Sky Full of Bacon


Fooditor Radio 20: The Force Steakens, or: 2015 in Review with guests Anthony Todd, Joe Campagna, Melissa McEwen and Chris Chacko

Airwaves Full of Bacon is now Fooditor Radio, the audiophonic auxiliary of Fooditor, The Total Chicago Food Experience. (It’s numbered episode 19 to maintain continuity with the 18 episodes of Airwaves Full of Bacon.) For more about this post, go here. You can follow Fooditor Radio by subscribing at the old Airwaves iTunes page, which will transition to Fooditor Radio… eventually.

Introducing Fooditor from Michael Gebert on Vimeo. Music by Kevin Macleod.

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.

Airwaves Full of Bacon 18: Live From the Taste of Chicago with Joe Campagna and Special Guest Ina Pinkney

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The more I try to get out, the harder podcasting tries to pull me back in! Live from the Taste of Chicago, it’s my previously dead podcast, with guest Joe Campagna and remote correspondent Ina Pinkney talking about the Taste, the state of dining in Chicago, Boeufhaus, Hot Doug and more. Thanks to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for having us, and to Ed Silha of Radio Misfits Network for engineering this episode. (56 min.) Here’s some pics from the event by my son Myles:

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The bit with Ina Pinkney comes from the same evening as this story at the Reader.

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No, it’s not another April Fool’s prank— my podcast, which I thought I killed a couple of months ago, is coming back for one day only! I’ll be live at the Taste of Chicago’s first-ever podcast area, “Food For Thought” with my special guest Joe Campagna, Chicago Food Snob, and whatever other audio segments I come up with between then and now. Being live, this will be an interesting exercise in whether we can talk that long without the ability to cut the boring parts out! Come see us in person, or eventually it will be distributed as a podcast episode. I promise some interesting news that may imply a certain future for Airwaves Full of Bacon…

Time: Wednesday, July 8, 1:30 to 2:30 pm
Place: Food For Thought area at the Taste of Chicago, near corner of Columbus Dr. and Jackson

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Special guest Joe Campagna

We’re right after Car con Carne, who have the noon slot, so check them out too. Thanks to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for putting this on.

Airwaves Full of Bacon 17: Last Episode! • Apocalypse Soil with Harry Carr of Mint Creek Farm • Tough Love with Ken Zuckerberg • Joe Woodel of Husky Hog BBQ

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(1:27) So it’s the last episode of Airwaves Full of Bacon. Why is that? Well, I explain in more detail in the first part of the podcast, but basically, I want to do audio but I think a better way than hour-long shows is to integrate it into other media which draw more traffic. Like this Reader piece about farmer Harry Carr…

(4:37) And if you liked the snippet of audio in that Reader piece, here’s way more about Harry Carr and Mint Creek Farm. Learn why he thinks soil is vital to civilization, why animals are essential to growing vegetables, why more bugs and weeds are better, and what he’s doing in a town that was founded to greet UFOs. Here are a few more pics that didn’t make it into the Reader piece:

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(25:28) My friend Ken Zuckerberg has been one of Chicago’s most outspoken food critics on Twitter and his blog, Fuckerberg on Food (the name came from Graham Elliot during a Twitter spat). He’s tough, but tough love is good, and there are things he flat out loves, too, so we talk about all of that. Really, he’s not the worst person in the world!

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(54:48) Husky Hog BBQ is a newish BBQ place in Bridgeport run by Joe Woodel, who has a long and twisted history running from Table 52 to competition barbecue to a food truck— and that’s not even counting what he did before barbecue. I ran a two-part interview with him at the Reader here and here, this is a choice chunk of that.

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And here’s the Car Con Carne podcast where I first tried Husky Hog and met Joe.

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Finally, thanks to everyone who listened, ever. I think we did some cool things and went some cool places no one else with a Chicago food show would have done, and I’ll be back with audio in some new way, stay tuned.

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Daniel Zemans and first-time hunter John Lenart stealthily approach their prey.

