Sky Full of Bacon


I fretted before our trip to Japan, because here was a chance to dine in one of the world’s greatest food cultures, perhaps my only chance to sample certain things—sushi, wagyu beef, etc.—at their absolute peak. So the clock was ticking, I had to get it right! And picking outstanding restaurants to go to was difficult; it quickly became clear that there was a fairly small set of restaurants talked about by westerners, and a vast iceberg beyond that (Tokyo, famously, has over 100,000 restaurants, and that’s not hyperbole—TripAdvisor lists 82,724 of them). In the area of sushi in particular, for instance, the ones known to the west—led of course by the famous Jiro—were booked up weeks if not months in advance.

So an agonizingly drawn-out process began of soliciting recommendations from people who knew the scene pretty well—including Steve Plotnicki and Yukari Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo, which also came recommended by both Steve Dolinsky and the Momotaro cook Scott Malloy, who I wrote about for the Reader. They would give me names; I would email my hotel, because you generally cannot make reservations yourself but must go through a concierge or other service; and somewhere around 48 hours later, I would find out if anything had room for us at any time.


Now, let me give you the good news: you kind of don’t need to do any of that. Well, you might for sushi. We ate sushi twice, and there was as obvious a quality difference between the two experiences as between a fine dining restaurant and a diner—which indeed is pretty much what each of them was, and fine in its own way. If you want that high-level experience, which we managed to have, finally, at an up-and-coming sushi temple called Sushi-Ya, you’ll need to do some research and make some plans.

But I’m not so sure I’d do it for anything else. I don’t regret our other high-end, quite pricey experiences, but I don’t know that I think any of them was that necessary, either. The caliber of the food culture is so high that you could just walk into anywhere in the more popular parts of town, just based on what sounded good, and have a great experience. I mean, almost nothing disappointed. We picked an udon place once in Kyoto where the broth wasn’t that great, but even there, the tempura chicken on top was as good as any I ever had in my life. Hell, even at Starbucks we had something that was fantastic—a canteloupe Frappucino with chunks of fresh canteloupe in it.

This is how Japan eats.

And there’s one other advantage to not messing with reservations much—the Japanese, for all their efficiency, have never accepted that street signs and address numbers would help tourists (and themselves). Most of our reservations involved getting somewhere close to the place with the help of our phones, and then standing outside, desperately scanning buildings for some clue as to where what we wanted might be. A stressful start to an expensive meal.


In the end, we stayed in a hotel (Citadines Shinjuku) near the action, though pleasantly a little away from the center of that busy area with its giant department stores and Blade Runnerish red light district, and around the corner from our place was a nice strip of modest restaurants which seemed to have one of everything—ramen, teppanyaki, a breakfast spot, Chinese food, Italian food, and so on. And it was much more pleasant to simply decide what we felt like, and walk two minutes to it, and give it a try—and it was always good. If you go to Tokyo, I recommend doing it that way—it’s cheaper, easier, and makes you feel more at home there.


*  *  *

And yet, we were still close enough to mad, mobbed central Shinjuku that we could walk in ten minutes to Takashimaya, the great department store. Whose basement food halls are like Food Disneyworld, and overwhelming in their color, their variety (not just Japanese food but everything; we went there a few times for French pastries to eat the next day), and how beautifully they’re presented. Anya von Bremzen has an excellent piece that explains sociologically why and how the department store basements, or depachika, have come to be such temples of gastronomic delights:

To a Westerner these subterranean food halls seem less like places to buy-and-bite and more like mammoth hyperdesigned exhibition spaces devoted to the latest food trends. And it isn’t just the profusion (an average food basement stocks some 30,000 items). The thrill of being at a depachika these days is the sense of riding the crest of the Japanese shopping mania, marveling at the virtuoso layering of the ritualistically traditional and the outrageously outré, of handmade and high tech. If Japan is the mecca of global consumerism, depachika are its newest shrines to excess.


Von Bremzen’s insights are well worth reading but, like a lot of Disney sociological insight, you’re not necessarily going to have more fun in the moment by thinking about it critically rather than just letting yourself go with the flow of sheer sensation. In the supermarket part there’s a guy tending clams in rushing water as if he were at an aquarium and wagyu beef marbled like an Italian palazzo and candies and spices and teas of every color. There are stands for yakitori, and Chinese food, and shimmering cakes and stained-glass-like custards and jellies. In multiple trips to Takashimaya as well as one to nearly-as-nice rival Isetan, I was always exhausted, overstimulated like a sugared-up three-year-old, before their wonders were exhausted for me.



Prepared meals in a bag.

We ate a lot of these. Basically chocolate rolls a la cinnamon rolls.



Indeed, not counting breakfast at the hotel, our first meal was entirely stuff we picked up at Takashimaya, bento boxes of this and that. One question, though—where do you eat it? Not, it turns out, at Takashimaya—there’s no seating (though there are separate restaurants some floors up). Generally people seem to picnic at the nearby park, though as it was spitting rain, we just ate back at our hotel.

Sushi-Ya, which literally means, “Sushi Place.”

Delicately thin chives inside a slice of fish.

That night, for the first and only time to date in a foreign place, we left the kids on their own. Ramen is easily their favorite Japanese dish, and there were two ramen places on our little restaurant row, so we gave them money to pick one and order for themselves. Meanwhile my wife and I took the subway to Ginza to find Sushi-Ya, which turned out after much phone-mapping to be in an alley (with no English signage)—never mind that everyone dining there was an English speaker from another country (such as Singapore).

I could tell what everyone was because it’s an 8 seat restaurant. This is part of the charm, certainly, and one we’re just starting to adopt in the U.S., the tiny dining space where you’re up close and personal with the chef and your fellow diners. I would like to report that the intimacy meant we all made friends and I have new pals in Singapore, but honestly, it was awkward as well as charming, a hushed experience like dining in a library; less jet-lagged, I might have worked harder at making us all convivial, but I just didn’t have it in me that night. (Next time, I go with Plotnicki.)

Baby octopi.


Anyway, the fish. I should say the crabs; the most interesting parts for me were things like a purple-skinned soft shell crab, or a hair crab salad (stuffed inside the hairy shell).

Looks brown, but it was purple.

Slightly obscene, but tasty.

All in all, it was many things we had not seen before, and very fine. The kids meanwhile wandered down our little restaurant strip and found a ramen place, ordered off the pictures, paid their own cash… and had a grand time on their trip to Tokyo, too.


So a couple of days later we met a hired guide at Tsukiji Market for a tour of the fish market. That’s Kiyoshi, our guide, in front:



The famous tuna auction was hours before, but we caught a 7 am vegetable auction.



Bluefin is valuable, clearly.

So even after you’ve been to the smoke hall of Oaxaca and the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and other things, Tsukiji is something else, acres of guys cutting up fish surrounded by markets of stalls selling everything that has anything to do with food and restaurants and everything.

Those look like… purple-skinned soft shell crabs!

One of the questions for any sushi devotee is, can you get the things that the high end sushi places in Tokyo have, or is there just a class of fish offerings so rare and so far above your puny station in life that you could never have them any other way, certainly not in America? And the fact was, we saw much of what we ate at Sushi-Ya here for sale, quite readily. Of course there’s a matter of quality, you can’t buy the same tuna from the same guy that Jiro can, but still, it looked to me like it was purple soft shell crab season, for sale all over the place, and the only thing stopping you from having that in the U.S. was knowing about it. There are surely some super-rare things—Sushi-Ya is high end, a spinoff of three Michelin star Sushi Saito, but not the highest end—but basically, everything seems to be available.


Anyway, an extraordinary place… and in November it will close and move to new, undoubtedly less atmospheric digs. We did a little noshing along the way, like this bacon-wrapped fish cake, or this noodle place (see the pic of the family slurping noodles at top):



Afterwards we stopped in to one of the little diner-like places, for sushi breakfast:


It was no Sushi-Ya, but it was fine, the rice still warm from having just been made, the staff pleasantly surprised when my kids picked out and ate their own orders.

But enough of fish. There is also beef in Japan, as you may have heard. We booked two special beef experiences, which was probably one too many. One was Sumibi Yakiniku Nakahara, which turned out to be sort of like a teched-up version of Korean BBQ:


They brought us stacks of incredibly marbled meat, different cuts, and I cooked them over coals—and I could tell they thought I was overcooking them:



But dammit, you need a little actual searing or browning for the flavor, in my book. This was an all-meat meal, which was interesting as a sampler but a bit odd, a kind of stunt meal. Our other meat experience was high-end teppanyaki at a very posh place in a modern office building called Ukai-Tei:



This was quite expensive, the kind of place visiting businessmen go, very handsomely wood-paneled and so on, and the food was almost worth it. It was beautifully prepared—Susan and I actually had a tasting menu which had some exquisitely crafted things like white asparagus dotted with all kinds of modernist touches:


Though the most impressive thing on the plate, honestly, was that tomato wedge, one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had.

And yet… I don’t want to use a phrase like “soulless” because the kitchen’s craftsmanship was excellent, the service treated us like emperors, the decor was over the top in a very refined way… but overall it gave off an air of the place Accidental Tourists go to avoid real contact with the city. This was when I thought, at the teppanyaki place down our street I could have had a meal 80% as good for 30% of the money, in an atmosphere that didn’t feel cut off from the place we were visiting. And that was more like what I was there for. So after this meal, I canceled a couple of our other reservations and resolved to just eat wherever I saw what looked good.


