Sky Full of Bacon

Chicago has been such a booming, wealthy city for so many decades that entire eras of its past have been almost wiped out— the wedding cake-Victorian Loop obliterated by the imperial classicism of the 1920s; the cheesy modernism of the 1960s hanging on only in ungentrified suburbs.  But just when I’m regretting the obliteration of great chunks of our past, I remember that there’s a city not far away where they survive unselfconsciously.  Milwaukee has been prosperous enough all these years that it hasn’t fallen into disrepair, like Detroit, yet at the same time it hasn’t boomed with the force of an atomic bomb, the way Chicago sometimes seems to have.  A trip last Saturday with a small group of LTHers to visit an artisanal meat-curing facility was also a chance to travel back in time to several pasts much harder to find traces of in Chicago.

The first stop was Bolzano Artisan Meats, who I’ve posted about before here. Bolzano is Wisconsin’s first cured whole-meat producer (ie., things like prosciutto, rather than sausages), and owner Scott Buer offers “Charcuterie School” to a small group each weekend, in which he explains the basics of how he makes his products.  (You can check it out here.)  Since we were, so to speak, advanced students who’ve mostly made charcuterie ourselves at some point, we skipped the class and went straight to the factory tour.

I knew Bolzano was located in the former home of Great Lakes Distillery, which I imagined to be some 19th century brick factory in a rapidly gentrifying area of lofts and nightclubs.  Turns out it was actually a streamlined 1950s facility in purest Industrial Moderne originally built as a Sealtest dairy, including the former laboratory, armored around with sturdy industrial tile:

—all of which gave “Charcuterie School” even more of a high school feel than I’d expected at first.  The refrigerator cases and smoker are all located in a larger, gleaming white room.  The first walk-in is for meat that’s been cut up and salted (or will be shortly):

while the second is for things hanging and drying out:

There’s also a little shop open on weekends, where you can pick up their goods.

Scott told us how the business has evolved since he sent me his first products some months back.  He’s now working with whole hogs, which since he doesn’t make sausage, has necessitated some creativity in terms of his product offerings; he’s invented some of the cured products he’s offering, such as Suslende, which means sweet loin and is simply a cured loin with some maple syrup added to the cure.  It also requires managing refrigerator space carefully, when you have a products, prosciutto, which takes nine months; it would be easy to fill the fridge with hams and then have nothing to sell for most of a year, at which point you would go bankrupt before anyone got to try any of those hams.

He also told us about the regulatory hurdles he had to overcome.  Fortunately for him, since he’s mostly dealing with the state, who are at least vaguely supportive of agriculture-related businesses, he was able to find at least a certain level of cooperation in exploring this uncharted territory, and wasn’t caught in the Catch-22 of “nobody’s doing it, therefore there are no rules, therefore it can’t be done,” as Chicago food businesses have been lately.

One change that’s unfortunate, if understandable, is that he’s about to switch to only selling sliced product; he’s had too much trouble with people who buy chunks and then can’t cut them properly and come back, looking to get their product sliced.  But I like dicing the pancetta and guanciale from larger than the paper-thin slices, so I stocked up on those in chunk form during this trip, and recommend making your reservation for charcuterie school and picking up a little of everything at their store soon.

Our next stop was the new home of Great Lakes Distillery. They give tasting tours on the weekend, but since we arrived late and it’s all in one room anyway, we just listened to the tour and went straight to the tasting.  They’ve made everything from bourbon to pumpkin brandy, much of which has sold out quickly, so on this day we got to try a straight and flavored vodka, a very floral gin (not sure how this would mix— I guess there’s one way to find out!— but I liked it a lot), some fruit brandies (the pear, which has a really nice real-pear aftertaste, was by far the best), and finally, two absinthes:

One is a straight green absinthe, the other is called red from added hibiscus, though it’s actually clear.  This latter seemed odd to me, too floral, but I’m sure it has its uses.  The green absinthe seemed very good, and about half the price of others I’ve seen, so that’s what I came home with, though whether I’ll ever get to making it in the traditional way (as opposed to using in sazeracs, say) is questionable.  Anyway, another great and welcoming experience, I’d certainly recommend this as well.

