Sky Full of Bacon

Photos mostly by Liam Gebert.

I’ve had it in my head to build my own woodburning pizza oven since I went on a camping trip with my son Liam’s class at Angelic Organics a few years ago. (He goes to that kind of school.) They had a home-built one, very rustic and hippie-looking, and referred me to the bible for people who want to do this, Kiko Denzler’s Build Your Own Earth Oven. Denzler convinced me I could make a cool stone oven for about $25… but the book didn’t come with the land to do it on. And I couldn’t see anywhere on my Chicago property that I, or the adjacent houses, could feel happy about an oven sitting there hot enough to bake bread in… 24 hours after the fire went out.

Then I heard about the Kettle Pizza, which is designed to fit onto a Weber kettle (either 18″ or 22″). It’s basically a metal ring with an opening, nothing more than that (okay, it has handles and a thermometer too), but it’s just enough that you can build a fire around 6-700 degrees (or even more), heat up a stone, slide pizzas in and out, and get something like a Neapolitan pizza off your Weber kettle for maybe $200 or so.

Here’s how the first dinner went:



I use a Weber chimney so I lit that, then poured out the hot coals in a C-shape at the back and tossed on some hickory chunks. Wood will burn hotter than charcoal, and I also wanted to see if I could use the more readily available hickory without a margherita pizza tasting like Texas brisket, or if I needed something like oak that doesn’t produce a smoke flavor. Then you put the ring on, set the stone in the middle, and cover it.


Then off to make pizza #1. The night before I had made the standard dough recipe from Mark Bello, of New York’s Pizza a Casa school. Later I’ll dabble in 00 flour and stuff like that, but for now I wanted to try this reliable recipe using regular all-purpose flour, which I already knew worked in my oven. I made a margherita with some fresh mozzarella I’d picked up at Eataly on Friday.


I went back out to check on the temperature and… it was only around 550 degrees. My fire was too small. Carefully I lifted and balanced the kettle on the edge while Liam poured in more charcoal and topped it with some more hickory. There were many possible disasters at this point, so I tell you this so you can avoid having to do it ever.


Back out in a few minutes and the temperature was now off the scale, which tops out at 700. So 750-800 degrees, as high as most woodburning restaurant ovens. In pizza numero uno went!


We waited 2-1/2 minutes, peeking through the slot. We could see the crust bubbling at this end, but I had been told it would cook faster nearer the fire (duh) and you needed to spin it halfway through.


Well, so 2-1/2 minutes at this temperature was quite a bit more than halfway through, it turned out; the pizza was already black bubbles at the far end. Still, after being put back in to cook the other end for a moment, it looked pretty good for a first try.



Pizza #2 was a recipe that I’d gotten from Bello himself when I went to a party he was cooking at here in Chicago. You put down olive oil mixed with honey (very quickly, since they separate again instantly), some sauteed onion, black pepper and hunks of taleggio cheese.


This time we timed the twirling better, barely a minute and a half for each side…


Then topped with some olive oil into which I’d shaved some Australian truffle.


We sat down to eat at this point, the first pizza still hot. How were they? They came out very well for first tries. I think I spread the crusts too thin, and a little more bread would have helped, but they were definitely in the ballpark for Neapolitan pizza. A few thousand more and who knows?



I had two more pizzas to make, another margherita and a Hawaiian which was meant to test how it cooked something covered with more ingredients than the margherita or other minimalist Neapolitan pizzas. Unfortunately, on this cold day by the time I got back out there the oven temperature had fallen down to barely above 500. But, of course, the stone retains its full heat for much longer. So I knew that this pizza would burn on the bottom before the top was done. I wound up holding it on the pizza peel up to the dome for a couple of minutes to get it done. I also realized that there was another tool I would need— a long brush to sweep the burnt semolina meal off the stone. The last two pizzas were less than ideal, but still were eaten happily, basically coming out like the pizzas I’d been making up to this point in my regular oven.



And so, conclusions:

1) The Kettle Pizza works and is money well spent.
2) They say you want their stone because the one you have is only designed for indoor oven temps, so you might as well. It’s thicker, which is good.
3) Build a big fire that will last as long as you cook.
4) Turn earlier than it looks like you need to.
5) Hickory is fine, it didn’t taste like barbecue.
6) I like my new Kettle Pizza!


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A couple of months back I had the privilege of introducing a friend of mine and a well-known figure on the food scene, to another pair of friends of mine… also well-known figures on the food scene. They hit it off well and found many points of compatibility, and so I’m excited to be able to share their news with the world today.


