?”  Or am I just being too cynical now and missing its fine and true virtues?  What do I think I thought, really?

One of the questions for me, certainly, was how seriously to take the izakaya-ness of Chizakaya— and some of that, from me or somebody, has apparently gotten back to the folks at Chizakaya, who have tweeted on that subject a bit defensively:

My intention was not to take an izakaya from Japan, cut it out and place it in Chicago.

Just because you have had a hot dog in NYC doesn’t mean you can come to Chicago and say our hot dogs are different and wrong.

That goes with us here. Its not what you think when you think of a pub? This isn’t an authentic izakaya? WOW. Pubs vary around the world.

Fair enough.  My conclusion really boiled down less to wishing that Chizakaya was an authentic izakaya, than to wishing there was one, somewhere in Chicago.  The idea behind Chizakaya— an American pub with a Japanese slant— is reasonable enough.  It could result in a “Japanese” place the way, say, Mado is an Italian restaurant— it’s not an Italian restaurant in the normal meaning of the phrase, but in other ways it’s the most Italian of restaurants, because everything it does is influenced by Italian ways of thinking about food.

But by that comparison Chizakaya’s record was decidedly more mixed (of course, so was Mado’s two months after it opened).  Some things took that Japanese influence and really ran with it in novel ways— like the hamachi sashimi with bone marrow, which made every fussed-over bite of sushi at the late Kaze seem punk. Others could have been served at any of our new meat-centric joints, but were very good in themselves, like the beef cheek skewers; and others would have been more at home at Fun-On-A-Stick in the Towne Pointe Ridge Mall.  (I feel basically ashamed about paying even $3 for the bits of chicken skin on a stick; it’s like paying a dollar to be allowed to lick a Popsicle wrapper.  Ironically, grilled chicken skin is actually one of the most typical izakaya dishes on the menu; but there’s something especially preposterous about the tweezer-sized bits of skin threaded onto a skewer at Chizakaya.)  Generally, the stronger the Japanese influence got, the more interesting dinner was, so I hope Chizakaya continues to move in that direction— not of becoming more authentic in a rigid sense, but of delving deeper into the culture as it riffs on the idea of a Japanese izakaya.

Which still leaves me wanting an authentic izakaya, somewhere, though.

Fortunately a few have existed all along, if not in the city proper, out in the northwestern suburbs where there’s a concentration of Japanese companies and, of course, the area’s largest Japanese market, Mitsuwa.  One of them, in a strip mall in Mount Prospect, is called Sankyu, which (in the evening’s only note of hipster irony) appears to come from the way Japanese say the English phrase “thank you.”  Unlike the chic Chizikaya, Sankyu has a slightly worn family restaurant feel (at least on a quiet Thursday), not unlike some other homey Japanese spots I like such as Sunshine Cafe or Renga-Tei.  Sitting cross-legged at the traditional floor tables knocking back sake, we felt straight out of an Ozu movie, and that feeling was only enhanced by the two women who were our servers, kicking off their clogs each time they knelt down at our table to serve us, endearingly clumsy in their use of English… what businessman could resist a warm, increasingly boozy evening in their sweetly welcoming and forgiving presence?

The only noteworthy mentions I’d found of Sankyu on LTHForum were from 2006, at which time the specials board was entirely in Japanese; now not only is it in English, but with internet-era user-friendliness, the paper copy in the menu actually marks some favorite dishes with a smiley icon.  Many things were familiar enough from other Japanese restaurants to not seem specific to izakayas— agedashi tofu, goma-ae, etc.— but we managed to put together a group of dishes that seemed to fit the goes-with-a-lot-of-drinking, food on a stick profile.  There were grilled whole smelt stuffed with their own roe, which you ate head to toe, and some little fried puffballs with octopus inside— Octodonut!— in a sticky puddle which screamed “supermarket steak sauce” as its main ingredient.  When I ordered gingko skewers, our waitress raised an eyebrow and asked “You like gingko?”  I said I had no idea, but for $3.95, how could I not order them, whatever they were?

I guess they were seeds, some sort of starchy globe, somewhere in flavor and texture between a lima bean and a bath bead.