Next up were a couple of abortive attempts to connect with Milwaukee’s old Italian heritage in the Brady street area.  We arrived at Glorioso’s, Milwaukee’s best-known Italian deli, just as they were closing, but did note that they’re about to move into a bigger building across the street, so will have to visit them before that happens.  Another more mysterious stop was Dentice Bros., an Italian sausage supplier which Peter Engler thinks may have gone out of business (the owners being quite elderly).  Yet when we found the shop, everything looked as if they had just closed up five minutes earlier— and really, it is often hard to tell between a 100-year-old business that’s still around or one that’s preserved in death like a museum display.  So who knows?

What was still in business after 100 years was Kegel’s, an old German bar and restaurant where it could easily be 1890.  There are others like this in Milwaukee, such as Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s, but they depend on the tourist trade to no small part; Kegel’s, on the other hand, feels like it’s still serving a thriving German neighborhood clientele, and the idea that it’s picturesque hasn’t really occurred to it.  We had a beer and two orders of pork shank rolls, another example (like Mader’s reuben rolls) of the odd Milwaukee tendency to take bits of Germanic meat and roll them up in eggroll wrappers and deep fry them.  I have to say, they went with the dark German beer very happily.

Kegel’s, however, was merely an appetizer before our main dining event, Maria’s, which comes close to the platonic ideal of the old school pizza joint— located in a building that looks like somebody’s 50s ranch house, decorated on the outside with world-class neon and plexi 60s signage, and on the inside with a mixture of paint-by-religious paintings and the usual sports geegaws, while a staff of mostly family do what they’ve been doing forever.

Zaffiro’s has a reputation on LTHForum as the Milwaukee old school pizza, and it’s a fine one, but Maria’s easily surpassed it as the one I’m jonesing to get back to right now; I loved the burnt-edged, crispy cracker crust, the simple tomato sauce topping, the sausage bright with fennel.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s about as good as an old school pizza joint experience gets (though I could tell the one Easterner in our group, still under the spell of Pepe’s in New Haven or whatever, was the less enchanted one among us).

We ended the night with another temple of neon, Leon’s, for custard.  Again, LTHForum has anointed Kopp’s among Milwaukee custard emporia, but Leon’s seemed just as good, and it certainly had the 70s-brutalist Kopp’s location in Brookfield beat.  By this hour it was quite chilly out, but that didn’t seem to have stopped anyone from standing in line for custard cones, and it was a fitting end to our travels through many pasts in Milwaukee.

When Hot Doug’s was closed for the better part of a year following a fire at its original location, I wondered why some other hot dog place didn’t make an effort to replicate its formula to some degree.  The city is full of dog joints, why didn’t one, just one, make the effort to start offering dogs with exotic ingredients at a significantly higher price point?

It finally happened, but not in the city— fRedhots in Glenview made its name with exotic dogs (most infamously, a reindeer sausage near Christmas) and interesting toppings.  I’m not totally wild about fRedhots but I absolutely give him credit for taking the Hot Doug’s paradigm and proving that it has room for distinct styles of topping a sausage; you wouldn’t mistake Fred’s dogs for Doug’s.  And the same now proves to be true for Franks ‘n’ Dawgs, the most ambitious artisanal-dog joint to open yet, featuring a bevy of housemade and quality-sourced sausages, lobster-roll style buns made by the Nicole’s Crackers people, and some genuinely innovative toppings.

I ran into LTHer Stevez there, so we split three dogs between us: the brat, topped with red cabbage, beer mustard and red pepper relish (top); the Tur-dawgen, a turkey sausage with duck confit and pickled carrots (above); and the Foss Hog, conceived in homage to chef Phillip Foss of Lockwood, a pork sausage topped with bacon and a fried egg (below).