Chicago’s beloved butcher shop The Butcher & Larder is going in a new direction in the next few weeks with the addition of two new partners to the team of Rob and Allie Levitt. They are Jon and Andrew Landan, the twins who have become renowned for their tireless work promoting the Chicago social scene. The revamped shop, The Butcher & Landan, will continue its dedication to farm-sourced, naturally-raised meats, but at the same time will add features reflecting the increased popularity of whole-animal butchery on the social scene, such as an on-premise DJ, Ladies’ Nights, and bottle service in “Protein,” the shop’s new second-floor lounge.

Says Rob Levitt, “We are totally, one thousand percent devoted to giving you the most awesome meat service imaginable, including curated sausage flights and private roasted offal salons. At the same time, I’m tired of cutting meat all day and looking forward to being able to balance that with the all-night party that Alli and I dreamed of our shop being from the moment we opened it.”

As for the Landans, whose interest in nose-to-tail cooking and whole animal butchery has long been known on the club scene, they’re excited about adding meat to their portfolio of exciting nightlife activities. “We looked at how much we were spending on the gym,” said Andrew, or possibly Jon, “and said why do that when we can haul half carcasses from Q7 and Slagel back and forth in the store and get the same workout?”


The newly revamped shop expects to kick off with a VIP party in late April. To learn more about the concept, watch for the upcoming Sky Full of Bacon video “The Fabulous Butcher Boys.”

So after spending much of the week debating the morality of the $6 tamale, I knew that I would have to go back to Green City Market and try the savory ones that everyone was raving about and at least some people considered worthy of the $6 price tag.

I approached the stand carefully, scanning it to see if a blurry photo of me with “DO NOT SERVE” was tacked up anywhere. Actually, they shouldn’t be too upset with me, considering the number of people I know who twitted something this morning about going to get “$6 tamales.” Blogging about overpricing— the new way to boost your business!

The coast was clear and after a brief wait in line, I was the proud owner of $12 worth of tamales. I will note that a woman came up, said “They’re six dollars— for one?”, and left while I was standing there.

Though it’s possibly the least appetizing-looking thing I’ve eaten in some months, I liked the spicy (hardly) chorizo one quite a bit. The chorizo had good flavor, there were some bits of zucchini mixed in, and best of all the grease from the chorizo had soaked into the masa in an especially appealing way.

The brisket one had the rich flavor of pot roast and the toothsomeness of masa… but that was kind of all it had. I wanted another flavor note to sneak in there— like the spices that would have been added to a Mexican pork one at a $1.50 tamale place.

I liked these pretty well, but I still found them a little small and sparse (if there’s anything you can be generous with, it’s zucchini in July), and I can’t say I see spending $6 on them regularly. Maybe it’s just me and tamales, which I think are fine, but would not rank among my favorite things, partly because of the soft, no-teeth-needed texture, which doesn’t appeal to me all that much in general (when Kennyz was raving about how well the polenta was cooked at Davanti, I just sort of nodded, yeah, whatever, it’s polenta). I’ve certainly heard from enough tamale-lovin’ folks this week to believe that Las Manas is doing something right for somebody— I’m just not them.

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Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *

$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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Like many foodies, I’ve shopped at Costco for years and one of the things I’ve come to rely on is the cool, refreshing taste of Kirkland bottled water. Yet it wasn’t until I saw a promotion in the front of the store next to the venetian blinds and the caskets that I realized all the Kirkland water came from the company’s own bottling facilities at Lake Kirkland in Idaho. Looking for somewhere to get away from the harsh Chicago winter, the vacation package they offered for a 7 day/6 night stay at The Inn at Lake Kirkland was simply too good a deal to pass up. So this time when I came home from Costco, I didn’t just surprise my wife with Australian Riesling, new cordless phones or a 12-pack of long underwear— it was with an exciting vacation.

The Inn at Lake Kirkland is an all-suites resort nestled by the blue waters of Lake Kirkland, and offering a truly dazzling range of recreation options. Besides a wide selection movies on blu-ray to watch from our in-room recliners and a Time-Life Music tribute band in the nightclub performing the greatest hits of Johnny Mathis, The Eagles and Merle Haggard, there were plenty of water sports options to be had:

But this is a food blog and you want me to report on the food options available, so here goes. There are more than a dozen restaurants on the Lake Kirkland property, and I was largely impressed by both the quality and the quantity they offered. Arriving mid-day on Saturday, we had lunch at the casual Haggler’s and were very impressed by the delicate texture of their woodfired pizza and the robust flavor of the Hampshire Farms bacon on it:

Since we purchased the babysitting package, my wife and I were able to sneak away on a couple of nights. Plasma, the bar and lounge in the south wing, had a throbbing energy augmented by an ever-changing display of some of Costco’s best offerings.

