Sky Full of Bacon


The 50 in the headline is not literally true, but it’s not that far off either— I haven’t written a review post in ages here. Mind you, if anything really struck me, it probably wound up somewhere else— so you’ve had the chance to read about things like dim sum at Dolo or dinner at Lou Mitchell’s or Intro or Kurumaya or Pierogi Street or Dinosaur Barbecue or Xi’an Cuisine, not to mention all those Polish delis and pizzas thick and thin and so on.

But there are plenty of places I didn’t have a reason to write about, let alone write about at the absurd length some critics can get up to. Instead, I want to jot down some notes while I still have memories of these places, and everything will be short, a few lines at most. Here goes; everything was paid for by me and I was unknown to them, unless I say otherwise:

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Rural Society. Very nice quality of meat (though I don’t like it when places slice it for me, it gets cold), interesting South American sides. Expensive. I was impressed by the sleek steampunk-meets-whaling ship design. Yet something bugged me as I ate the six potato crispy things, hand-carved into a shape sort of like the grill on a 50s Packard: the feeling that this restaurant really isn’t for us Chicagoans. Located in a chic hotel, it’s so firmly concepted to wow tourists that you know that 3 years from now, the menu won’t have changed a jot— just like the same group’s Mercat a la Planxa; the restaurant doesn’t need to change when the clientele is constantly coming in and out.

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Boeufhaus. Stop cutting my meat for me! That said, here’s a restaurant that’s not aiming for an out of town crowd, it’s a genuine and unmistakable neighborhood steakhouse, and good for them. I enjoyed the steak but as is usually the case in steakhouses, I can only care so much about beef, rarely enough to justify $50 dropped on it. I really liked a simple bowl of impeccable farmer’s market vegetables to dip in Green Goddess dressing, and my son and I both agreed that the best thing was a terrific rye spaetzle— $7, if I recall correctly.

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The Pump Room. Went here on the house, was generally pleased. There’s nothing very daring on the menu, it’s pretty much a perfect 2015 menu (I named the fish in order for my wife without looking, and correctly predicted a ramp-based pasta—it was April), but it was all very well executed and the room is chic and lively. It felt very big city, going here where movie stars (and my wife’s mom) had gone long ago. A happy night in a place I had looked down on a little before as just for tourists; yeah, tourists like the ones I posed next to downstairs, in old Life magazines.

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The Office. It’s funny that I had shot video twice at The Office but never gone there, then wound up going to Next/The Aviary’s exclusive basement speakeasy twice in a month (once on my own dime, once for a party thrown by Sprig there). All this time I was never sure if I’d think it was fantastic or ridiculous, I think The Aviary is kind of both and that’s its charm, but put me mostly on the fantastic side. I wouldn’t eat dinner there—it would cost a billion and mostly be lush, fatty snacks (though the tartare is stellar and the taste of Next’s Spanish menu jamon was sublime)—but the craftsmanship of the cocktails to your individual tastes is peerless, and the clubbiness of the small room, which I thought I might find obnoxious, is actually quite wonderful, not snooty (once you’re in, anyway) but intimate and cozy, a perfect hangout feel with no sports TVs or obnoxious bros. If you’re going to burn money drinking somewhere, this really is a special, only in Chicago place.

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Punch House. But if you want something that’s kind of intimate like The Office, but not as expensive or exclusive, and has more of the feel of a Wisconsin supper club than the Harvard Club, check out the lower level of Dusek’s, for one thing if only because they’re among the ever-dwindling number of bars without TVs. (Punch House instead wittily has a fish tank, which emits a similar blue light.) I went (on the house) for their fondue menu; like popcorn at the movies, fondue never quite strikes me as a fully balanced meal, but their combination of crudités, bread and housemade sausages to dip was thoroughly enjoyable, and after having made punch a few times myself out of Charleston Receipts, it was fun to taste a few of their versions (a well-balanced older one, a modern one with too-strong pepper).

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Seven Lions. I was a fan of Chris Curren, especially at Stout Barrel House, so I was eager to try the new Alpana Singh et al. place under his direction on Michigan Avenue (I went with Nick Urig, who has since moved on from Isabelli; and Ms. Singh stopped by to chat at one point). I was happy throughout the appetizer/small plates part of the meal, with things that reminded me of dishes like Curren’s great dill pickle salad at Stout, but the main courses reminded us a little too forcefully that this was a big restaurant for the tourist and convention visitor crowd— hunks of meat which were kind of staid for us Chicagoans, however much they may be right up the alley of the hotel guest. The best one was the burger, which was a dead on perfect imitation of Au Cheval’s celebrated imitation of a Top Notch Beefburger. Next time they tell you it’ll be three hours to eat at Au Cheval, take a cab to Michigan Avenue instead.

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Luella’s Southern Kitchen. The best intersection for chicken and waffles in the city has to be Lincoln and Wilson, with Fork on one side and this southern-Louisiana place on the other. The neighborhood instantly loved it; I like it but find some of the dishes are more refined than funky for this kind of food, with the kind of plating where you can tell that the chef used to work in a hotel (like the beets dish above). I’d be fine with less fanciness and more soul.

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Ramen Shinchan. Another ramen place up in the northwest burbs, not too far from all those other ramen places. We’ve come a long way with ramen that I can decide this one— a thoroughly respectable, authentically run place— is pretty good, but others are better. It’ll be great when Ramen Misoya comes to the city.

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Assi International Center. An Asian mall up on Milwaukee in Niles; I’d seen it forever but never thought to check out the food court until recently, one day when my older son was off school. I had some very nice fried chicken, he had pretty good bulgogi, and we enjoyed checking it out, seeing the machine that made little walnut cakes and so on. A little dowdier than H Mart or Mitsuwa, but we did some good shopping and it definitely has the best assortment of free CDs from Korean Christian churches in the area.

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Izakaya Mita. A certain Japanese-influenced chef I had dinner with slammed this Wicker Park izakaya as sloppy and not very good. Me, I enjoyed it well enough. Nothing I had was stellar, but it reminded me of the old LTH days of finding ethnic restaurants (oh no I used that word) and just being glad they were there at all and we could try different things, better or not.

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Bascule. The chef has changed at this wine bar since I went, but owners Jason Prah and Scott Harney are the key figures here anyway, as long as the food is comfy and goes with wine, it’s secondary. They have eclectic wines at not too high a markup and tell you a story to go with them. They could even stand to push the story harder; a few times they seemed a little tentative. Nah, just sell the hell out of me, I’ll buy it.

