Sky Full of Bacon


IMG_0100
I went to the Pleasant House Bakery in Three Oaks, MI after shooting a video which will debut shortly. It is very much like Pleasant House Bakery in Chicago, but with beer.

Things I have eaten lately, in brief, and mostly not in grief:

Dusek’s. I really liked this Pilsen gastropub. I really liked that it wasn’t as crowded and sceney as Logan Square gastropubs. And I recognized that that was because… places like this hadn’t ruined Pilsen yet for places like this. Anyway, most of it was very tasty, a little but not too arty, though as my dining companion Anthony Todd pointed out (he had been here before), what had been a little more rustic was now being plated more pretentiously on long square plates and big-rimmed round ones, which meant that the small plates could pretty much hog the whole table. One dish, also, the General Tso’s Sweetbreads, seem to have gone downhill since he ate there (too much ginger, the sweetbreads now cubic and rubbery— whatever, it’s off the menu entirely now). But pretty much everything else was terrific, especially the Juicy Lucy (a fantastically beefy version of the Minneapolis burger with cheese in the center; see Anthony on it here). Because we pooh-poohed the sweetbreads, they sent us some desserts we didn’t really need, but we were glad they did anyway, especially for something called a ginger cazuela cake, which was made with sweet potatoes, molasses and lots of ginger, a perfect emblem for a meal of refined yet straightforward comforts.

Dusek’s
1227 W 18th St.
(312) 526-3851
dusekschicago.com

Little Goat. I keep puzzling out Little Goat diner. I’m convinced that somewhere here is a near-brilliant adaptation of Stephanie Izard’s big-popping flavors approach to mainstream, middle American food. But something conceptual or executional hasn’t worked on past visits. Finally I found the dish that made it all make sense: it’s on the lunch menu and called pork belly pancake, though I had it for late breakfast. It’s basically kind of a savory pancake like you’d get in certain Chinese restaurants, topped with some tender pork belly and then kimchi and some crispies of some sort, piled four inches high. (There’s a pic here, but mine was neater and tidier.) It sounded like a gut bomb, and certainly still has the like-everything-in-the-pantry-mixed-together approach that seems to be Little Goat’s trademark, but it was surprisingly light and delicate, both in texture (all that pile on top is as fluffy as snow) and in the balance of kimchi heat and sweetness and porkiness and comfy pancakeness.

Little Goat
820 W Randolph St
(312) 888-3455
littlegoatchicago.com

IMG_8954

Sing’s Noodles. Speaking of Chinese pancakes, that was one of the things we had at Sing’s, a new spot in Chinatown run by the guy who used to be in the window stretching noodles at Hing Kee, Liu Chang Ming. (I always knew him as the guy who looked like he belonged in a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon— he has the square face and broad smile of many of Miyazaki’s human characters.) Anyway, we ordered lots of noodley things and were generally happy with the noodles; the problem was that few if any of the dishes as a whole had the depth of flavor and Chinese funk of what I’m used to at places like Lao Sze Chuan. (Also, bummer, we tried to order soup dumplings but didn’t get them, unless they have really dry soup dumplings.) The dish with the chipped noodles below, for instance, looks a lot more flavorful than it was, and so was a duck soup. So maybe this is a place to go when you have visitors, so they get something a little tamer that will be still be satisfying, plus the floor show of seeing the noodle-stretchers at work.

IMG_8957

Sing’s Noodles
2172 S Archer Ave
(312) 225-2882
singsnoodle.com

Chengdu Impression. I got more of a kick from this new places from a nephew of Tony Hu in Lincoln Park, which expanded my better Chinese delivery choices from about two to three. The LTH thread has focused on offal exotica, but I had to order more conservatively for the family. Even so, I was impressed with the complex flavor of a standard Chinese-American dish like Yu Shiang Chicken, and one as simple as it sounds called Pork Fried Noodles. On the other hand pot stickers had little variety of flavor and were encased with what seemed to be genuine Naugahyde, and I had mixed feelings about Twice Cooked Pork with Pancakes, which would have been better with more starchy pancake and fewer slices of fatty pork belly, no really it would. Well, whatever, it was probably the most authentic-seeming Chinese meal I’ve ever ordered by phone, close to the best I’ve had on the north side at all, and a very happy find.

Chengdu Impression
2545 N Halsted St
(773) 477-6256
chengduimpression.com

County Barbeque. I went to a PR event for new bartender Mike Ruble, but it also gave me a chance to try a barbecue place that reviewers like Mike Sula hated when it opened. And you know what? Six months on, it’s a lot better, as is often the case with barbecue spots. I thought there was respectably strong smoke flavor and good moist texture in almost all the meats, which include brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, ribs, sausage, chicken (probably the least exciting) and more. I also liked some of the more gimmicky but amusing bar snacky things like the bacon and barbecue parfait, and the general arty-take-on-a-honky-tonk feel, which is faux as all get out but entirely pleasant to kick back in. On Twitter a discussion of barbecue included me observing “Almost any BBQ place today would have been the best BBQ place on the north side in the 90s.” County isn’t on the north side, but it just shows much better the scene has gotten when the upper middle of the pack is this solid.

County Barbeque
1352 W Taylor St
(312) 929-2528
dmkcountybarbeque.com

IMG_9797

Bub City. Speaking of faux-BQ, my experience with County and being downtown gave me the urge to finally check this downtown pseudo-honky tonk out too. And I’d say it’s respectably decent and within the spirit of good BBQ, based on one sampled meat (pulled pork, above), but a little more like a big foodservice operation kicking out food that’s been held for a while, a bit lifelessly, at what are definitely downtown prices; County, admittedly much smaller, had a more polished hand with the final dishes, and how to give barbecue some nicer-restaurant gloss. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have had this downtown in the 90s too, and in this case I can say that pretty definitively, since in the 90s I was eating at the bar in this exact spot, Frankie Z’s, which had decent, but far from stellar, barbecue chicken.

Bub City
435 N Clark St
(312) 610-4200
bubcitychicago.com

Commonwealth. I love my neighborhood, Roscoe Village, but I can’t wait to escape it to go eat. And this new, vaguely farm to tableish bar at Roscoe and Damen, unfortunately doesn’t provide strong reasons to change that. It’ll be pleasant enough when I need a nice enough bacon cheeseburger, but it just feels ten years behind places like Dusek’s, from a world that hasn’t even discovered pork belly sliders yet, and ten steps below it in ambition.

Commonwealth
2000 Roscoe St
(773) 697-7965
commonwealthchicago.com

IMG_0003

Pasta al Gusto. Another spot in my hood (hey, it was the Polar Vortex, I tried not to drive), this is the kind of Italian-American food, or maybe Mexican-Italian-American food, where they’re happy to put grilled chicken on top of any Italian classic you want. I ordered lasagna, fairly indestructible, and it was fine though I feel like you should make lasagna with ground beef, or with spinach, but not both; I ordered a salad, with grilled vegetables, which was really pretty nice. But it all kind of felt like mall Italian, serviceable and fresh enough but with no real feel for the magic of Italian food, hence the willingness to throw grilled chicken breast onto everything. My hope is that the subs on the menu might be pretty decent (UPDATE: No); even if the bread isn’t Damato’s-level, just being able to get a decent Italian sub in my area would be a great leap forward.