The wine flights offered tastes of 12, 24 or 48 wines rated at least 86 by The Wine Enthusiast and were really a great deal.  We stuck mostly to light appetizers here and one of our favorites was the sample platter of mini-quiches:

But the most impressive meal we had, without question, was at the resort’s four-star Le Rabais. Chef Jimmy Dean Saucisse worked at French Laundry, Per Se and Carnival Cruise Lines, and there’s a clear Achatz influence in some of his exquisitely designed and plated dishes, such as “Grass and Snow,” in which the dish is wittily plated onto a garden rake (Woodbridge & Vinely, $269.99/3-pack in the lobby) and the finishing touches of truffle salt are applied with an Ariens snowblower ($479.99):

For all his artful touches, however, Saucisse understands that the Lake Kirkland traveler is there for a fully satisfying dining experience of good-sized portions, and so there’s nothing twee or excessively retiring about Foie Gras Fourteen Ways (clockwise left to right: teriyaki, smoky chipotle, honey Dijon, cool ranch, mountain spring, rosemary-bacon, Hawaiian, strawberry-kiwi and chocolate-mint; not shown: Texas 5-Alarm, Tuscan sun-dried tomato, New England chowder, wasabi-pecan and habanero):

After a feast like that, I downsized my order from the T-Bone Case to the Iowa Steak Filet Sampler, but I still had enough left over for a tasty midnight snack an hour after dinner:

And as tempted as we were by the many frozen yogurt options, in the end we split a simple platter of profiteroles, which ended the meal on just the right light note:

I’ve come home from so many vacations with a vague feeling of, I don’t know, hunger for something more than we experienced. But in this case, The Inn at Lake Kirkland exceeded my expectations in every way. Everything we were served was outstanding and the attention to detail was simply remarkable. Based on this visit, I can’t wait for my next chance to experience what Chef Saucisse and all his comrades are offering. In fact, my stomach is rumbling at the thought of how long it will be before we can return right now.

When Rob and Allie Levitt left Mado to start a butcher shop, I was concerned that we’d lost one of the best restaurants in town (and I mean that in a 2 or 3 at most sense, not an airily wide-ranging sense) and would gain a business that couldn’t make it on volume, was just too specialized. Which just shows that Rob sees more in a piece of meat than I do— literally; one of the first things you notice at The Butcher & Larder is just how many product offerings they can make out of the same carcass. But also, he saw more customers out there who would want that sort of thing and be willing to pay for it, and he was evidently right, to judge by his tweets around Valentine’s Day which were more about what he was out of than what he had.

What’s fascinating to me is how readily a decent-sized customer base has taken to their non-supermarket way of selling stuff— we have what we carved out of the animals we have, and if we don’t have what you came in for, we’ll sell you what we do have and tell you how to make it. I’m sure Mado wasn’t the highest volume local-farmer, nose-to-tail restaurant in town, but no other place impressed upon me so strongly what eating by the seasons and making use of everything you get in really amounted to, and not just because I made a video about them. You saw it in their vegetables, too (alas, something you can’t get at The Butcher & Larder), the simplest treatment of what came from the market this week opening your eyes to the flavors of something like sunchokes or beets in a way that nothing ever had before. Meat palace Mado was also the best vegetable restaurant in town, in my book, because of the respect with which they treated the natural, evanescent goodness in everything.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to lunch at The Butcher & Larder:

This was beer-braised pork shoulder. And what’s funny about it is how little Rob evidently cares about the trappings of contemporary dining versus simply doing the right thing by meat. If you got a sandwich like this at another locavorish kind of place— City Provisions, say— you’d get some arty little crispy chips with it, or you’d order a side of beet salad, or something. Or there would at least be some fancy toppings on it, a little shaved fennel pickled in red wine vinegar. They’d make a nice-looking combo out of it. At The Butcher & Larder, you get a generic bag of supermarket potato chips and a pop, just like you’d get at some sub place on the south side. I can’t help but think there will be Yelp reviews shortly getting indignant about this, wondering why there aren’t truffle chips like at Grahamwich. But then you bite into the sandwich… and the cares of the world, the jostling and striving, melt away. It’s just pure porkerifficness, bathed in beer and a few spices, but most of all, in the time to do it right.

As at Mado, Rob Levitt believes you either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s somewhere else out there for you, and someone else out there waiting to buy from him.

* * *

I have a The Butcher & Larder problem, though. Which is that for years I have casually referred to Paulina Market as the Greatest Butcher Shop in the Universe. And I’ve lived here for 20+ years without ever once having to contemplate a rival for the title.

Of course, the world is a big place with many different things, and there’s no reason that I have to choose between two such different businesses, just because they sell roughly the same thing. Paulina was an old-school German meat market, back when that’s what my neighborhood was, that successfully escaped being pigeonholed as an ethnic market and made the jump to simply being a superior meat market for those who were savvy enough to know that when you wanted a steak to cook out, you didn’t go to the Jewels, you went to Paulina.