I liked the sausages, and the butter-toasted buns, quite a bit, and the imagination and skill of owner Alexander Brunacci and sausagemaker Joe Doren are evident.  But as total dishes I felt like all three, certainly at least the brat and the Tur-dawgen, skewed a bit too much toward the gourmet and lost something of the traditional snap and street-food swagger of a sausage— I wanted a little more char from the grill, a little more bite from the mustard.  The toppings sometimes seemed a bit too genteel for a mouthful of sausage; that happens once in a while at Doug’s, especially when he overdoes the cheese on something, but on the whole, you still know you’re eating a juicy, salty-peppery sausage straight off the fire, which remains the best condiment a sausage can ask for.

So I’m not quite in love with Franks ‘n’ Dawgs yet, but it’s an estimable place, dedicated to its cuisine in all seriousness, and I’m eager to see how it develops its own style, one foot in world cuisine, one in the traditional satisfactions of a hot dog stand.

*  *  *

Meanwhile, another new dog place of note has opened on the north side— but compared to Franks’ radical dogs, it could hardly be more traditionalist.  It’s called Redhot Ranch, though it’s actually a spinoff of a venerable South Side dog joint, 35th Street Red Hots.  I discovered 35th Street Red Hots a few years ago while biking down the lakefront, and I have to say I’ve invalidated the benefits of my biking more than a few times in this humble shack, which serves the quintessential minimalist Chicago dog menu: hot dogs with your choice of mustard, relish, onion and peppers; fries; Italian ice in the summer.  I’d rank it with Gene’s and Jude’s as an exemplar of this type at its no-frills best, the mustard and onion subtly perfuming the fries they’re rolled up with in white paper (not entirely tongue in cheek, I’ve referred to the hot dog as merely a delivery vehicle for getting mustard and onion flavor into the fries).  Done right, it’s a meal whose balance of flavors is as subtle and perfect as anything at Alinea.

Redhot Ranch, located in a former Las Asadas (which has moved across the street) expands ever so slightly on this paradigm— just to offer fried shrimp and to allow ketchup for your fries (something strictly verboten at Gene’s and Jude’s, for instance).  Otherwise, it’s seriously bare bones, not even any chairs, and this may be a problem in the long run, because here’s what we heard while we were standing there eating:

“You don’t have cheese dogs?”
“Do you have pickles? No?”
“You don’t have tacos no more?”
“I’ll have it with mustard, relish and cheese– what? No cheese?”
“No hamburgers?”

In the time that my kids and I stood there eating our canonically perfect, good-as-35th Street Chicago minimalist dogs and fries, five customers came in asking those questions, and only two of the five stayed to order something. The beyond-spartan lineup on the board may be admirable but I’m not sure it’s going to be sustainable as a business model; it will be a strange and ironic day indeed if the north side of Chicago proves incapable of supporting such a perfect example of a classic Chicago dog stand, while embracing one whose dogs would have sounded like a parody of yuppie dining just a short time ago.

Franks ‘n’ Dawgs
1863 N. Clybourn
(773) 248-0479

Redhot Ranch
2072 N. Western

Chicago magazine has folks a-flutter (you can’t say a-twitter anymore) with a list of the 40 Greatest Chicago Restaurants of All Time.  Okay, I’ll play, I’m always happy to see the past get some attention alongside the trendy.  Chicago’s list is pretty much what you’d expect: three parts hot restaurants of today (Alinea, Avec) or the very recent past (Le Francais, Gordon), one part names of the more distant past whose luster still lasts (The Bakery, Henrici’s), one part nostalgia for North Shore folk who grew up on the likes of Fanny’s in Evanston or Don Roth’s.

