Sky Full of Bacon


The Last Stand of the Natural Casing Dog, Southern Spots, and Valois, Finally

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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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