Sky Full of Bacon

Airwaves Full of Bacon 11: Local Goes Industrial • Farmer Eric Stiegman on Local Beer • Adrian Miller on Soul Food • 10 Years an Internet Foodie, With David Hammond and Rob Gardner

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.


Ryan Kimura, Dave Rand and Gary Lazarski, Local Foods.

(2:20) I start off talking local food with, well, Local Foods, a distributor based in Chicago which is building a warehouse and retail space on Elston in Chicago to bring farmer produce directly to restaurants and customers. Here’s the Reader piece I wrote from this interview.


(17:38) Then I talk with an Illinois farmer trying to grow the ingredients for local beer. He’s Eric Stiegman of Mammoth Malt, and I met him at an event at Jared Rouben’s Moody Tongue Brewing Co.; I wrote about Stiegman here. (You may remember that I spoke with Rouben in Episode 4.)

rsz_soul_food_cover_image miller_adrian

(22:44) Adrian Miller is a Denver-based writer who just won a James Beard award for his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. (And check out the Kickstarter for his next project.)

Here are links for the Chicago soul food places he or I mention along the way: Ruby’s, Morrison’s, Pearl’s Place, Macarthur’s, Soul Vegetarian East, Yah’s Cuisine.


(43:45) And finally, May marks the 10th anniversary of a group of us founding, the Chicago food chat site. I figure nobody wants to hear the history of a website, so I grabbed two of my comrades, Rob Gardner of The Local Beet, and writer for the Sun-Times and everybody else David Hammond, to talk about it all on a more universal level— how did we all get into this business of talking about food online, and how has it changed our lives? I think it’s a pretty fun and funny conversation (that incidentally demonstrates what things were like back then when we’d get together).

It took place at La Quebrada in Cicero, and here is the 2002 Chowhound thread in which I recount my first visit there (David links to the Rob/Vital Information post that sent me there).

Thanks for listening and passing the word along about my podcast!

How they mark the boxes at Morrison’s Soul Food.

The 2004 Chowhound Westernathon, some long-gone Indian restaurant where the last diehards assembled after 14 hours. How ancient is this history? We were taking food pictures on actual film, that’s how ancient.

Ten years ago, something beautiful was released to the world when, through careful planning and calm consensus, LTHForum…

no, that’s not how it happened. It was crazier and more haphazard than that. Let’s go back. To Chowhound. Chowhound c. 2002 was where a bunch of us, though we weren’t an “us” yet, first started talking about food and, more importantly, meeting about it with strangers. We would meet for lunch, at Spoon or La Quebrada or Kang Nam or “Little” Three Happiness or Los Mogotes or Vito & Nick’s or whatever the enthusiasm of the moment was, and order the weird things with no concern— as we would have had with normal people— that something might gross somebody out. I learned so much and experienced so much in such an intense short time. But more than that, I came to feel that the city was mine at last. A decade after moving here, I no longer felt like a Kansan temporarily working here but that I belonged to the city, I understood the city, it wasn’t something too big and alien to ever comprehend. You want to know where to get great tacos? Here. I read a post about it. I made a movie about Maxwell Street. I’m the guy that knows Chicago.

But Chowhound was an imperfect vessel for our aspirations. The management didn’t like us planning events on the board, they didn’t like us seeming like a clique (even though we tried to be as welcoming as possible). I didn’t think they were necessarily wrong by their lights— we were taking something public and impartial and making it our clubhouse, even if we’d welcome anyone into it. But at the same time, I didn’t feel obligated to spend the rest of my days answering the same questions from tourists over and over, either, as remains Chowhound’s primary purpose. We outgrew it, plain and simple.

Me and the late Will Philpot, for whom the Will Special sandwich at Riviera was named, at TAC Quick, 2004. No idea who the mom and kid are, or who took this picture with my camera.