When Daniel Zemans and I started hunting for Great Unknown Pizzas, part of the point was to see if there was a pizza as good as a Vito & Nick’s or Pat’s Pizza that had gone unknown to the city beyond its own immediate area. But another point was to search out a certain kind of pizza. When thin crust pizza started in America, it tended to be the very thin, cracker-like crust. A simple pie. But over time big pizza chains realized that they could fill their customers more cheaply by selling pizzas that loaded up on the cheapest part— bread— relative to the more expensive parts like cheese and meat or vegetables. So the pizza we liked finding best was at the place that started making it the old way in the 50s or 60s, and never stopped, never followed the siren call of Domino’s’ or Pizza Hut pan pizza’s profitability at selling spongy bread topped with cheap toppings.

As it turned out this latest excursion would demonstrate both sides of this theory of pizza history in spades. Two pizzas adhered to the origins of American pizza— and one sold us a whole lot of bread.

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The area picked for this latest excursion was the suburbs just past Midway and the city limits on the southwest side—places you’ve mostly never been, like Summit-Argo, Lyons, Hogdkins, Countryside, the area bounded by Ogden and I-55, just south of the Brookfield Zoo. Working class suburbs, with at least some Italian presence, they well fit the traditional parameters and m.o. of the Great Unknown Pizzas quest:

Our modus operandi is to order thin crust sausage, thin crust because it’s more common and takes less time, sausage because it best shows off the skills or tastes of the restaurant, if they make it themselves or even if it merely shows their own taste preferences and the level of quality they’re willing to pay for… Our main method for identifying them is simply searching Yelp for ones that give off clues that they might be promising. Every pizza place has somebody calling it the best pizza in the world, that doesn’t tell us anything; we’re more interested in comments that a place makes its own sausage or does something else that gives a clue that there’s blue-collar craftsmanship at work here.

And so, the southwest suburban contenders…

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Pisa Pizza

Zemans raised the question of whether this place was a worthy contender based on a photo at Yelp indicating the use of a conveyor belt oven, a la the Pizza Hut inside Target. But I was sold by this line in a review: “If you park out front on La Grange road, you literally have to walk through an alley to get here.” Any pizza place that can survive being hidden from normal traffic has got to be good, right?

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So we got to 55th and LaGrange and we saw a Mexican restaurant called Cocula (this is when we really regretted Dennis Lee declining to come along on this one) which is supposed to be what it’s behind. We found the alley and, eventually, tiny little Pisa Pizza next to the currency exchange. The owner was older and a bit brusque at first, but maybe our irrepressible enthusiasm warmed him up as we asked about the surprisingly large array of desserts he has for a hole in the wall pizza place. They were all made by his wife, but he doesn’t eat them— or pizza, either, these days, as he’s trying to drop some weight. There was a copy of a magazine called Clean Living on a table, as if to drive home the point of his despair.

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Twelve minutes later we took the pizza out to the hood of John’s car. Zemans said, skepticism audibly dissolving, “It looks pretty good!” It was also flaming hot, having come out of the oven 45 seconds earlier, but we started taking its picture and evaluating its conveyor belt crust. The rippled bottom showed it sat in a pan to go through the conveyor and wasn’t as crisped up as if it had gone in a classic Foulds oven, but as we tasted it it was surprising how good the pizza was. The crust had a nice double texture— a little exterior crispness, then fluffy and bready— and the stuff on it was all quite good, great sausage with strong fennel flavor, a nice basic tomato sauce and high quality cheese, very handsomely browned. We were very happy with this pizza, the kind it takes a solid local pizza culture to create, and we had to make a conscious effort to stop scarfing it all down to save room for the next two. But already this Great Unknown Pizza quest had a first-tier contender, and had proven the worth of this obscure suburb.

Pisa Pizza
5440 S La Grange Rd
Countryside, IL 60525
708) 352-0008

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Nonno’s Pizza

So we’d had a hit in Countryside and from the parking lot we could see another Countryside pizza place, Ledo’s, across 55th, while a third was supposed to be just up the street. Maybe Countryside was a great unknown pizza destination! Looking over the Yelp reviews quickly, Ledo’s did not seem that exciting, but Nonno’s, second outpost of a Berwyn pizza place*, had solid reviews. Heady with the prospect of discovering an entire town, we zipped two blocks up LaGrange Road and pulled in to the neon-lit establishment.