Pasta Al Gusto
1648 W Belmont Ave
(773) 281-3663
pastaalgusto.com

Mini Hut. My sister visited for a few days and then I had to drive her to Midway. Far be it from me to waste that kind of mileage, so I used the opportunity to finally hit Mini Hut, widely-acclaimed by people who were expressing a preference for old school fried chicken over all the newfangled places that have opened recently. And I have to say, for that style— a light-colored thin coating on the skin, like you often find at cafeterias and old style coffeeshops; maybe I should dub it 50s-style chicken— though it may not be my style, this is an excellent example that makes the case for that style pretty impressively. They’ve actually heard of putting salt and pepper in the coating, as so many barely do, and they know how to fry it and leave it juicy. The place is nothing to look at (it has the air of a seedy pool hall) and more than a little hard to find (it’s off Archer on a street you can’t get to from Archer), but from the number of people working a kitchen barely 10 feet long, you know they’re serious about their chicken.

Mini Hut
6659 W Archer Ave
(773) 586-2115

IMG_9981

Other things I’ve eaten and published lately:
I ate very soul-filling cassoulet at Sunday Dinner Club.
And this Rick Bayless restaurant’s historical meal.
I tried burnt flour pasta and pizza at Quartino.
I did half of this Thrillist list of things to check out on the south side.
Check out El Azteca for pretty good Mexican steak.
And I talked to a blogger about doing a food podcast here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In this Sky Full of Bacon video produced for the Good Food Festival, I visit an organic farm in Michigan to see how they’ve made connections through the festival— and why farming matters, to them and to us. (13:44)

Chicago’s Good Food Festival, now in its 10th year, connects food producers with investors, advisers, sellers and customers. I visit Big Head Farm, an organic blueberry farm in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and talk to farmers Karen and Jody Warner about how the festival has helped them make connections and grow— and why they chose the life of a farmer in the first place. (13:44)

Tags: ,

IMG_9714
Um, yeah.

November and December felt like a zillion new places opened and I didn’t have time to go eat at any of them. I’m trying to catch up now, not only with new places but with places that everyone’s been to but me:

IMG_8974

Wood. I used to live not far from here in Lakeview, but boy, I never eat in Lakeview. It’s a mystery how a neighborhood full of disposable income, one assumes, just never seems to have anywhere in it that you need to eat at, when ratty old Logan Square is coughing up new must-try places like fur balls. But Senza finally made one destination stop in Lakeview, and a lot of people have told me Wood, despite the tee-hee Boystown humor of the name, was another.

Not quite, I think. I think it’s a very solid neighborhood place, which is what Lakeview needs more of first before it worries about rivalling Randolph Street. From the name I expected a driftwood and foraged branches interior, which it has a little of but a lot more disco and smoked glass mirror. Foodwise, I would call it classic, a little behind the times (not a bad thing when the times it’s taking you back to were good times) but extremely well executed. A half chicken— one piece fried, one confited— reminded me of the great chicken at the short-lived Kith & Kin. A venison dish— again done two ways, a sausage and some loin, with crispy spaetzle— could not have been better cooked, the sausage cooked to a supple done-ness that many here still overcooking sausage could learn from. Small plates, I should say, were plenty big; a beet salad would easily work as a starter for two. Nothing blew my mind, nothing changed how I viewed cuisine, but for upscale comfort food, an admirable place. Every neighborhood should have one.

Wood
3335 N Halsted St
(773) 935-9663
woodchicago.com

Gather. I also expected more rusticness here— from descriptions, including the communal dining, I envisioned something kind of weathered barn-y, like Farmhouse or Grass Fed Beef in Bucktown— so I was surprised by the sophisticated look of this Lincoln Square spot. Which extended to the food; I was still puzzling why Wood felt like 2004 to me, but I started to understand a little better what I meant when I saw the plates here with their brilliant beet purees, their dribs and drabs and crunchy little nubbins on top. But it’s not just a matter of visual presentation; I felt they were aiming more ambitiously for cutting-edge flavor combinations (and hit the slightly preposterous menu notes of our time more often, with ramp aioli and pork belly with caramelized milk and such things).

Does every neighborhood need that? I don’t know, but Lincoln Square went from not having it to having it pretty quickly with Goosefoot, Elizabeth and (much more modestly priced) Gather, so it seems the question is settled. (And settled in another way by the closing of La Bocca della Verita, the kind of Italian place that used to be the epitome of neighborhood dining in this town.) Overall, I found Gather lived up to its promise of sophistication pretty well. A charcuterie and cheese platter was well put together for contrasts; dishes like the pork belly and sturgeon with salmon caviar and blinis as an accompaniment were thoughtful and interesting and certainly pretty well executed, if not quite as sharply as at Wood. My only advice would be that the communal seating up front is better than the tiny boxed-in seating area in the second room, which makes getting up to go to the bathroom a communal project.

Gather
4539 N Lincoln Ave
(773) 506-9300
gatherchicago.com

IMG_9752
Phil Rubino and Mike Sheerin in the kitchen at Cicchetti.

Cicchetti. When I heard that Mike Sheerin was going to an Italian place, it didn’t sound that promising— someone with his training, and his cutting-edge inclinations at Trenchermen with its eccentrically avant-garde comfort food, seemed unlikely to be happy cranking out standard Italian dishes. And it wasn’t promising that Cicchetti was named for a style of bar food from Venice, but the food wasn’t really like what those places actually seem to have (or so my friend Kenny Z tweeted, and based on what I saw, I believed him).

IMG_9764

Happily what seemed Cicchetti’s likely pitfalls turn out to be the best things about it. The food is only vaguely Italian— inspired by the casualness of bar dining, and some Italian ingredients, but far from pasta and red sauce in final effect (except for Nonna’s Meatballs— is that Nonna Sheerin or Nonna Rosenthal?) There’s obvious Italian inspiration for octopus, dyed black with squid ink and sitting in a sea of polenta, but the polenta is so buttery that it seems more French. While the pickled sardines on pumpernickel (run through a pasta machine into a flat crisp) seems more Nordic than Neapolitan:

IMG_9756

Italian cuisine is giving Sheerin (and sous chef Phil Rubino, once of Highland Park’s short-lived Moderno, most recently of Acadia) a base to play with, and some dishes are simply very good Italian (the saffron risotto was great, and exactly what it said it would be), but nothing about it restricts them to a single cuisine’s palette of colors or to its familiar forms. Sheerin sent out this plate of carpaccio (disclosure), and at first glance it might seem a relatively conventional Italian antipasto:

IMG_9766

But then he explained how it was made— Painted Hills flank steak was glued with meat glue, then allowed to age like salumi for a few weeks. So a little of his WD-50 heritage there, crossed with Trenchermen cured meats. And the dish, on closer inspection, is as artfully plated as a dish at Acadia, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself as strongly; while the dabbed aioli (or whatever it was) again seemed more French or Nordic than Italian. This is the kind of steak dish I thought Next Steakhouse might offer as a buildup to the big meat course, an imaginative play on steak that uses its familiar accompaniments, takes the meat in a different direction, and offers the pure sensory satisfaction of beef without knocking you out for the evening. Instead, it’s here, and it’s terrific.

So Cicchetti, best new Italian restaurant in town? Not exactly (and that’s even if Nico hadn’t just opened). It’s more a personal restaurant, a reflection of its star chef and his high end skills, than you would have ever guessed from the name, the concept, and Sheerin’s hired-gun role— yet somehow it’s also as comforting and unthreatening as “Italian restaurant” promises. (The same is true of the design, which manages to mix rustic and big-city-sophisticate notes successfully.) You could take your Nonna here, where Trenchermen would have had her scratching her head, and still feel like you’d been somewhere adventurous enough for you. That’s a great combination that deserves to triumph over its nondescript location in an anonybuilding in the Northwestern medical complex.