For a while we planned events on an email list, open to whoever wanted to be on it, but that was cumbersome, too; and there was an incident when Jim Leff (“Big Dog” of Chowhound) read some minor bitching about Chowhound on it and came unglued about its real purpose being ragging on him. It was time to declare independence from New York, and twelve of us became the core group behind it. I suggested that we launch our own discussion board and researched open source software we could use; Gary Wiviott got his hosting company, a bunch of Turkish guys, to install PhpBB (the fact that they also installed a Turkish character set would prove to be a problem years later), Seth Zurer put up the first logo which led me to design one that would be more distinctive (and easier to do on things like T-shirts), and through April and May of 2004 we slowly fiddled around with it, debating board organization, getting our feet wet with a few practice posts (here’s mine, a thread that was still active as of last August).

We were getting closer to going public when Rob Gardner mentioned it to somebody (Monica Eng, probably) in the press. Suddenly we were public before we meant to be. Hastily, we had to tell the email list what we were up to— and within about 24 hours, we suddenly had a board that had 125 or so members. In retrospect not at all a bad thing, to be off to a running start; and a very good thing to instantly not just be one homogenous group of friends but a large group with many varied interests, who from the start engaged in multiple conversations and revealed new sides of themselves that Chowhound’s more limited focus had not made room for.

We declared the date of that announcement, May 27, 2004, the official public launch date of LTHForum. Was this LTH’s golden age? You could argue it wasn’t, since unbeknownst to 97% of users, it kicked off with a big fight over who “owned” it, who would be the Big Dog, loudly argued on the sidewalk right in front of Little Three Happiness itself, as a legless beggar in a wheelchair, clueless about the argument but happy to join in the shouting, yelled something like “You tell it to The Man! The Man always be tryin’ to rob you!” (I kid you not— or at least so I was told, I was out of town that weekend.) The issue of ownership (of what was supposed to be a communal hobby), and egos more generally as we started to get media attention, would simmer for years behind the scenes and eventually split us apart three or so years later. When the issue became public I had people tell me we should have nailed ownership stuff down right at the beginning, to prevent the embarrassing situation that finally ended the old LTHForum. In which case, I said, none of it would have ever happened at all. It was never about (phantom, to this day) internet riches; there’s nothing ownership would have given any of us that was worth more than a few good years of collective creative ferment and shared enthusiasm and adventure. Certainly none of the things I’ve done since— Sky Full of Bacon, Beard award, writing for Grub Street and the Reader, whatever— would have happened without it. (You can get a sense of what we were like in this podcast I asked Michael Nagrant to do with us.)

Road trip to Milwaukee: Jake’s Deli, 2004.

It had its few years, and life moved on (remarkably, this blog has been around almost twice as long as I helped manage the many unique personalities of LTHForum in their interactions; only one of those seems like an eternity). A version of LTHForum exists, and some people still use that in that generous, open-spirited way and discuss things in detail that nobody else is talking about, and bless them for it, while others use it in, well, ways that end in screaming in Thai restaurants. Which is pretty much 180 from the spirit in which it was founded, I’ll just say that. But some friendships from those early days have lasted the decade and more; and in any case it’s a very good thing that the comrades of those days have spread out across the world and infiltrated all kinds of things from media to local organizations and farmer’s markets.

For me the legacy of that time is everywhere that LTHers have spread the gospel that Thai and Mexican food matter, that great food is all over the city, that there’s so much that’s interesting out there to taste and do and it all should be talked about in many different ways and places. It’s Cathy at Culinary Historians, and Hammond at the Sun-Times, and Melissa Graham with Purple Asparagus and Rob Gardner with The Local Beet and Seth Zurer with Baconfest and on and on. It’s the next generation of food writers— apparently 10 years is long enough for a next generation— for whom Burt’s and Lao Sze Chuan and Cemitas Puebla and the Will Special (whoever Will was) and mother-in-laws and 30s style burgers (wherever that description comes from) are just part of the fabric of the city, places we all go and things we all eat, naturally, impossible to imagine a time when people didn’t. We all reap the benefits of that intensive, creative, crazily obsessed time, and take what we gained then with us to whatever we do now. That, it turns out, was the only part of LTHForum that anybody ever truly owned.