And I’ve gone to Paulina for decades, and taken my kids who they’ve watched grow up (and who eagerly look forward to free samples of bologna— I avoided bologna for 20 years, but if you want to know how good the most routine of lunchmeats can be, go to Paulina and try what they make in house). Now, along the way I’ve obviously become conscious like many people of the issues involved in how meat is raised, and I’m a big partisan of non-industrial pork and a somewhat more qualified one of artisanal beef. So to some extent I’ve followed my values to buying more meat from the farmer’s markets and the like.

But those aren’t my only values; I also have ones about supporting ethnic diversity in Chicago, and patronizing businesses that come to know their customers, and spending my money at places that do things the right way because they’ve always done things the right way. And so every week I go to Paulina for some of the things that they make in an old-school, non-industrialized, real ingredients kind of way: their bologna, their baked ham, their summer sausage, their hot dogs. What Rob Levitt had to rediscover and reintroduce to his customers on one side of the great mass industrialization of American food, they’ve been keeping alive from the other side, from before it happened.

I sent a friend a couple of recipes for things I’ve been making from what they offer at Paulina for literally two decades now. They barely qualify as recipes, they’re so simple, and Paulina does the hard work in both cases. But they’re both great winter meals that you’ll be glad you added to your repertoire.

Simplified Choucroute Garni For a Busy Night

6 Paulina Thuringer sausages (they’re precooked, fyi)
1 container Paulina sauerkraut
2 lbs. small red potatoes

Cut potatoes in half, cut sausages in thirds. Dump kraut in big stockpot, mix potatoes and sausages into kraut, pour enough water to 2/3 cover it all. Sprinkle with pepper (no salt, there’s plenty in the kraut). Heat with lid on until potatoes are soft, stirring it around carefully to mix what’s on top down into the bottom from time to time. Serve with a dab of brown mustard on the side.

Split Pea Soup With Paulina Ham Hock

1 Paulina ham hock aka pork shank
1 or 1-1/2 packages of split peas, or navy beans, or canned chickpeas
1 medium onion
1 carrot

Dice carrot and onion, doesn’t have to be too fine. Cover hamhock and vegetables with water in a stockpot or dutch oven. Simmer for an hour or two. Add split peas or beans and cook till soft (obviously, if you use dried beans, use the appropriate process to soften them up first; split peas will soften in about an hour or so).

Take hamhock out and let cool while you puree soup. Cut band of skin off hock and start hunting for the pieces of meat hidden inside, cutting or scraping away big hunks of fat; dice meat and toss it back in the soup. Give them another 20 minutes to melt out some gelatin and blend flavors. Salt to taste.

The Butcher & Larder
1026 N Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60642
(773) 687-8280

Paulina Market
3501 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-6272

Bryan Burroughs’ book Public Enemies, which leant its title but not much else to the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger movie, is one of those books that changes how you see the place where you live. We’re used to the idea of the urban gangster, Capone et al., but the bank robbers he focuses on were really a rural phenomenon created by the automobile— in fact, exactly what you would get if you took earlier horseback robbers like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy, and gave them a Ford. The automobile gave them the ability to swoop into a small town, rob it blind, and then be miles down some country road before the sleepy local constabulary even knew what hit them. And often, the place they’d be heading to would be another kind of small town, which had a crooked sheriff who spent most evenings at the card game in the back of the local garage owner/fencer of stolen goods, and would arrange for the robbers to hide out for a few days till the coast was clear.

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I imply nothing about the past of the town of Hampshire, a tiny town a little ways south of I-90 past the last outlet mall west of Chicago, which for all I know was as clean a place as you could wish. The Dillingeresque activity around Chicago tended to be closer to the lake and the Indiana or Wisconsin borders, anyway. But seeing as perfect a slice of small town America as Hampshire’s short commercial strip, and then barreling out of it past corn fields, it was hard not to imagine myself one of those fedora-brimmed tough guys, making off at high speed with the loot. Only, my loot was bacon.

I’ve bought Dreymiller & Kray products before at various places (they’re at Fox & Obel, Treasure Island and others in the city), but the one time I tried to go there, I made the mistake of hitting Ream’s in Elburn first, and they were closed by the time I got there, shutting the door at 2 on Saturdays.

Not exactly preserved in amber, Dreymiller & Kray nevertheless still has the look of the 1930s era business it is. But the current owner and his longtime staff have been working on expanding into the Chicago market, and I had a chance to talk with them at Baconfest last spring. They’re doing a nice job of balancing still being the vintage small town business they are with taking advantage of their heritage and products as something marketable in the big city. And so you have a business which displays a menu from chichi Terzo Piano at the Art Institute with their bacon on it… and also displays handknitted potholders for sale on behalf of some local church or school group.