Cicchetti
671 N Saint Clair St
(312) 642-1800
cicchettirestaurant.com

The Dawson. Design was also a redeeming factor for this Billy Lawless project, which looks from the outside like a massive River North bro bar, except further west. (The infamous chicken fried steak that wasn’t fried had jaundiced me against it too.) I went there for the Between Bites reading with David Hammond, Nick Kindlesperger and others, and afterwards a couple of us grabbed a bite downstairs. The downstairs bar was sleeker and chicer than I expected, with a kind of 19th century industrial gaslight look; I was immediately impressed that there was more going on here than I’d expected.

The drinks were excellent, but the food only fair. The menu has something for everyone, pork belly tacos and crab cakes and pickled onion rings, but if anything stands out, we never really found it. Chestnut ravioli, big as a bathroom tile? Not bad, not delectably memorable. Crab cake? Plenty of meat, but had a canned tuna taste that didn’t deliver on the richness of crab. A burger topped with bacon and tangy white cheddar, too greasy, somehow not quite making those basic elements into a satisfyingly indulgent whole. Overall, I’d say my opinion of the place went up from seeing it, it’s not a hack bro bar as I feared, but the food needs time to find its focus and sharpen the dishes to adding up to at least the sum of their parts.

The Dawson
730 W Grand Ave
(312) 243-8955
the-dawson.com

The Brixton. Two letters away from The Bristol, and located in the Andersonville space that was Brasserie 54 that was Premise that was In Fine Spirits, and after all that, two seconds after walking in the door I felt like they’d finally found the restaurant that made sense in the space again, the neighborhood gastropub that Premise didn’t want to be. Kevin McMullen, who was at EL Ideas for a while, is the chef, and the things I tried mostly hit the right note for the space of seeming approachable but dressed up a little (as in the squid ink Jackson Pollock splatter all over the plate of a very tart lemony octopus dish). I liked the octopus and a silky chicken liver mousse a lot; I was a little disappointed that brussels sprouts with pancetta sat in a puddle from having been steamed, roasted would have been better. Andersonville isn’t as low on first-rate neighborhoody places as Lakeview, but it’s not overrun with them yet either, and The Brixton is a creditable, approachable addition to the list.

The Brixton
5420 N Clark St
(773) 961-7358

IMG_9778
Limoncello at Cicchetti.

Making Cassoulet With Sunday Dinner Club • Chicago, Turnip Butcher To the World • Gus Couchell of Greek Islands on the Mediterranean Way of Life

GO HERE TO SUBSCRIBE AT iTUNES

afob logo

______________________________________________________________________________

(1:35) It’s the dead of winter episode, and first up I hang out in the kitchen as Sunday Dinner Club (sibling to Honey Butter Fried Chicken) makes cassoulet… 500 portions of cassoulet for about 20 dinners in the next month and a half:

IMG_9180
Christine Cikowski, and duck confit.

I wrote two posts at the Reader about this process, with lots more pictures; you can read them here and here. If you’re interested in going to one, email [email protected]

(18:31) Afterwards, Josh Kulp of SDC and I talk a little about the Alinea Baby fuss. I wrote about it, less as a serious incident than as a social media sensation/goof, here.

(23:48) Next I talk to Adam Shprintzen, author of The Vegetarian Crusade:

Shprintzen

A longer and somewhat different version of the interview appeared here at the Reader. The vegetarian dishes or restaurants I mention include ma po tofu at Lao Sze Chuan, which of course is not vegetarian overall, the dosa at Udupi Palace and chole bhatura (below) at Annapurna.

IMG_8926

(37:41) Finally, I talk with Gus Couchell, owner-manager of Greek Islands in Greektown.

IMG_8696

Photos by Myles Gebert, unless he’s in them.

IMG_9153
Myles and Liam with Satchel Paige, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City.

Here’s what I had with friends over Christmas in Wichita, at a bar called The Anchor close to downtown: a couple of West Coast Belgian-style saison ales, and a pastrami sandwich made with housecured pastrami. No, this is not the Wichita I grew up in, clearly. At least some of the food world’s trends have reached the onetime chain food capitol (birthplace to both White Castle and Pizza Hut!) But as I’ve chronicled in past posts like this one and this one, when I go back to the state of Dorothy I want the old school stuff— barbecue in Kansas City, diner burgers in Wichita. This last trip was not one of my most dedicated ones to that goal— I settled for second tier spots (including a bowling alley with a burger special that was just ok, but you can’t argue with burger and two hours of bowling for $8, not when you’re entertaining a bunch of kids). But here are a couple-three* data points, anyway, if you should ever find yourself there, like Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

* That’s a Kansasism. Or maybe just something my mom says.

IMG_8917

I had one plan for barbecue at each end of trip in Kansas City: to finally visit Oklahoma Joe’s, one of the city’s most popular newer chains, in its original gas station location. Everybody said it’s the place to go now. But I have to admit to a little inner doubt. I suspected that like, say, Rendezvous in Memphis, this was white yuppie barbecue (despite the gas station location) with more reputation than smoke flavor, and there was better to be found elsewhere. So when I came across a couple of recommendations for a place called Woodyard BBQ, in a middle of nowhere industrial zone (home to this western store, too, added bonus), I was seduced.

IMG_8954

Woodyard has a great story— the place supplied wood to a lot of the barbecue spots for close to a century before a later generation decided to get in the business themselves— and they couldn’t have been nicer as we walked in fresh off our flight from Chicago, and they were putting turkeys in the smoker for Christmas take-out business. The ramshackle place with its handpainted signs— calculated downhominess, but still kind of authentic to the place— had a good time vibe that was welcome to weary travelers.

IMG_8968

IMG_8970

So I wish I’d loved it. Part of the issue is that I think we got some rewarmed leftovers— hey, it wasn’t even noon yet, I understand— but it also didn’t have as much smoke flavor as I’d have wished. I’d put it in the second tier and give it another try, but the atmosphere promised more.

20131223_165331

We stopped in Lawrence to see an old friend and to show my kids Where Dad Went to College; they were mainly impressed by the hills that we would go traying on in the snow (that is, sledding on a stolen cafeteria tray). Then on to Wichita, and one thing that finally happened. I grew up listening to people say that the rolling plains were one of the most satisfying landscapes on earth. Uh uh, never bought it. Always wanted mountains or skyscrapers or something, anything else. But at long last, after being far away from them for many years… they do roll like the ocean, and coated with a little snow, they glistened like white gold, and they really were beautiful, mysterious and hypnotizing in their serene emptiness, like the sea. Well, they beat corn fields up here, for sure, which really are monotonous.

IMG_9132

If you recall my Indy-Louisville post from earlier this year you heard about Valentine Buildings, a style of prefab burger joint designed to fit onto a semi for shipping anywhere. They were made in Wichita, and what amazes me is that I never knew about them till now; it’s exactly the sort of thing I’d have been all over when I lived there. I think a lot of times they’re hard to recognize because they get added onto; compare Sport Burger above, in Wichita, with the preserved one at the museum in Auburn, Indiana:

IMG_0922

Anyway, we’d have gone to Sport Burger just for the experience (alas, you can’t sit inside the very compact interior) but in the words of Samuel L. Jackson, damn, these are some tasty burgers! Amusingly, I thought they’d be slider size— it was kind of hard to see them being made— and cheap enough that we wound up ordering three each, only to find that they were more like McDonald’s cheeseburger-sized. Two was plenty, three way too much.