So I look back in fondness on this tenth anniversary, and thank all who were present at the creation or close enough, we happy few, we band of brothers (of both sexes). Let’s go grab a bite sometime.

LTH kids in the doorway of Podhalanka, 2004.

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.



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.

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.


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:


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



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



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).


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

I have eaten many things lately and written about them widely; find out about Italian beeves and thin crust pizze at Thrillist, go try this neighborhood Mexican thing I wrote about in my last regular column piece for Serious Eats Chicago, and so on. Here are some more:


Boka. Well-off older people in Old Town and Lincoln Park have a new clubhouse and its name is Boka. Some might find a disconnect between Lee Wolen’s artful, slightly precious food and the more hipster room, which has the funky Tim Burtonesque touches of another Boka Group spot, Girl & The Goat. But a packed, silver-haired Boka on a Saturday might be an argument that coherence is overrated; Avec has always had a disconnect for me between Italian-German comfort food and its severe Swedish sauna decor (and lack of comfort), and it’s taken that disconnect all the way to the bank. I suspect Boka will too, for a long time to come.

As at The Lobby, Wolen’s food is clean, precise modern food, executed flawlessly, that makes fairly classical flavors seem like they were just invented. Octopus in a pork broth that, as Mike Sula said, would make a great bowl of ramen (below); delicate yet muscular loup de mer (above) with artichokes and olives; his celebrated roasted chicken with brioche under the skin— there are resemblances to Izard’s hit-all-the-flavor-receptors-at-once approach, especially since every dish has its spot of citrus for a sweet note (which gets a bit expected when you try everything, like I did), but it’s all much subtler, more contained. You have to look at the menu description to see how complex the dishes can be, and that, rarely, there’s never anything on the plate that’s just there to fill you up— every vegetable, every little bit of something green, is in there for a clear reason in the conception of the dish’s overall flavor. (It has to be the fewest starches I can remember seeing on plates like these, ever.)

Once or twice a dish seemed to lack pop— I wanted more briny rusticness from the salt cod ravioli— but mostly you admire what he can do within the bounds of restraint and a dish plated in a neat little circle. Nobody colors within his own lines better at the moment than Wolen. The kitchen was a little slow on a packed Saturday night, but the room full of people happy to be there didn’t seem especially concerned by it. Disclosure: we dined like real people, but I was known to them, not least because I had just interviewed Wolen, and he comped us to a complete set of the available desserts. I also attended Boka’s 10th anniversary party. On the other hand, Wolen, and especially Boka partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, seemed to know a lot of people there that night, so that probably was close to a typical experience…

1729 N Halsted St
(312) 337-6070



Homestead. The rooftop restaurant above Roots Handmade Pizza has promoted its previous #2, Chip Davies. The menu still looks a lot like Chris Curren’s, with some dishes carried over or evolved, but what I liked best was the new spin Davis brought to many of the dishes, of middle-eastern flavors and ingredients such as green almonds (which could have been favas if I hadn’t been told). The middle-eastern tinge gives Homestead something distinctive to hold onto as it otherwise serves up nicely comfy kind-of-rustic-Italian dishes like the orecchiete with smoked oxtails, or roasts a chicken but puts it in a tagine broth with golden raisins, which you might see anywhere otherwise. If we ever have a nice day and people can sit on its patio, it will be exactly the sort of unpretentious summer neighborhood restaurant experience that everyone hopes for in Chicago. Chris Teixeira’s desserts seem a bit too fancy for the room, but hey, disconnects and all that; I admire that he keeps the sweetness damped down and the combination of a chocolate one and a carrot one, after the rustic food, was pretty great. Disclosure: this was a media dinner, which my son and I attended.