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Bom Bolla. Vermouth spigot by the glass. You’re gonna see that everywhere, loved it. I wrote about going once at the Reader, returned a second time for more things like a real meal and not the snacks I inadvertently made a meal out of the first time. I still am slightly conflicted in that I feel like their tapas don’t quite add up to a full meal. Anyway, it still seems drink-first, where Vera is (slightly) food first and MFK definitely is, even though the eaty things are all so well prepared (and it seems sure to make my year-end list).

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Formento’s. I liked a preview for this place, two friends of mine, independently, found once it opened that things were overdone to the point of being a disaster. I stayed away until I was invited for lunch on the house and if Formento’s lost its way at some point, it seems to have found it again, things were restrained and well crafted. This pasta was pure spring green, delightful, eggplant parmesan was a terrific example, though the Nonna’s meatballs everybody has to have these days were missing a little oomph to stand out.

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Frank Meets Patty vs. Hot “G” Dogs. Inheritor of the Hot Doug’s space, vs. the former staff carrying on the recipes. Neither quite has the Hot Dog’s magic; Frank does perfectly decent dogs, but you feel the absence of the more unusual choices— and of the crowds; it’s a little melancholy, at least till memory fades a bit. (Ironically, it’s owned by the son of another dog stand star— the late Phil of Fatso’s Last Stand.) Hot G has the unusual dogs, and they’re fine, but it isn’t the tight ship Doug ran (Doug would never have let a female staffer/somebody’s girlfriend stand behind the counter checking her phone as the line waited). You can’t go home for elk sausage again.

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Q-BBQ. Sula usually trashes new BBQ places and I’m usually more forgiving, but for once I’m totally in agreement. I tried this place, which started in Wheaton and is now also in Lakeview, for this piece, and it never stood a chance. The meats were potentially okay if not stellar, but they were doomed by way, way, way too sweet sauces and everything. Yuck.

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Mysore Woodlands. Felt like no-pressure, no-thinking Indian, but Indian Garden on Devon is gone (once, that would have been some news at LTHForum; buffets are a mixed bag, but Indian Garden has always been very reliable). So I went next door for vegetarian. It was good, but it was also at least twice as expensive as just as good vegetarian at Annapurna. No reason I could see to spend so much more.

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El Carrito. This is a Chipotle-sharp looking new local Mexican spot in the not-exactly-overabundant-with-tacos region around Lincoln and Peterson. For some reason I was in the mood for a burrito over the usual, and usually well-advised, choice of tacos. The grilled meat was in big chunks and tasty, but the salsa was too sweet, which is a worrisome sign of pandering to the gringos. Still, a promising-looking spot, worth exploring further.

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Taqueria Traspasada. Why had I never been to either version of this taqueria? Well, there are just so many to try, and it never made it to the top of the list; maybe I felt like I knew it because I had been to the Carniceria Guanajuato’s taqueria next door to the one on California. Anyway, I was looking for a new place and gave the Ashland and Chicago one, that once was Dion Antic’s late night hot dog stand with stripper pole, a try. It’s fantastic, good enough that no one should miss the two of the three La Pasaditas up the street that have closed. Really flavorful carne asada, good pastor despite the lack of a pastor cone, it’s a platonic ideal level cheap taco joint.

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Trio’s Pizza. I had to take a couple of family members to the airport near rush hour, and wound up driving almost the whole way on surface streets (Milwaukee, Higgins), so that gave me a chance to get pizza from an obscure neighborhood place that came recommended on Yelp. Though as I often note on Great Unknown Pizza hunts, every place has somebody on Yelp calling it the best pizza ever. This proved it. Thin crust was actually pretty decent, if too heavy with cheese. Stuffed was even heavier with cheese, otherwise bland, but the second layer of crust atop the cheese, which usually goes unnoticed, was all too obviously unbaked dough on this pie.

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Pticek’s & Son. Shortly after doing this survey of Polish places, I happened to be way down southwest by Midway scouting another list, and spotted this bakery. And as always happens, you find a list-worthy star right after the list goes up. They hardly seemed to have any stock by Saturday afternoon, but I grabbed one of the last strawberry-custard coffee cakes, and it was great, really fresh and tasty. It’s on the dark side of the moon, but worth the trip.

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“I was looking at other bakeries for a way to boost business,” says Jonathan Ory, the big, bearded maker of delicate French pastries at Bad Wolf Coffee. “I saw the way other places were making a killing on doughnuts with all these weird flavors—Chicagoans will eat anything if it’s got a hole in it. I played with some things like a red velvet canele, but to me the real action seemed to be in these fusion pastries, like the Cronut. So that’s pretty much where the idea came from.”

Ory goes in the back of his shop and brings out a fresh tray of kouign-amanns, the buttery glazed laminated pastry that have become his hallmark. “I already had something people loved,” he says, as he peels them off the sheet of wax paper, pulling up thin layers of baked caramel with each one. “But I needed a way to expand that market into other dayparts to fully monetize that core competency. So I thought, why not add savory flavors?”

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That’s when you realize that there’s something different about Bad Wolf today— a hint of Italian seasoning and oregano in the air. Ory opens a pot of simmering beef. He pulls out a pair of tongs and pulls out the thinly sliced beef and places it on one of the pastries. He spoons out some giardiniera from a jar, then closes the sandwich with the second kouign-amann. Then he grips the whole sandwich with tongs and gives it a dip in the broth.

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The taste is transformative, the butteriness of the pastry adding a richer mouthfeel to the traditional salty, spiced beef which the vinegariness of the giardiniera cuts through. “I experimented with some other cross-cultural combinations— the beurre-ito, the Paris Breast-of-chicken caesar, the Sloppy Joe Canele-wich— and I’ll probably keep working on them. But honestly, this one was such a natural that I figure I’ll probably be dealing with lines out the door for Boeuf-Amann for at least six months before I have to invent something else to keep Chicagoans happy. Like a carrot muffin with pulled pork on it, or just squirting lard directly into your coffee or something. If I can keep coming up with these, in five years I can retire.”

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Every restaurant reviewer seems to eventually get around to explaining why reviewing is a crummy job, which flies in the face of the rather obvious facts that it’s 1) free food and 2) writing that people pay attention to; the only way it could seem better to normal people who do real work would be if it included this (remember, Mastroanni was playing a magazine journalist in La Dolce Vita):

Happened to me more times than I can count. The latest is Charleston City Paper critic Robert F. Moss, and if he has one good point, it’s that a lot of hot scenes— like, say, Charleston’s— are not that deep. There’s half a dozen stars and then there’s Contemporary American in strip malls. (Mmm, scallops!) As it happens, I read this piece in Tampa— actually St. Pete Beach, on the Gulf coast just a long bridge or two from Tampa— and I couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of its point. Florida is a place that gets a bad rap for dining, land of early bird specials and unadventurous bargain-minded eaters, generic restaurants that blur the line with retirement community lunchrooms, and I saw some of that, especially at breakfast. You could do some sad, boring dining here, I think, if you had the knack for such, but then that’s true of everywhere in America. But Tampa definitely has its high points and a bit of an indigenous food culture which is well worth exploring, rooted in its immigration patterns (Cuban, Italian, New Jerseyan) and proximity to water, and appreciated enthusiastically by the locals. In five days I pretty much felt like I had had at least one of everything Tampa had to offer; it isn’t deep, but it was enough for us to have a good trip and be glad we chose it.