IMG_9144

But they had a good crispy edge (not quite Schoop’s lacy, but nice and crunchy), grilled onions, wrapped in white paper so the bun steamed— as good a 30s-style burger as I can remember having lately.

IMG_9152

Here’s a list of surviving Valentine diners in Wichita, though many have not survived since then (but may have other businesses in them now); it seems likely that Sport Burger is the only one still serving burgers. Another fact I gleaned there: at a Valentine diner called Brint’s (know it well, used to hang out and drink beer at the nearby Mile-High Club and play George Jones songs on the jukebox), in 2007, one of the segments for the pilot for a TV show about old school places was shot there. The name of the show was “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Yes, that one.

IMG_9157

Smoke rising from L.C.’s BBQ In Kansas City. Wait, you say, what happened to Oklahoma Joe’s? Well, after hitting Moon Marble Co. to see a marble-making demo, followed by the jazz museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum*, very timely as the kids have watched the movie 42 (about Jackie Robinson) a bunch lately, we were right at prime time lunchtime on Saturday at Oklahoma Joe’s. And so were about 200 other people; I swore we took a cell phone pic of the long, long line, but I can’t find it. Anyway, we stayed in it long enough to see how fast it was moving, which was pretty glacial, and I decided, no way this is worth a Franklin BBQ level wait in the cold. Another time, we can hit at a non-peak hour and get in much faster. So instead we went back to L.C.’s, my current favorite in K.C., for the third time. And for the third time, it still was.

20131228_145821
Despite the apparent expression, he liked it.

As we were coming out, I suddenly heard a voice say “Mike!” Took me a second to recognize him but it was, believe it or not… no, not Guy Fieri or even Steve Dolinsky (who we had run into at Tortas Fronteras on our flight out, incidentally). It was Jeff Sanders, better known as Buddy Roadhouse, BBQ sauce maker and all-round BBQ guy from DesPlaines and frequent helper-outer at Burt’s Pizza.

We both said “What are you doing here?” which is, in retrospect, kind of a stupid thing to ask a BBQ guy coming out of a BBQ place. Anyway, I told him how we wound up at L.C.’s after scratching Oklahoma Joe’s and he endorsed our decision, saying Oklahoma Joe’s was exactly the kind of yuppie BBQ I suspected and that L.C.’s remains the best in Kansas City. Someday I’ll verify or refute that for myself, but for now, I was happy to have gotten back to L.C.’s and happy to have that choice validated.

* Sad irony to note: the museums are right by Arthur Bryant’s, but where that once would have been the point of visiting Kansas City in itself, everyone seems to agree that it has slipped enough that we zipped right past it.

IMG_9161
Waiting for our plane on the plains, at Kansas City International.

Ba7EAUECQAEYbYq.jpg-large

So here we at the end of another year, a year in which I stopped being a Grub Streeter and started being an audio podcaster and a regular Reader contributor. For me the year is summed up by two conversations I had that are on Airwaves Full of Bacon shows. The first was with Lisa Shames, who does CS’s restaurant issue; she said what seemed to be the trend of the year was personal restaurants driven by the interests of their creators. The second, three or four months later, was with Anthony Todd, and we noted the fact that the second half of the year seemed to be much more about big projects, big corporate restaurants.

IMG_8197

So which was right? Both in their time, but as I look at the things I like… they’re pretty much all from the former category. The meals I loved were from labors of love, which mostly aren’t big corporate restaurants aiming to pack them in (though occasionally they can be; Three Dots and a Dash, for instance, would fall into both categories). But for me, consistently, the best food and the best experience was also the most personal food and the experience that came most from the heart. And so these are the meals I treasured from 2013 (basic rules: dishes tried for the first time in 2013, nothing against old favorites, and this isn’t a magazine charting the best openings, so if it opened in 2012, or earlier, doesn’t matter):

IMG_9027 IMG_8975
10. Pork shoulder tacos, cheesy beef, brisket chili and other things at Cookies and Carnitas— A last-minute fave, too late opening to make all those mid-December “Best of 2013” lists, but this creative taco and other stuff joint is everything good about our food scene in one taco: guys with big name training going out on their own, and taking farmer’s market stuff and making insanely delicious regular guy and ethnic food at affordable prices in an underserved neighborhood.

IMG_8778 IMG_8813
9. The French Laundry. With a couple of more weeks to think back on it, I feel that this meal was more of an historical experience more than a cutting edge one, a trip to see where today’s cutting edge grew from. But hey, I like going to places that encapsulate a certain time, though usually it’s more 1929 than 1999. Anyway, I think it was worth it for the classics like oysters and pearls which are genuinely great dishes, and for the overall treatment of the guest which is as good as I’ve ever experienced— but for a great meal of this type, you don’t have to leave Chicago, see below.

8. Midnight Special at Leadbelly. If you liked Kuma’s but didn’t like the scene it became, check out this cheerfully semi-obscure neighborhood joint on the far northwest side with a gentler rock and roll attitude and, frankly, quite a bit better burgers, houseground meat on housebaked buns, a good bottled beer list and some crazy toppings— my favorite, so silly it makes me smile, is the Midnight Special, inspired by Frito chile pie, which has pico de gallo and actual Fritos on it.

IMG_5184 IMG_5197
7. Sumi Robata Bar. “In an age of giant restaurantosauruses, Sumi Robata Bar is a little jewel box of a place devoted to the most direct and simple way of presenting beautifully crafted food straight from the kitchen to the diner sitting right in front of it as it’s made. It’s remarkably satisfying to see someone realize the vision in their head so completely and successfully.”

IMG_8215 Hot link, Big Guys
6. Hot Link at Big Guys I’ve been to this Berwyn place making their own sausages twice, and I’ve written about it twice— for the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago. And in a podcast. And now here. I really like these no-artsy-fartsiness sausages: “My favorite, the Hot Link, is an excellent rendition of a fat, spicy smoked Chicago hot link, topped with barbecue sauce with some kick and soothing pineapple cole slaw. Simple and to the point; it isn’t served from behind bulletproof glass, but other than that it has all the other satisfactions of a trip to a South side barbecue joint on a bun.”

IMG_0240 IMG_0269_1
5. Peekytoe crab in tomatillo sauce, Nordic beet dish and other things at Sous Rising: “I could go on course by course, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise and in any case, it’s sort of not the point, I don’t want to do 7 THINGS YOU MUST EAT AT SOUS RISING RIGHT NOW, because in so many ways it wasn’t about the food in a list-the-ingredients sense, certainly not in any my-carrot’s-morally-superior-to-yours way… It was about the pleasure of experiencing someone else’s pleasure at making food for you, and the shared pleasure at the table as we had each new thing set in front of us… Maybe something in fine dining has gotten a little too pinched and status-driven at times, though I’d blame media at least as much as chefs for looking at food in terms of gets and firsts and musts. But all it takes for all that to melt away is one chef to welcome you into his space and make delightful things for you. Well, two chefs and a server-slash-wife— this was, as much as anything, a meal suffused with the happiness of two people who are happy at home.”

Sous Rising is now gone but it’s becoming a restaurant called 42 Grams; read my interview with them here.

IMG_7338 IMG_7355
4. Kouign-amann and other things, including the Counter Culture coffee, at Bad Wolf. “Jonathan Ory doesn’t look like he makes pastry. Corned beef sandwiches, more likely, at first glance. But some of the most gorgeous classical pastry in Chicago is coming from the (large) hands of the big, bearded, balding Ory, in tiny quantities that sell out almost every day at his Roscoe Village coffeehouse.”