Of course, there was meat.  I ordered pork cheek, thinking it would be like the beef cheek at Chizakaya, though instead of tender braised meat it was flavorful, chewy grilled meat:

More tender meat came in the form of something described as pork cube, which turned out to be an unctuous hunk of pork braised in a sweet sauce, soft enough to pick apart with chopsticks (mostly).

As with the gingko, though, we were trying to go beyond the easily accessible things on the menu and order anything that seemed really unusual.  One of the more surprising things on the menu— and probably a clue to Korean ownership, as is often the case with Japanese restaurants in Chicago— was something called “Pork Kimchi.”  That in itself might not seem so odd— bits of sliced pork tossed in with kimchi.  What was odd was the actual flavor of the kimchi, which wasn’t the usual red-hot sriracha-type sauce but a mysteriously funky, almost cheesy flavor.  Cheesy as in, processed cheese food, a fake cheese taste.  My dining companion and I both had to taste it and think about it for a moment, reach the point where we were sure we weren’t just imagining the flavor of, say, a Jeno’s Pizza Roll . But there it was, unmistakably and for real: kimchi with the taste of a boxed pizza-making kit from the 1960s. (NOTE: see explanation in comments. Evidently I need to eat more kimchi.)

Another strange taste experience came when we ordered deep-fried garlic.  It came as a plate of little fried balls of irregular shape, a pile of them you could easily have believed was the testicles of some smaller animal.  Our concern, of course, was that the deep-frying would hardly be enough to mellow the bite of raw garlic; so it was quite a surprise when they arrived so mellow that you hardly would have known they were garlic at all.  Could deep-frying have taken the bite out of garlic that quickly?  Even slow-roasted garlic seems to have more of a garlic sharpness left in it than these did.  I wonder if they are some type of garlic known for, well, hardly tasting like garlic at all.

I suppose a comparison like this will inevitably lead to the question, so which is better, Hipsterkaya in the city, or Realzakaya in the burbs?  The reality is, they’re too different to logically pair off, and who really needs to make an either-or choice, anyway?  You know whether you want an urban hip meal in a new place, or a homey slice of authenticity on an otherwise bland suburban strip. Chizakaya’s chef comes from L2O and there’s obviously greater care and skill in the composition and execution of its dishes— sometimes to the point of preciousness, but certainly of a consistently haute-chichi level.  Where Sankyu comes off about at the executional level of a good diner, as well as the portion sizes (and Chizakaya could have used a big hearty plate like, say, the pork kimchi, to avoid sending us out not-quite-full).  Atmosphere is quite different and depends on what you want on a given night; price— well, three of us were not quite satiated for about $55 each at Chizakaya, and two of us were plenty full for $45 each at Sankyu.

The real difference for me came with one dish toward the end.  In my writeup I described my vague disappointment that Chizakaya, good as it was here and there, hadn’t expanded my mind:

I had something else in my head, a place where deep-fried lotus root or pickled plums or such unexpected, alien-looking things would challenge me during my meal. And I’m still kind of eager to go eat at that place.

One of the last things we ordered probably should have been one of the first; it was the kind of palate cleanser-slash-eye-opener that would have set the stage for the meal.  It was some kind of Japanese yam, cut into toothpicks— starchy, crunchy, like jicama.  There was a sauce at the bottom of the bowl that looked like soy sauce but was brinier, almost tart, bracing [NOTE: see comments; it’s ponzu]; there was a quail egg, there was nori, there was some wasabi.  And when you grabbed a bunch of the toothpicks with your chopsticks, it came up with a kind of alien-sliminess, leaving curving trails of slimy goo that stretched from the bowl, longer and longer until your mouth finally broke them and they sprang back.  Hardly an appetizing thing to look at— and yet when you popped it in your mouth, the crunch, the briny sauce, the creaminess of the egg, the burn of the wasabi all combined to startle and then to amaze, to adjust your preconceptions about what food is.  This was nothing like anything we eat in the west, it would surely turn off most people in five different ways, and yet my dining companion and I were both entranced by it, by its utter differentness and yet by its obvious success as a well-thought-out combination with, no doubt, centuries behind it.