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Galley on the U.S.S. American Victory.

The good news was that our friend the internet made it possible to dine with remarkable efficiency, zeroing in on top places for nearly every meal. In particular I want to give credit to JeffB and others in this thread on LTHForum dating back to 2005; you might not want to take 2005 advice very often, but this is all about places that have been the same since 1965 (if not 1905 like Columbia), so that was fine, and it was cool to think that that dated back to my old LTH days, and to think that it was put there a decade ago like a time capsule for me to open now. Also, this post by Titus Ruscitti gave an excellent overview of the sandwich scene, and it was put to the test as well. One note: we skipped probably the two places you’ve heard of. I’ve been to two different branches of Columbia over the years, and was never wowed enough by its kind of Spanish food that I felt I had to check out the 1905 original in Tampa. And I would have enjoyed Bern’s, the old school steakhouse with the deep, deep wine list (especially dessert wines, eccentrically), but it just wasn’t the place to go with my son. They’ve been there forever, they’ll be there when I get back.

Anyway, the first stop was my own discovery (in the sense that means I found something that everyone locally knew about, of course). We missed an exit but were close enough to drive surface roads, so we got off— and immediately spotted Coney Island Grill in St. Petersburg, dating back to 1926:

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This is a Detroit-perfect place serving quite good Coney dogs with beanless chili on it, no fries cheeps (or cole slaw in my case), and root beer floats. We were happy as could be finding this after flying and spending too much time at the car rental place.

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It was overcast much of the week. Still better than zero degrees in Chicago.

St. Pete Beach’s main strip is somewhat generic American contemporary restaurants, mostly seafood with some steak places to give you a break, but on the road leading to it we spotted a unique place spoken of highly, which was seafood— but smoked, not fried. Ted Peters serves a pretty simple dinner— smoked fish, salmon, mackerel, mahi-mahi or mullet— with pretty basic but first-class sides (German potato salad, cole slaw again). I’d have gone for a stronger fish, but hoping to get my son to try it, I went for mild mahi-mahi and the smoked fish spread. Liam had hot dogs anyway.

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Afterwards we chatted with the guy running the smokehouse and got to see the last of the night’s fish. The fish spread— which was fantastic, even better than the dinner— we learned was, I think, 70/30 mahi-mahi/mullet. This was cracker soul food, and a must stop as far as I’m concerned.

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Ybor City, the early-1900s cigar-making neighborhood, looks like it’s become Tampa’s Bourbon Street over the years, with a lot of chain dining and Hey Let’s Get F’d Up! places to drink. Still, there are some places that have survived and are worth a visit, like La Tropicana, which JeffB compared to Manny’s for its cafeteria-like, aldermen-and-power-brokers-and-city-workers feel. I went there first for a baseline on the Cuban sandwich and also a Tampa special, the devil crab, which is a big fried Spanish-style croqueta made of all the scrap meat left in a picked-over crab. It’s a little spicy, a little funky, and tasty though I didn’t feel the need to try one at every stop (for one thing they’re pretty huge). Anyway, the Cuban was nice and I guess I see the difference in bread used in Florida, but it was a little slighter than I thought; I’m ready to say you can get a pretty darn good version of a Cuban here, too, even if it is on Gonnella bread. In any case, the best thing— which you can’t get so much here— was Liam’s fried fish sandwich on the sweeter, yellower Cuban bread. They know how to fry fish here like Memphis knows how to fry chicken.

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As demonstrated by dinner at a place called Sea Critters, which I found on Trip Advisor or something when I decided I didn’t want to travel far for dinner, too. It’s in Pass-a-Grille, a little more of a cutesy upscale vacation town area than the generic strip in St. Pete Beach; I didn’t have a huge need to shop for $200 blouses or nautical knickknacks, but Sea Critters was a lively supper club-ish waterfront place where people in their 60s and 70s were actually eating after 7 pm, and they fried a piece of grouper just fine, too.

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I’ve looked for barbecue before in Florida without great success, but meeting up for lunch with an online friend near Bradenton, we went to a place in Ellenton called Hickory Hollow BBQ, and it proved to be a pretty good sit-down BBQ joint with a lot of quite good Southern sides (your choices for that day are shown on a pig-shaped wooden board with the specific offerings velcro’d to it).

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What to do while waiting to be seated at Hickory Hollow: play with the goats.

Back in Tampa, one place I definitely wanted to check out was a busy lunch spot called Brocato’s, located in some metal sheds by the highway. Amusingly, there was an interview I had to do which was held up the previous week, and so I wound up standing in the muddy parking lot of Brocato’s after lunch, interviewing by phone Chef Blaine Wetzel, a Noma and Manresa veteran who runs the ultimate farm to table getaway 2 hours from Seattle, Willows Inn on Lummi Island. This is the life we’ve chosen! But farm to table though it wasn’t, I knew my choice of Brocato’s was good because when we were leaving another parking lot later, the attendant saw our leftover Brocato’s drink cups and complimented us on our tourist acumen.

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Anyway, two things I knew I needed to try: the Spanish gallego soup (basically pork and garbanzos) and their Italian deli version of a Cuban. The soup, alas, was not that exciting; I have a feeling it would have had more flavor, and softer garbanzos, about four hours later.

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The Cuban, though, was terrific. One thing I’ve always kind of held against the Cuban sandwich is that it’s pretty sparse— a thin strip of ham, a thin strip of pork, it just doesn’t live up to my ideals of sandwich excess. But this one did, this one was fat with ham and cheese and especially dripping juicy pork, as indulgent as a wettest Italian beef. (It doesn’t look as huge, somehow, but it was.) This is my idea of a(n inauthentic) Cuban sandwich, one that tastes like American capitalism.

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The next day I couldn’t face another Cuban, as we went to another Titus recommendation, Wright’s, so I had The New Yorker, basically a pastrami combo sandwich. This is a funny place, packed as can be, the line having a little Soup Nazi demandingness to it– if the Soup Nazi was instead a sweet Southern lady. (Don’t ask me how that makes sense, but it did.) They griddle most of their sandwiches, served on their own perfectly round bread:

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Anyway, a good place though Brocato’s would be first choice for its total local flavor. Titus’ old post says they had one in the airport, too, so I planned to get a Cuban and take it home to my other son, but alas, that seems to have been replaced by lesser chain dining.

