There’s a bit from that WBEZ chat the other day that has stuck with me. David Hammond was talking about how the hive mind of LTHForum is out there trying gazillions of places all the time, and Julia Kramer of Time Out Chicago said:
Julia Kramer: David, I think LTH has its limitations; sometimes it’s remarkable, other times I think it breeds group-think.
David Hammond: Julia, you’re right. There are sacred cows, even among an originally renegade group of foodies.
Mike Gebert: “other times I think it breeds group-think” Very true. But true of almost any single source to some degree, when did you last see any publication having a full-on feud between staffers?
Michael Nagrant: Julia, totally valid point. There is often this whole thing where people get really close to the owners and put a lot of validity on the “mom and pop” thing and over-rate.
No writer, or institution, is free of certain settled notions which may go unexamined after a certain point. But groupthink is a different issue, because someone may have more current information, yet they can’t get through, or fear doing so. (The basis for fear is tiny— someone might not speak to me at the holiday party— but of course, so are the stakes and rewards, so it’s easy enough to think, why bother?)
I was involved in an example of that this week, during the Great Neighborhood Restaurant renewal process. It struck me that many of the endorsements for Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook were notably halfhearted— it’s a better choice that a Lettuce Entertain You mall restaurant— and the “community-wide” enthusiasm for the restaurant in fact comes from one or two people. So I posted something trying to flush out alternative opinions— and instead of fostering other viewpoints, fostered a bunch of online hostility from the usual partisans of the place, insisting that I must have some vendetta against the place just for asking the question. In fact, I’ve heard LTHers knock the place in private— one memorably described it in a PM to me as reminding him/her of Applebee’s— but you’ll look in vain for much of that on the board… especially after they landed on me like a Chicago cop wrestling a 14-year-old Puerto Rican kid to the sidewalk.
So that’s an extreme example of groupthink outright suppressing contrary opinion, but one could certainly think of others where an LTH orthodoxy is challenged but rarely, starting with the reverence for its namesake, the fairly mediocre “Little” Three Happiness. There’s La Pasadita as the best steak taco in town (it’s not a patch on Las Asadas, Zacateca’s, or others), Patty’s Diner (Patty’s a sweetheart, and the only cook I know who can cook a burger to well done at one end and raw at the other), Poochies (not even the best hot dog joint on that Skokie strip, which is far from where I’d go looking for a great dog anyway), Myron and Phil’s (a tired old alter kocker restaurant in every sense), and so on. Not to mention broader received notions— try arguing the case for Carson’s-style baked ribs over chewy smoked rib tips at Honey 1, for instance, and you won’t make many friends.
Of course, in the macro sense the fact that we’re arguing over Patty’s or La Pasadita at all is a victory for the ethnic dive-focused LTH viewpoint; and if the price of that is that one guy manages to slip in his neighborhood joint where they know how to make his drink, and thinks the rest of us will love it as much as he does without those benefits, well, that’s not that high a price. Still, the unexamined food life is not worth eating, it never hurts, if we are serious food adventurers, to reconsider our views, think out of our box, push our envelope and try a new taco. So here are four recent ventures out of the safety zone of known and approved LTHForum joints:
My Alternative Choice: Zebda Deli
Instead of This LTHForum Favorite: Salam
Salam’s recent history has been odd. I’ve been noting that this stalwart of the Kedzie middle-eastern scene had gone downhill for almost two years, its decline as the default choice for falafel and shawerma was a motivator of my Bridgeview explorations and Time Out piece. Then they remodeled and the longtime employees took over from the current manager (who had this short-lived restaurant), and there have been a number of complaints on LTH that it’s been inconsistent, poor service, falafel grown cold before serving, etc. Yet my experiences since then have been pretty good.
Still, it’s hardly the only middle-eastern place in town, and meanwhile, there’s Zebda, the deli run by one side of the divorce of the former Mundial Cocina Mestizo couple along with the owner of the Algerian restaurant Tassili. I’m pretty much the only LTHer who ever wrote about Tassili, and not that many more have tried Zebda’s despite praise from folks like Mike Sula. Yet the freshly handmade sandwiches and salads make for an excellent, modest-priced lunch full of bright flavor. I really liked a lamb sandwich (served on an open-faced flatbread) and a chicken curry one (I was less enchanted by a merguez one), and among the sides, potato salad and couscous with golden raisins and bits of squash were both light and delicious. When I’ve been there, I’ve been practically the only customer, so give it some love, quick.