Instead, here’s the kind of thing we could eat for all of $12. Ramen, at the other ramen place on our street, Gotsubo, which came with a couple of nice slices of what was advertised as Iberico pork. Really? I could question that, yet without question it was very fine quality pork, and great ramen, for no more than any ramen would cost here. Which points to another bit of travel book advice you can forget. Books listed some very popular ramen places in the center of Shinjuku where you should go early and line up for an hour to get your precious seat. But I don’t believe for a second those places are measurably better than Gotsubo—they’re just better known to guidebooks. We put money in the machine to get tickets for the type of bowl we wanted, we waited maybe 10 minutes tops… and we had great ramen.


Same for tsukemen; I found a place called Gachi, located on a gay strip a few streets west (though so subtle that the kids barely knew that’s what it was), which proved to be a hipster tsukemen place, and a lot of fun. Again, maybe a 15 minute wait for thick, richly flavored tsukemen with fantastic fried chicken on top.



While in Ueno Park (home to the national art museum, well worth a trip for a quick history of Japanese aesthetic styles over time, and what the Impressionists stole from them), we went to Innsyoutei, a tea house. This was our first real exposure to the flavor of historical Japan, and the flavor of the experience went over better, I have to say, than the mostly vegetarian bento box meal did with the kids. Too many weird things in disconcerting colors.



A different time in history can be felt wandering Asakusa, another shopping area which has the feel of 50s Japan, GI’s looking for Hawaiian shirts. Indeed, one of the main strips still has its raffish black market feel as well as the modern food that goes with shopping for Levi’s and T-shirts with illogical English phrases on them—Döner stands.

In a suburb, we caught the cat bus for the Studio Ghibli museum.

Not a Disney-like theme park, the museum devoted to the filmmaker of Spirited Away and other anime films tries to instill a magical appreciation for filmmaking. You can’t take pics inside, so this is the pic everyone takes, with a robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Hachiko, Tokyo’s most famous dog, has a statue at Shibuya station. Note hat with illogical English phrase.

Liam, fitting in.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 7.59.04 PM
There are many treats to be had in any Tokyo train station.

Next: Kyoto


Every restaurant reviewer seems to eventually get around to explaining why reviewing is a crummy job, which flies in the face of the rather obvious facts that it’s 1) free food and 2) writing that people pay attention to; the only way it could seem better to normal people who do real work would be if it included this (remember, Mastroanni was playing a magazine journalist in La Dolce Vita):

Happened to me more times than I can count. The latest is Charleston City Paper critic Robert F. Moss, and if he has one good point, it’s that a lot of hot scenes— like, say, Charleston’s— are not that deep. There’s half a dozen stars and then there’s Contemporary American in strip malls. (Mmm, scallops!) As it happens, I read this piece in Tampa— actually St. Pete Beach, on the Gulf coast just a long bridge or two from Tampa— and I couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of its point. Florida is a place that gets a bad rap for dining, land of early bird specials and unadventurous bargain-minded eaters, generic restaurants that blur the line with retirement community lunchrooms, and I saw some of that, especially at breakfast. You could do some sad, boring dining here, I think, if you had the knack for such, but then that’s true of everywhere in America. But Tampa definitely has its high points and a bit of an indigenous food culture which is well worth exploring, rooted in its immigration patterns (Cuban, Italian, New Jerseyan) and proximity to water, and appreciated enthusiastically by the locals. In five days I pretty much felt like I had had at least one of everything Tampa had to offer; it isn’t deep, but it was enough for us to have a good trip and be glad we chose it.

Galley on the U.S.S. American Victory.

The good news was that our friend the internet made it possible to dine with remarkable efficiency, zeroing in on top places for nearly every meal. In particular I want to give credit to JeffB and others in this thread on LTHForum dating back to 2005; you might not want to take 2005 advice very often, but this is all about places that have been the same since 1965 (if not 1905 like Columbia), so that was fine, and it was cool to think that that dated back to my old LTH days, and to think that it was put there a decade ago like a time capsule for me to open now. Also, this post by Titus Ruscitti gave an excellent overview of the sandwich scene, and it was put to the test as well. One note: we skipped probably the two places you’ve heard of. I’ve been to two different branches of Columbia over the years, and was never wowed enough by its kind of Spanish food that I felt I had to check out the 1905 original in Tampa. And I would have enjoyed Bern’s, the old school steakhouse with the deep, deep wine list (especially dessert wines, eccentrically), but it just wasn’t the place to go with my son. They’ve been there forever, they’ll be there when I get back.

Anyway, the first stop was my own discovery (in the sense that means I found something that everyone locally knew about, of course). We missed an exit but were close enough to drive surface roads, so we got off— and immediately spotted Coney Island Grill in St. Petersburg, dating back to 1926:


This is a Detroit-perfect place serving quite good Coney dogs with beanless chili on it, no fries cheeps (or cole slaw in my case), and root beer floats. We were happy as could be finding this after flying and spending too much time at the car rental place.

It was overcast much of the week. Still better than zero degrees in Chicago.

St. Pete Beach’s main strip is somewhat generic American contemporary restaurants, mostly seafood with some steak places to give you a break, but on the road leading to it we spotted a unique place spoken of highly, which was seafood— but smoked, not fried. Ted Peters serves a pretty simple dinner— smoked fish, salmon, mackerel, mahi-mahi or mullet— with pretty basic but first-class sides (German potato salad, cole slaw again). I’d have gone for a stronger fish, but hoping to get my son to try it, I went for mild mahi-mahi and the smoked fish spread. Liam had hot dogs anyway.



Afterwards we chatted with the guy running the smokehouse and got to see the last of the night’s fish. The fish spread— which was fantastic, even better than the dinner— we learned was, I think, 70/30 mahi-mahi/mullet. This was cracker soul food, and a must stop as far as I’m concerned.


Ybor City, the early-1900s cigar-making neighborhood, looks like it’s become Tampa’s Bourbon Street over the years, with a lot of chain dining and Hey Let’s Get F’d Up! places to drink. Still, there are some places that have survived and are worth a visit, like La Tropicana, which JeffB compared to Manny’s for its cafeteria-like, aldermen-and-power-brokers-and-city-workers feel. I went there first for a baseline on the Cuban sandwich and also a Tampa special, the devil crab, which is a big fried Spanish-style croqueta made of all the scrap meat left in a picked-over crab. It’s a little spicy, a little funky, and tasty though I didn’t feel the need to try one at every stop (for one thing they’re pretty huge). Anyway, the Cuban was nice and I guess I see the difference in bread used in Florida, but it was a little slighter than I thought; I’m ready to say you can get a pretty darn good version of a Cuban here, too, even if it is on Gonnella bread. In any case, the best thing— which you can’t get so much here— was Liam’s fried fish sandwich on the sweeter, yellower Cuban bread. They know how to fry fish here like Memphis knows how to fry chicken.



As demonstrated by dinner at a place called Sea Critters, which I found on Trip Advisor or something when I decided I didn’t want to travel far for dinner, too. It’s in Pass-a-Grille, a little more of a cutesy upscale vacation town area than the generic strip in St. Pete Beach; I didn’t have a huge need to shop for $200 blouses or nautical knickknacks, but Sea Critters was a lively supper club-ish waterfront place where people in their 60s and 70s were actually eating after 7 pm, and they fried a piece of grouper just fine, too.


I’ve looked for barbecue before in Florida without great success, but meeting up for lunch with an online friend near Bradenton, we went to a place in Ellenton called Hickory Hollow BBQ, and it proved to be a pretty good sit-down BBQ joint with a lot of quite good Southern sides (your choices for that day are shown on a pig-shaped wooden board with the specific offerings velcro’d to it).


What to do while waiting to be seated at Hickory Hollow: play with the goats.

Back in Tampa, one place I definitely wanted to check out was a busy lunch spot called Brocato’s, located in some metal sheds by the highway. Amusingly, there was an interview I had to do which was held up the previous week, and so I wound up standing in the muddy parking lot of Brocato’s after lunch, interviewing by phone Chef Blaine Wetzel, a Noma and Manresa veteran who runs the ultimate farm to table getaway 2 hours from Seattle, Willows Inn on Lummi Island. This is the life we’ve chosen! But farm to table though it wasn’t, I knew my choice of Brocato’s was good because when we were leaving another parking lot later, the attendant saw our leftover Brocato’s drink cups and complimented us on our tourist acumen.


Anyway, two things I knew I needed to try: the Spanish gallego soup (basically pork and garbanzos) and their Italian deli version of a Cuban. The soup, alas, was not that exciting; I have a feeling it would have had more flavor, and softer garbanzos, about four hours later.


The Cuban, though, was terrific. One thing I’ve always kind of held against the Cuban sandwich is that it’s pretty sparse— a thin strip of ham, a thin strip of pork, it just doesn’t live up to my ideals of sandwich excess. But this one did, this one was fat with ham and cheese and especially dripping juicy pork, as indulgent as a wettest Italian beef. (It doesn’t look as huge, somehow, but it was.) This is my idea of a(n inauthentic) Cuban sandwich, one that tastes like American capitalism.



The next day I couldn’t face another Cuban, as we went to another Titus recommendation, Wright’s, so I had The New Yorker, basically a pastrami combo sandwich. This is a funny place, packed as can be, the line having a little Soup Nazi demandingness to it– if the Soup Nazi was instead a sweet Southern lady. (Don’t ask me how that makes sense, but it did.) They griddle most of their sandwiches, served on their own perfectly round bread:


Anyway, a good place though Brocato’s would be first choice for its total local flavor. Titus’ old post says they had one in the airport, too, so I planned to get a Cuban and take it home to my other son, but alas, that seems to have been replaced by lesser chain dining.