I mentioned that breakfast was the least exciting meal overall, and we tried a couple of local spots that were nothing special and slightly generically depressing, plus a Waffle House which was, well, Waffle House. The one breakfast spot I wound up liking and returning to was an Italian cafe and bakery in St. Pete Beach called (what else) La Casa del Pane, which did nice versions of Italian pastries including a highly credible sfogliatelle. I’m not the only one who thinks well of it, it was packed every morning with older folks who, nevertheless, were standing up for eating good things and being sociable over espresso and refusing to give in to wheat toast and egg white omelets. Rage, rage against the dining of the Lite, good people of New-Jersey-Sur-le-Gulf.

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Coney Island Grill
250 Doctor Martin Luther King Jr St N
St Petersburg, FL 33705
(727) 822-4493

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave S
South Pasadena, FL 33707
(727) 381-7931

La Tropicana Cafe
1822 E 7th Ave
Tampa, FL 33605
(813) 247-4040

Sea Critters
2007 Pass a Grille Way
Pass-a-Grille Beach, FL 33706
(727) 360-3706

Hickory Hollow BBQ
4705 US-301
Ellenton, FL 34222
(941) 722-3932

Brocato’s Sandwich Shop
5021 E Columbus Dr
Tampa, FL 33619
(813) 248-9977

Wright’s Gourmet Cafe
1200 S Dale Mabry Hwy
Tampa, FL 33629
(813) 253-3838

La Casa del Pane
7110 Gulf Blvd
St Pete Beach, FL 33706
(727) 367-8322

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Not the old friend we met up with.

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I popped into Vera one morning recently for coffee. A couple of my friends were already there, chatting up Mark and Liz Mendez about the new coffee and doughnuts they’ve started serving. It didn’t feel like being at a restaurant, though, which is to say, it felt like what all restaurants should feel like, hanging out with friends. The Mendezes were talking about the coffee they had selected, the one that came the closest to the perfection they had in their heads. Mark talked about making coffee and how the tiniest changes—quantity of beans, water temperature, etc.— could radically affect the final beverage. He weighed out the water on a scale, he weighed out the beans, he took three or four minutes to pour me what turned out to be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life.

A bit later I decided I might as well eat lunch, so I ordered a tortilla (the Spanish potato-egg-pie kind). A perfect simple little plate, with a perfectly-dressed salad on top. Do I really mean to use “perfect” this many times? Am I not setting off a round of adjective inflation? No I am not, and yes I do. Everything tasted the best it could ever hope to be, not because it had shaved truffle on top but because it was itself, in perfect balance and harmony. Mark said of the tortilla he made that he didn’t even like that kind of cold snack, he doesn’t like cold leftover pizza. Think about that. He made the best example imaginable of something… that he doesn’t even like.

This is why I love Vera. In a show-offy scene, and I’m all for that so far as it goes, he’s seeking the perfection of humble things, he’s obsessive in pursuit of the small details that mean everything. He’s Hattori Hanzo, making the best swords on earth. To eat food of such unassuming quality in a setting of such easygoing welcomingness is the thing all of us who love restaurants love, love to fall in love with. We search for new places to fall in love with. Sometimes it happens, sometimes you only see how easy it is to fall short…

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This post needs another picture. Chocolate doughnut at Vera.

Charlatan. I’ve liked what Matt Troost does with Italian food since the short-lived Fianco, and I’m far from alone in my love for Three Aces. Service there has always been, charitably, random at best, but it was a bar so you took it in stride. Charlatan is still something of a bar but generally seems to be more of a restaurant. This is news that has not entirely reached the service staff. I’ll take it in stride when I’m greeted, as you so often are, with a puzzled, increasingly hopeless examination of the reservation system— “You say it’s… Gebert? And you have a reservation… here?” I think that’s an unforced error— is it that hard to have passing familiarity with your 6 pm reservations at 6 pm, or at least pretend, “Ah, yes Mr. Gebert, your table is right this way”? That would go so far to set the evening off on a welcoming note, rather than one that feels like getting stopped at Immigration.

But that happens everywhere, almost. I have to say, though, there was one thing that really put the vague service in perspective. A plate of octopus was brought to the table with the customary greeting, “This plate is really hot,” and set on a corner by me and Liam, my 13-year-old. And then… our waitress walked away. And I realized I had no way to share it with anybody else at the table who might actually want it, like my wife. I didn’t have a spoon; I couldn’t pass the hot plate. They might as well have delivered it in a lockbox without the combination. I had to flag our waitress like she was a cab to get something to serve it with, a request that seemed to strike her as no more than a harmless eccentricity to be indulged in a customer.

The octopus, by the way, was terrific. Mike Sula described it as “the beefiest-tasting octopus you’ll ever encounter,” which I took to mean that it was big chewy pieces like octo-steak, but no, clearly there was all kinds of rich beef stock this stuff had been stewing in until it was marshmallow soft and tasted like an octopus that had been clutching a Christmas roast. There were some fantastic glazed carrots in it and a sort of romesco pesto all around it, looking like ground circus peanuts. This was a dish that promised all kinds of wonders and made you want to keep Charlatan close to you forever.

Surprising, then, that the star attraction— pasta— fell short in varying degrees. A plate of rabbit casconcelli (imagine really long agnolotti) had beautiful supple texture, but the meat was lost in mascarpone and golden raisins, sweet wrestling savory to the mat without much of a fight. Still, the silky texture of the pasta was entrancing. My wife and one son both ordered different dishes of spaghettini, though, and in both cases they quickly solidified into solid clumps of pasta. I debated with some friends on Twitter the probable cause— too much starch left in the water by a busy kitchen? Fresh pasta not sauced fast enough? I don’t know, but after 5 minutes you had to saw this stuff like a pork chop, and one of them which promised a sprinkling of chili powder was showered in snowdrifts of the stuff the way the beignets at Cafe du Monde are coated in powdered sugar.

So I’d love to love Charlatan, there’s huge potential here and some dishes that I’m sure on some days are great, since I had at least one. But I suspect it’s a place that became a hit faster than it could learn its own ropes and assure a constant level of quality. I’ll go back in three or six months and see where it is then.

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Uni toast at The Izakaya at Momotaro.

The Izakaya at Momotaro. I wrote a lengthier review of this at the Reader, so go there for that. Short answer: atmosphere and cocktails only go so far to take you to Japan, but the food is really well executed. Interestingly, when I left the place I said to my dining companion “I really liked that, but we kind of ate everything I would want to eat on the menu, I don’t know how quickly I could go back. In the week since then, though, I’ve felt love growing in me. The big Momotaro upstairs is kind of intimidating, flashy and noisy and expensive; the downstairs feels like where you could go and be one with your Japanese food experience. And that seemed to be how the servers and cooks acted, too—like they knew that the real communion with their food was happening in this quiet, more contemplative space. The zen at Momotaro is downstairs.