Of course, some of this is pure hypothesizing about things we’ll never have direct experience of, like a debate over whether John Barrymore or Richard Burbage was a better Hamlet; even though a snippet of Barrymore’s Hamlet is preserved in a screen test, we can never see it with the eyes that found it revelatory in the 1920s, and we couldn’t eat at The Bakery and find it new now, either.  Really, this is more like a list of the most memorable or influential restaurants, and in that sense I’ll throw out five of my own that I would replace something on Chicago’s list with.


Chicago’s pick: Arun’s
My pick: Thai Town

Enough already about Arun’s, a temple of overpriced Thai dining which Chicago magazine has been bowing down to for two decades.  Erik M., whose knowledge of Thai food in Chicago is light years beyond anyone’s (even though he doesn’t live here any more), credits Thai Town at Belmont and Clark, in its original incarnation in the early 1970s, as the first Thai restaurant that Thais took seriously, or that took its own cuisine seriously.  The owner later opened Thai Villa at Western and Winnemac, helping launch the little Thai restaurant and shopping enclave near Lincoln Square that still includes many of the most authentic and venerable Thai restaurants.  Neither of his restaurants exists today in anything resembling its original form, but I suspect Lincoln Square’s Rosded, which dates to around the same vintage (and is pictured above), conveys much of the atmosphere of these prototypes of one of Chicago’s great glories of ethnic dining.

Chicago’s pick: Spiaggia
My pick: Colosimo’s

Nothing against Spiaggia, hey, I had my wedding reception there, but before anybody needed to revitalize Italian food in Chicago and return it to its authentic roots, first they had to bastardize it and give it its colorful reputation in America.  And Big Jim Colosimo’s joint did just that, introducing Chicagoans to both the pleasures of hearty red sauce Italian and to the illicit delights of dining amidst mobsters, not least on the day in 1920 that Big Jim himself was gunned down in it, turning control of the nascent Outfit to Johnny Torrio, who in turn would retire and hand the keys to his young lieutenant, Alphonse Capone.  (That quintessential Chicago dish, Chicken Vesuvio, is often attributed to Colosimo’s, though Rene G says there’s no documentation to support that and my bet is the dish originated at a restaurant actually called Vesuvio which was in existence at roughly the same time.)  Postcards and matchbooks are worth many thousands of words here, so check out this page full of Colosimo’s memorabilia, and savor a reputation we still haven’t escaped.

Chicago’s pick: Avec
My pick: The Dill Pickle Club

Today it’s radical when guys who own a fancy restaurant go downscale and put in community seating so people might actually talk to each other, gingerly. Back when the Dill Pickle Club opened in 1916, radical genuinely meant radical, in dress, behavior and ideas, and could get you and your whole community of Wobblies, hobos, poets, slumming trust fund types and dope fiends arrested. Mainly a “little theater,” the place also had a tearoom, readings and lectures by anybody willing to stand up and take a chance, and in general was the crossroads of intellectual ferment across class lines in this rude place by the lake during the pre-Depression era. Everything Wicker Park or any other center of hipsterism wants to be, the Dill Pickle Club was.  Here’s a good overview.

Rib tips, Clarksdale, MS

Chicago’s pick: Carson’s
My pick: the first guy from Mississippi to start selling rib tips and hot links on the South Side

Not having grown up here, I don’t have nostalgia for any old white people’s barbecue joint— Carson’s, Russell’s, Twin Anchors— and so I’m much more interested in Chicago’s indigenous black style, the rib tip and hot links joints that would eventually be associated with aquarium smokers.  Before the aquarium smoker came to be, though, somebody was making this stuff over a 30-gallon drum cut in half in a vacant lot somewhere, for his fellow transplants from Mississippi come to seek work in the North.  While he filled the air with smoke, maybe a neighbor named Chester Burnett started filling the air with blues at the same time.  We remember Howlin’ Wolf; the guy who fed him, not so much, but here’s to his memory, whoever he was.