I mentioned that breakfast was the least exciting meal overall, and we tried a couple of local spots that were nothing special and slightly generically depressing, plus a Waffle House which was, well, Waffle House. The one breakfast spot I wound up liking and returning to was an Italian cafe and bakery in St. Pete Beach called (what else) La Casa del Pane, which did nice versions of Italian pastries including a highly credible sfogliatelle. I’m not the only one who thinks well of it, it was packed every morning with older folks who, nevertheless, were standing up for eating good things and being sociable over espresso and refusing to give in to wheat toast and egg white omelets. Rage, rage against the dining of the Lite, good people of New-Jersey-Sur-le-Gulf.


Coney Island Grill
250 Doctor Martin Luther King Jr St N
St Petersburg, FL 33705
(727) 822-4493

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave S
South Pasadena, FL 33707
(727) 381-7931

La Tropicana Cafe
1822 E 7th Ave
Tampa, FL 33605
(813) 247-4040

Sea Critters
2007 Pass a Grille Way
Pass-a-Grille Beach, FL 33706
(727) 360-3706

Hickory Hollow BBQ
4705 US-301
Ellenton, FL 34222
(941) 722-3932

Brocato’s Sandwich Shop
5021 E Columbus Dr
Tampa, FL 33619
(813) 248-9977

Wright’s Gourmet Cafe
1200 S Dale Mabry Hwy
Tampa, FL 33629
(813) 253-3838

La Casa del Pane
7110 Gulf Blvd
St Pete Beach, FL 33706
(727) 367-8322

Not the old friend we met up with.

The church of Santo Domingo, with the most spectacular interior in Oaxaca.

The cloister at Santo Domingo, now a terrific museum containing the major artworks from Monte Alban, the Zapotec city overlooking modern Oaxaca. We also saw an excellent exhibit devoted to the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci and one of his recent books.

A Nativity scene in the Zocalo in front of the protest banners about the murders of the 43 students in Mexico, by a gang allied with the mayor of Iguala. This is the kind of thing that makes you think the parts about Herod in the Nativity story probably hit home harder in some countries than others…

So we had plenty of time to eat at many levels in Oaxaca, and with my first post devoted to the low end, this one will cover off the higher end in various forms. Oaxaca apparently is convinced that it’s the next hot dining destination, or so I read somewhere, and I’ll say this for it: it may not be as polished as current dining capitols, but the prices are so reasonable that you can experiment with little fear that you’ll get ripped off. It’s hard to complain that execution is a little below Chicago standards, as judged by a pork dish fairly crudely butchered, or that service is a bit rushed at a tasting menu, when it’s going for, at most, about a third of the cost in Chicago. Restaurants here have the kind of enthusiasm that forgives a lot.

I mentioned that Rick Bayless was not far from where we were—to judge by a tweet, I missed him by about 20 minutes in the Zocalo, the central square, one day—but I already had some advice about where to eat from him, by way of Topolobampo’s chef Andres Padilla. So I made reservations in advance for two of them, Origen and Pitiona, though as it turns out, even in the tourist-heavy Christmas week it seemed like you could pretty much walk into any place in town.

The main thing was just knowing where to find them—the fine dining Oaxaca is kind of in a different area than the busy everyday tourist Oaxaca, centered on the bustling Zocalo. The restaurants around the Zocalo are, according to most guidebooks, kind of middling, but we visited one called Del Jardin a couple of times for quick meals and local atmosphere, and it was quite decent—Liam discovered a love for Oaxacan tamales here. Honestly, there’s almost no such thing as a bad mole negro in Oaxaca, though I think this one was sweetened up a little for the presumed American palate.


But if you want food at a higher level than that, you want to go north from the Zocalo. Just a few blocks and you hit the square around the church of Santo Domingo, which seems to also be the heart of upscale tourist Oaxaca. The square is quieter and less frantic with peddlers, all around it are better restaurants, coffee shops (otherwise often rare in Oaxaca) and the better shopping for Mexican clothing, jewelry and knick-knacky artworks. Also a very happy find in this area on some of the days were street markets devoted to locally produced goods and artworks; we picked up everything from handwoven cloths to carved figurines a cut above the usual tourist geegaws, to local chocolate and manzanilla (apple) jam.

Calle Macedonio Alcala, the main shopping street near Santo Domingo, a couple of days after Christmas.

We bought several excellent carvings from this stand, though not this guy, alas.


Origen is a restaurant you can certainly see people like Rick Bayless admiring, because it was the most serious about exploring Mexican flavors and not just doing a Mexican spin on continental cuisine. I couldn’t tell you what the seven moles are, but I’d bet I had more of them here than anywhere else, tasting a variety of sauces (which is all a mole is, really) in conjunction with a lot of locally grown things, from squash to quinoa. The downside was that I felt the execution level did not always match the ambition of the dishes; there were at least one dud (a charred romaine salad, which came out a neat rectangle of mushed lettuce with the consistency of a peat bog) and a very good dish of pork rib meat suffered from the meat having been roughly hacked off the bone, fat untrimmed. Still, at about $130 for 4 people it was a creative meal offering a lot of insight into Mexican flavors we didn’t get elsewhere, and I would recommend it.

Pork rib meat with chicatana sauce, yucca and squash.

Tortillas at Pitiona made of different kinds of corn—the top one made with agave (in some form).

Pitiona was in some ways less adventurous in cuisine, but moreso in form—the chef worked at El Bulli and there was a lot of Adria-esque playfulness in the form of the dishes, and as the first full-fledged tasting menu for the kids (Myles and I went to Ing once, but that’s it) everyone had a good time waiting to see what they’d bring out next—usually, curiously, plated on something the shape and size of a brick, like the paint-covered block this plantain fritter arrived on.


Highlights included a venison taco, another with tocino (pork belly)…


and the most El Bulli-like item of the night, a tomato noodle soup with a spherical ball of cream in it, which you broke and stirred into the soup.


The meal was fun, the restaurant which rambled over several rooms of an old colonial era house was charming, the only downside here wasn’t execution but service, which raced through the meal and couldn’t wait to remove any plate that seemed possibly finished. I’m not sure what the cause of that was—it seemed unlikely they were desperate to turn the table. I think the kitchen probably wasn’t pacing it as well as they should and the servers were scrambling to make it work. Nevertheless, I’d recommend Pitiona too; not to dwell on price here, but $300 for four compared to the $500 and up for two you’d pay in the U.S. for a tasting menu goes a considerable ways toward covering your airfare to dine like this.


I hadn’t planned to eat at Los Danzantes, named (somewhat macabrely) for the most famous carvings at Monte Alban, of captured, castrated rival chiefs, but on the last day before our evening flight, it was right there and seemed like just the place to kill 2 hours at lunch. Which it was; the room could not be more dramatic, surrounded by three-story concrete walls with a catwalk wandering through foliage to a lounge and the bathrooms. Choose your own movie descriptor for this space—Bond villain HQ, the wall of Kong, no matter what, it was undeniable spectacle. (I especially loved that the bar turned out to be made of cars crushed into cubes. Wild!)



The food would have trouble living up to this and despite a Slow Food designation and a high rating (from Americans, presumably) on TripAdvisor, it wasn’t as artful or intriguing as Origen or Pitiona, tasting more like upscale Mexican flavors on American-style dishes. An appetizer of duck with Mexican spices was best, a white ocean fish rubbed with ash and Myles’ steak were fine, but something advertised as somebody’s grandma’s mole rojo didn’t have the kick or funkiness you’d hope for. This was the first that seemed more tourist-oriented than a local expression, but still, a grand setting from which to salute Mexico and say goodbye with a daytime drink in hand.


Other than taxis taking the shortcut over the hills, Itanoni marked my only venture even further north, into a neighborhood near the Park Llano that seemed sort of like the Upper West Side of Oaxaca, plenty of upscale shops and a relaxed air. Itanoni wasn’t nearly as upscale as the places above, but Alice Waters is said to have called it her favorite restaurant in Oaxaca and it’s easy to see why—it’s very serious, almost curatorial, toward the tortilla and what goes in it, dividing the menu by different kinds of corn from different microclimates, and the fillings specific to those (micro) regions— which you order like dim sum, checking them off on a sheet. (That said, my main inspiration for going here was less Alice Waters than Nick Kindelsperger and what he had to say about it here.)


Could I really taste the difference in tortillas made by hand between corn grown on the mountains and corn grown on the isthmus? No, but everything bespoke really careful craftsmanship, everything tasted clean, the way Rick Bayless’ Mexican food often does, and when I peeled open this flor de la calabaza tortilla to see its gorgeous petals inside, I felt like the peasant Juan Diego when the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was found on his cloak.



One last food experience, which both kids would rank among the best things we did on the trip. Belatedly I had the idea of doing a cooking class for the four of us, and found this blog post which talked about five popular classes. A couple were booked all week, one didn’t respond to the email form I sent through its website—and then I saw Casa Crespo as we were walking to Santo Domingo from the bus, across the street from Pitiona.

It was an American crowd doing it, save for one Swedish woman, including a couple from Logan Square—who asked me if I knew Grandma J’s in Humboldt Park. Talking to another couple, a police officer from L.A. and his wife, they mentioned a recent trip to Chicago and how they liked going to places on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives—and said they’d been to Cemitas Puebla. I told them I’d had comments from Tony Anteliz, its owner, in response to my Tweets about this trip.