IMG_5244 IMG_5260
3. Grace. I don’t typically get to go to things at this (price) level enough to have a sense of their development, but I went to Grace three times in the past year (twice as a guest) and so I saw it evolve with practice. What I think I saw, more than anything, was the food move from being more of a visual experience to one that successfully combined visuals and flavor into a unified experience. There were standout dishes from the beginning but a tendency— as in the photos above; I only shot pictures at the first of the three meals— to make everything into a sprawl along the plate, which I guess is kind of an Eleven Madison Park influence. (You see it at many restaurants of this type, not just Grace.) It’s beautiful to look at, and part of what you’re paying for is the sheer pleasure of transient art being made just for you, but the problem I have with this style when it’s applied to everything is that you can wind up eating a whole meal of, basically, little salads.

Over the year I think the dishes have tightened up and gained focus, while maintaining the delicacy and artfully crafted visual effect that Grace had had all along. And at the most basic level, I came away from the most recent menu (officially 9 courses, but there’s always a few extra things tossed in) thinking there were about 4 or 5 wow courses in the meal, not just 2 or 3. Add in perhaps the best service in town— at least the best combination of knowledge and relaxedness— and you have a series of dishes that are always engaging to look at and puzzle out a little, but are also focused enough and varied enough to deliver the flavor pop and lushness that makes it a consistently great journey of discovery. Which to me, is what you pay this kind of money for.

IMG_0647 IMG_8218
2. Brisket bibimbap at Smalls Smoke Shack & More. I’ve heard people talk about this place as if it’s promising but inconsistent. Wow, not my experience at all. I’ve eaten from it four times and been deliriously happy every time whether it was pulled pork, brisket, or fried chicken. And I love the combination of Texas BBQ with Asian sides (although the elotes never did much for me); to me that reinvents the genre, accompanying classic barbecue with lighter sides that have some Asian vinegary sparkle. But best of all, orgasmically good, is the brisket bibimbap, which I wrote about here at Serious Eats: “The smoky salty greasiness of the brisket transforms everything it soaks into, imbuing it with a late night honky tonk vibe bibimbap has never known before.”

1. Crazy squid, chili clams and others, Fat Rice. And if meals are a journey… and I said they are so I’m stickin’ with it… the place that has offered the most eye-opening, different and exciting set of journeys this year has been our first and only Portuguese-Macanese Asian hippie cafe. My first review here saw it as more promise than greatness, the second quite a bit better, but I’ve been back several times since then and each time there have been remarkable new things showing different sides of this fusion, sometimes bright and light (like the spicy chili clams), but more often deep and funky and full of flavors to burrow into (most recently, the bacalhau and the crazy squid). Along the way Fat Rice has gotten consistently, and rapidly, better at bringing every dish to a sharp point, using spices and vinegars to make them bright and invigorating. There’s no place where I’ve felt more that my horizons expanded every time I went, no place that I’m more excited to go back to and see what’s new at.

* * *

MORE THINGS TO EAT

There were a lot of lists of the 149 or 212 best things someone ate this year, which is an impossibly large number to deal with (or to have any sense of what it says about the critic). Instead, I’m going to try to make my runners-up as practical as possible. These are all things I was happy to eat and would be happy to return to, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of places to go:

ASIAN
• Best new Korean BBQ joint to open in decades, Gogi
• Pineapple fried rice and other things from Silom 12. A lot of excitement about the Thai food at Rainbow Thai Cuisine from the LTH crowd, and I’m happy about Spoon’s venerable nam khao tod living on there in fine form, but this is where I think new things are happening in Thai food, for me anyway.
• Chicken wings, DAK
• The beautiful bibimbap at En Hakkore (though I am not any great fan of their paratha Korean tacos, which are too sweet).
• Hot and sour soup and Dungeness crab at Go4Food in Chinatown
• Crab and other things at Nha Hang on Argyle
• Shoyu ramen at Ramen Misoya

CASUAL
• Best new Eastern European-Russian joint to open in a long time, Chill Cafe
• Turkish breakfast at Pide ve Lahmancun
• Grilled kabobs at Manara
• Well-made, fresh-tasting old school pizza at Bartoli’s and Pizza Castle, new school at Forno Rosso and the one with grapes at Floriole and, yes, Eataly.
• The sides and oh yes, also the chicken at Honey Butter and the biscuits at Ms. Biscuit (both in this post).
• Butter beans at Parson’s Chicken & Fish
• Smothered pork chops, caramel cake, Macarthur’s
• Meatball sub at Bombacigno’s J&C
• Italian beef at Joe Boston’s
• Cherry lambic sorbet at Jeni’s Ice Cream

LATIN
• Grilled chicken at El Pollo Real
• La Gringa at L’Patron
• Brisket cemitas from the Smoque-Cemitas Puebla collaboration
• The non-authentic but authentically delicious Cuban sandwich at Sauce and Bread Kitchen
• Anything John Manion puts in an empanada at La Sirena Clandestina

UPSCALE
• It’s too late for the unfiltered, mindblowingly un-wine-like Sicilian wine and the clams dish in Telegraph’s Sicilian-themed wine dinner, but I think their monthly wine pairing menu series is one of the best, reasonably priced alternatives for those who find Next too expensive now (or all along).
• No, you can’t eat that, but yes, Next: The Hunt was probably the best Next meal I had, and the climax of my Next experiences— which is why, as its prices rise to a level only Next could command, I feel it’s time to move on.
• I’ve really turned around on Yusho, which I’ve gone from not thinking much of to really liking over multiple visits.
• Out of season, but sure to return: the panzanella at Avec (I know there’s mixed feelings about new chef Perry Hendrix among my friends, but that was flat out one of the best things I’ve ever had there)
• The one cocktail I had at Three Dots and a Dash which I hope will be followed by many more
• The tonics at Billy Sunday, the pickles at Dillman’s, the sort of salad thing at Nightwood, the dessert at Longman & Eagle (the last four all in this post)
• Lamb meatballs, coconut gelato/macaroon dessert, Found
• Shortrib sandwich and brussel sprouts, Farmhouse
• Lobster salad at MK
• And of course, the premiere party at The Butcher & Landan.

No, I haven’t eaten there yet: Tanta, A10, Dusek’s, Nico, etc.

OUT OF TOWN

• Brisket dish at Milkwood in Louisville
• Xochitl salami (with chili and a little chocolate) from Milwaukee’s Bolzano Sausage (now at Eataly)
• Pulled pork sandwich from Fatted Calf
• Chocolate croissant, well done, Tartine
• Cheeseburgers from Sport Burger (in an original Valentine building!), Wichita
• Po’ boy at Dommelise’s

Ten best for: 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Ina Pinkney • Daniel Boulud Goes to Milwaukee • Paul Bartolotta on Daniel Boulud • Dr. Bruce Kraig on Street Food Around the World • Big Guys Sausage Stand

GO HERE TO SUBSCRIBE AT iTUNES

afob logo

______________________________________________________________________________

This is the book edition, and first up is Ina Pinkney, whose Ina’s Restaurant will close at the end of 2013. But not to fear…

IMG_8663

the recipe for her Heavenly Hots is in her book, Taste Memories. You can get it at the restaurant, order it here, or visit Women & Children First in Andersonville. The restaurant is at 1235 W. Randolph; make reservations through the end of the year at 312-226-8227. Here’s a piece I wrote about Ina.

daniel

Next I spoke with Daniel Boulud whose new cookbook is Daniel, My French Cuisine (essays by Bill Buford). The occasion was a trip to Milwaukee, and I spoke to the chef who was hosting him as well, Paul Bartolotta:

pbobatali_story1

Here are Gilles and Kegel’s; I went to Uplands here.