Chicago’s Pick: Ambria
My pick: Hot Doug’s

It kind of says it all that the only place actually busted under our short-lived foie gras ban wasn’t a French restaurant but a hot dog stand.  Chicago honors Ambria, the place that represented Rich Melman and Lettuce’s graduation to the big leagues of fine dining in their view, when a better choice would be Fritz That’s It, R.J. Grunt’s, the beginning of the Melman empire and the jokey cartoonization of dining out that dominated our scene through so much of the 70s and 80s.  But to me Melman’s conscious climb from low to high over the years is trumped by Doug Sohn, who simply saw no contradiction in putting foie gras, artisanal cheese and truffle honey on a sausage, and then naming it for someone on American Idol.  He’s the godfather of all the high-low combinations that are currently one of the liveliest aspects of our dining scene— or at least the Solozzo to Bayless’ Don Vito.

[note: I thought I had read somewhere that Fritz That's It actually predated Grunt's, but that the Melman corporate history had been rewritten to accommodate the one that still existed and make it the official beginning of the empire.  But David Hammond disputed this, and when I checked with Peter Engler/Rene G, he was quite certain that Grunt's really was first and that Fritz actually came third, after Jonathan Livingston Seafood.  Also, thanks to Gaper's Block for the link!]

Baconfest was Saturday and kudos to all the organizers (including old pal Seth Zurer) and the many outstanding chefs inspired by bacon to new heights. I’ve been sicker than a dog with a cold the last week, but I managed to pull it together to 1) try everything in the first session and 2) give a reasonably coherent 15-minute talk to about a dozen or more on the subject of making your own bacon. I wish I had felt well enough to stick around for the second session, or at least to be more sociable, but I came home and went into a movies-on-the-couch coma. Anyway, some things I especially liked were Randy Zweiban/Province’s bacon slider with avocado and salsa, Chris Pandel/The Bristol’s bacon sausage corndog, Heather Terhune/Sable’s bacon-wrapped date (a classic but always good), and Jared Wentworth/Longman & Eagle’s waffle with dehydrated bacon and ice cream. Here’s the PDF handout from my demo; here are some more pics:

Team Boka did the best job of dressing for the occasion.

Crisping up the dehydrated bacon for Longman & Eagle’s waffle.

Das maple-bacon lollipops, as promoted by the Baconettes.

The vendor area had lots of stuff like this. Really, you have no idea how much there is until it’s all in one room.

Next, Top Chef Masters is back, did anyone ever notice the little Top Chef in-joke I put in episode 13, Pie As a Lifestyle? It’s just an out-of-nowhere imitation of one of Top Chef’s common little editing tics… see it at 7:26.

Because of my hacking cold I haven’t been anywhere (except Baconfest) and I don’t feel like writing a long post about the things I’ve made at home that I have in mind to post about, but here’s a no-brainer that suits my abilities at the moment. Which is, the problem with doing your ten best list at the end of the year is that probably everything is long gone from menus by then. But I feel like I’ve had so many good things lately that it’d be worth calling attention to them… while you still have some chance of eating them. So here’s a top 13 (a blogger’s ten) for the first quarter of 2010, links to writeups if I wrote about them, though many were merely mentioned on Twitter. Go try ‘em if you can!

• Grouper soup at 90 Miles to Cuba
• Fried chicken confit at Kith & Kin
• Otter Creek Spring cheddar (purchased at Logan Square Farmers’ Market)
• Shepherd’s Pie at Mado
• Charcoal-grilled chicken at Taqueria Ricardo
• Cassis macaron (also purchased at Logan Square Farmers’ Market)
• Peach cobbler at Pearl’s Place, the South Side soul food restaurant run by the nicest people in Chicago, unless that title belongs to the lady who owns Pasieka Bakery
• Jonnycakes (sort of; more like Jonnycrepes) and awesome pulled pork at The Southern
• Duck apicius at NoMI
• Dessert at Ceres’ Table
• Persimmon pie, Hoosier Mama
• Sausage and waffles, Old Town Social
• Pretty much everything at Aroy

Persimmon pie, Hoosier Mama.