Anyway, we started off by going to a nearby mill to grind the corn for our tortillas, and then to the Sanchez Pascuas organic market to shop for ingredients (and sample some fruits you can only find in Mexico, like black zapote, which is like a plum filled with squid ink).



Back at the school, we began making an ambitious lunch ranging from handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese, flor de la calabaza and other ingredients, to chicken with mole, a cold avocado soup, and chocolate ice cream. I was really happy that the kids got into it and were proud of what they contributed to making. Gotta do more of that at home. It was a tasty lunch and a great experience.


And after working themselves up to it for most of the week, they tried bugs. At least, Myles put chapulines, grasshoppers, in his tortilla, while Liam at least tasted a salsa that had agave worms ground into it. Dad was proud.



A couple of final notes:

• Coffee. We didn’t have a coffeemaker in our villa so getting coffee before too much of the day had passed was a constant struggle. The only places serving anything like American-style coffee seemed to be in the touristed area between the Zocalo and Santo Domingo, so I pretty much had to be in one of those areas by lunchtime; finding caffeine in the rest of the city could be very hit or miss, or at least require you to sit down for a substantial breakfast to get a cafe con leche (not a fan, but it’ll do in a pinch). I relied mainly on two Italian-style chains, Cafe Brujula and The Italian Coffee Co., with multiple locations in this area.

• Baked goods. One thing I’ve never been wild about is Mexican baking. Mexicans can make really nice French pastries, but their own styles seem bland and flavorless to me, and it was disappointing to see so much of it in the markets and never find anything particularly good. The Italian-style coffee shops were your best bet for sitting down with something to nosh on; buying in quantity, the best French style pastries we found were just west of the Zocalo on Independencia at Pasteleria Carmelita, while we got a nice panettone and some crusty bread for Christmas at Pan & Co. near Santo Domingo.


• And one more ice cream place, just north of the Santo Domingo plaza: Manolo Nieves. This place had a somewhat unfriendly system— you had to order the quantity you wanted and pay for it, then tell them what flavors you wanted— but the flavors were top notch, a simple vanilla was terrific with burnt sugar notes. I had a rose petal one, which I knew I wouldn’t like but it was recommended by a woman there, Spanish or Italian or something, and as someone who gives a lot of advice, I sort of felt I had to take it. I’m still not a huge fan of rose flavor, but it was probably the most I’ve ever liked any thing rose flavored. By the way, tuna is not tuna ice cream—it’s prickly pear.

Zapotec foot bowls, in the museum.





One of the things I most wanted to see in Oaxaca was a single hallway in the markets just south of the Zocalo, the main square, lined with meat vendors and blazing charcoal grills. Yet when I got there, it was frightening and overwhelming, a Dickensian vision of bloody carnage and belching inferno, vendors swirling around me telling me what to buy (onions from him! tortillas from her! drinks from him!) as I could barely keep track of it all. Oaxaca’s market wasn’t magical, as the equally frantic Grand Bazaar in Istanbul had been, it was oppressive, a maddening hive of activity and din.

In another couple of hours I knew why I was having such a reaction: I was coming down with the cold two of my family had already had, coming down with it fast and hard, and my senses were already closing up shop in anticipation. The next day one son and I barely went out, and I was faced with the prospect of spending my entire time in Oaxaca in a hotel room as deprived of my customary diversions as a jail cell, while the very idea of spicy Mexican food turned me slightly green. To add to the postmodern preposterousness of my situation, one of the people whose Oaxacan recommendations I had followed, Rick Bayless, was tweeting from within a mile or two all the things I should be doing, as he lived in social media a Martha Stewartish vision of the celebrity’s glamour-filled, perfect in every way visit to Mexico:

Seeing the families turn out in the zocalo, the square, for Christmas Eve had been one of the goals of the trip— but we’d have been courting pneumonia to be out that night. Instead we found the only subtitled movie in town— El Hobbit— and plopped into chairs for three hours with big soft drinks on Christmas Eve, as if we were the stars of a Family Channel holiday special called “The Most American Christmas In Mexico Ever.” For dinner I ate a prefab ham sandwich at the movie theater. It was great.

The zocalo, facing the Cathedral of Oaxaca.

And happily, that and 12 hours of sleep seemed to break it. I’m still snuffling— I can’t put out my next podcast until my nose and throat clear enough to record the narration— but energy and interest began to return on Christmas Day and stayed with us for the remaining week of the trip. By the end, Oaxaca had gone from a fate I was cursing to a place I was halfway in love with. The first day back in Chicago, I regretted not being able to wander down the street to a tent hawking tacos al pastor. It seemed so quiet, having to have actual buildings for restaurants, after Oaxaca where they sprout between cracks in every sidewalk.

Before I got sick, we managed to see the Noche de Rabanos, carvings from locally grown radishes which line all four sides of the Zocalo, which are displayed on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve.



Anyway, despite losing a day and a half in the middle to the cold, and operating at half speed for a few days after that, we saw our way to a lot of really enjoyable food in Oaxaca, a town of about 400,000 which sprawls over the valleys and hillsides a couple of hours inland from the southernmost side of Mexico as it curves toward central America. Booking late, we couldn’t find anything in the central area, and wound up with a condo in a hotel complex up on 190, the Pan-American Highway, in an industrial/residential district of no particular loveliness. But in a lot of ways that was good; instead of being in an American B&B bubble in town, we took the Mexican buses (about 50 cents) into town and got to see things like the Sunday used car market— where everybody with a used car lines up along 190 and, of course, taco tents sprout everywhere.

The Mexican buses alone were worth the opportunity to take— they’re a whole community unto themselves, the expression of the driver’s personality, decorated up in various fashions, often with a buddy riding along to call out the stops and occasionally picking up vendors demoing the latest release by local musicians or selling trinkets. Other than the fact that they’re built for people on average a foot shorter than me, they were always interesting to ride.

We’re all riding on a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus. This was actually a tour bus to Monte Alban, not a city bus, but you get the idea.

The Best Tacos in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is so fecund with itinerant taco stands that you could spend a decade here and not sample them all— on the way back from Monte Alban, we saw an entire taco row we’d never had a glimpse of until then, which had the best-smelling rotisserie chicken of the trip. Another time! The point of taco-hunting, I think, is less to look for some internet recommendation of the very best in town, than to have a sense of how to taco-shop. Look for places where things are being freshly made in front of you, like tacos al pastor being sliced off the cone, or carne asada sizzling on the grill. Up on 190, this friendly place made very good pastor:

Cafeteria Los Dos Angeles, Oaxaca


Taqueria El Grillito, alas, did not grillito.

but another fooled us with the cone sitting out, but the meat being cooked on a griddle. Even there, though, we found something kind of interesting, tacos de papas— what would potato tacos with meat turn out to be? The answer was great drunk food, a baked potato finished on the grill and then topped with meat and cheese.


On the weekend, amid the used cars, a row of Michoacan-style carnitas and taco tents popped up. The carnitas were fantastic, pink as ham and maybe the best I’ve had, and the taco tent to its south not only served excellent carne asada but “enchilada” (which I think is just the same thing with a hotter seasoning). I’m not really recommending that you hop a bus out of town a couple of miles to try these specific places, but rather showing how high the level is, that almost anywhere you find a few tents making food, it has a good chance of being this good.

Carnitas de Michoacan.




But I promised the best tacos in Oaxaca and maybe I can fulfill that promise. Here’s my theory— food gets better with close competition. So if you were going to find a great taco place, it would likely be in an area dense with competing places, close to the heavy traffic of downtown. The epicenter of tacodom, then, seemed likely to be a specific spot just south of Trujano on the Periferico road that half-circles the central district, a 30s-Shanghai-like warren of stalls next to the enormous Abastos farmer/flea/fenced goods market and right where both the buses and the ride-share taxis all come together in the most harrowing clusterfark of traffic I’ve ever seen. Naturally, my older son and I took off one night to explore it.

Working the comal at Taqueria Los Cuates.

The taco stands here are more permanent, often cramming into a tiny space both a pastor cone and a metal comal, sort of like a convex wok, on which different kinds of meat will be sizzling. One guy operates the comal, another the pastor cone, slicing off meat and then flicking off a slice of pineapple from the top onto the tortilla held a few feet below. Tacos here are small and dirt cheap— two or three pesos, which is 15 or 20 cents each, though like sliders, you’d probably order a bunch at once, meaning a full dinner could run to as much as $1.50. At the first we tried pastor and tasajo, which is chopped beef (but pretty much has the texture of hamburger):

Our first stop— which part of the sign is the name? I’m not sure.

It was very good, but then we reached the next, Taqueria los Cuates. This time I ordered cecina, marinated pork. The pastor was letter perfect, crispy and with a citrusy tinge, but even better was the cecina, cooked with bits of grilled onion which made it taste like a 30s-style hamburger. The meat was flavorful, the tacos, warmed on the center of the comal, were crispy with little toasted edges… this was truly, The Best Taco in Oaxaca that we would find that night, or ever. We tried other things that night, including an empanada from a very peasanty-feeling stall which was however just fair (we abandoned it after a few bites), but nothing would top Taqueria los Cuates, and a few days later, we’d swing by there for another round, just as good, as a pre-dinner amuse-bouche.

I liked the Achewood-like mascot.

Flicking the pineapple.


Empanadas on a comal.

Myles and I making notes on video before we forget what we liked.