Here was what I had come to the izakaya for: a meal of comfort food that, along the way, just happened to expand my universe and blow my mind.

Sankyu
1176 South Elmhurst Road
Mt. Prospect, IL 60056
(847) 228-5539

* * *

Sankyu having been the last meal of the quarter, it’s time for another list of the best things I ate in the last three months, which will then go into the semi-finals for my ten best list at the end of the year (previous quarterly lists here and here):

• Headcheese with chow-chow, Big Jones
• Tri-tip at Lillie’s Q preview event (photo above)
• Old Town Social’s cheese dog, MK’s snow cone, Green City Market BBQ
• Adam Seger’s Hum cocktail with lavender-jasmine tea, Reader party
• Pho at Pho 888
• Tete de Cochon, Longman & Eagle
• Doro Wat, Queen Makeda, Washington, D.C.
• Sliced pork and hush puppies, A&M Grill, Mebane NC
This corn soup made with farmer’s market corn by me, about 10 times this summer
• Blueberry mint sorbet, Black Dog Gelato
• Beef shawerma sandwich, Taza Bakery (3100 W. Devon)
• Beef cheek skewer and hamachi with bone marrow, Chizakaya
• Three Little Pigs sandwich at Silver Palm, of which I tweeted: “Always looked like stupid excess. Actually very well made excess.”
• Peach blush (raspberry) jam made by Cathy Lambrecht and myself
• Pork skewers with fish sauce-palm sugar marinade winged by me when I couldn’t find all the ingredients in David Thompson’s recipe
• Panzerotti, pane panella, and tiramisu at Taste of Melrose (watch the video already!)
• That Japanese yam dish at Sankyu (see post above)

WELCOME, EATOCRACY READERS! First thing you want to do is check out my latest video, Big Chef Small Farmer, just watch it above (if you’re at the main page) or click here. Then check out recent posts below.  If you’re a regular reader wondering what Eatocracy is, it’s this and I’m here.

Well, the Usinger elves are coming with their big plate of sausages, and so it must be Sky Full of Bacon’s second anniversary, that is, the second anniversary of the first video (a few posts predate that).  Actually tomorrow, but I’m sure you have better things to do on a Saturday, so we’ll celebrate today.

I’m less inclined to ramble extensively than last year but that’s because I’m busier in ways that were part of the point of doing all this.  I’m coming off a bunch of food freelance work, some in last week’s Reader, some in next week’s Time Out, preparing the next video, and continuing to try to keep up with the city’s heedless-of-recession expanding restaurant scene.

There are a few milestones to note.  Total views of my videos are approaching 40,000— and it’s remarkable that even the ones that are close to two years old continue to draw viewers steadily, only a couple each day admittedly, but still, it’s great to see that the foraging one has passed 7000 views, the Texas barbecue one is over 4000, and others have passed 3000 and 2000 months or even years after they were first made.  (The one for which I risked my life on a whitefish fishing boat, alas, is taking a long time to reach 1000, though.)

Another milestone is that the new version of the site, a long cherished project, is up, if still in the process of refinement.  But its main goals— highlighting the videos, adding a proper blogroll, keeping me from having to manually turn all the type from dark gray to black, etc.— are already accomplished, big thanks to my friend and collaborator Wyatt Mitchell.

And one of Sky Full of Bacon’s goals, to help establish my name as a food guy around town, has certainly worked.  That doesn’t mean everything I pitch gets bought (or even acknowledged) but it certainly helps, and it also means that editors come to me with things they need done that they know to be up my alley, which is the freelancer’s dream, surely.  I thank all those who have taken me seriously since I went from defiant, sometimes obnoxious citizen media at LTHForum to trying to be a pro, and have included me in many different kinds of projects and events.

Above all, I thank you, viewer-reader-commenter dear.  I’d do this if no one read it— the hypothetical there may be self-delusion at times— because to no small extent, this is where I keep my notes, but I wouldn’t do the videos if no one watched them.  I might do them for a lot fewer people than actually do watch them, though, so to know that something like the population of Naperville has watched them, that I could have filled the Chicago Theater 10 times over with all the viewers of my videos, is pretty cool.  Thank you for your visits, your support, your comments and retweets and Facebook and Vimeo Likes, and please, help yourself to the sausages.  The elves worked on them all morning.