1. Reason, a libertarian magazine, has had a bunch of stuff lately about food-nannyism, a rich subject to be sure. This video was inspired by reports of New York cocktail-renaissance hotspot Pegu Bar getting in trouble with the health department for serving a cocktail with a raw egg in it. Actually, the egg was perfectly legal, but apparently the bar didn’t harsh the customer’s mellow sufficiently for bureaucratic tastes before serving it. Here, a Virginia mixologist talks about where his art runs into antiquated regulations:

This one (actually made by another site but picked up by Reason) talks with a pizza chain owner about the practical effects of the menu-calorie-count requirements specified in the health care bill:

But maybe the most interesting piece was this examination of TV-nutrition heartthrob Jamie Oliver; it’s not a slam piece, but it does suggest that Britain’s nutrition policy is being largely driven by a bit of a ditzy celebrity:

…for all his purported expertise in combating obesity—it was his work in this area that won him the TED Prize after all—there exists a very real question whether Oliver really understands healthy eating or even believes his own most basic dietary recommendations.

The current issue of his magazine Jamie (Feb./Mar. 2010) recommends several school lunch recipes the magazine bills as “wholesome meals to take to school.” The magazine’s suggested meal for Thursday is a tuna Waldorf pita with hot vanilla milk, an oaty biscuit, and a banana. According to the nutrition information provided in Jamie, this youngster’s lunch contains an astonishing 1,183 calories, 55 grams of fat (20 of them saturated), and 65 grams of sugar. That’s 73 calories, 12 grams of fat (11.5 saturated), and 3 grams of sugar more than the same student would get from eating both a McDonald’s hamburger Happy Meal (hamburger, fries, Sprite) and a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal (McNuggets, fries, Sprite)

2. Everybody was talking about Michael Nagrant’s piece on publicist-for-the-new-millenium Ellen Malloy in that Time Out cultural clout issue, including the subject herself, but the one I found equally interesting (and more dispiriting) was the one on the guys who produce those neighborhood street fests in Chicago, and why market logic dictates that they’re all the same and don’t reflect their actual neighborhoods in any way.
3. You’ll never guess what the latest hot secret ingredient in Chinese food is!
4. Easily the best thing on LTHForum at the moment is this thread about what you would put in a care package from Chicago; forget Pizzeria Uno and check out recommendations for all kinds of ethnic sausage and the like (posts from Habibi, JeffB and Sazerac especially recommended).
5. “It’s the closest you’ll come to holding a fresh dinosaur egg.”  And what is it?  It is an emu egg, used in an omelet. (H/t Dan “Waffleizer” Shumski)

6. Taste of Beirut is a gorgeous blog about Lebanese food, well worth working your way through; I was fascinated by this Swiss Chard Cake (and the discussion of jarred grape leaves and why Swiss chard can be a better substitute).
7. What to do with your leftover ice cream spoons from a trendy ice cream parlor with chic little spoons (Istria Cafe in Hyde Park comes to mind).

It’s official at last, I’ll be doing a bacon-making demo at Baconfest this Saturday.  I’d tell you where to get tickets, but they sold out in like two minutes, so you can’t.  However, in the meantime you can at least read my progress as a bacon-maker in this old thread from LTHForum.

(This is, incidentally, the closest you’ll ever get to the first attempt at a prototype for Sky Full of Bacon.  I shot a baconmaking demo in my own kitchen, and decided from it that I did not want to be an on-camera personality, or for these things to be all about me.)

And as you probably know if you’re a Chicago foodie, big congrats to Mike Sheerin of Blackbird, hog-breaker-downer extraordinaire (as seen here), who is Chicago’s member of the Food & Wine best new chefs for 2010.

