Sky Full of Bacon

When I first moved into my neighborhood, many years ago, there was exactly one place to eat (at night, anyway): a hipster burger place called Planet Cafe. A few weeks later I was exploring the area further up Lincoln, and spotted a picturesque Italian restaurant, rambling over two or three storefronts and bathed in a warm, welcoming Tuscan light, called La Bocca della Verita… the mouth of truth.

At the sight of it my heart ached with jealousy— why didn’t my neighborhood have one of these? The oh-so-life-in-the-big-city neighborhood Italian joint, presided over by the sturdy Italian mama and making comfy plates of what we then all called Northern Italian food. (Though we didn’t really know what that meant, except things did have basil scattered on them, and didn’t come buried in the lead weight of old school red gravy.) For me, at that time, it represented everything about what life in the city was supposed to be– cosmopolitan, continental, yet cozy at the same time. It was right up there with used book stores and the three-story Rose Records and checking out tiny theater troupes for $7 a ticket (anyone else see The Book of Blanche?) and art movies at the Fine Arts, among things that were What I Moved To This City For.

But as Tony Soprano said, remember when is the lowest form of conversation. So I’ll simply note the disappearance of nearly everything on that list except La Bocca della Verita. When I moved here, youthful Kansas emigre, I didn’t know Italian food from Franco-American spaghetti, so a return to La Bocca della Verita after many years was fraught with opportunities for you-can’t-go-to-your-old-new-home-again disappointment, except my expectations were fully primed for exactly that. And they were mostly right. If I know what the delicacy of Italian food is now, what subtlety is, I also know when it’s being made without them. And the food my younger son and I had was, what’s the nicest way to put it, pleasantly clumsy. Gooey gnocchi with trumpet blast tomato sauce. Gluey spaghetti carbonara with guanciale which was flavorful… including the flavor of smoked pork, which guanciale doesn’t normally have. Baked cod in a pool of lemony, garlicky liquid being the best of the evening, but still, most reminiscent of the days when I would be taken to lunch at Riccardo’s, an ancient downtown advertising hangout, and quickly learned to stick to fish as the thing they could damage the least.

I could name better renditions of everything we had. I could imagine someone else getting all Medici on this kitchen. But… it won’t be me, because their welcome to this bustling restaurant could not have been friendlier. The sturdy Italian mama’s smiles and consideration for my son’s wellbeing (even if it meant offering him a 7-Up refill he definitely didn’t need) were pleasures of life and community beyond mere gustatory pleasures. I don’t live in this neighborhood, I am no longer the starry-eyed youth, but for one night again, I felt the palest ghost of long-ago excitement at having places like this— real Italian restaurants, run by real Italians, everybody welcome— just a stroll away on the streets of my new metropolis. So here’s a kiss for La Bocca, and let cold hard Veritas take the night off.

La Bocca della Verita
4618 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 784-6222

* * *

Perhaps it’s Michelinmania, but everybody’s doing lists of The Best Restaurants in Chicago these days. Having launched one such list already, and just being one guy who can only eat at so many places, and what do you care how I rank The Purple Pig, I’m never going to have Gebert’s Top 25 or whatever. But what I will do is write up, as I did last year, a quarterly list of the best things I’ve eaten lately, which is hopefully soon enough that if you felt so inclined, you could try many of the same things I had. (Note: I have not included any of the Key Ingredient dishes, as they were one-offs which you probably couldn’t have. Although there’s at least one you could have something close to— Mindy Segal’s carrot cake at Hot Chocolate— and you’d be very happy if you did.)

Pork tamale from Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero.