I picked out a nice assortment of their products, from bacon to brats, and then got to talking with Keith, a longtime employee who I remembered from Baconfest. He called my attention to some of the fermented sausages they started making after Ed, the owner, visited Italy. Like other charcuterie-makers, they’ve had to wrestle the health inspectors a little to get them to permit them to sell these unfamiliar products without processing in the same way as conventional meats, but he says they’ve mostly accepted that after 80 years, Dreymiller & Kray know what they’re doing. I salute these noble public servants for their obvious good sense.

I asked about one especially picturesque old wooden door and if it was still in use. “Every day, that’s the way to our smoke house,” Keith said. “Want to see it?”

My fellow meat enthusiast and I eagerly accepted this invitation and Keith led us back into the halls of the deceptively long and narrow building. He explained that the store opened in 1929, but the founder was a bit casual at first about the smoking, and about a year later, he burned the whole block down. He set up temporary shop in the hardware store across the street for several months, and the current building, including a much more fire-resistant smoke house, was opened in 1931.

I wish I could show you how splendidly atmospheric the smoke house is… but of all the smoke houses I’ve seen, from Susie-Q’s to Calumet Fisheries to Smitty’s in Texas, this has to be the pitch-blackest, virtually impossible to photograph unless you had a bank of klieg lights. So he explained its operation as I peered into its inky depths. The racks, which are suspended from the ceiling on a track system (also used to move sides of beef around the building), can hold a total of 800 pounds of bacon at a time, which will spend a full 24 hours cold-smoking in the smoke house, being brought up to 140F at various points to meet government regulations. (They keep temperature records on every batch, and are inspected daily to ensure that things are running properly.)  The coals are fed into a moon-shaped firepit at the bottom.  Last year, they made 23,000 pounds of bacon, which by my estimate, would be about 230 pounds per resident of Hampshire annually if they weren’t selling most of it elsewhere by now.  I’ve had it before and it’s really nice stuff, good quality pork (ruby-red like the stuff I make at home) and with a subtle smoke and salt flavor.  If you haven’t bought bacon from a butcher shop that smokes their own— Paulina, of course, being another one in Chicago— you really need to see how much better and cleaner it tastes than standard industrial bacon.

As the volume has risen, they’ve added new technology to their old butcher-shop ways. This is their walk-in cooler, and the machine at right is a tumbler which, by jostling the pork bellies around, cures them in about two days, instead of the week or two it used to take. He also demonstrated their high-volume vacuum sealer, which they clearly are happy to have, since they vacuum-seal just about everything in the shop except the knitted potholders.

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Thanking him for our tour, we left with a bunch of fresh sausage and bacon and a chunk of the finocchiona, and headed for Elburn, about 20 miles south. Ream’s, a somewhat bigger meat market renowned for its wide range of sausages and brats, has been written about a fair amount elsewhere, they even have a Dolinsky icon by the door, and in any case they were too busy on a Saturday afternoon to put up with somebody like me cross-examining them about their business as Keith at Dreymiller & Kray had done. But we added to our meaty loot here with various brats and wieners, and I noticed that they too were now dabbling in cured fermented Italian sausages, and bought some slices of their finocchiona, too.

On Saturdays, Ream’s has a little stand out front selling their hot dogs and one of their various housemade sausages. Today’s was a cheese brat which had apparently won some competition somewhere. Considering that just two days earlier I had had Old Town Social’s cheese wiener at the Green City Market BBQ, this was shaping up to be a heck of a week for cheese filled tube steaks, and though the cheese wasn’t as good as the Brunkow that Old Town Social used, this was still a pretty wonderful lunch.

When we got home I did a Kane County finocchiona taste-off. Dreymiller & Kray’s, the more finely ground one on the right, had a strong lactic taste from the fermentation culture, and an actual hint of fennel (visible in the photo); it seemed more homemade. Ream’s, the coarser slices on the left, had little fennel flavor but a nice meatiness that tasted like the pork it came from, and seemed more professional, vaguely. Both were plenty good. Just try and take ’em away from me, copper!

Dreymiller & Kray
140 S. State St., Hampshire
(847) 683-2271

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St, Elburn
630 365-6461

Within every first-person food essay is a deeply buried lede, and that lede is, “God I love talking about myself.”

A well-known local food writer retweeted that yesterday (I’d say who it originally came from, but Twitter Is Over Capacity and so I can’t find out who the original author is). We would never wish to disappoint those looking for evidence of solipsism in blogging, so here is my fascinating life in food over the last few days…

That was last week’s Green City Market summed up in a photo. I made, it will come as no surprise, asparagus soup and strawberry-rhubarb pie that night.