There’s an early Disney cartoon, apropos with Easter right behind us, called Funny Little Bunnies, in which cartoon bunnies sing and dance while painting Easter eggs and making chocolates. Like so many of those early Disney cartoons, it’s kitsch, but of an order that’s beyond mockery; if you aren’t charmed on some level, you were never four. (Before you click, know that the song will stay with you for days.)  A number of these early Disney cartoons— with titles like Cookie Carnival— are about food dancing and singing its joy at being born to go in your mouth, which one can imagine was an especially delightful fantasy in the early years of the Depression.  (It’s also hard not to see Funny Little Bunnies as an allegory for the industrialized production of cartoons themselves, but set that aside.)

Anyway, as I was heading to the bathroom after a meal at Old Town Social, I was behind one of those twentysomethings who dresses like he’s still a toddler— T-shirt, shorts, ball cap, buzzcut, flipflops.  He was sort of the proportions of a little kid, just blown up.  And that just sort of confirmed for me that Old Town Social is a wonder like in a Disney cartoon— sausage!  Beer!  Pretty girls!  All appearing from big old-fashioned cartoonishly-colored machinery (well, not the girls), you could imagine Goofy turning the big crank on this one and salume just plopping itself neatly on your plate:

And then it comes to your table on the arm of a hot punk waitress and it’s full of salty meaty deliciousness and gets washed down with a hip, if not aggressively unusual, list of microbrews.  Love is in the air, and on the plate.  If you aren’t charmed on some level by Old Town Social, you were never twenty-four.

At this point I can imagine the restaurant objecting that that cartoonishly-colored slicer is a Berkel, which is to say a very serious European slicer (the last one I saw that close was at Herb [La Quercia] Eckhouse’s house), and they take their cured meats seriously.  Well, I took the food here seriously too, though I don’t know about the rest of their crowd— the gals at the table next to us hardly seemed to touch their flatbread, and “flatbreads” are pretty much a bullshit item to order anyway, especially in a place like this.  But basically I felt about Old Town Social the way others have felt about The Purple Pig— impressed that would could just be another bar hawking mozzarella sticks is doing serious charcuterie and well-thought-out, well-executed dishes.

My colleague, Dr. Morowitz, and I were there to try the charcuterie first and foremost, so we ordered a preset collection of five and asked our waitress to select five more.  In general, I’d say that the charcuterie doesn’t push the complexity of funkiness as far as some I’ve had in town— for instance, the toscano had a harsh lactic bite, which I liked, but it didn’t necessarily have three other things going on at the same time, depths of dark gnarled old world flavor, as some really outstanding salume I’ve had in town (eg, Avec) does.  But the pleasures of quality meat (the menu says it’s all heritage pork, grassfed beef, etc.) cured like this are considerable, and I’d happily try anything they make.  Particular standouts were the toscano and the sopressata (which claims to be spicy, though it wasn’t all that much), the chorizo (once you got past the smoked paprika, this was a really nice, multilayered sausage) and what they called pastrami, which didn’t particularly have a salty-pastrami taste but was instead a kind of delicate, lightly cured smoked brisket.  I’d love a sandwich of that.  I found mortadella and a grassfed beef pepperone kind of bland; lardo, bizarrely, was whipped into a spread, which to me made it less appetizing, a biology-class texture I didn’t especially want to eat, and I wasn’t wild at first about the chicken liver, too much oil and too fluffy, though I will say that I finished it off, using it for a little organ meat-palate cleanser after many of the other bites.

The rest of the menu is a mixed assortment, aiming to please both noshers and diners; we skipped the entree side and stuck to appetizers, and to our surprise, both of the things we ordered were at least as impressive as any of the charcuterie.  Actually, my favorite thing of the night was a dish called “sausage and waffles,” a big hunk of smoked sausage on top of maybe the best waffle I’ve ever had— the menu calls it a cornmeal-bacon waffle, it was robustly-flavored and with a nice tooth to it.  If somebody were doing a blog about waffling, these would be guys to talk to.