1924 W Chicago Ave
(773) 904-1145


Les Miserables. As long as I’m disclosing, the same son and I went as guests on opening night to Drury Lane’s new production of Les Miserables, after seeing the movie some months back. 20 years ago, I saw it at the Auditorium Theater, from about six blocks away it felt like, and watching the famous revolving stage moving from that distance had all the excitement of watching a chair swivel. Better seats and a more intimate production made this a far more satisfying experience, a thoroughly professional one (led by a Valjean, Ivan Rutherford, who had been in the Broadway production’s long run and done it 2000 times around the country by now, and is, shall we say, very comfortable in the role), where the focus was on the actors over the (handsome but not overly expensive) setting. The slickly pro cast had two particular standouts, Mark David Kaplan giving the rogue Thenardier more humor and rascally charm than Sasha Baron Cohen’s muggy performance in the movie, and the one major example of race-neutral casting, Quentin Earl Darrington as a most ominous Javert, a regular Darth Javert in stentorian James Earl Jones-tones that set Javert even more apart from the citizens in the story.


Isla Pilipina. I went to Isla Pilipina in a rather memorably titled LTH post many years ago, but hadn’t returned until almost a decade later when we went with some friends, who had just visited the Phillippines. Anyway, it is a very different place a decade later, much more professional in the manner of any well-run, well-packaged Asian restaurant, and packed on Saturday night. We ordered tons of food (with kids, there were eight of us), including two 20-piece orders of lumpia (devoured almost entirely by the kids), funky kare-kare (oxtail and green beans in peanut sauce), lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly with a kind of gravy), fried chicken, grilled sirloin with a Filipino marinade tinge, garlic rice, pancit noodles and more (the spaghetti with hot dogs in it, which the kids were enthused about based on description, came late and went untouched, alas). Anyway, suffice it to say that it will not be another 10 years, and Isla Pilipina quickly zoomed to where it should have been all along on my list of Asian neighborhood gems.

2501 W Lawrence Ave
(773) 271-2988


Paco’s Tacos. When I put Zacatacos on a Thrillist list of south side places, several people suggested Paco’s Tacos instead. But a year or so ago, for a Grub Street list, I had tried the two back to back and it was no contest. Titus of Tweets of Taco said, you need to go to the original Paco’s, inside a supermercado. So I gave it a try. We stood in a good-sized line. A guy behind us seemed to be talking legal advice for his crew on his cellphone, or maybe that was our recent Breaking Bad-viewing coloring the conversation. We got our tacos. He’s right, these are much better than other Paco’s, and rank highly among south side steak tacos. Still think I’d pick Zacatacos first, but always worth knowing another one.

4556 S. Ashland
(773) 523-9745



Taqueria Coacoyula. I spotted this place driving down Fullerton and thought it said it offered breakfast tacos, which would be a great find if true (and good). I must have conflated the signage, which does reference breakfast on weekends but not tacos. Still, I gave it a try at lunch, paying 50 cents extra for hand made tortillas. And I would still rate it a find, making very satisfying salty steak tacos in chewy, delectable freshmade tortillas, and doing a nice job on pastor tacos even without a cone (but lots of pineapple tossed in). That stretch of Fullerton (Austin to Cicero or so) is full of good things worth exploring, including this steak place, this modest comida, the tacos de canasta at La Chilangueada and more.

5823 W. Fullerton
(773) 237-2730



Detroit Kabob House. Cathy Lambrecht and my kids and I tried to go here once after she did a canning demo for their 4-H chapter, and they chased us out 15 minutes before closing. But we tried again at lunch recently and got a decidedly better welcome, and I’m glad we went back. They don’t use charcoal like some of the Bridgeview-area middle eastern places (or ones in Detroit, that is, Dearborn), but even on gas grill, they did a terrific job grilling kebobs and other meats. I was less excited by the sides— baba ghanoush was fine, Jerusalem salad kind of a mess— but it’s a definite stop along the Niles stretch of Milwaukee for some simply, expertly grilled meats.

9021 N Milwaukee Ave, Niles, IL 60714
(847) 967-9100