• Navy bean soup, cold roast beef sandwich, and the house (Italian) sausage I used on a pizza, from The Butcher & Larder
• Tarte flambee and Paris Brest at Balsan
• Pork belly sandwich at Xoco, especially the second half reheated the next day
• Cassoulet at Leopold
• Brussel sprouts (but not cassoulet) at Maude’s Liquor Bar
• Toscano dry sausage, and others, at Old Town Social
• Rasher and egg sandwich at Owen & Engine
• “Fish taco” (sashimi with tortilla foam) at Perennial Poli
• Grilled salad and short rib agnolotti at Three Aces
• Lobster roll at Shaw’s, which just isn’t the restaurant for me otherwise, but oh man, that’s just dead on perfect
• Kebab sandwich or whatever it is at Mr. D’s Shish-Kabobs
• Leek soup at Rewster’s
• Goat cheese quiche at brunch at Nightwood
• Goat knackwurst at Three Floyd’s
• Chocolate doughnut from Munster Donuts (Munster, IN)
• Slice of sausage pizza at Doughboys
• Slice of ricotta sheet pizza at Italian Superior Bakery
• Coconut chimney cake at Chimney Cake Island
• Potato chips from Grahamwich
• All the tamales at Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero, an LTH discovery no one thought to make an LTH GNR
• Barbacoa, which I’d never had before at Tierra Caliente, but is clearly the backup choice whenever you doubt that the carne asada or pastor is as perfect at that moment as it should be
• Italian beef at Novi’s Beef, Berwyn
• Chilaquiles at Caffe Gaudi
• Montreal-style pastrami at the place in the French Market next to Pastorale
• Housemade pasta with braised pastrami at Inovasi (okay, that was from the last week of 2010, but I had already done my 10 best list before I went there and it deserves mention)

To paraphrase Casablanca, “I’m a foodie. That makes me a citizen of the world.” I’ve eaten a fair amount of fancy food lately— my Restaurant Week is the down month of January, you don’t get a discount in prices but you definitely knock off a chunk of the crowds— so it’s now time to return to my peoples, the ethnic cuisine of Chicago. Here’s a few I’ve been to lately, searching for greatness and usually not finding it, but at these prices, you can’t afford not to keep looking:

Mr. Daniels, 5645 W. Belmont
I have a theory that for certain cuisines, inauthenticity is a sign of authenticity. Not for Asian, for instance, but definitely for Eastern European, where the hearty comfort food they’re used to has been infiltrated by all kinds of things from outside— hamburgers, Turkish doner kebabs, curries, Italian food. An Americanized Polish place might serve only obvious Polish food, but when you see a menu like this:

…you know you’re at a place that’s making food for recent immigrants. I was first attracted to this sign by the mention of “nalesniki,” which are basically blintzes, but I’ve never seen that word for them on a Chicago menu before; the only place I’ve heard it is at my mom’s, since her Mennonite grandparents used it. (I thought it was a Ukrainian term for blintzes, the same way she uses “vareniky” for what anyone in Chicago would call a pierogi— her family was German-speaking Mennonites from the Gdansk area who settled for a century or so in the Ukraine.) Anyway, Mr. Daniels’ menu is almost frightening in its cross-cultural eclecticism, ranging from doner kebab (ubiquitous in Europe these days) to hot dogs where “everything” includes mushrooms (that must be a Polish thing) to zapiekanki (which appear to be a sort of pizza bread with what ominously appears to be ketchup on it). It was either going to be great or awful, but memorable in either case, I figured.

Well, maybe if I’d gone for the zapiekanki, it could have been. I ordered a Polish plate special and got a perfectly decent, perfectly average sampler of Polish food— much of which, I suspect, came in 24-packs from A&G Market across the street.  It started with what was almost certainly Bobak’s sausage— Bobak’s may be a prominent name on the south side but afficionados don’t rank its Polish sausage very highly, there’s something insubstantial about it, like more filler than meat (that may not literally be true, but it’s how it comes off) and a thick skin that, as this one demonstrated, if you score it and then fry it, produces edges sharp enough to cut yourself on.  Then a decent couple of pierogi and cabbage roll, and a cucumber salad that seemed undressed and thus no more exciting than eating raw cucumber. The atmosphere, though clean, was Soviet-despairing. I had hopes for something bizarre enough to make a good post, and it wasn’t even that. Maybe one needs to dive off the Polish platter into the truly weird cross-cultural stuff on the menu, but if you want to be the discoverer of Chicago’s best zapiekanki, be my guest.