One thing they’ve been working on at Green City is having more meat vendors, so it was exciting to see Dietzler Beef and Becker Lane Pork available there. Dietzler Beef is widely used in local restaurants (you’ll hear about it in the next Sky Full of Bacon video) and Jude Becker’s pork, of course, becomes La Quercia Acorn Edition pork, among other things. That said… the Dietzler prices were not insane ($7/lb. for beef… well, it’s really good beef) but Becker was charging $12/lb. for pork belly and into the $20s for some cuts. Sure, if you’re going to roast a little piece of belly, Blackbird style, it would be worth it for meat of this quality, but that’s way out of my range for making bacon, say. (I pay about $5— with shipping— from another Iowa producer, and am very happy with it.) I don’t fault them for this, and I’m happy to see more suppliers, but that’s just the reality of what I, for one, will spend.

Those were purple radishes from Kinnikinnick (which I’m finally spelling right). The next day I went to visit these radishes at their home— yes! I finally shot the last footage for the next video at Kinnikinnick Farm! Actually I took the boys along, and Dave Cleverdon’s granddaughter was visiting, so what started as a 15-minute stop to get some establishing shots and B-roll, turned into an afternoon of farm fun for the boys, including a picnic lunch on the farm. (There’s no such thing as visiting a farmer for 15 minutes and not eating anything, I’ve found.) So anyway, a really pleasant day on the farm, the rain held off until just as we were leaving, and you should see some of that footage very soon, I think.

Now then, here’s a test of how much of a Chicago foodie you are: how many of these backs of heads can you identify? You should be able to get at least three between the two photos:

I was invited, courtesy of Mr. Steve Dolinsky, to an event honoring Grant Achatz for Alinea placing #7 in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants thing. (#7 makes it the highest-ranking restaurant in North America.) It was accompanied by a lunch at Everest. Given that the list tends to favor Old World places and virtues (though Dolinsky talked about working to change that), there was something oddly fitting about our most avant-garde four-star restaurant being feted at perhaps the most classical.

I’d only eaten at Everest once before, more than a decade ago. I think Chef Joho is one of our local heroes— pun intended; he was buying locally before local was cool— and I like Brasserie Jo a lot, where he gets down with the tarte a l’oignon and other Alsatian everyday food, but I have to admit that whenever I was going to drop an Everest-sized wad in the years since then, I was always more inclined to spend it on avant-garde novelty than classical French, however accomplished. Nothing against it, just not my sweet spot for where I’d spend my own money, I thought.

In my La Quercia video, Joho talks about the first time he tasted their prosciutto, and says, “It was the closest to perfection that you can do, even though perfection is nonexistent.” (I like that comment because the second part of it shows that he’s thinking seriously and discriminatingly in the first part, and not just handing out compliments casually.)

So you see that piece of halibut, poached in oil, with morels and asparagus and a butter sauce? I mean, morels and asparagus and butter, what could be more traditional, expected, breaking-no-paradigms French food, right?

Well, what Joho said.

So there, that wasn’t even me talking, let alone about me.

(By the way, the backs of heads you should have been able to ID were Tony Mantuano, Jean Joho, Steve Dolinsky, and Grant Achatz. And if you’d like to taste Joho’s food for free, he’ll be at Paulina Meat Market this Saturday.)

I had some fun a while back with the apocalyptic feel of the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, as it appeared in the dead of winter in a crumbling old theater. Yesterday was the last day of the winter session, though, the market reopening in June in the great outdoors— and this day the old theater seemed lively and packed with vendors and musicians and kids and even a few growing things. The apocalypse has apparently been canceled, in favor of spring.

Since I had younger son with me, our first stop was Zullo’s, so we could get a snack. I had a slice of flatbread with onion on it, he had a cone of little doughnuts, which he was very happy about. Next we swung by Otter Creek cheese to pick up some more of their Spring cheddar, which is expensive and worth every penny, full of deep cheddar flavor, not funk, but rich, full-bodied cheesiness. He was next to the Meat Goat guy, who sold me the short ribs for my Thomas Keller meal a while back; and he told me that they’ll be doing meat and cheese deliveries over the next few weeks, apparently you can place an order through either site and they’ll deliver, including fresh meat (everything brought to the market has to be frozen).

The macarons from the macaron lady looked gorgeous as ever, and Liam had eaten several dollars’ worth of samples by the time I snatched the toothpick from his hand, so I bought a little box of those, even though I already had two different desserts for dinner. The coolest-looking one is a bright purple cassis one. Liam reported it tasted good, too.

Turning the corner, Hillside Orchard actually had apples, not sure where those have been hiding, so I bought some Honey Crisps and some Golden Delicious, and then some eggs. Turning around, Vera Videnovich had one jar of quince marmalade. It looked pretty runny, I question whether it’s suitable for toast, but I’m sure there will be some interesting use for it, with cheese or something. She also had garlic scapes, when someone asked how they could be growing already, she said they’d simply survived winter without drying out or turning brown, somehow.

Last stop we swung by the crepe stand; they had chocolate brioche, and after my own experiences making it for the first time, I thought, well, we have to try this. So Liam and I polished that off, and I realized I still have a ways to go before making a brioche that light and fluffy.