A few more notes on low-end dining:


• We only tried Pollo a la Lena, grilled chicken once, on Christmas Day, and encountered an odd situation where they didn’t want to sell us any of the chicken because they were already out of tortillas. At that point I’d be giving the stuff away rather than waste it, but we eventually succeeded at talking them into charging us the full price without giving us any tortillas. Victory! It was perfectly fine, but you’d have to take another trip to try more chicken places to get a sense of what makes for the best.

• There was a Tacos Arabes place I saw, near the Abastos area, selling that doner-inspired precursor to pastor, but he must have taken the time after Christmas off, because it was closed every time after that, alas.

The Mercado de Benito Juarez/Mercado de 20 Noviembre


And what about that Dickensian meat hall I mentioned at the beginning? If you’re not out of sorts as I was, it’s a must-visit just for sheer chaos and atmosphere, as is the entire market complex just south of the Zocalo. There are actually two market buildings; the northernmost, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, is full of vendors of trinkets, sombreros, mezcal for tourists to take back, and so on, but it also sells a lot of retail foodstuffs, from chickens and fish to baked goods, the local quesillo cheese (which is a million times better than any Mexican cheese you can get here) and moles, and ladies selling chapulines, spicy fried grasshoppers.



The southernmost, the 20 de Noviembre, is full of restaurant stands serving comida (a homier sitdown lunch than taco stands), usually Oaxacan tamales, Sopa Azteca, that kind of thing. To be honest, although we had a nice meal or two there, after we had been to some of the other markets in the area the 20 de Noviembre seemed grimy and oppressive with both the restaurants and the vendors constantly hawking you (and some elaborate system of hoses bringing up foul odors from the nether regions of the building), and I’d recommend a much more relaxed experience at one like the Sanchez Pascuas organic market a few blocks north.

A pleasant comida of Oaxacan tamales and soup in the 20 de Noviembre market.


But there are two food stops in the first building, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, that you want to make. One is the aforementioned meat hall, which is somewhat separate and difficult to find from the inside, most easily found by looking for its separate entrance on the east side of the building. It’s an elemental food experience well worth having, though I was a bit disappointed that all the steak seemed to be thinly sliced and grilled to chewiness; I’d have loved a thicker cut cooked to medium rare. You order by the kilogram; we got one kilogram, 1/4 the balls of spicy chorizo, 3/4 steak, plus onions, salsas and tortillas, each ordered from and paid to a different person, in an atmosphere of complete frenzy where it seems hard to imagine anyone really collects all the money they’re due, but apparently they do.


La Chagüita.

The second is La Chagüita, an equally chaotic ice cream stand. Rick Bayless talked about this on The Feed but was vague about the precise location, and the rest of the internet is vaguer yet when not flat-out wrong (like Google Maps), so let me tell you the easiest way to find it: it is inside the Mercado Juarez, which has five main aisles, and the stalls in each are numbered something like 15, 115, 215, etc. La Chagüita is #27, so enter at the southeast corner, where the fresh fish are, and look for the first aisle, the two-digit numbers. Go straight north in that aisle and you’ll soon hit it (and other ice cream places).


Anyway, the reason that you want to do this is for the wildly exotic array of flavors of— what is it exactly? Sorbet? A slushy? I’m not sure, but it’s pretty great and the scene is highly entertaining. I ordered mango with chile and guanabana, which for some reason provoked hilarity from the staff, but I was happy as could be with my tangy, slushy choices.

That pretty much covers cheap eats; a post on fine-ish dining will follow. But I took two things away from taco hunting in Oaxaca— one, how good the street food is, but two, how good the Mexican food in Chicago is, in that I didn’t have things that made the food we have here seem a pale shadow of the real thing. Our batting average isn’t as high, but you can find things here that are about as good as most of the food we ate. Oaxaca is one of the great Mexican food cities, but in its own way, so is Chicago, don’t let anybody kid you. Well, except for the Mexican cheese.



I’ve been cranking out a ton of work for the Reader, Thrillist and other things, including two print pieces for the Reader in the next month, so blogging has been a low priority, alas. Nevertheless I want to make notes on some things before I forget them entirely, so here’s lots of notes, starting with the Montreal chunk of our Canada trip in August. If it doesn’t seem like a lot of new things to have tried, well, I also ate all of these.



MONTREAL: Other people (David Hammond) have thought nothing much of Schwartz’s, the famous Montreal deli, but besides gratitude for it being open late Sunday night when we got to town, it charmed me as old Jewish delis with the sheer exuberant life of such places always do, and the smoked meat (pastrami in other words) was plenty good. As for St. Viator’s, I wasn’t wowed by Montreal bagels, I see the virtues of the smaller, chewer bagel with a hint of woodfire smoke, but it wasn’t something that changed my life. That said, I wouldn’t be against them being more accessible, either.


The next night we ate at a cute pizza and sort of Bristol-ish meats and fresh things place called Dolcetto in the old city, which was nice, but a price tag of over $200 Canadian for a few small pizzas, salads etc. drove home just how expensive the town, especially that area, is. We decided not to even think about money for the next two nights. As I observed in the Toronto section, I typically go to other places for their unique low-end dining rather than the high-end dining which may be much closer to what I can get here. But in this case, Montreal’s high end dining seemed to promise a native Quebec cuisine you couldn’t find in other cities. Also, it was Susan’s birthday, or close enough. So we were ballers.


Joe Beef was booked weeks before, but it turns out that Joe Beef has another concept two doors down, Liverpool House, whose concept apparently is… “Just like Joe Beef.” Honestly, several of the famous dishes in the book were right there on the menu, like the breakfast sandwich with foie:


Foie would prove to be a major theme over the next two days (as would, I must admit, “excessive over-ordering”). Joe Liverpool was, in the end, a lot like porky places in Chicago, but an excellent example of the genre and all I really remember specifically after that was that we had a good time and sweated butter on the way home. The next, we had…


More foie at Au Pied de Cochon! We just got into the last available early seating and watched the place (which looks very 80s, not that there’s anything wrong with that) fill up around us. Clams with a beer cheese sauce were pretty great, Myles finally got to have poutine, in general we enjoyed Au Pied, I don’t think the kitchen is as accomplished as Joe Beef but it was satisfying, easy to see why it’s a neighborhood favorite.


But what is Quebec cuisine? I left feeling that probably more than anybody wants to admit, it’s an invention of the marketing department, like the ploughman’s lunch in England (a “tradition” invented in the 60s to boost lunch traffic at pubs), at least I can’t imagine 1900s lumberjacks really making an entire cuisine out of foie and maple syrup like this.


One other thing we did there: Liam and I went to the Jean-Talon Marche, a food market with plenty of shops for charcuterie, bierocks, etc., and an area full of fresh fruit, which I bought for the long trip back.



I didn’t really find anything mindblowingly different, but it was certainly a pleasant day with him; he’s a good, curious companion for such places. Especially when he gets a crepe. I made him try to order it in French. Did he succeed?



* * *

Now on to things eaten in Chicago!


River Roast— I skipped a media preview for this for some other more promising preview, the idea of a meatcentric (but not steak) place on the river from Tony Mantuano (which is to say, Levy Restaurants) seemed total tourist bait. And since then… I’ve paid my own not inconsiderable cash to go, twice, and had a great hearty time both times. The whole roasted meats are all satisfying (beef and fish outstanding, chicken tasty but a little dry, a new addition of Berkshire pork very nice but a tad plain, they need to think up something to go with it), while the kitchen sent us a charcuterie platter (head chef John Hogan says he’s known for his pates; I didn’t know that, but I can believe it) that was excellent as well. I am not a steakhouse guy at all, but the hearty roastiness of everything at this place gets me right in the nostalgic comfy part of the brain.



Dove’s Luncheonette— I’ve been to this Mexican food American diner from the Blackbird etc. crew twice on my own dime, too. The first time I had pozole, right after having a special miso pozole made by Rick Bayless (as in, standing there serving it himself) at a special event at Arami (the chef there is married to one of Bayless’ chefs), which was fantastic. So Dove’s pozole was up against tough competition and I just thought it was all right; I also found it nearly impossible to dig out of the enormous bowl with the spoon, without having to tilt the spoon so far that all the pozole fell out of it.


Better was a side of beets with a little mole, but I have to say I had philosophical problems with it; it was a substantial plate for $8, which to me is completely misunderstanding the nature of diners. They’re where you go to be among people when you don’t have anyone to be among. That melancholy separate-togetherness is what diners are all about (see this Thrillist piece) AND SO THERE’S NO SHARED PLATES IN THEM. (You can share a Sun-Times in a diner; you do not share food, that’d be like getting too chummy in a men’s room.) Should have been a single portion, half as much for $4. In a diner.

Anyway, went back a few weeks later and had the one thing that wasn’t Mexican food, sort of a fried chicken and gravy plate, and I liked it a lot better. Which doesn’t really help, since it’s the only thing like it on the menu. Anyway, I have some mixed feelings (as I did about Big Star’s Mexican food in a blue collar 70s America context/concept, frankly) but as always with this group, even a straightforward concept turns out to have more than a few layers to tease through.

Paul the day man and Oliver the night man at Belmont Snack Shop.


Uncle Mike’s Place— One thing about doing that diner piece was that after a certain point, I felt like I was writing Ten Places To Get The Exact Same Thing For Breakfast. I needed a ringer that did something different, and I thought of this Filipino diner, which people like Cathy Lambrecht had written about at LTH but I had never been to. I got a big breakfast sampler that included a fried egg over garlic rice, hunks of both tocino (sweetly marinated pork) and steak, a salsa and some kind of sweetish bean puddingy thing. After trying a few better Filipino things, this seemed pretty simple in its flavors—like diner breakfast!—but a good time was had from all. I might do this once a year from here on.