Meanwhile, since it’s almost the end of the quarter, here are the best things I’ve eaten in the past few months, following up on the list at the end of this post:

• Burnt ends at L.C.’s in Kansas City (post to come)
• Bionic Burger, fries and cherry limeade, Wichita (post to come)
• Strawberry rhubarb pie made by me with Green City strawberries and rhubarb
• Hoosier Mama asparagus/lemon/ricotta handpie
• Rib tips at Mary’s BBQ, 606 S. Pulaski
• Collard greens at Fat Willy’s, which was way better than I remembered from, uh, 5 or 6 years ago
• Wild boar naan’wich, Gaztro-Wagon
• Thai-lime-cilantro ice cream at Jeni’s in Columbus
• Oil-poached halibut at Everest
• Pea soup at LM Restaurant
• Sturgeon and spongecake dessert at Blackbird (that’s two separate dishes, by the way)
• Cranberry-orange teacake at Bleeding Heart Bakery, first thing I’ve really loved there
• Scallops served on braised oxtail at Longman & Eagle
• Gin, Great Lakes Distillery, and Maria’s Pizza, Milwaukee
• Jared Wentworth/Longman & Eagle’s waffle with dehydrated bacon and ice cream, Baconfest

Baconfest was Saturday and kudos to all the organizers (including old pal Seth Zurer) and the many outstanding chefs inspired by bacon to new heights. I’ve been sicker than a dog with a cold the last week, but I managed to pull it together to 1) try everything in the first session and 2) give a reasonably coherent 15-minute talk to about a dozen or more on the subject of making your own bacon. I wish I had felt well enough to stick around for the second session, or at least to be more sociable, but I came home and went into a movies-on-the-couch coma. Anyway, some things I especially liked were Randy Zweiban/Province’s bacon slider with avocado and salsa, Chris Pandel/The Bristol’s bacon sausage corndog, Heather Terhune/Sable’s bacon-wrapped date (a classic but always good), and Jared Wentworth/Longman & Eagle’s waffle with dehydrated bacon and ice cream. Here’s the PDF handout from my demo; here are some more pics:


Team Boka did the best job of dressing for the occasion.


Crisping up the dehydrated bacon for Longman & Eagle’s waffle.


Das maple-bacon lollipops, as promoted by the Baconettes.


The vendor area had lots of stuff like this. Really, you have no idea how much there is until it’s all in one room.

Next, Top Chef Masters is back, did anyone ever notice the little Top Chef in-joke I put in episode 13, Pie As a Lifestyle? It’s just an out-of-nowhere imitation of one of Top Chef’s common little editing tics… see it at 7:26.

Because of my hacking cold I haven’t been anywhere (except Baconfest) and I don’t feel like writing a long post about the things I’ve made at home that I have in mind to post about, but here’s a no-brainer that suits my abilities at the moment. Which is, the problem with doing your ten best list at the end of the year is that probably everything is long gone from menus by then. But I feel like I’ve had so many good things lately that it’d be worth calling attention to them… while you still have some chance of eating them. So here’s a top 13 (a blogger’s ten) for the first quarter of 2010, links to writeups if I wrote about them, though many were merely mentioned on Twitter. Go try ’em if you can!

• Grouper soup at 90 Miles to Cuba
• Fried chicken confit at Kith & Kin
• Otter Creek Spring cheddar (purchased at Logan Square Farmers’ Market)
• Shepherd’s Pie at Mado
• Charcoal-grilled chicken at Taqueria Ricardo
• Cassis macaron (also purchased at Logan Square Farmers’ Market)
• Peach cobbler at Pearl’s Place, the South Side soul food restaurant run by the nicest people in Chicago, unless that title belongs to the lady who owns Pasieka Bakery
• Jonnycakes (sort of; more like Jonnycrepes) and awesome pulled pork at The Southern
• Duck apicius at NoMI
• Dessert at Ceres’ Table
• Persimmon pie, Hoosier Mama
• Sausage and waffles, Old Town Social
• Pretty much everything at Aroy


Persimmon pie, Hoosier Mama.