I was also surprised by something called “duck wings”— surprised that the duck wings had that much meat, that the sweet glaze was as well-composed as it was, that the creamy cucumber-mint raita that came with them for dipping was such a well-chosen variation on the usual creamy wing dip.

I’d have been fine with Old Town Social serving up good charcuterie and then taking it easy on the rest of the menu, but that’s not what happened at all.  The happy little sausages have many happy friends, and we were glad to have visited their happy land.

For the last few days I’ve hinted at a big announcement… here it is. Under this new deal, Sky Full of Bacon podcasts will be dubbed for Spanish-language online viewing in Mexico and Latin America, bringing me exposure to a huge new market. Grupo Intermundo, the Yahoo of Mexico, is a great partner and I’m really excited about this opportunity to showcase my work for a new audience.

They prepared this minute-long promo to explain what Sky Full of Bacon is to their advertisers and promotional partners in Latin America, and I think my English-speaking viewers will also enjoy seeing how Sky Full of Bacon translates to another culture.

Sky Full of Bacon: Latin American Promo Reel from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.


Grupo Intermundo, Mexico’s leading online content provider, is pleased to announce that it has acquired Western hemisphere Spanish-language rights to Chicago’s leading food video podcast, Sky Full of Bacon.

“Michael Gebert’s Sky Full of Bacon has built a substantial brand for multiplatform online food content in North America,” says Grupo Intermundo director of content acquisition Estella Ruiz-Leibowitz. “By extending its reach to over 100 million Mexican and Central and South American online users, we will increase exposure to the Sky Full of Bacon brand in one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, while adding an acclaimed and unique voice to Grupo Intermundo’s portfolio of food-related content.”

“Grupo Intermundo is the most dynamic partner in lifestyle-oriented content in Latin America,” said Sky Full of Bacon creator-producer Michael Gebert, “and this is an exciting opportunity to monetize the Sky Full of Bacon brand across a wide range of Latino demographic niches.”

The first translated Sky Full of Bacon video, “Los Últimos Días de Kugelis,” will premiere on April 24th, with the back catalog of existing videos premiering approximately one each month after that. Upcoming titles will include “El Pastel: Entre la Vida y la Muerte” and “El Desierto Acuoso de los Pescados Blancos.”

Fanesca is just one of the Easter treats you’ll find in this Time Out piece by me.

And speaking of Easter, check out FOSFOB (friend of Sky Full of Bacon) Cathy Lambrecht here.

Got a really cool comment (not that they all aren’t!) on the Healthy Food video which would otherwise go overlooked:

What a wonderful film. The only thing negative I have to say is that in all the years I grated potatoes with my Grandma, Great Aunt, Aunt, Mother, Sisters, Cousins etc. to make Kugelis, I never had one of those fantastic power potato grinders, just one of those little skillet like grids that took a lot of skin off my knuckles too! My Gran said it adds to the flavor.

You really captured the spirit, and time and place. You caught the trials of Jurgis from the Jungle, the enclaves of the huddled masses, the growth of pride when Lithuania became a country after the First World War right as the Lugenhoppers were starting to make it in America, the difficult and complex motives, stories and choices made by the displaced persons and post Second World War immigrants, the struggles in Chicago inthe 1960s, the fear, the racism, the justified concern of loss. Geeze. You caught it all for me, a 1/2 Lugen, 4th generation, suburban raised (but Bridgeport, Cicero, Marquette Park descended), non-Lithuanian speaking Chicago-loving Brazilian Resident Kugelis maker. Damn. I wanna’ shake your hand.

Consider it shaken, virtually. Thanks.

And watch for a big announcement soon…

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.

Zebda Deli
4344 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60641
(773) 545-7000

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.

Chicago Kalbi
3752 West Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625-5726
(773) 604-8183

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
(773) 202-8181

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.

Aroy Thai
4656 N. Damen