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Dal Paeng Yi. There’s a Korean strip on Bryn Mawr that I try every few years. It seems like there should be some real family-run charmer along there, but I have yet to find it. I hit this place with a friend for lunch one day, it was friendly and they could use the business, I wanted to be charmed, but it was just fair. It claims to be a Korean noodle shop, though noodle dishes were mostly crossed off of the most-crossed-off menu I’ve ever seen. Anyway, my friend had soup— I think hanjae guk, I forget— which he didn’t think much of, I had bibimbop in a stone pot which was decent, too much sochugang (hot sauce) in it but it at least developed a little bit of a crispy rice crust, though not like the fearsomely crisped-up crust I cut my teeth on at the late Kang Nam in Chowhound days. So it was just fair, I think the couple who run it are well on their way into retirement and its better days are behind it.

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Scofflaw is an old vet of our scene by now, but I’d never been there, partly because I’m happy for good cocktails but not so much on the prowl for them that I’d find myself at Kedzie and Armitage wanting them. But I’m working on a piece about a certain food item for Thrillist right now, and they were reputed to have a good one. All the internet affirmed this, so of course I get there and it’s been off the menu for a year. But I’m told, the burger is good, it’s like their take on an In’N’Out burger. Well, it’s not bad, but it kind of shows how getting that kind of balance with things like lettuce and tomato on a burger is hard; I don’t get as much burger out of the burger as I’d like, I get a lot of lettuce and tomato dressed with mustard. The most basic of American dishes, but not always that easy, it turns out. They get the fries right, but the pimenton sauce that comes with them is oddly flavorless; if you’re going to replace Heinz, the replacement actually has to be better than ketchup. Easy to see why people love a neighborhood place serving high level craft cocktails for $8 or $9, but based on what I had this isn’t much of a food destination— at least not until you’re looking at it through a couple of cocktail goggles.

Dough Bros. This has gotten relatively little notice, except from my friend Ken Zuckerberg, and at first glance it would call for little notice. It’s a nondescript Formica-clad pizza slice joint downtown, on a low-rent strip of State Street next to some bar you never went into on your way home after work or whatever. If the name registers at all it’s probably because of the really odd fact that one of the guys who developed it was Roland Liccioni, as in, the classical French chef of Les Nomades, etc. (See Mark Mendez talking about him here.) I don’t know if he’s still involved, though there is still a pizza slice called The Roland; in any case, to me it just looked like a typical slice joint doing something kind of like New York style, stiff, slightly burnt-looking slices in the case. They didn’t look like a minute or two in a hot oven would do much more than dry them out even further, but I figured it was worth a $4 experiment. I ordered the Roland— lemongrass-tinged sausage and a criss-cross of Sriracha atop it; the pizza went in, and came out surprisingly quickly. No way this could be anything special.

From the first bite of the crust, crackly-crispy and yet with some deep chewiness, I was in awe. I was in love, in this unlovable space. The lemongrass sausage and other stuff on top were tasty, fresh, well-balanced, but above all that crust was just amazing, even more amazing for having come out so beautifully textured out of reheating. This is one of the best pizzas in the city, no joke. If you work near there, you need to go there today, and often.

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Hienie’s Shrimp House is a fried chicken and shrimp stand on the southeast side— we have a southeast side, you ask? Yeah, basically it’s what you see from the Skyway just before you cross into Indiana, a deeply unlovely declined industrial area that once was the neighborhood around the steel mills. Anyway it was one of the places Titus Ruscitti did on this Thrillist list we each did half of, and Myles after reading it wanted to try some wings, so we decided to make the long trek there.

It’s a nothing place— I thought it’d at least be a bar, but it’s just a bare takeout place with a few tables— but the chicken was great. We ordered it both fried and as wings, and either way crispy and lightly seasoned, as good old school chicken as you’ll find in Chicago. The other thing Hienie’s is famous for is a luridly orange sauce for the chicken, in a color and consistency I last saw when my mom bought us a set of fluorescent paints in the 70s. It’s a local favorite on the southeast side (after it got some LTH attention, Kevin Pang wrote this piece that pretty well sums up its history, including that it doesn’t actually originate at Hienie’s, but never mind). It’s pretty easy to tell from your first taste where that tomato soup color comes from— it’s basically yellow mustard with bright red hot sauce in it. At first taste I didn’t think chicken needed a mustard taste, but it grew on me, and I wound up taking some with some chicken I made to a Super Bowl party so friends could sample the authentic taste of 103rd and Torrence. I love this town.

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Myles takes the white bread from an order of wings, and some of my chicken from an order of chicken, and invents the Hienie’s Chicken Sandwich.

Vera
1023 W Lake St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 243-9770

Charlatan
1329 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 818-2073

The Izakaya at Momotaro
820 W Lake St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 733-4818

Dal Paeng Yi
3236 W Bryn Mawr Ave
Chicago, IL 60659
(773) 588-0305

Scofflaw
3201 W Armitage Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 252-9700

Dough Bros.
400 N State St
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 600-9078

Hienie’s Shrimp House
10359 S Torrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60617
(773) 734-8400

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Liam’s top 7.

I think this was a great year for food in Chicago—so great that everyone knows what was great about it and more or less agrees already. Who can’t love 42 Grams and Parachute and Baker Miller and so on? For one more list to justify its existence at the very end of the year— when it feels like they’ve been steadily appearing since October, like Christmas ornaments at Target— it has to show rigor and novelty and not just look like a subset of the monster lists of 100 best things that suggest we live in such a renaissance of culinary wonders that we don’t even need to make choices at all.

Pete Wells introduced his New York Times list with a similar viewpoint, and in particular called out the first fish-or-cut-bait point for a critic or, in my case, a reporter who attends media dinners: “Have I gone back, or wished I could?” Which of course really means, would I spend my own money there? In several of these cases I attended media events or tried the food for free while taking its picture or something, but in every case that made the list, I returned happily on my own dime. Believe me, food writers don’t get any more sincere than that.

That helps get you past the other moral speedbump, which is that all these places are run by really nice people who are trying really hard and you want to be nice to them and like what other people like. Pick the place that everyone likes and no one will question your judgement, but no one will notice it that much either. So I try to name the places that really struck me, even if it means consigning some places I liked a lot from chefs I know to the seeming purgatory of a runners-up paragraph. I’m sorry! It’s not you, it’s me! But the heart wants what it wants, and it wants different things from all over town and at all levels, and a true list for me has all kinds of food side by side, and the presence of one is not an aspersion on another. I come back to what Duke Ellington said (but I got from Peter Schickele) about music when whether jazz could be as good as classical was a serious debate: if it sounds good, it is good.