Dr. Bruce Kraig is one of the editors, with Colleen Taylor Sen, of Street Food Around the World:

IMG_8200

Some places we talked about include Rickshaw Republic at 2312 N. Lincoln.

IMG_8215

Then I spoke with Brendan O’Connor of Big Guys Sausage Stand, 7021 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. I’ve written about it and him for both the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago.

Brendan O'Connor, Big Guys

IMG_8748

Four days in wine country at the posh Calistoga Ranch which is pretty much California New Age Heaven on Earth, legal seminars for the wife, arranged dinners and tastings in wine caves for entertainment/networking… to me all that meant one thing: how many other things I want to try can I squeeze in around the planned activities? Stand in line for two hours to get into Mission Chinese or Swan Oyster Depot? No, probably not. Hit Tartine on the path between the airport and I-80 to Napa, Thursday evening? Yes:

IMG_8725

Those are ham rolls— or prosciutto rolls more likely— but we didn’t actually have them, that was just the best picture I took in line. Still, it gives some idea of the quality of baked goods at this well-known, cookbook-writing place, darkly-baked flakey crusts shedding a shower of crumbs with every bite. You can’t buy bread there just by walking in— there’s an elaborate, hilarious system by which you order it three days in advance and pick it up after 4:30 on The Day of Baking— but we stocked up on pastries, all excellent, and ordered a couple of sandwiches which seemed overpriced until you got them and they were on such a massive loaf that they made up three sections, each big enough to pass as a sandwich on its own. The place fit my preconception of San Francisco to a T— excellence in the product somehow going hand in hand with a sort of shaggy-haired, spaced-out chaos in which dozens of people seemed to be wandering randomly in and out of the baking area to chat, and no one occupying a seat seemed to have anything resembling a “job” or “somewhere they needed to be.”

IMG_8762

On to Napa, and our wine cave-based activities continued until Friday night. We wanted a reasonably laidback dinner and the recommendation I got, for a porky, easy to like place— a Napa answer to Nightwood, say— was Farmstead in St. Helena.

IMG_8766

It was a bit more cartoonish than its Chicago equivalent would be— big farm implements hanging from the ceiling, and the waitress looked to be dressed for a more upscale version of the WLS Barn Dance— and it did nice enough versions of good artisanal porky and local vegetable-y food without replacing the best such Chicago places in my heart.

We needed to have something more casual that night, because we had much more ambitious plans for the next day’s lunch:

IMG_8772

We were the envy of others dining at Press or Cindy Pawlcyn’s with our coveted The French Laundry reservation. How did we manage it? Well, my wife explained, Mike knows a guy… I was at lunch with a well-known Foodie and asked him where I should go in Napa. He said, are you going to The French Laundry? I said, yeah right, like I thought to be up at 6 am making the call three months ahead, or whatever you do. He said, let me make a call. And sure enough, we had a reservation for two for lunch on Saturday.

IMG_8807

My first thought upon entering the restaurant and being seated downstairs was that I understood better why Keller’s and Trotter’s restaurants were the yin and yang of models to follow for our own leading chef, Grant Achatz, in his early years. They are similar in many ways that make them different from restaurants people open now— from the old house setting with (inconvenient during service) stairs, to the copper pots displayed in the kitchen, they both had a feeling of being twenty-some years old as Alinea, approaching 10, certainly does not (even though it too has stairs and sprawls over multiple rooms in a much more modern space). But more than that, it faces the challenge of having been so influential that you feel like you’ve eaten at The French Laundry before you even sit down to eat at The French Laundry. Could it live up in 2013 to still being top dog in a world it made, as Trotter’s ultimately did not? The meal started with some valedictory courses, dishes that everyone coming there expected to see the way visitors to Orlando expect to see Mickey and Cinderella. We started with the cornet of tuna tartare that looks like an ice cream cone (The French Laundry Cookbook, p. 6) and a gougere (p. 47), we had Oysters and Pearls (p. 23):

IMG_8778

We had the parmesan crisps that I tried and failed to make once (p. 37), and the truffle oil infused custard with a potato chip with a chive embedded in it (p. 16):

IMG_8789

So this was not Trotter’s world of dishes changing every night, clearly, but there was nothing to mind about this— these were legitimately great dishes, tasty and beautiful to the eye. Might as well ask Disney to tear down The Haunted Mansion after a year. This portion of the menu was, indeed, pretty magical, delicate little jewels of mostly seafood flavors like this yellowtail tartare in a passion fruit foam, probably the best bite of the entire meal:

IMG_8782

Food gets more elaborate than that, certainly, but not really prettier, I think.

That was the high point for a meal that got a little rougher as it tried harder to play the luxury card. King crab was beautifully cooked, tender as a baby’s bottom, but the mandarin orange foam sauce seemed a candy flavor that needed something more adult about it, a dash of cumin, a bit of fish sauce, I don’t know what, but something that tasted less like a circus peanut. We had agreed, knowing how absurd it was, to the topping of a fish roulade with shaved Alba white truffles for a mere add-on of $175 per person. There was something giddy about watching the truffle shavings fly like hundred dollar bills, but really, in the end, the thrill is all in the intoxicating aroma and they didn’t add that much flavor to a dish that seemed a conventional old school-French roulade, not terribly interesting on its own:

IMG_8813

More surprising was how the “main” courses— the largest meat courses— were so French, not even in a Robuchon-Ducasse 1980s kind of way but flat out turn of the century L’Escoffier. One was a goose forcemeat baked in a shell with a wine-blueberry sauce (seen below), the other a lamb shank also ground and cooked into a sort of corn dog on the bone:

IMG_8823

It was a surprise, not only that such old-fashioned classical French food should turn up in the middle of a meal I expected to be more avant-garde, but that one of Keller’s basic principles in the book, which I had internalized through years of tasting menus— that you should have about three bites of anything and then move on as the novelty ended— was so disregarded. At this point The French Laundry was proving to be most like my dinner last year at L2O, where delicate and genuinely magical seafood courses gave way to the businessman’s demand for a hunk of steak and a bite of lobster at the halfway point. (This being Napa, replace “businessman” with “retiree.”) If the dishes had been exceptional in some other way, it would have been less of a surprise, but insisting on forcemeats seemed even to tamp down the original flavor— the lamb shank had little of lamb’s sharp gaminess, the goose was likewise inoffensive more than recognizable. I realize French is in the name, but it was almost unreal to have such antique food in the place you thought would be the furthest from it. There was more than a little L’Escoffier in dishes at Next’s The Hunt, yet they still seemed modern and, more importantly, were focused on getting the deepest meat flavor in an old-time-French way. These seemed to prize making an archaic form (the goose crust was paraded around the room a couple of times to show off) over delivering the flavor.