Ashkenaz Jewish Style Deli, 12 E. Cedar Street
“When my father dies, the first thing I’ll have to do is call Ashkenaz and order a party tray,” a client of my wife’s often said.  Ashkenaz is apparently the gold standard for deli to set out while sitting shiva among Gold Coast Jews— well, gold standard as in “the last authentic place of its kind so you don’t have to order from Treasure Island.” Deli in Chicago usually begins and ends with Manny’s, but there are a few of these other old places still scattered around (back in the 50s and 60s there was a famous and celebrated Ashkenaz in Rogers Park, I honestly don’t know if this is related or not). I think I last ate at Ashkenaz when I was first working in advertising in Chicago, which more than qualifies this post to be installment #5 in “Once Every Ten Years.”

Well, it’s no Manny’s but it isn’t bad at all. It’s a tiny place (didn’t there used to be a KFC next door, or a Wendy’s?) with the usual celebrity photos and other nostalgic stuff tacked on the walls. (Not sure why Sinatra gets such placement in a Jewish restaurant; that would have made for a great “guess the restaurant” at LTH, as people kept guessing old Italian joints.) I went for basic, a corned beef sandwich and a latke. They don’t have so much as a panini press for warming sandwiches, but given apparent limitations, they did a perfectly creditable job with steamed Vienna corned beef and rye bread, though the only brown mustard they had was a sweet-hot kind, which seemed weird. The latke was pretty well made, similar to Manny’s cumulonimbus latkes, but rubbery after being microwaved for dining-in.  Service was extremely friendly and welcoming. I wouldn’t go miles out of my way to grab a sandwich here, but given the general neighborhood, which is all fast food or overpriced steakhouses and very short on simple, real places like this, I wouldn’t mind coming back and digging deeper into the prepared foods like chopped liver.


Ruby’s Soul Food Restaurant, 3175 W. Madison
Can I make a confession that may blow my food-adventurer cred? I never ate at Edna’s Soul Food before the legendary Edna Stewart passed away in mid-2010. I tried once, but it turned out to be a week she was closed for vacation. And, you know, how often are you passing the 3100 block of west Madison while trying to decide where to eat? I should have found the moment to go there, some lunch time, but I just never did. It’s a big city.

Now Edna’s has reopened as Ruby’s, with what seems to be a perfect replica of the old sign, and the same menu and staff. We popped down there for breakfast on Saturday, and you can easily see, or perhaps feel, why it was a beloved place— despite bare walls and a plexiglass cage for the cashier, the place had the hum of a community meeting place. I loved that part.

What I have to admit I didn’t love, was breakfast. One of the things that sent us here was my son’s desire to have chicken and waffles, now that CJ’s Eatery has closed. Well, there’s no chicken and waffles. Other than the presence of grits as a side, there’s really nothing here for breakfast that you wouldn’t have at any Greek greasy spoon diner.

And on that level, the cheapness in ingredients that you often run into in black neighborhoods— a fact of life for obvious economic reasons— brought this meal down a number of times. A Denver omelet was pretty well made, onions and peppers fried on the grill before being added to the egg, but then the inside was overflowing with the cheapest orange American cheese. Bacon was the cheapest commodity bacon, with a salt pork and old grease flavor that even the bacon-snarfing kids recognized and didn’t care for. The grits were quite good, the famous biscuits (more roll than what I think of as a Southern biscuit) were nice but, I suspect, day-old. And surprisingly, all this cheapness didn’t come that cheaply; it was $40 for the four of us, which is more than, say, Johnnie’s Snack Shop or Diner Grill near me, and not that much less than, say, Nana. What almost made up for it was the genuinely warm and Southern service. I guess I need to go back and have lunch, finally, fried chicken and collard greens or something, but breakfast was worth it only to say that finally, I’d been.

When my kids were small, we ate at a lot of hamburger joints. It’s not that I wasn’t trying to introduce my kids to new things, but you’re always running errands with little kids and so you find yourself out by some mall, and suddenly your kid has to eat right now, and you can try to convince him that falafel are the yummy yummy good answer to that, or he can eat another damn hot dog. And so, back in the day, I tried a lot of hamburger joints I haven’t been to since. This post is about returning to two of them, for the first time in a long time.