The market was lively in a way I hadn’t seen it before. People were coming out of their caves, happy to see each other and to welcome the return of the growing season. Winter is over. Long live spring. When I got home, we put up the hammock.

HC Monterrey, Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

The tourist district of Playa del Carmen was just a few blocks behind me, but already I was in a different Mexico, dusty and built out of crumbling plaster. I couldn’t see it ahead, the place I’d heard about, but suddenly I could smell it, sizzling beef on the air. I walked into the butcher shop and there was a counter where they sold the goods— but mainly there was a grill, the size of a double bed, smoke rising from it as a couple of guys with tongs threw long, jagged pieces of meat onto the grill. The smell of arrachera, skirt steak, was manly and primal, and a few dollars’ worth of pesos bought me a hunk of still sizzling meat with the barest of accompaniments— a baked potato and some limes. It was maybe the greatest beef experience of my life.

*  *  *

Los Potrillos, Chicago.

Lots of grocery stores have a place to grab a bite in them, whether it’s slice pizza at Dominick’s or the full-fledged food court at the Kingsbury Whole Foods. But there’s a unique character to the taquerias inside Mexican markets— partly it’s that you can tell they want to show off the meat counter’s goods in the best light to encourage sales, like that butcher shop in Mexico did; partly it’s the social side, the fact that a market is something of a community gathering place, like a Mexican town square, especially on weekends when they expand their menus to include specials like birria and menudo.  Whatever the reason, they’re only about a million times livelier than their wan equivalents in American groceries, and they make for an immersive experience in Chicago’s Mexican culture.  In some ways they’re about the most authentic Mexican eating experiences in town, at least in the sense that they’re making the fewest concessions to the gringo trade in terms of menu items or English on the signage.

Taqueria Ricardo.

Which is not to say they’re all the same— in fact, they have many different characters and feels.  Some are big bustling cafeterias with lines of guisados (stews) or gorditas frying; others are like corner diners, a few stools lined up in front of a grillman as he works in a cloud of meat smoke.  Although tacos de carne asada, steak tacos, are the universally standard menu item and seem to account for half the business at any taqueria, beyond that there are plenty of regional variations which seem to suggest that Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods are in turn reflecting Mexican regional differences.  For instance, on the northwest side (which besides Mexicans includes many South Americans) rotisserie or grilled chicken is an important item, and a cafeteria line of guisados is often found.  While on the south side, handpatted tortillas (tortillas heche a mano) and skilled tortilla-makers visibly at work on the line are the center of attention.

Los Potrillos.

For the last few months, I’ve been scouting out and sampling supermercado taquerias around town whenever lunchtime presented me with the desire for Mexican food.  To be honest, I felt like I had fallen into a bit of a rut in my Mexican dining, eating at the same few places, a not uncommon ailment even among foodies, and this gave me an entire new subcategory, largely uncharted, to use to compel myself to try new places.  Only one Mexican supermercado taqueria is widely known in the Chicago foodosphere: Wicker Park’s Tierra Caliente, formerly Carniceria Leon, famous for some of the best tacos al pastor (the real kind, on the gyros-style cone) in town.  My initial thought was, here was an opportunity to find a place that might even surpass Tierra Caliente at the thing it’s famous for.  Ironically, that’s the one thing I didn’t really do; as it turns out, only one of the other supermercado taquerias I found actually serves pastor on a cone at all, and though it’s every bit as good as Tierra Caliente’s, I’m still happy to say that if you want pastor, Tierra Caliente is the logical place to try first.

Pastor spit at Taqueria Ricardo.

But I found so many other interesting things that it hardly mattered.  What follows below is my notes on more than a dozen supermercado taquerias all around town.  Typically, I tried carne asada tacos on the first visit, because that seemed an easy standard for comparison between places that cared enough to try harder and places that didn’t; but if there was any reason to think they emphasized something else, I tried that instead, and aimed in general to sample the various restaurants’ strengths.  (As has been noted on LTHForum, one of the challenges for these places is that since they’re cranking out food in quantity rather than to order, you have to time your visit well for the peak experience— for instance, steak tacos are best at lunch rush, when turnover is high and you have the best odds for getting steak fresh off the fire; but tacos al pastor are better a little off peak hour, when your meat has time to really crisp up in the gyros machine.  And of course, if there isn’t a gyros machine, take a pass on pastor— fried in a pan is common, but nowhere near as good.)

Carne asada tacos, Los Potrillos.

