Things I have eaten lately, in brief, and mostly not in grief:
Dusek’s. I really liked this Pilsen gastropub. I really liked that it wasn’t as crowded and sceney as Logan Square gastropubs. And I recognized that that was because… places like this hadn’t ruined Pilsen yet for places like this. Anyway, most of it was very tasty, a little but not too arty, though as my dining companion Anthony Todd pointed out (he had been here before), what had been a little more rustic was now being plated more pretentiously on long square plates and big-rimmed round ones, which meant that the small plates could pretty much hog the whole table. One dish, also, the General Tso’s Sweetbreads, seem to have gone downhill since he ate there (too much ginger, the sweetbreads now cubic and rubbery— whatever, it’s off the menu entirely now). But pretty much everything else was terrific, especially the Juicy Lucy (a fantastically beefy version of the Minneapolis burger with cheese in the center; see Anthony on it here). Because we pooh-poohed the sweetbreads, they sent us some desserts we didn’t really need, but we were glad they did anyway, especially for something called a ginger cazuela cake, which was made with sweet potatoes, molasses and lots of ginger, a perfect emblem for a meal of refined yet straightforward comforts.
1227 W 18th St.
Little Goat. I keep puzzling out Little Goat diner. I’m convinced that somewhere here is a near-brilliant adaptation of Stephanie Izard’s big-popping flavors approach to mainstream, middle American food. But something conceptual or executional hasn’t worked on past visits. Finally I found the dish that made it all make sense: it’s on the lunch menu and called pork belly pancake, though I had it for late breakfast. It’s basically kind of a savory pancake like you’d get in certain Chinese restaurants, topped with some tender pork belly and then kimchi and some crispies of some sort, piled four inches high. (There’s a pic here, but mine was neater and tidier.) It sounded like a gut bomb, and certainly still has the like-everything-in-the-pantry-mixed-together approach that seems to be Little Goat’s trademark, but it was surprisingly light and delicate, both in texture (all that pile on top is as fluffy as snow) and in the balance of kimchi heat and sweetness and porkiness and comfy pancakeness.
820 W Randolph St
Sing’s Noodles. Speaking of Chinese pancakes, that was one of the things we had at Sing’s, a new spot in Chinatown run by the guy who used to be in the window stretching noodles at Hing Kee, Liu Chang Ming. (I always knew him as the guy who looked like he belonged in a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon— he has the square face and broad smile of many of Miyazaki’s human characters.) Anyway, we ordered lots of noodley things and were generally happy with the noodles; the problem was that few if any of the dishes as a whole had the depth of flavor and Chinese funk of what I’m used to at places like Lao Sze Chuan. (Also, bummer, we tried to order soup dumplings but didn’t get them, unless they have really dry soup dumplings.) The dish with the chipped noodles below, for instance, looks a lot more flavorful than it was, and so was a duck soup. So maybe this is a place to go when you have visitors, so they get something a little tamer that will be still be satisfying, plus the floor show of seeing the noodle-stretchers at work.
2172 S Archer Ave
Chengdu Impression. I got more of a kick from this new places from a nephew of Tony Hu in Lincoln Park, which expanded my better Chinese delivery choices from about two to three. The LTH thread has focused on offal exotica, but I had to order more conservatively for the family. Even so, I was impressed with the complex flavor of a standard Chinese-American dish like Yu Shiang Chicken, and one as simple as it sounds called Pork Fried Noodles. On the other hand pot stickers had little variety of flavor and were encased with what seemed to be genuine Naugahyde, and I had mixed feelings about Twice Cooked Pork with Pancakes, which would have been better with more starchy pancake and fewer slices of fatty pork belly, no really it would. Well, whatever, it was probably the most authentic-seeming Chinese meal I’ve ever ordered by phone, close to the best I’ve had on the north side at all, and a very happy find.