A few weeks ago, I was running around, coming back from around Skokie on Lincoln, and I just wanted a quick bite, and I remembered Hub’s, one of those Greek burger places I’ve railed against, but I figured, it should meet minimal acceptability standards, I went in and ordered a burger and fries…

It was a limp, careless desecration of everything a burger should be. Flavorless frozen patty, then the grilled onions proved to be a sodden mass of cold jellyfish which had immediately soaked the heel of the bun into pulp. It was like eating grilled pasteboard between two wet rags, and the fries were the coated kind like Burger King has now, the fries covered with a crunchy fried-snot crust. It is not often I wish I had gone to McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but both were in my path home and either would have been an infinitely more honorable choice than this crapburger.

Hub’s has some fame due to a series of Saturday Night Live sketches it appeared in, attempting to make the lightning of Billy Goat and “Cheez-borger! No fries, cheeps!” strike again.  The Greek staff leers “You like-a da sauce, ehhh?” over and over, in sketches that last forever. I could find one on Hulu and embed it, I suppose, but they suck so badly, you should just find it for yourself if you really care.  Anyway, as I say the sketch is a lame, unpleasant and shoddy imitation of something that was good once, so it fits Hub’s to a T.

5540 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 784-4228

To demonstrate my point (and, further, to demonstrate that I’m not simply in a scorched-earth mood), I found myself in a similar situation yesterday, at the intersection of Lack of Time and Lack of Imagination, somewhere around Golf and Milwaukee, and popped into another Greek-burger joint, the improbably named Booby’s (who have on the menu, believe it or not, a double-patty burger called the… wait for it… Big Boob).  I’m not saying this was anything great, and it has one oddity— they put cole slaw on their burgers— but you know, at least they knew how to do right the first ten things Hub’s does wrong.  I could actually taste char-grilled meat, the cole slaw was okay and didn’t soak the burger (at least within the normal eating timespan; it was starting to get that way toward the end), the fries were anonymous but acceptable crinkle-cut fries with no goo encrusted upon them.  I still wouldn’t put it anywhere near this top ten, but it’ll do in a pinch, and did.

All in all, though, I’m glad to not have kids so young that I find myself constantly at the Stride Rite store in Golf Mill, and then hunting for somewhere to feed them a hot dog and fries afterwards…

(847) 966-4733
8161 N Milwaukee Ave
Niles, IL 60714

Fairland Cafe, Wichita.  Photo by Scott Phillips, c. 1980.

Emily Nunn had a post recently about how the one thing a transplant to Chicago can’t do is publicly confess longings for New York; I have no big longings for New York, or it wouldn’t be a decade since I last went there, but I will confess, in a similar spirit of emigre honesty, that there are certain things I used to do in Kansas without a second thought which I find too scary to do in Chicago.  One of these, for instance, is eat in 24-hour diners.  In Wichita, I’d find it charmingly colorful to be surrounded by Woody Guthriesque Okies nursing hangovers, or just taking an interregnum between fading hangover and impending bender; somehow the same people in the same state in Chicago intimidate me more, leave me more fearful of imminent danger.  This despite the fact that I could relate a number of tales relating to criminality in Wichita diners:

Back in the 50s or 60s, there was a place near the newspaper and the police station called the Fairland Cafe— a 24-hour diner/chop suey joint— and one night a gangster got tipped off that somebody planned to bump him off; he hightailed it to the Fairland and set himself up in a back booth, drinking coffee for two or three days as the would-be killers sat in the parking lot waiting for him to come out.  By the last day he was smelling so bad he had to toss $50 bills at the waitresses to get them to bring him more coffee.  Finally the standoff ended when he had a heart attack and left the restaurant in an ambulance, the assassins watching helplessly as he was carried out of their reach.