IMG_8837

As at L2O, dessert was the comeback, and we were happy being back in the realm of small, delicate, magical flavors on tiny plates again. We finished up with chocolates— “But they’re waaaafer thin,” I always hear in my head at that point— and were invited for a brief visit to the kitchen, which it will come as no surprise looks an awful lot like Alinea’s, white countertops and drawers, all organized to a rectangular perfection. One thing Alinea surprisingly didn’t copy as it opened Next: the monitor showing what’s going on at Per Se in New York (that’s The French Laundry in the inset image):

IMG_8852

Afterwards, Larry Nadeau, who is the maitre d’ (but essentially acts like a GM on the floor), sat and chatted with us for a bit. I’m sure some of that was due to our coming via the famous Foodie, but I will say that The French Laundry bested any restaurant I have been in in terms of service that was welcoming, observant, and personally involved; it really is a model for that, as good as exists in the world.

For cuisine? Dining here clarified something I had thought about the other food I’d eaten in California at our events (where it was catered by well-regarded restaurants), and even about dining in Chicago. I think of Chicago fine dining as having two main schools— the Achatz one, descended from Keller, delicate and conceptual fine dining built on subtle flavors, and the Paul Kahan one, porky and built on bright, in-your-face use of acidity and saltiness. The difference was apparent in most of our meals this weekend— they just don’t salt things as much in California, and they don’t add that acid punch I’ve grown used to in food. Chicago food seems more sharpened to a point— and that was true even as I compared The French Laundry to, say, Grace, which is obviously descended from Keller via Achatz. Curtis Duffy doesn’t add acid to his food in the same way he would if he’d worked for Kahan rather than Achatz, but even so I felt like dishes at Grace are more likely to be brought to a point of tart or acidic contrast with, say, citrus, like the finger limes in his wagyu beef dish (seen in this video). And I liked The French Laundry courses that came closest to working like that, like the yellowtail with the passionfruit foam. That’s the Chicago way— bringing a fruit to a fish flight. Keller’s classics are genuinely great dishes, artistic in taste and visuals, but get away from those and I don’t feel like the dishes are as heightened and rigorously refined as the ones his followers are producing, with 20 years of The French Laundry-influenced cuisine as a baseline to push beyond.

IMG_8849

On the road back to the airport the next day, we had more time than I expected, so I sent out an APB on Twitter for quick lunch in San Francisco. Two people suggested The Fatted Calf— a butcher shop and charcuterie maker— and one mentioned the Oxbow Public Market in Napa (the town), which has, among any other things, a branch of The Fatted Calf. And unlike things in San Francisco itself, it would doubtless be easy to get to and park at.

Even more, perhaps, than the Ferry Building’s market, I would recommend the Oxbow Market as representing precisely the state of food and drink at the moment. I could have spent hours perusing bitters at the cocktail furnishings stand, but then how would I have gotten my cheeses and chocolates and muffins and breakfast tacos? In any case, we hit The Fatted Calf and grabbed a couple of sandwiches to go, along with any charcuterie we could put our hands on that would survive travel, and grabbed our sandwiches to dine al airport bencho.

A roast beef sandwich was decent, but not nearly as good as The Butcher & Larder’s wonderful one with the house-pickled fennel. So it was reassuring to know that, as gorgeous and enticing as the Napa market was, Chicago is no slouch. On the other hand… the pulled pork sandwich topped with house pickled veggies was as good as any barbecued thing I can think of in town, yet in a way all its own. I was even tempted to call it, for all of $12, the best thing we ate all weekend… okay, different beast than Oysters and Pearls and anyway, we were susceptible to any comfort to be had in an airport at that point. You can’t compare. But it was pretty great. Last minute hail mary pass by the market in Napa to try to steal the game, well played.

IMG_8859

IMG_8881
Now on display at San Franscisco airport: Japanese toys

Ba_wd1HCcAAYft_.jpg-large

In Next’s Kitchen • Mark and Liz Mendez on Vera’s 2nd Anniversary • Talking With Anthony Todd on Trotter, Michelin and More

GO HERE TO SUBSCRIBE AT iTUNES

afob logo

______________________________________________________________________________

IMG_7970

Shortly after the latest Next menu started in September, I talked my way into hanging out in the kitchen for four hours (it was really a struggle; I emailed Grant Achatz and he said sure), and produced three pieces for the Reader including this slideshow and a piece about the menu. But there was still more material and, more to the point, the audio I felt had its own interest, yet another way to experience this experience. So this episode starts with a visit to the kitchen at Next, and talking with chef de cuisine Dave Beran (right, above) about the menu inspired by the Bocuse d’Or competition. Here’s the cauliflower custard talked about in the piece:

IMG_7592

For more pics, follow the slideshow link above.

Then I visit Liz and Mark Mendez at Vera:

P1050458

Here’s a review of Vera, which topped my ten best list last year. Here’s one of the best things, sardines dressed simply with olive oil and a little citrus:

They mention two of their blog posts in the conversations: here’s Mark’s with righteous advice to a young cook who bailed on him, here’s Liz’s on their second anniversary.

atodd

Finally I talk with Anthony Todd about the whole restaurant scene since we last talked, back in episode #1. We talk about Charlie Trotter, focusing not on his death but on why he mattered…

…the return of giant restaurants and steakhouses, how the media scene looks five months after we bemoaned it in episode 1, and finally, the inevitable Michelin discussion/sort of forecast.

IMG_8197
Photo credit: Dennis Lee

I can’t stand the thought of going from one audio podcast to the next (coming soon) without a food post in between. Admittedly I’ve had twenty bazillion things published at the Reader, Serious Eats, whatever, so it’s not like you can’t hear all you want of my voice and more. But I don’t really review at the former (except in the sense that you can tell what I think sometimes, unabashedly), so here are some things I’ve eaten recently, all fairly modest. Let’s go!

IMG_8196

Gogi. New Korean BBQ place in the former Hai Woon Dae space, which looks completely classed up and transformed to me, though Mike Sula says the layout is the same and it just got a snazzy black paint job. What’s not the same is that this is a definite step up in ambition compared to other Korean BBQ joints around town, the quality of meat being on par with the superior cuts at Chicago Kalbi, and the variety better than that (and better than pretty much all the others, with their standard repertoire of kalbi, bulgogi, and maybe a little chicken or octopus). My favorites were the galbi (beef) and dwaeji galbi (pork ribs); pork belly, which is cooked on a platter rather than over the flame, was more like getting a side of bacon with the meal, but did come with fried kimchi (which was sort of like getting hash browns with it).

Also a big improvement: the service, which takes an active role in at least starting the process of cooking your meat. Which is helpful with things you might not know how to cook like the meat that’s attached to bone; the family who opened Gogi, who own the bar next door, are eager to please and handle that for you. Though you’re there for meat, among the side dishes I really liked both the gyeran jjim, a kind of Korean souffle, and the seafood haemul pajeon (pancake); on the other hand I found the steak tartare (yukhoe) bland and would spend that $18 on more grilled meat instead. The grilling, incidentally, is done by a gas-charcoal hybrid (unlit charcoal dumped on a grill which fires it with gas), which maybe takes a little longer to heat up but works well enough. I’m just happy to see real charcoal Korean BBQ, which has seem a slowly endangered species, making an exciting comeback.

Gogi
6240 N California Ave
(773) 274-6669
gogichicago.com

IMG_8179
Galbi (beef) and dwaeji galbi (pork ribs) on the grill at Gogi.

IMG_8184
Pork belly, samgyeopsal, cooked on an iron skillet in the shape of a pig, at Gogi.

IMG_6935
Grill at Cho Sun Ok.