MFK and Salero—Two Spanish-ish small plates places, one I loved instantly, one I don’t know what I think yet. MFK does simple, direct things with seafood. It’s the kind of place you can drop in, have three things, be full and go. Well, it’s too popular to drop in easily at night, but it is open for lunch and in the afternoon. Did I love everything? You don’t have to, you just try things and some will be really good. Like Vera.

Salero is next to Blackbird, a somewhat more formal looking space, though they’re friendly at the bar. The sardine thing shown above, that I liked as easily as I liked things at MFK. Other things, like a red pepper stuffed with short rib meat, I didn’t equally take to. How do you get one place of this kind so quickly, while another kind of puzzles you? I don’t know, but that was my reaction.

Bohemian House— The idea of an upscale Czech place downtown is improbable, and for that very reason endearing, surrounded as it is by all the blaring cliches of River North. The inside is like a hipper version of Smak Tak or Staropolska, River North’s idea of a medieval castle. The cocktails looked bizarrely sweet, the wine list, as my dining companion shelf said, looks like the middle shelf at Jewel, but the craft beer list was good. And really, what did you think you should be drinking in a Czech place, rum and coke?

I’d read a lot of praise for it, so it was disappointing that the opening courses were all about 3/4 of what they should have been, I thought. A cauliflower salad had too sharp a vinaigrette, a beet salad was all right, the short rib pierogi, gummy, were a particular disappointment. I was ready to write it off when the entrees turned out to be by far the best things—chicken paprikash was maybe a bit overwhelmed by the taste of hot paprika, but it was beautifully roasted, and a roast duck was pretty much perfect (hey, River Roast, where’s your roast duck?) So I don’t think this makes my best of the year list, but it definitely makes my Thank God It’s Not Another Italian Restaurant in River North list, and I’ll recommend it to those looking for something different.



U Gazdy— The pierogi above belong not to Bohemian House but to a rustic Polish spot out in Wood Dale, near the southern end of O’Hare, which Cathy Lambrecht wanted to check out one day. Not that the Polish restaurants in the city feel like they’ve gone mainstream, but this definitely felt even more rustically out of Chicago, like the building was entirely carved by forest dwarves, starting with rye bread served with smalec, a lard spread, which you use like butter, except for the fact that you think every bite is a mortal sin. The pierogi were very good, a nice light dough, and the schnitzel was all right, but the out-of-Chicago feel was the best part.


La Habanera— A Logan Square Mexican spot that immediately made me regret going there by confronting me with two strong suggestions of inauthenticity: a menu that translated basic Mexican food words, and a portrait of every white person’s favorite historical Mexican, Frida Kahlo. Well, that was too harsh a first judgement; it’s a real Mexican family place, with some accommodations to its neighborhood. I ordered a pambazo, the spicy sandwich where you dip the bread in a spicy chile de arbol sauce and crisp it up a little on the fryer, then stuff it with the usual stuff (steak, lettuce, crumbly cheese). I liked all that, but the chile de arbol sauce was too salty and made it a little hard to love the effect of the bread. I’d give it another try and see what the standout on the menu is.


El Conde SA— There are two of these now, one in Pilsen and one closer to Little Village, specializing in a Mexico city treat called tacos de canasta, basket tacos. They’re premade tacos which steam and stay warm in a basket; they usually just have some form of meat in them. They’re a little soggy, so after trying them in two places (the other was La Chilangueada) I may not need to have them a lot more until I’m in their natural habitat, a bar in Mexico City where someone walks in like the tamale lady to sell them. I also had a sope with carne asada and the steak was very good, so I count the tacos de canasta as a bit of a novelty but this place as a whole as a good find to have.


Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse— And one last thing which was, honestly, sublime. It’s the oatmeal at this new bakery from the former 2/3 of the Bang Bang Pie team, which makes a big deal of grinding their own flour. I talked to Dave Miller about it— he says the way they grind it leaves both big pieces and a fine powder, and then he cooks it in half and half, and the oatmeal plumps up into this lush, creamy viscous goo that has a wonderful mouthfeel. It was kind of magical, and when I redeemed my Kickstarter gifts (two bags of whatever grain I wanted), I made sure that the rolled oats was one of them.

* * *

And finally, a cautionary tale, I guess. The irony is that food-obsessed me lives in one of the most whitebread neighborhoods for food, Roscoe Village, the epicenter of Sunday breakfast. So I was excited that we were finally getting a hip-sounding kind of place in Endgrain, which grew out of pop-up doughnuts from Nightwood, which is just about as hip as it could possibly get, right? And as it happened, a preview slideshow would be one of the last things I did for Grub Street.

A few weeks later I took the family for breakfast there. We made the mistake of arriving at 9:40 am, plenty late for breakfast if you ask me. They were open… but not open for breakfast, just for doughnuts and coffee. And the fact that we wanted to be seated, even if we had to wait to order, kind of flummoxed the (admittedly, very green) server and hostess. I basically had to tell them, look, other people are having coffee, you can bring us coffee too and menus, even if we don’t order for another 20 minutes. It was ineptitude, not malice. But it left a bad taste, to feel like we were supposed to sit there without so much as water, in a holding pen, for the crime of coming in too early for the wrong thing.

Some months later I went there for lunch. I walk in and there are people at the counter. But I immediately get the Serbian Social Club what-are-you-doing-here vibe. Uh, lunch, that’s what I’m doing here? Oh, no, we don’t do lunch on Tuesday. We do doughnuts and coffee. I suppressed saying “Not nearly enough to stay open, clearly,” and left.

And even though I’d pass it and see it open and full of Logan Square type hipsters at night, I never went back. I often thought I should give it another try, but two tries and never once feeling really welcomed into a place right in my neighborhood meant I never worked it up to try a third time.

And now it’s closed. Turns out my neighborhood full of families can’t really sustain a place whose hours have nothing to do with the normal routines of family life. At Logan and Kedzie they might have made it, but they were too out of step for Roscoe and Wolcott. Ironically, I just saw them mentioned in a national article about hip places to eat in Chicago. I’m sure they were very excited to be in Bon Appetit or whatever it was. This will finally put us on the map! But they were already on a map; they should have paid more attention to where it said they were.

Canada remains ever vigilant against American invasion at Fort George, near Niagara Falls.

People often ask me before I go to another big city if I plan to eat at [INSERT EXPENSIVE TASTING MENU PLACE HERE]. The answer is almost always no, for two reasons: one, I feel like I should be true to my school and spend those bucks on the people I cover in Chicago, not go chasing the shiny thing in New York. But two, I don’t feel a burning need to go eat the food of guys in New York who’ve staged at Alinea and Mugarritz and basically have the same background and outlook on international modern food as plenty of chefs here. If I’m going somewhere different, I want to eat what’s really native to and reflective of that area. Barney Greengrass means New York to me more than Eleven Madison Park does, so that’s what I want to go have.

Up to a point, anyway. So for Toronto, the most interesting thing to try for me was Chinese food; 20 years ago, before so many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, I went to a place in Toronto’s urban Chinatown, but that’s now dwarfed by the area out in Markham and Richmond Hill, where hundreds of import businesses are served by dozens of Chinese restaurants in strip malls. But for Montreal—if there’s such a thing as Quebecois food, it’s at top restaurants like Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, so I did what I never do and got two high-end reservations back to back at those two places (actually Liverpool House, Joe Beef’s other concept, though as far as I could tell the concept is “Exactly like Joe Beef two doors away”).


Montreal will be in part 2, Toronto in this post. But first—we had to drive there. And driving toward great food up through the back end of Ontario is a somewhat dispiriting experience, punctuated by rest stops whose choices are almost Stalinistically identical (Tim Hortons, KFC, Taco Bell, a convenience store called Marché). From there it got culinarily worse, as we went to Niagara Falls, the town of which is a nightmare of alleged fun attractions (wax museums! Dino mini-golf!) which even the kids couldn’t put behind them fast enough. More attractive for certain was Niagara-On-The-Lake, but it’s a typical weekenders’ quaint little shopping and eating town, take Napa and replace all the wine geegaws with maple syrup gewgaws. We had lunch and walked around and shopped a little, and we were done.



Finally, Toronto in time for dinner. Online I found a noodles joint called Chinese Traditional Bun that sounded promisingly funky, down some steps into a ratty little room, but with ladies making food right by the entrance. They looked at us like we had to be lost, but we convinced them we weren’t and sat down. We had pretty good xiao long bao, soup dumplings—well, Liam had most of them:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 10.48.14 AM

There was also this interesting, sandwich-like thing with lamb in it. It was good, and very unusual— I wonder if it’s a Chinese thing or was invented in Toronto and has no antecedent back home to speak of. [UPDATE: see tweets at bottom.]


But the best thing was dan dan mien, with housemade noodles (below). Scissors were provided to cut them as you ate. I also ordered something that said it was a lamb stew with Chinese bread in it. I don’t know what Chinese bread is, there were lots of little pieces of what looked like pasta in an enormous, fairly flavorless bowl of weird lamb cuts. Sometimes the price of experimenting on something new turns out to be that you have to waste a huge bowl of something in front of the people who made it, alas.



On the way there we had spotted a tiny window where a guy offered lamb skewers, so on our way back we ordered the minimum order of four and watched as the guy took them out of a home freezer, rolled them in cookie sheets covered with spices, and grilled them by hand over an electric grill. This would have been more novel if I hadn’t had basically the same thing in Chicago a few weeks earlier at the skewer place in the Richland food court next to the Chinatown Square mall, but it was cool, nevertheless, to buy street food like this on the teeming streets of Chinatown.