Even less logically, the presumed hygiene of such a place—which never closes long enough for a really thorough cleaning— bugs me more in Chicago then it ever did in Wichita.  There’s no sense to this at all, it’s not like we didn’t have germs there too, but what can I say; the tattered, rundown place that seems charming on Kellogg in my hometown seems a little squicky to me on Western or Pulaski.  I should point out that most of the time, there’s no factual basis for this; the paneling may be chipped, the counter may be stained, but I have no reason to think the place doesn’t meet basic hygiene standards.  But the dilapidation just nags at my subconscious in a way the same basic place in Wichita wouldn’t have.  What I’d find comfortingly familiar there, seems here to be part of the vast big city conspiracy just waiting to devour and doom the migrant from a distant, more innocent land.  It happened to King Kong, it’s bound to happen to me too.  Meet a blonde and next thing you know, it’s the biplanes.  She gets a movie contract and you get a one-way ticket down a skyscraper.

So although I’ve lived within a short distance of Jerry’s Diner for almost two decades, I have been there— like the title says— only about once every ten years.  I think it’s enjoyed praise on LTHForum for its ham but somehow, whenever I try to think of some place to grab breakfast, Jeri’s has elicited a weaselly “Ennnh… some other time” in my inner dialogue.

Finally I overcame this, or my inability to think of anywhere else on a solo Sunday morning did.  I went into Jeri’s and sidled up to the counter, settling in amid the Algrenesque characters reading the Sun-Times (the paper of diner counters, no question) and eating the same thing they’d ordered every morning for more years than they could count.  The paneling on the walls, in 60s orange and yellow stripes, summoned up some distant memory of a dance studio I’d gone to as a toddler for some kid’s birthday (Bucky Buchanan?  Bill Wheeler?)  Some of them conversed, making hard-luck jokes with the waitresses; others were determinedly introverted, noses down into their papers, not about to have a conversation that might reveal, obliquely, how the dreams and aspirations of youth had led to breakfast, alone, day after day at a 24-hour joint.  One day they wouldn’t come in any more, and that would be that.

I liked the atmosphere in all its down-at-heel urbanness.  I could have enjoyed it all day with Frankie Machine on one side and Augie March on the other while Ed Hunter and his Uncle Am solved crimes in the background and Wanda Skutnik tried not to spill what she knew.  The waitresses and counter man were genuinely warm and friendly, they made it a refuge in a harsh land.  You could love Jeri’s… if it weren’t for the food.

Alas, it was the cheapest, most industrial diner food imaginable.  Flavorless rubber eggs.  Pancakes from a box of Bisquick big enough to sleep in.  Ham product that had the sponginess of reconstituted seatcover.  There was probably a time when I could have eaten this just to enjoy the atmosphere.  Today, it said to me, you don’t belong here.  You with your ironic awareness of Edward Hopper and your foodsnob sensibility, you are not one of us, the fallen, the washed up.

But who knows, maybe some day I will be.  That’s always the promise of the city to the hopeful immigrant.

Jeri’s Grill
4357 N Western Ave 
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 604-8775

The first in a new series of posts devoted to returning to places I haven’t been to in a long time.

So I went out to a western suburb to interview a chef, only he was in the midst of buying a house and when his inspection got scheduled for the same time as our shoot, he forgot about it. He was abjectly apologetic when I reached him by phone, but really, I said, don’t worry, I’ll come back in two hours. I’ll happily take any excuse to toodle around some section of Chicago I haven’t been to in a while, and see what I find. It was a gift, even if it would have been hard to explain why in a way that wouldn’t have sounded cracked to a normal person (which is why I’m telling you).

Well, there’s not all that much around the Hinsdale area, really, but I did remember one thing. At a holiday party for my wife’s previous job, years ago, someone brought a pie from a bakery in Hinsdale, called Toni Marie’s. Here’s what I wrote about it at Chowhound, note that the hyperbole is a little tongue in cheek, imitating the way RST, the Shaolin Master of Chowhounds back then (sadly MIA as we really changed the nature of food coverage in Chicago), would rhapsodize about every new find as the best imaginable of its kind:

The greatest pie of my life: Toni Marie’s (plus gen’l bakery thoughts)
Perhaps I exaggerate. But can you afford to take that chance and go on believing that transcendence eludes the pie category when I, yes I, say I have tasted it this very night?