4344 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60641
My Alternative Choice: Chicago Kalbi
Instead of These LTHForum Favorites: Hae Woon Dae or San Soo Gab San
One could easily imagine an alternative universe in which the Korean BBQ place Chicago Kalbi would be an LTH favorite. It has authentic character and it’s obviously known to old-time LTHers (since it came up frequently in regards to Matsumoto), but for whatever vagaries of who ate where when, it has been largely overlooked while San Soo Gap San and Hae Woon Dae have been anointed as the Korean barbecue places of choice. (And we won’t even go into the egregious Cho Jung, winner of the Tew Kewl 4 You prize for 2009.)
Part of the reason is that it’s actually a Japanese Korean barbecue place, and so the panchan, the little Korean dishes served before the meal, are fairly routine; and there are certain posters who seem to judge a Korean meal by the quality of the appetizers, essentially. But I don’t really go to a Korean BBQ place for panchan anyway, except as counterpoint. The point is the meat and the meat was fairly beautiful, nicely marbled kalbi, tender bulgogi. Or the real point is, the kids got into cooking it, they really dug having the live coals right there and watching the meat cook and trying to learn how to judge when to turn it. And all in all, I was charmed by the decor— I can’t think of another place that so much feels like Korea, or Japan, or most likely of all, the mix of Asian neighborhood joints in my head from movies. It’s one of those great step-into-another-culture places— and though San Soo Gab San is too, here they seem happy to see me and my kids.
3752 West Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625-5726
My Alternative Choice: Barbakan
Instead of This LTHForum Favorite: Smak Tak
Sometimes a place just does what it does so well it renders other restaurants superfluous. The Polish restaurant Smak Tak has fluffy, filling pierogi and other Polish delights, it’s cute and cozy, and the people are nice… and so it’s easy to fall into the habit of regarding it as the only Polish restaurant you’ll ever need.
But this is a bad habit, and anyway, I did need another Polish restaurant— because I was writing a piece for Time Out on Easter traditions, and I had already mentioned Smak Tak in one on Christmas traditions. So I did a little online recon and found Barbakan, located on the far west side. It’s an attractive looking place, done in that sort of 90s distressed-paint Italian coffeebar look that is starting to say “Eastern European” more than “doppio espresso.” And I liked the food quite a bit— a robust goulash tucked inside a peppery, hot-off-the-griddle potato pancake, accompanied by some especially fresh and tart salads— cucumber that could have come from a Thai restaurant, puckeringly tart sauerkraut, red cabbage kissed with a hint of garlic.
That was the upside. The downside was the feel of the place, which radiated Soviet-era indifference. Staticky music came from the kitchen, loud enough to bother, not loud enough to hum along. A fire alarm chirped its desire for a new battery once a minute. Other customers got soup and bread with their entree, but not me. I sat with a dirty plate for ten minutes, waiting in vain for the not-that-swamped waitress to quit chatting with walk-in regulars and drop off my check. In the end, I never even investigated whether this place did anything special for Easter or not, because I just couldn’t see recommending Barbakan to budding food adventurers— the cold shoulder here might discourage them for good. So look for a different alternative to Smak Tak in the magazine this week… and as for me, Smak Tak is still the Polish restaurant of choice, offering a warm welcome to all.
3143 North Central Avenue
Chicago, IL 60634
My Alternative Choice: Aroy Thai
Instead of This LTHForum Favorite: Spoon Thai
Aroy has always hovered just outside the holy trinity of Thai restaurants on LTHForum, Spoon, TAC Quick and Sticky Rice, and there had been some exploration of its menu by Erik M. and others, and a translated menu by Erik M. which you can read here. But even though it’s just up Damen from my house a mile or so, I’d never been there; the pull of what I knew to be good at Spoon or TAC discouraged me from trying another place from scratch, or scratch assisted by some guidance from old threads.
Finally Seth Zurer, one of the organizers of Baconfest among many other things, and I met there for dinner, using the menu from this long-ago dinner as a guide to some particularly strong dishes. And you know what? It’s a great restaurant! I was blown away by a beef soup, tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay, all the pungency I expect from tom yam but also lots of deep bottom of beefy robustness; and I loved their pork neck nam tok, the same grilled juiciness as TAC’s. Also good were papaya salad and phàt nàw mái náam phrík nùm, mouth-puckering pickled bamboo shoots. It made me realize that as good as Spoon and TAC remain, it’s been a while since I’ve been surprised there, ordering the same classics every time; this brought back the heady days of discovery a few years ago when every week seemed to bring a new, mind-expanding Thai dish on LTHForum. Which makes it a reminder that the truest LTHForum spirit is not to settle for what everybody thinks to be good already, but to always be looking outside the familiar and the accepted for something new.
4656 N. Damen