We wanted to get to Montreal early in the week so as not to have all the driving back at the very end, so our last stop in Toronto for the time being was hitting a place in Markham for breakfast dim sum on the way out of town. We’d actually stayed in Markham, 20 years ago, when it was farm country and the TV series of Anne of Green Gables had been shot nearby (never mind that it’s set in P.E.I.) Now it was a busy suburban area loaded, absolutely packed, with strip malls of Chinese-oriented shops.


I knew there was a knockoff of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung nearby, but an article in The Globe & Mail steered me to a place they said was both better and less likely to be packed, 369 Shanghai Dim Sum. Indeed, at 11 we were the second table there, though it filled up fast. First choice was xiao long bao… which were the best I’ve ever had. I’m a little leery of saying that, since there has been a lot of xiao long bao obsessiveness online, so I didn’t haul out the micrometer to measure the wrapper. I’ll just say: most delicate wrapper, best tasting soup, you can’t argue with that.



Most of the other things we had evidenced similarly quality, from shrimp dumplings to pastries filled with pork. At one point I saw something interesting on a nearby table, a bao with kind of a ridged top, something like a croissant, and quietly asked the waitress what it was, not wanting to seem intrusive toward the other table. “This?” she said loudly, sticking her finger right into the middle of their plates. I said yes and she explained that it was a snail. Or snails. I couldn’t tell if she meant it was just shaped like a snail shell, or actually had snails in it. I decided not to inflict an order of those on the family, but I still wonder.


* * *

Renee with the menus at John’s Chinese BBQ.

Coming back after a few days in Montreal I planned another Chinese-palooza with my friend Renee Suen, who writes for Toronto Life. As someone who often guides other journalists, radio hosts, etc. to places in Chicago, I was delighted when I told her that we had gone to 369 Shanghai Dim Sum based on the Globe & Mail piece by Chris Nuttall-Smith— and she replied “Yeah, I took Chris there.”

Piri-piri chicken.

We planned to meet for more dim sum the next day, so the night before we tried something else we don’t have in Chicago— we went to a Portuguese grilled chicken and meats place called Piri-Piri. To be honest, it wasn’t that different from all the South American grilled meats places we have, but it was likable enough.


You have not tasted the power of my Dragon Fu-sion!

Since we’d had Northern dim sum, Renee wanted us to try Southern dim sum too, and she directed us to a place called Dragon Boat Fusion Cuisine, which was packed and barely able to contain the crowds that hovered around the host stand and which she had to beat back out of the dining room regularly. We waited a half hour but finally sat, and it was worth it. Things maybe weren’t as delicate as at 369, which being Northern-style uses a different kind of wheat wrapper anyway, but they were well-made and the fillings were a cut above any that I’ve had here, from something as basic as pork in an egg white wrap to the BBQ pork bao and this cool-looking thing you dipped in mustard and plum sauce:


Custard buns.

BBQ pork pastries.

Yes, there were children deciding what to order.

We were full but not done; Renee wanted us to try one of her favorite dishes, something called “King of King’s Pork” at a Hong Kong BBQ place, John’s Chinese BBQ. It’s a hunk of meat somewhere in the vicinity of pork belly, double-glazed in a honey sauce. And it’s awesome, the ultimate meat candy.


My delight in it was slightly diminished by the display in the foyer as you enter the restaurant: an assortment of shark fin skeletons, a reminder that this is the real Chinese cuisine, eating endangered species to this day in north America. China really has set up shop in this corner of Canada, on a scale well beyond the ability of food writers or much of anyone else to fully comprehend.


At Fort George we saw them fire this…

In honor of these guys, Canadian paratroopers who dropped on and right after D-Day.

ADDENDUM: from a couple of friends via Twitter:

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

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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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


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:


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.”


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.


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:


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.


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):


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):


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:


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:


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:


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.


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):


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.


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.


Now on display at San Franscisco airport: Japanese toys



My sons and I took advantage of a (between engagements) week together to get away from computers and futzing around the house and take a road trip. We saw museums! We ate at places we’ve wanted to go but were a bit too far for a practical trip, just for a 30s-style slider, even for me! And we got a fantastic guided tour of one of the great food stops of the South— the privileges of being a journalist with the ability to work your connections and status to get to see cool things you’re interested in. Here’s what we did:


I’m not a car guy, I think I changed my own headlights once, so when I say that I nearly wept at the beauty of the restored Art Deco vehicles in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, it’s less for the cars than for the elegance of a lost era of American style replaced by one successively hideous or simply dull decade after another. (If you want to make a Studebaker Avanti look like crap, put it at the end of a room that goes from Duesenberg to Corvette.) It’s hard to believe cars like these once went over the roads— they look like Roger Rabbit props, impossible to believe things so exquisitely styled roamed ordinary streets:


Okay, maybe not so ordinary, since the one above belonged to Hollywood producer/Jean Harlow husband Paul Bern, of mysterious and tragic end fame.


The museum is actually in the old Auburn Cord showroom, with dazzling terrazzo floors— again, it all looks more like an 90s Batman set than something that could have ever been real life in America. How did we fall from such an ideal? Why did people not see the pinnacle we had reached and work to stay there?

Other buildings in the former factory complex include other museums, which is to say, other car collections, and one of them had this rarity— a Valentine diner, a prefab diner sized to fit on a truck, manufactured in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas in the 40s and 50s. Very few survive, and this is surely the best restored one.



Not a Valentine diner, but surely a fitting dinner afterwards, was Powers’ Hamburgers in Fort Wayne. We sat at the counter next to the tiny grill as the freshly made, don’t-mention-White-Castle in the same breath burgers were cranked out:



As Myles said after, “I guess I’ve never had a good slider before.” No, probably not, and it was particularly fun to be able to tell them that this is basically what the 5-cent burgers recently revealed on the façade of the former La Pasadita on Ashland were like, since they’ve been fascinated by that bit of urban archeology. History lives, even if it’s been hunted to ground.

We stayed the night in Indianapolis and hit the Children’s Museum, just enough of it still interesting to my older kids, with the help of a traveling exhibit about Avatar’s special effects and fake biology/anthropology (which one might question the appropriateness of in a more serious museum to begin with, but this is more like attic full of interesting junk). We had done that museum on an LTHForum road trip almost a decade ago, and so we couldn’t resist basically the same lunch we had then:


Pastrami at Shapiro’s, a great century-old Jewish delicatessen.


On to Louisville, where despite not needing to see brisket again for a few weeks, I somehow wound up finding it irresistible to order at Milkwood, the newest restaurant from Edward Lee, located in the basement of the Actors’ Theatre building. The room is borderline charmless— it’s a bit like the basement beer hall in a student union— but that ceases to matter when you taste Lee’s Southern-meets-artisanal-meets-charcuterie-meets-contemporary food. I could compare it to Trenchermen for porky quirkiness, or to Carriage House for new take on Southernness, but I kind of found it more satisfying than either, more deeply rooted and yet freer with Southern flavors. I especially liked octopus bacon, which was somehow a cured octopus dish:


and, as noted, brisket served with hunks of biscuit, milk gravy, barbecue sauce, grilled mortadella and pickles.


Sounds like too much, but it worked, like nearly everything did— including the blueberry cobbler dessert with sorghum ice cream, which I liked enough to recreate when I got home.

We didn’t do that much in Louisville, partly because of a big thunderstorm that canceled plans to walk around downtown and sent us to a movie theater… which had a Skyline Chili nearby. Eat way too many Coneys and you get your picture taken; however, look at the record-holder closely before you decide to challenge him:



I first heard of Newsom’s Country Hams, one of the great Kentucky country ham makers, in the book Pig Perfect. The business is carried on by Nancy Newsom Mahaffey in the cute small town of Princeton, and I contacted her a week before my trip about the prospect of doing an audio segment for Airwaves Full of Bacon… not quite realizing that even speeding it was 2-1/2 hours from Louisville to Princeton. I got my very tolerant kids up early and we hurried down there. Anyway, we got to the old country store-slash-artisanal food market that is what the original grocery is today, and sampled both their “preacher ham” (typical modern “wet” ham, good enough for the preacher) and then the prosciutto, which is what’s on the scale above. The standard country ham wasn’t available that day, but after chatting for a while, she took us to the various places where the hams age— one of which is still in her parents’ backyard:


I don’t want to give away too much of what will be in that upcoming Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast, but I have to make mention of the most fascinating, and terrifying, part of our tour. The whole ham business started with her grandfather simply making a few on the side for his neighbors, back in the 20s or so. Today, she makes them in much larger quantities, but there’s still an “on the side for neighbors” aspect of the business: if you want your ham to age further, she’ll keep it hung after you buy it for another six months or year, during which time it will grow a spectacular Rip Van Winkle beard of deathly gray fuzzy mold. (The government doesn’t care; once it’s been sold it’s your business how it’s handled.) I’m sure it’s good inside there, and picking up all kinds of fantastic umami flavors, but… it’s hard not to look at that and shudder.


We didn’t come away with one of those hams, but I came away with all kinds of unexpected treats, from the sorghum I used in that ice cream to Kentucky butter cream candies, which are the most insanely rich thing ever, to corncob jelly (not sure what it is, but couldn’t resist).


From our tour of the ham caves we went to another cave, Mammoth Cave. My wife and I had gone in the traditional entrance years ago, so the kids and I took a different entrance, recently fixed up and reopened, which started with a 400-step descent down 250 feet below the earth.