As always, my only rules are that the citation is for at least one specific dish I loved (and more to the point, still remember), even if it’s also for the restaurant as a whole; and the dish has to be something new to me this year (so I couldn’t really credit Paulina Meat Market for the fact that their housemade pastrami seems to have taken a leap up in quality of late). Here goes:

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10. Fried chicken threeway tie: [Evanston] Chicken Shack, Five Loaves Eatery, and Fork. Hey, I didn’t say only one restaurant per entry on the list was a rule! I did two fried chicken lists for Thrillist and tried a bunch of fried chicken that was new to me this year, and three standouts deserve shared praise for being nearly as good as the platonically perfect homemade chicken in my head that I work to get ever closer to at home. The first two (one in Evanston, one a sweet breakfast and lunch cafe on 75th street) earn it for not only frying well but seasoning properly; so much fried chicken is texturally right but needlessly bland, but these places know how to use their salt and pepper shakers, and the smoky sweet barbecue sauce at Chicken Shack is the best argument high fructose corn syrup ever had for itself.

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The third, a perennially overlooked farm to table place in Lincoln Square run by a former Lettuce chef, takes a far more baroque approach to the chicken half of chicken and waffles—it’s marinated in black tea and ginger and who knows what all—but the result is wonderfully complex and crispy. Also, it comes with candied bacon.

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9. Kohlrabi salad, gemelli with sundried tomatoes and bottarga, A10. Chicago has lots of Italian food and yet I seem to have more and more friends who find it disappointing. Worse yet, I have to agree with them at least a good deal of the time—Chicago knows how to make a lot of B level easy to like Italian (-American) food, not so much A level Italian cooking that shows the Italian love of beautiful ingredients highlighted simply like jewels in a setting. The A though is well placed in the name of Matthias Merges’ Hyde Park spot, which to me, more than Yusho, fulfills his promise of bringing Trotter-level technique and precision with flavor to reasonably priced, accessible food.

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8. Pate de campagne, tagliatelle with beef heart/pig’s blood ragu, etc. Tete Charcuterie. I tried Tete Charcuterie’s food at a preview where I took pictures, and found it very well crafted but thought, well, here’s a heavy meat palace I’m not likely to go back to over and over. And I’ve been back twice myself, and set up a business dinner for my wife there as well. So I guess I liked it more than I thought! Yes, it’s devoted to meat, often pretty strongly (I had a pork liver pate there with two other diners which was a bit too strong for all of us), but the chefs are clearly guys with high overall skills who can not only make a beautifully balanced pate or sausage, but do the same with a salad or a plate of pasta, too. We remain desperately short on French restaurants, but in its own, straight-out-of-the-butcher-shops-of-Les Halles way, this is the best French restaurant opening in some years.

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7. Pancit noodles, kare-kare, fried kawali, etc. Isla Pilipina. It may have been one step back for Filipino food with the quick closing of Laughing Bird, but a cuisine that baffled me for years is finally making progress toward becoming widely accepted like other Asian cuisines. For my own part, I’d tried Isla Pilipina years ago, as chronicled in a post at LTHForum that was mainly about the transsexuals who dropped in for fried chicken the same night, and not been inspired to return for a good decade. But the place soldiered on, in a Lawrence strip mall, and especially under the second generation, grew its skills and improved its menu—and returning at long last, I loved the homey yet brightly flavorful food as much as Chinese or Thai.

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6. Oatmeal, toast, Baker/Miller Bakery & Millhouse. Okay, I’ll be a partial exception to the universal love for this place, even as I know and like the owners—I’m not wild about the muffins and baked goods. They seem heavy and a bit hippie coop-whole-grain-good-for-you-ish. The bread is heavy, too, but in a good way, as in, a slice of this is like eating a bread steak. It’s the closest we’ve come to lembas bread, a few nibbles filling you satisfyingly for the whole day. As for the lusciously creamy oatmeal, how often do you eat something that’s an entirely new texture? It’s miraculous.

5. Miso ramen pozole at Arami, by Rick Bayless. I considered leaving this off because it was a one-off at Arami in October, which happened because Arami chef Fred DesPres is married to one of Bayless’ chefs, but I decided, why not mention the kind of serendipitous collaboration that happens on our scene all the time? Anyway, it was the best of miso ramen, and the best of pozole, made into one hearty Japanese-Mexican dish with all the soupmaking chops of a chef who I think is sometimes more seen as a curator of food culture than the kitchen master technician he (also) is. I just remember on the first season of Top Chef Masters, Bayless was kind of condescended to by all these French and Italian food chefs, like you’re gonna win this with tacos pal, and then they’d go feed the people passing by or at an event— and they all went goggle-eyed when they tasted Bayless’s stuff, and he won the whole season. This was the kind of dish that did that.

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4. Dim sum in Toronto. There’s a whole post about that here, but to summarize, best xiao long bao I’ve ever had at 369, great pork dumplings and other things at Dragon, and the amazing King of King’s Pork candy at John’s. Thanks Renee!

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3. Bing bread, pork belly mung bean pancake, pat bing su etc., Parachute. I’ve believed Asian food is the future of American dining for a long time, but it took until Fat Rice to have a place in Chicago that hit the sweet spot of hipster, almost comfort food atmosphere with bright, sometimes challenging Asian flavors. And one of the joys of Fat Rice was watching it improve and grow more confident with each meal in its first year or two. Now I feel the same way about Parachute, which is one of our best new restaurants and gets better and more interesting each time. If you want to subscribe to a place that sells tickets for a new menu every four months, that’s all good, but for the same kind of experience, don’t forget to simply try a rising star like this place every few months during its most fertile early days of self-discovery.

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1 (tie). Charcuterie, Thuringer, Fried Brussel Sprouts, etc. at The Radler; and tasting menu at 42 Grams. I went back and forth on what should be number one before finally deciding to do the cop-out and call them a tie. The thing is, they’re such perfect examples of opposing approaches that they sum up so much about how I think about food. 42 Grams is ambitious, daring, a look-at-this! menu of magic tricks; it’s just fun to go on a journey like this, be part of the show, agree to be wowed time and again. Where The Radler is unassuming by comparison, so relaxed a neighborhood place that I feel it is underappreciated because it demands nothing of you, yet the skills at every level are so high and the finesse so exacting that you should pay it more attention. One is a special occasion, the other makes an ordinary occasion special; they’re both experiences I’m immensely glad to have had.