2545 N Halsted St
County Barbeque. I went to a PR event for new bartender Mike Ruble, but it also gave me a chance to try a barbecue place that reviewers like Mike Sula hated when it opened. And you know what? Six months on, it’s a lot better, as is often the case with barbecue spots. I thought there was respectably strong smoke flavor and good moist texture in almost all the meats, which include brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, ribs, sausage, chicken (probably the least exciting) and more. I also liked some of the more gimmicky but amusing bar snacky things like the bacon and barbecue parfait, and the general arty-take-on-a-honky-tonk feel, which is faux as all get out but entirely pleasant to kick back in. On Twitter a discussion of barbecue included me observing “Almost any BBQ place today would have been the best BBQ place on the north side in the 90s.” County isn’t on the north side, but it just shows much better the scene has gotten when the upper middle of the pack is this solid.
1352 W Taylor St
Bub City. Speaking of faux-BQ, my experience with County and being downtown gave me the urge to finally check this downtown pseudo-honky tonk out too. And I’d say it’s respectably decent and within the spirit of good BBQ, based on one sampled meat (pulled pork, above), but a little more like a big foodservice operation kicking out food that’s been held for a while, a bit lifelessly, at what are definitely downtown prices; County, admittedly much smaller, had a more polished hand with the final dishes, and how to give barbecue some nicer-restaurant gloss. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have had this downtown in the 90s too, and in this case I can say that pretty definitively, since in the 90s I was eating at the bar in this exact spot, Frankie Z’s, which had decent, but far from stellar, barbecue chicken.
435 N Clark St
Commonwealth. I love my neighborhood, Roscoe Village, but I can’t wait to escape it to go eat. And this new, vaguely farm to tableish bar at Roscoe and Damen, unfortunately doesn’t provide strong reasons to change that. It’ll be pleasant enough when I need a nice enough bacon cheeseburger, but it just feels ten years behind places like Dusek’s, from a world that hasn’t even discovered pork belly sliders yet, and ten steps below it in ambition.
2000 Roscoe St
Pasta al Gusto. Another spot in my hood (hey, it was the Polar Vortex, I tried not to drive), this is the kind of Italian-American food, or maybe Mexican-Italian-American food, where they’re happy to put grilled chicken on top of any Italian classic you want. I ordered lasagna, fairly indestructible, and it was fine though I feel like you should make lasagna with ground beef, or with spinach, but not both; I ordered a salad, with grilled vegetables, which was really pretty nice. But it all kind of felt like mall Italian, serviceable and fresh enough but with no real feel for the magic of Italian food, hence the willingness to throw grilled chicken breast onto everything. My hope is that the subs on the menu might be pretty decent (UPDATE: No); even if the bread isn’t Damato’s-level, just being able to get a decent Italian sub in my area would be a great leap forward.
Pasta Al Gusto
1648 W Belmont Ave
Mini Hut. My sister visited for a few days and then I had to drive her to Midway. Far be it from me to waste that kind of mileage, so I used the opportunity to finally hit Mini Hut, widely-acclaimed by people who were expressing a preference for old school fried chicken over all the newfangled places that have opened recently. And I have to say, for that style— a light-colored thin coating on the skin, like you often find at cafeterias and old style coffeeshops; maybe I should dub it 50s-style chicken— though it may not be my style, this is an excellent example that makes the case for that style pretty impressively. They’ve actually heard of putting salt and pepper in the coating, as so many barely do, and they know how to fry it and leave it juicy. The place is nothing to look at (it has the air of a seedy pool hall) and more than a little hard to find (it’s off Archer on a street you can’t get to from Archer), but from the number of people working a kitchen barely 10 feet long, you know they’re serious about their chicken.
6659 W Archer Ave
Other things I’ve eaten and published lately:
I ate very soul-filling cassoulet at Sunday Dinner Club.
And this Rick Bayless restaurant’s historical meal.
I tried burnt flour pasta and pizza at Quartino.
I did half of this Thrillist list of things to check out on the south side.
Check out El Azteca for pretty good Mexican steak.
And I talked to a blogger about doing a food podcast here.