I mentioned that I had miscalculated how far it was from Louisville to Princeton. I felt bad about the itinerary I stuck the kids with that day— almost exactly as much driving as our return to Chicago would be— but in fact they loved this day, between the hams and the caves (and they laughed about still smelling like ham fat and smoke in the cave). That was nice, that my day of indulgence in foodie stuff went over just fine with them, and in fact prompted a comment from Liam after all of Nancy Mahaffey’s hospitality: “Why are Southerners so nice?”

We drove back to Indianapolis in the morning, making one more foodie stop— Gnaw Bone Sorghum Mill, another spot selling things like sorghum and corn cob jelly, along with ancient videotapes and paperbacks, chainsaw-carved art and some odd souvenirs. Road Food calls it “Worth driving from anyplace”; maybe the fact that I had just stocked up on these things at Newsom’s prejudices me but my evaluation would be more like “Just barely worth the 15 minute detour from I-65 if you’re bored.”

In Indianapolis we came full circle by visiting another car thing— the Indy 500 museum, including taking the bus tour of the actual track (kind of cool to be on it, but the landmarks were all unknown and meaningless to me). By far the best part was the display of about one third of the winners over the years, including the very first one, which allowed you to see the evolution of race car design over time. The obvious place to eat was another Road Food fave, Mug N Bun, a nice if not world class carhop joint a few blocks from the speedway, and a fitting end to a trip bookended by vintage cars and burgers, with Southern food and caves in the middle.


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By the way, I’ve started contributing to Serious Eats Chicago, no particular agenda but trying to write about places a million miles from the places that everybody writes about on the food scene at the moment. I’ve had two pieces so far; read about an unknown Italian beef here and a piece about Chill Cafe (previously posted on at my blog) here.

No one makes fun of New Orleans. It’s fun city, Vegas crossed with spring break crossed with Paris crossed with Haiti and Deliverance. It’s been through so much— what heartless bastard could make fun of the city that suffered Katrina? Only the heartlessiest of heartless grinchtards. It’s an America that’s all play and no work, what’s not to love.

Hey, I had a good time. I loved getting up early and non-hungover and walking the French Quarter in the morning, as the only person awake who wasn’t an employee cleaning up after the revelry of the night before. And anything I ate for around ten bucks was great. Like the shrimp po’ boy at Domilise’s. Or the andouille po’ boy at B&C Seafood Market in Plantation country. Or the muffaletta at Central Grocery. Or the muffaletta at Cochon Butcher.

But as that list suggests, the list of great New Orleans foods is not that long. It’s a cool cuisine, but not a bottomless one by any means. And some of its iconic dishes… I like jambalaya, I’ve made jambalaya with mail-order crawfish, everyone likes jambalaya. But is jambalaya a profound dish, a dish a great chef can make something magical out of? No, it’s a comfy dish anyone can make decently, it’s the South’s answer to steam table lasagna.

And more to the point, while I liked everything I had for $10 and outright loved some of it, it’s a much harder place to have a really good meal for $50 per person in. And that matters because all those great little shack places seem to close at 3 in the afternoon, so if you’re staying in the French Quarter— and everyone stays in the French Quarter— you’re going to have to eat dinner there. And even if you find places that aren’t totally tired and jaded of tourists by now, the easy pickings of tourists have an effect and they’re going to be a bit slack. (I had more service gaffes— wrong thing brought, dish forgot, poached eggs as hard as racquetballs— in five days there than in five months in Chicago.) There are other parts of town, like around Tulane, that look like Austin, full of fun-looking, youthful new places, and there could be some really good places up there. But you’re going to have to make the decision to travel for 20 minutes to go have pizza to get to them, so most people mostly don’t, I expect.

And why would you, when all the word on the city is happy to tell you that the places that were great 20 years ago— or 100 years ago— are still just fine? That’s my problem with the big, easy indulgence of mediocrity anywhere— you’re not just giving a pass to places past their prime, you’re making it harder for new places that try harder to be noticed. Chicago doesn’t have the toughest critical scene by any means, but on the whole, there’s Darwinian pressure that keeps the scene pretty sharp and encourages the tired to retire. So let’s be a little tough on NOLA for once, for its own good.

It started well, at least— the first night we went around the corner from our hotel, saw the hour-plus line at the very popular Acme Oyster Bar, and then took the Rough Guide’s advice and got in the much shorter line across the street at Felix’s Oyster Bar, and you’ll never convince me I was worse off for it. Felix’s packed, no-frills, diner-grill-bar atmosphere was a great introduction, their hand with fried stuff was first-rate and instantly converted my 11-year-old to what he would eat all week, fried catfish, and the grilled oysters— prepared over a fiery Balrog of a grill right in the room, filling it with enough smoke to make you start calculating life expectancy for the staff— were fantastic, black-singed bivalves snatched straight from Lucifer’s nether regions, even winning my oysterphobic wife over with their charred black Magick.

The next day started well, too, with the two most touristy things we could think of to do— beignets at Cafe du Monde and muffaletta from Central Grocery. As for the former, fried dough with sugar, what’s not to like, and for the latter, though I know it’s widely considered to have gone downhill, really, it’s a sandwich with cold cuts on it, how much can it change? I think people now compare it to ones like Cochon’s, which tastes of each individual artisanal meat, where Central Grocery’s taste like all those things together on bread, which is one definition of a sandwich. One’s good old school, one’s good in new artisanal ways. I appreciate ’em both.

A kind of country prosciutto was perhaps the best meat of our meal at Cochon.

That night was New Year’s Eve, and I made reservations for us for a five-course meal at Cochon, to see a somewhat higher end take on New Orleans food (though Herbsaint is Donald Link’s genuine upscale restaurant; Cochon has more like the atmosphere of a nice barbecue place). For Chicagoans, Cochon is a grass-is-greener place, we imagine brash country Cajun miracles beyond our abilities, so let me just say, while it’s good and makes some beautiful meats, I also think that it doesn’t measure up to our best pork palaces in other areas— at The Purple Pig or Nightwood or wherever, we’d have been served better, more balanced and thought-out vegetable courses than a winter cabbage slaw too bitter to enjoy, to name one. That’s not to knock Cochon so much as to say, just being out of town doesn’t automatically make something better than what we have here.

Another great ham course, though sadly, far too huge for us to consume (and, being in a hotel, we couldn’t take it back).

Passing over a purely functional meal at the WWII museum, that night we went looking for another Felix’s Oyster Bar… and would basically never find anything that good in the French Quarter again. A Creole meal at a family restaurant called Olivier’s was friendly enough, but this third generation restaurant feels played out, save for a single bowl of gumbo in which the third generation chef-owner seems to have applied all the modern tricks he knows to make it sharp and multidimensional as a dish again. Get cracking on the rest of the old classics on the menu, kid, is all I can say.

Would Domilise’s, a famous, Road Food-approved po’ boy joint in the uptown area, prove to be a transcendent joint or another past-its-prime place living in its own past? The TV-spawned lines could be read either way; the rueful attitude of one of the owners, asked how he was holding up after being on this or that show and the new crowds he fed each day, might have been a bad sign… but for all that getting into Domilise’s rivaled a TSA line, in the end, this place was the real thing and worth the wait. A million little perfectly fried shrimp on an angelically-fluffy roll… magic.

We popped in here after Domilise’s while just walking around. Very good, nice owner, this is the kind of exploring I’d have loved to have done more of.

Po’boy was on the menu again the next day, at a place called B&C Seafood out by some of the old plantations which you can tour west of the city (which, I have to say, I’m very glad I visited right before seeing Django Unchained, because it made it all more real). This time I had a spicy andouille. Greatest sausage I ever ate, no, but good, yes. $10 well spent.

But that night, seeking to break out of the French Quarter, we made reservations at a place called Brigtsen’s, which was highly regarded and had won Best Chef South or something at the James Beard awards circa 1996, supposedly a contemporary take on Cajun/Creole food. And… it was very faithful to 1996. It wasn’t bad, but it was basically a nice supper club, things like crab-stuffed fish that you see at steakhouses here, very little about it suggested that we were in New Orleans and not, say, Minneapolis or Denver; the ladies who served us could not have been sweeter, I feel bad knocking it, but basically it was food that seemed aimed at parents taking their Tulane-attending kids out for a nice dinner, nothing on the menu that would rock the boat, or my world. By this point I was just resigned to regretting what I could have spent the same $200 on in Chicago.

Our last day I was determined to eat cheap and well— since dinner would be provided by Amtrak, that left only breakfast and lunch, I was sure it could be done. Breakfast was at Mother’s, a ham restaurant, serving gorgeous glazed-to-a-crisp ham (you can, in fact, order the outer crust, which is called “black ham”), along with pretty great biscuits and grits (so far as I’ve ever been able to tell, there are no grades of grits, better grits or worse; grits is grits). The service from the cashier with the thousand-yard stare who promptly put milk in my black coffee was, by now, no more than I expected, though a kindly older black woman came by later and exchanged Southern pleasantries with my son and myself. But hey, I’d have ordered this ham and biscuit from Hurricane Katrina herself.

Our final meal was purchased in advance for the train ride home: sandwiches from Cochon Butcher. The muffaletta, indeed, showed artisanal finesse far beyond the blue collar simplicity of the Central Grocery one, though it was for me the least of the three sandwiches— better yet was a pork belly sandwich with cucumber and mint, and best of all something called the “Buckboard Bacon Melt,” with collard greens. They were even better than our $75 dinner at Cochon a few nights before. And the price? $12, $10 and $11 respectively.

Heading home.