RUNNERS-UP

Places I feel guilty about leaving off:

Boka, especially after a more recent meal, Lee Wolen is making beautiful plates that are as finely executed as at any of the tasting menu joints, but in a more easygoing setting with the more traditional app-entree-dessert format. That is deservedly a recipe for packing the house every night.

MFK, which makes such nice simple stuff, I love the philosophy but maybe the very fact of being simple and direct like that makes it hard to say, “This was a wow!” about any one thing. It’s sure nice to go to and hang out in, though.

River Roast, I’m the last guy to just want a steak for dinner but I used my son’s birthday as an excuse to go here a second time and eat all the meats

Cellar Door Provisions: I have certain Kenny Z-like issues with $14 open face sandwiches with three slices of beet on them, but that great dark crusty bread and those great dark crusty croissants are, well, great, dark and crusty.

Low-end places I seriously considered: Red Hot Ranch for the fake In’N’Out burger that’s better than In’N’Out, Mezquite Pollo Express, this chicken soup

Place I just went that I’m still processing: Oaxaca

Ten best for: 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

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I’ve been cranking out a ton of work for the Reader, Thrillist and other things, including two print pieces for the Reader in the next month, so blogging has been a low priority, alas. Nevertheless I want to make notes on some things before I forget them entirely, so here’s lots of notes, starting with the Montreal chunk of our Canada trip in August. If it doesn’t seem like a lot of new things to have tried, well, I also ate all of these.

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MONTREAL: Other people (David Hammond) have thought nothing much of Schwartz’s, the famous Montreal deli, but besides gratitude for it being open late Sunday night when we got to town, it charmed me as old Jewish delis with the sheer exuberant life of such places always do, and the smoked meat (pastrami in other words) was plenty good. As for St. Viator’s, I wasn’t wowed by Montreal bagels, I see the virtues of the smaller, chewer bagel with a hint of woodfire smoke, but it wasn’t something that changed my life. That said, I wouldn’t be against them being more accessible, either.

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The next night we ate at a cute pizza and sort of Bristol-ish meats and fresh things place called Dolcetto in the old city, which was nice, but a price tag of over $200 Canadian for a few small pizzas, salads etc. drove home just how expensive the town, especially that area, is. We decided not to even think about money for the next two nights. As I observed in the Toronto section, I typically go to other places for their unique low-end dining rather than the high-end dining which may be much closer to what I can get here. But in this case, Montreal’s high end dining seemed to promise a native Quebec cuisine you couldn’t find in other cities. Also, it was Susan’s birthday, or close enough. So we were ballers.

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Joe Beef was booked weeks before, but it turns out that Joe Beef has another concept two doors down, Liverpool House, whose concept apparently is… “Just like Joe Beef.” Honestly, several of the famous dishes in the book were right there on the menu, like the breakfast sandwich with foie:

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Foie would prove to be a major theme over the next two days (as would, I must admit, “excessive over-ordering”). Joe Liverpool was, in the end, a lot like porky places in Chicago, but an excellent example of the genre and all I really remember specifically after that was that we had a good time and sweated butter on the way home. The next, we had…

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More foie at Au Pied de Cochon! We just got into the last available early seating and watched the place (which looks very 80s, not that there’s anything wrong with that) fill up around us. Clams with a beer cheese sauce were pretty great, Myles finally got to have poutine, in general we enjoyed Au Pied, I don’t think the kitchen is as accomplished as Joe Beef but it was satisfying, easy to see why it’s a neighborhood favorite.

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But what is Quebec cuisine? I left feeling that probably more than anybody wants to admit, it’s an invention of the marketing department, like the ploughman’s lunch in England (a “tradition” invented in the 60s to boost lunch traffic at pubs), at least I can’t imagine 1900s lumberjacks really making an entire cuisine out of foie and maple syrup like this.

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One other thing we did there: Liam and I went to the Jean-Talon Marche, a food market with plenty of shops for charcuterie, bierocks, etc., and an area full of fresh fruit, which I bought for the long trip back.

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I didn’t really find anything mindblowingly different, but it was certainly a pleasant day with him; he’s a good, curious companion for such places. Especially when he gets a crepe. I made him try to order it in French. Did he succeed?

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* * *

Now on to things eaten in Chicago!

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River Roast— I skipped a media preview for this for some other more promising preview, the idea of a meatcentric (but not steak) place on the river from Tony Mantuano (which is to say, Levy Restaurants) seemed total tourist bait. And since then… I’ve paid my own not inconsiderable cash to go, twice, and had a great hearty time both times. The whole roasted meats are all satisfying (beef and fish outstanding, chicken tasty but a little dry, a new addition of Berkshire pork very nice but a tad plain, they need to think up something to go with it), while the kitchen sent us a charcuterie platter (head chef John Hogan says he’s known for his pates; I didn’t know that, but I can believe it) that was excellent as well. I am not a steakhouse guy at all, but the hearty roastiness of everything at this place gets me right in the nostalgic comfy part of the brain.

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Dove’s Luncheonette— I’ve been to this Mexican food American diner from the Blackbird etc. crew twice on my own dime, too. The first time I had pozole, right after having a special miso pozole made by Rick Bayless (as in, standing there serving it himself) at a special event at Arami (the chef there is married to one of Bayless’ chefs), which was fantastic. So Dove’s pozole was up against tough competition and I just thought it was all right; I also found it nearly impossible to dig out of the enormous bowl with the spoon, without having to tilt the spoon so far that all the pozole fell out of it.

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Better was a side of beets with a little mole, but I have to say I had philosophical problems with it; it was a substantial plate for $8, which to me is completely misunderstanding the nature of diners. They’re where you go to be among people when you don’t have anyone to be among. That melancholy separate-togetherness is what diners are all about (see this Thrillist piece) AND SO THERE’S NO SHARED PLATES IN THEM. (You can share a Sun-Times in a diner; you do not share food, that’d be like getting too chummy in a men’s room.) Should have been a single portion, half as much for $4. In a diner.

Anyway, went back a few weeks later and had the one thing that wasn’t Mexican food, sort of a fried chicken and gravy plate, and I liked it a lot better. Which doesn’t really help, since it’s the only thing like it on the menu. Anyway, I have some mixed feelings (as I did about Big Star’s Mexican food in a blue collar 70s America context/concept, frankly) but as always with this group, even a straightforward concept turns out to have more than a few layers to tease through.

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Paul the day man and Oliver the night man at Belmont Snack Shop.

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Uncle Mike’s Place— One thing about doing that diner piece was that after a certain point, I felt like I was writing Ten Places To Get The Exact Same Thing For Breakfast. I needed a ringer that did something different, and I thought of this Filipino diner, which people like Cathy Lambrecht had written about at LTH but I had never been to. I got a big breakfast sampler that included a fried egg over garlic rice, hunks of both tocino (sweetly marinated pork) and steak, a salsa and some kind of sweetish bean puddingy thing. After trying a few better Filipino things, this seemed pretty simple in its flavors—like diner breakfast!—but a good time was had from all. I might do this once a year from here on.