Let me back up. There are some foods that seem to offer limitless opportunity for subtle gradations of goodness and greatness— and some that don’t. I always find it hard to answer “where is the best breakfast”— how much better can one set of scrambled eggs or pancakes get than another? It’s more like, ask me for the name of a reliably competent breakfast place near you, and the ones you absolutely should stay away from.

That’s basically how I think of pie. There’s generic pie, like you’d buy at Jewel. It’s fine. There’s a class of pie above that, like the Achatz ones you find at Whole Foods. You know you’re eating real crust and not a styrofoam-based crust substitute, as may be the case with Jewel’s pie. But I did not believe in transcendent pie experiences… until tonight, when I had a sliver of apple-raspberry pie from a place called Toni Marie’s in Hinsdale.

I know nothing about this place or what else they make or what they’re most famous for; it was simply a pie that someone brought to a Christmas party (in Hinsdale). Not until I did about five Google searches did I find the correct spelling (see below). But the sliver, the thin dietarily correct holiday season sliver I had, was magical. The combination of apple and raspberry– brassy, immature raspberry mellowed out by the relaxed, grownup bass of baked apple– was inspired; but there was more, a concentration of flavors, subtle spices existing just beyond my tongue’s ability to identify them, that moved it into the realm of the sublime. All of that between the covers of an honest, styrofoam free, flaky crust.

(I have to admit something now. I have held my tongue when people like RST have talked about the lack of support for the surviving Viennese model bakeries and whatnot. But the fact is, I’ve tried a lot of these old places and never been that thrilled. I get my kids’ birthday cakes exclusively at Dinkel’s out of neighborhood loyalty, and they’re very good, as are their chocolate bismarcks. I hit Swedish Bakery this time every year for cookies and weird peppery coffeecakes to take home for Christmas. I buy a six-pack of Ann Sather cinnamon rolls on occasion. But I have to admit, I am rarely delighted with the results when I pick up the usual coffee cake or danish or a loaf of storemade bread in a randomly selected old school bakery. The newer ones, the yuppie ones you might say like Red Hen, beat them hands down for imagination, flavor, texture, everything. Maybe there are ones that are truly transcendent, or at least as intermittently excellent as Dinkel’s is— Reuter’s? Roeser’s? I don’t know. If you do, tell me. In the meantime, check out the pie at Toni Marie’s.)

Toni Marie’s
51 S Washington St
Hinsdale IL 60521

Many things have happened since that post in 2002— I’ve become a serious and fairly accomplished pie baker (I even judged a pie contest once). And of course, Chicago now has its own range of artisan pie bakers (Hoosier Mama, Bleeding Heart, etc.) we didn’t have back then. (I don’t only buy my birthday cakes at Dinkel’s any more, either.)  So if Toni Marie’s was still open, and if I could find it, would it measure up to my hype of 6-1/2 years ago?

I actually didn’t even remember the name offhand, but Hinsdale’s commercial district is small and within a minute of driving around I’d spotted it. I went inside and at first I couldn’t spot pie— the place was filled with the muffins and cookies that are, I expect, its bread and butter in a burb with lots of non-working housewives gathering over coffee. But a small metal rack held two apple-blackberry pies, so I bought one, a not-cheap $18.95.

Since I make crusts with leaf lard and a bit of whole wheat, sometimes I find the sturdily fluffy all-butter crusts too thick and, well, structural, next to the meltingly tender butter-leaf lard combo. There was a little too much crust rolled up at the end, but it was well made of its type. What really stands out about Toni Marie’s is that they have the same philosophy I have about pie filling— as little sugar as you need to make it sweet, as little corn starch as it needs to not be runny, let the flavor of good fruit shine through. The combination of apples and blackberries and just the slightest hint of apple-pie-seasonings was dead on, tart and homey. It’s really good pie. Greatest in the universe, that may have always been in jest, but very good indeed. If fate ever deals you a chance to wander the Hinsdale area looking for something, anything to do, don’t miss it.