In doing so, we ignored the sign (scrawled, of course, on a round piece of pizza cardboard) that said “Pizza Maker Wanted.” We also ignored the actual pizza slices in the heater thing, which clearly showed a pizza with too much bread, until we’d already ordered our own half sausage/half Italian beef (hey, it was a place that advertised its Italian beef sandwich— so it had to be good!) We’d done such a good job of convincing ourselves it had to be special that we walked right past the clear signs that it wouldn’t be.

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To be fair, the stuff on the pizza was fine. The sauce was a little plain, but the sausage was decent (even though, curiously, cut into quarters rather than made into balls or rough chunks), and the cheese was good quality— though there was probably twice as much of it as it needed. The problem was the crust was just absurdly thick, dense as wallboard, bland as a foodservice breadstick and higher than even the breadiest pizzas we’d had in the past like Positano’s (GUP #1) or Phil’s (GUP #3):

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Being so out of balance, it smothered the flavor of everything else; every bite tasted like you were eating an entire box of teething biscuits, the thick cheese in the middle was so shielded from the heat of the oven that it was barely melted. It was like eating pizza toppings on a Sealy Posturepedic. This was a pizza so heavy that when I set two pieces in a to-go container I was holding (not that we really wanted it, but you hate to visibly waste it), the styrofoam immediately gave under the weight.

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Good prep for a life of eating this pizza.

They were nice folks, but if this was a good neighborhood pizza once, it took a wrong turn at some point, and the positive Yelp reviews were clearly from people who just wanted to be filled up and didn’t care how.

Nonno’s Pizza
5396 South La Grange Road
Countryside, IL 60525
(708) 354-1600

* The Berwyn location is surely why Nonno’s is the only one of our three obscure-suburb spots to have ever gotten even an ancient mention on LTHForum, though interestingly, Jennifer Olvera sang the praises of a hot dog stand we saw across the street on Serious Eats.

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Chester’s Tavern and Orsi’s Pizza

As the story was told to us, Chester’s was a bar for forever in little, very industrial Summit Argo, and Orsi’s was a family run Italian joint a few doors up, and at some point the third generation of Chester’s was ready to close it and the dad of the current Orsi bought it and merged the two businesses, so now it’s a bar and it has a pizza kitchen in the back. I was sold on this one by an entire post at Yelp which claimed that Chester’s was once an Outfit hangout, certainly possible in the bad old days given our proximity to Cicero. But on this Tuesday night, all Chester’s was was a dive bar with some video poker and cheerfully rowdy guys on one side, and a side room which you could have taken the family to on the other side, and a couple of nice folks running it who were proud to tell us all about it once they understood that we were on a mission from the Pizza Gods and that we pretty much loved their place.

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Me, I loved it not least because it had the most complete collection I’ve ever seen of those 1970s plaster busts of nostalgic 1930s stars that used to be dorm room fixtures back in the day. This is less than half of the collection, see if you can name them all:

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Anyway, we ordered beer and, noticing a (round cardboard) sign that they sold frozen pizzas, asked nervously if they were still serving fresh ones. “He’s about to shut it down,” the bartendress told us, so I blurted out “large sausage” and we got our order in as we watched the Sox to the tune of the heavy metal the regulars put on, which got an eye roll from the bartendress.

10 minutes later our pizza came. It was love at first sight, a super-thin cracker crust that was already shedding brittle cracker pieces just from her setting it down:

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And it lived up to it. Good sausage and cheese, a simple sauce that had a little bit of neckbone-gravy caramelization flavor to it, and that great, shatter-in-pieces-in-your-mouth crust.

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For me, this was one of the two best we’ve tried (along with Pizza Castle in GUP #1) and an instant candidate for the next time I do a Best Thin Crust list. Zemans interestingly made his case for preferring Pisa slightly, and it’s true that the sausage was the best there, which is no small thing, but mainly he made the pronouncement that this was the first quest to date where two out of three were top tier, and I have to agree. (I think John agreed in general, too, even though this was his first outing.) Chester’s/Orsi’s, not too far past Midway, next time you’re way way down that way, check it out.

Chester’s/Orsi’s
6255 S Archer Rd
Summit Argo, IL 60501
(708) 458-1117

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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.