Cho Sun Ok. Another venerable Korean BBQ spot which apparently got a fixup recently is this Korean restaurant on Lincoln, which has been around long enough that Calvin Trillin mentions it in one of his early 70s essays on food (he was taken there by the late U of C linguistics professor James McCawley, a proto-chowhound who sadly died in 1999, just before the internet exploded with food). They don’t cook with charcoal, but their setup is interesting nonetheless, with tabletop grills made of the same kind of heavy pottery as dolsot bibimbop is cooked in; they’re used after some dishes to fry rice in the crunchy residue of the meat. Most tabletop gas grill experiences have been kind of wan by comparison to charcoal places, but I liked it better than I thought I might, and it’s crazy that I hadn’t tried it till now. Service was a little harried, but nothing a little patience couldn’t handle.

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant
4200 N Lincoln Ave
(773) 549-5555
chosunokrestaurant.com

IMG_6940
Kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae) at Cho Sun Ok.

Silom 12. So many kind-of-upscaled Thai restaurants open up that are of no great interest— or so we assume; who knows? I ignored this Bucktown spot (in the old Cafe Matou location, no less) until my friend Charlotte ordered from it via GrubHub and praised the wok hay of the Pad See Eiew. Frankly, not sure what that even means, but it was good enough for me to order the same way some night. I really liked everything I got, not only because all of it was pretty good in a Thai funky way, but because it was just different; I love the classic Thai places we all discovered on LTHForum back in the day but it’s been a long time since I had anything new from any of them.

The dish I liked the best, frankly, was the one I thought I was ordering to have something basic for the kids to like. They neglected to mention that “Pineapple fried rice” was also “calamari and other kinds of seafood fried rice,” but it had good seafoody funk and, all in all, I’d put it up against the best thing I had at Mott Street, their crab brain fried rice. An orange chicken dish put some respectability back into that dish (in a way that takeout of the same dish from Lao Sze Chuan decidedly did not), with a bracing burnt orange hint and some Thai depth of flavor; I liked the pad see eiew for reasons that must include its wok hay, and we also had Larb Tod, a ground chicken dish which I can’t remember now but liked. That was all chosen pretty randomly off the menu, so there’s clearly more to explore, and I will.

Silom 12
1846-48 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 489-1212
silom12chicago.com

IMG_8008
Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken. There’s been lots of sturm und drang online about the fact that this long-awaited fried chicken place serves most of its chicken deboned; I tried to get basic facts and the owner’s perspective on why they do it that way out in this piece but it rages on. Here’s my basic feeling: yes, fried chicken should have bones, but it’s a big world and it’s not going to kill you if one place does it differently. And I really really liked the sides, the corn with Thai curry flavors or the mashed potatoes made with schmaltz. And I liked sitting on the patio in October. And I liked that my kids liked it and we had a good evening together. I’m as much of a nitpicker on certain things as anybody, but you gotta see past the chicken bones for the forest sometimes.

What I have to disagree with strongly is the idea, which has come up a few times, that the chicken seems “processed” as a result. No, it seems carefully deboned and brined and breaded and fried, and is in my opinion very tasty… just lacking in the textural variation that a bone gives you. Talking about it as if they’re basically serving you Chick-Fil-A sandwiches minus the bread winds up supporting the sort of people who can’t understand why it isn’t as cheap as it would be from some place that really does use processed industrial horror chicken. Honey Butter buys reasonably humane chicken— Miller’s Amish chicken from Indiana, used by many restaurants in town— cuts and debones it by hand, breads it and fries it with care. If it’s not your thing it’s not your thing, but failing to keep the distinction between that and industrial food isn’t helping the cause of convincing people why they should pay more than fast food prices for better than fast food things.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken
3361 N Elston Ave
(773) 478-4000
honeybutter.com

IMG_8006
Sides at Honey Butter.

IMG_7340

El Pollo Real. Speaking of chicken! The name of course basically means “Chicken King,” but I prefer to think of it as the Pollo Real Deal. Titus Ruscitti first called it to attention at Serious Eats, and it is, so far as I know, out of millions of Mexican places promising chicken “al carbon,” the only other one in the city besides Taqueria Ricardo actually cooking over live charcoal.* I like black char bits and this was a little lighter than Ricardo for those. But the chicken was moist and full of flavor (and the air was full of smoke outside), the house salsas are pretty good, and the guys who run it are enthusiastic and happy to show off their cooking setup, so there is everything to like about this place and you should make a trip to Little Village sooner rather than later for it.

* Not counting South American places like D’Candela.

El Pollo Real
3823 W 31st St
773) 847-3907

IMG_7347

IMG_6816

La Palapita. For various work and kid reasons I have roamed the far northwest side a lot over the years, but though it has all kinds of Chicago realness, that translates into interesting food less than you might think— aside from Polish, it’s unquestionably the champ for that. (I think like a lot of burbs, it’s all homeowners who cook at home, so it doesn’t support as much restaurant culture as you might expect.)

One eternal question: really good Mexican in that area. This place looked promising— the name made me think it might be related to a south side place, which was clearly mistaken, though an old post by Titus suggests it might actually be connected to La Pasadita. Anyway, it’s a tallest dwarf kind of thing; the menu is clearly authentic in a no-concessions-to-gringos kind of way, and both grilled steak tacos and a torta were fine without being special enough to rate much of a drive. It’ll scratch the itch if you can’t travel further, but I’m still looking for the great northwest side Mexican joint.

La Palapita
4263 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 427-4438

IMG_8030

Ben’s BBQ. I was delighted to learn that the owner of this place isn’t actually named Ben— that was just a name that was already on it. That’s in the best tradition of south and west side BBQ places, which tend to run through owners till they find the one who sticks and masters the aquarium smoker. The actual owner is a good guy— he came out from behind the bulletproof glass to offer tastes of the ribs to everyone waiting— and with the closing of the original Uncle John’s there was a lot of enthusiasm on LTHForum for this place being the next great Chicago-style African-American BBQ joint. Maybe in six months or a year; what I had didn’t have the depth of smoke of the best ones, and was a bit dried out (admittedly, it also traveled a half hour before I got it home, but I’ve driven others as long). That’s not to knock it, just to say it isn’t in the top ranks with Lem’s, Barbara Ann’s (which is back with a vengeance, though they still can’t do the links like Mack did), Exsenator’s and the others who have been around for decades. Not as good yet, anyway, but I wish them continued improvement and the customers to sustain it.

Ben’s Bar-Be-Cue Restaurant
5931 W North Ave
(773) 637-0003

IMG_8033

IMG_8012

Ms. Biscuit. This was a place whose name had registered with me years ago (I think Peter Engler had posted about, maybe even as far back as Chowhound) but I’d never gone, and if I was in that area (rarely), I was more likely to hit Chicago Chicken & Waffles anyway. But it got some recent LTH and Serious Eats attention (the latter by Titus again, who seems inescapable this week), so it was time to go.

Now I wish it had gotten the buzz years ago, because with various new places drawing attention for their biscuits, we need a baseline, and these are, by a comfortable margin to me, the best old school biscuits I know of in Chicago, noticeably better than the ones at Edna’s/Ruby’s. (I’m not going to argue about them vs. the higher-end joints, that’s a different animal.) Breakfast is solid and good quality overall, so I have no hesitation about an overall recommendation, but these fluffy biscuits— available grilled or regular, both terrific— are the kind of thing you think you have to go into the deep South to find. No, just south 54th street. One thing though: as you might imagine, it gets busy on weekends. Saturday morning, we probably waited 45 minutes after seating to eat. I don’t want to even know what Sunday after church is like.

Ms. Biscuit
5431 S Wabash
(773) 268-8088

IMG_8018

Tags: , , , , , , ,