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MFK and Salero—Two Spanish-ish small plates places, one I loved instantly, one I don’t know what I think yet. MFK does simple, direct things with seafood. It’s the kind of place you can drop in, have three things, be full and go. Well, it’s too popular to drop in easily at night, but it is open for lunch and in the afternoon. Did I love everything? You don’t have to, you just try things and some will be really good. Like Vera.

Salero is next to Blackbird, a somewhat more formal looking space, though they’re friendly at the bar. The sardine thing shown above, that I liked as easily as I liked things at MFK. Other things, like a red pepper stuffed with short rib meat, I didn’t equally take to. How do you get one place of this kind so quickly, while another kind of puzzles you? I don’t know, but that was my reaction.

Bohemian House— The idea of an upscale Czech place downtown is improbable, and for that very reason endearing, surrounded as it is by all the blaring cliches of River North. The inside is like a hipper version of Smak Tak or Staropolska, River North’s idea of a medieval castle. The cocktails looked bizarrely sweet, the wine list, as my dining companion shelf said, looks like the middle shelf at Jewel, but the craft beer list was good. And really, what did you think you should be drinking in a Czech place, rum and coke?

I’d read a lot of praise for it, so it was disappointing that the opening courses were all about 3/4 of what they should have been, I thought. A cauliflower salad had too sharp a vinaigrette, a beet salad was all right, the short rib pierogi, gummy, were a particular disappointment. I was ready to write it off when the entrees turned out to be by far the best things—chicken paprikash was maybe a bit overwhelmed by the taste of hot paprika, but it was beautifully roasted, and a roast duck was pretty much perfect (hey, River Roast, where’s your roast duck?) So I don’t think this makes my best of the year list, but it definitely makes my Thank God It’s Not Another Italian Restaurant in River North list, and I’ll recommend it to those looking for something different.

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U Gazdy— The pierogi above belong not to Bohemian House but to a rustic Polish spot out in Wood Dale, near the southern end of O’Hare, which Cathy Lambrecht wanted to check out one day. Not that the Polish restaurants in the city feel like they’ve gone mainstream, but this definitely felt even more rustically out of Chicago, like the building was entirely carved by forest dwarves, starting with rye bread served with smalec, a lard spread, which you use like butter, except for the fact that you think every bite is a mortal sin. The pierogi were very good, a nice light dough, and the schnitzel was all right, but the out-of-Chicago feel was the best part.

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La Habanera— A Logan Square Mexican spot that immediately made me regret going there by confronting me with two strong suggestions of inauthenticity: a menu that translated basic Mexican food words, and a portrait of every white person’s favorite historical Mexican, Frida Kahlo. Well, that was too harsh a first judgement; it’s a real Mexican family place, with some accommodations to its neighborhood. I ordered a pambazo, the spicy sandwich where you dip the bread in a spicy chile de arbol sauce and crisp it up a little on the fryer, then stuff it with the usual stuff (steak, lettuce, crumbly cheese). I liked all that, but the chile de arbol sauce was too salty and made it a little hard to love the effect of the bread. I’d give it another try and see what the standout on the menu is.

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El Conde SA— There are two of these now, one in Pilsen and one closer to Little Village, specializing in a Mexico city treat called tacos de canasta, basket tacos. They’re premade tacos which steam and stay warm in a basket; they usually just have some form of meat in them. They’re a little soggy, so after trying them in two places (the other was La Chilangueada) I may not need to have them a lot more until I’m in their natural habitat, a bar in Mexico City where someone walks in like the tamale lady to sell them. I also had a sope with carne asada and the steak was very good, so I count the tacos de canasta as a bit of a novelty but this place as a whole as a good find to have.

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Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse— And one last thing which was, honestly, sublime. It’s the oatmeal at this new bakery from the former 2/3 of the Bang Bang Pie team, which makes a big deal of grinding their own flour. I talked to Dave Miller about it— he says the way they grind it leaves both big pieces and a fine powder, and then he cooks it in half and half, and the oatmeal plumps up into this lush, creamy viscous goo that has a wonderful mouthfeel. It was kind of magical, and when I redeemed my Kickstarter gifts (two bags of whatever grain I wanted), I made sure that the rolled oats was one of them.

* * *

And finally, a cautionary tale, I guess. The irony is that food-obsessed me lives in one of the most whitebread neighborhoods for food, Roscoe Village, the epicenter of Sunday breakfast. So I was excited that we were finally getting a hip-sounding kind of place in Endgrain, which grew out of pop-up doughnuts from Nightwood, which is just about as hip as it could possibly get, right? And as it happened, a preview slideshow would be one of the last things I did for Grub Street.

A few weeks later I took the family for breakfast there. We made the mistake of arriving at 9:40 am, plenty late for breakfast if you ask me. They were open… but not open for breakfast, just for doughnuts and coffee. And the fact that we wanted to be seated, even if we had to wait to order, kind of flummoxed the (admittedly, very green) server and hostess. I basically had to tell them, look, other people are having coffee, you can bring us coffee too and menus, even if we don’t order for another 20 minutes. It was ineptitude, not malice. But it left a bad taste, to feel like we were supposed to sit there without so much as water, in a holding pen, for the crime of coming in too early for the wrong thing.

Some months later I went there for lunch. I walk in and there are people at the counter. But I immediately get the Serbian Social Club what-are-you-doing-here vibe. Uh, lunch, that’s what I’m doing here? Oh, no, we don’t do lunch on Tuesday. We do doughnuts and coffee. I suppressed saying “Not nearly enough to stay open, clearly,” and left.

And even though I’d pass it and see it open and full of Logan Square type hipsters at night, I never went back. I often thought I should give it another try, but two tries and never once feeling really welcomed into a place right in my neighborhood meant I never worked it up to try a third time.

And now it’s closed. Turns out my neighborhood full of families can’t really sustain a place whose hours have nothing to do with the normal routines of family life. At Logan and Kedzie they might have made it, but they were too out of step for Roscoe and Wolcott. Ironically, I just saw them mentioned in a national article about hip places to eat in Chicago. I’m sure they were very excited to be in Bon Appetit or whatever it was. This will finally put us on the map! But they were already on a map; they should have paid more attention to where it said they were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A10
1462 E. 53rd
773-288-1010
http://a10hydepark.com

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Salt for your fries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life in the shadow of the Bomb at Valois.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ITALIAN BEEF

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

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The Patio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAVERN-CUT PIZZA

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

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

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

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BARBECUE

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

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

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

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