*  *  *

After I had compiled a list of about a dozen places or so, I arranged an LTHForum event at three of the best, which took place this past Saturday.  Besides wanting to introduce my finds to more people, I was eager to visit some of them in a larger party that would allow me to explore their menus in greater detail.  So if you’re interested in checking some of these taquerias out, I’d recommend these three first as not only three of the best but offering a good cross-section of the scene and what’s to be had at different places.  Our first stop was Los Potrillos:

This is a small taco grill that really does first-rate steak tacos, cecina tacos, etc., thanks to an excellent grillman who serves good quality meat hot and juicy off the grill in big, tender chunks.  We also ordered the consomme de chivo which had impressed me on an earlier visit, though it was kind of watery and not as exciting this time— maybe it would have been better after cooking down for another hour or two.  (The pot on which Consomme de Chivo is painted in big letters was curiously missing as well.)

Next was Taqueria Ricardo. Besides the best atmosphere (you wouldn’t necessarily know you were in a supermercado at all, as it’s pretty separate), a ramshackle riot of tile that suggests the over-the-top exuberance of Mexico, this has such an extensive menu that we wound up really having a full (very full) lunch here.  Chicken grilled over live fire was a star here, but so were pastor tacos served at the peak of grilled crispiness, an excellent green salsa-poblano tamale, a lively caldo de siete mares (soup of the seven seas) with a big langoustine plopped right in it, a weekend special of barbacoa de res, and more.  (Though one I wouldn’t recommend was David Hammond’s choice of pickled pig’s feet, which proved that there is a lot of fat and not much meat on a pig’s foot.)  This is really a great Mexican restaurant in both food and atmosphere, which deserves wider attention and discovery.

Taqueria Ricardo; above: chicken over heater, below: caldo de siete mares, pickled pigs’ feet.

Finally we headed down to La Villita to Carniceria Aguascalientes, which has a large cafeteria-style area built on the handmade gorditas that are its star attraction.  Pork in red and green salsas and a poblano-cheese filling all proved to be worthy fillings for the wonderfully warm and nurturing freshly-fried gorditas.

Thanks to all who came along with me on Saturday and I hope many more will follow in our footsteps, discovering one of the last frontiers of ethnic food experience in Chicago.  Now here’s my list:


Chapala Taqueria
7117 N. Clark

An attractive modern grocery whose taqueria stresses pollo asado al carbon, char-grilled chicken. It was indeed first-rate, with a subtly seasoned outside (not just Goya Sazon) and cooked well; carne asada was fine if not first-tier. Weekend specials, including carnitas and menudo, would be worth checking out.

Chapala Taqueria.

Supermercado Carreta
6906 N. Clark

If you have an elderly aunt who wants to try a supermercado taqueria, this one is easily the spiffiest and most friendly to the hygiene-obsessed in its area, and the menu pictures on the wall looked promising. But a gordita with carne asada was fatally bland, flavorless masa and the meat smothered in lettuce, chese and crema. Deserves another try from another part of the menu, but disappointing.

Supermercado Almita
5957 N. Clark

This little grocery with a tin ceiling and wooden shelves has a 1927-in-amber decrepitude that will either charm you or creep you out; I was charmed by the two ladies running it, watching Mexican soaps as one of them made me a homey, but perfectly decent, steak taco.


Taqueria Ricardo
4429 W. Diversey

Easily my favorite find to date; I can’t think of another Mexican restaurant in Chicago that so captures the ramshackle charm of Mexico itself, from the over the top tilework to the grill haphazardly stacked on top of its burning wood. The menu is wildly diverse, ranging from seafood to grilled chicken adobo and rabbit. Carne asada is good and the pastor is flavorful with lots of pineapple dripping down. Wood smoke means the chicken is outstandingly flavorful, and the presentation of a whole chicken on a metal stand is impressive. A milanesa torta was freshly fried and the bread was toasted, both good signs. Though the guisados were hit (chicken in green salsa) and miss (chicharron), a weekend special of barbacoa de res was excellent, and so was a tamale of poblano and cheese. Among the seafood items, the caldo de siete mares was very nice, impressively decked with a whole langoustine, but a shrimp cocktail, though the shrimp were of nice quality, was way too sweet. In summer I’ve also seen them grilling in the parking lot.

Los Potrillos
3624 W. Belmont

With religious iconography on the walls, this tiny taqueria has a real step-out-of-Chicago feel.  Good quality beef, cooked to be tender and juicy by an expert grillman, makes the carne asada tacos and cecina tacos some of the best in the city.  But my favorite find on my first visit was the weekend special of consomme de chivo, goat soup, which had big chunks of goat in a great ancho broth.

Carniceria Jimenez
3840 W. Fullerton/others

I can’t speak to other outposts of this grocery chain, but with its decor of old radios and vintage Mexican movie stars like Pedro Infante, this taqueria bizarrely comes off like the Burt’s Pizza of supermercado taquerias. For some odd reason I ordered a torta milanesa, which looked textbook-correct but was kind of less than the sum of its parts; the better looking things are the guisados.

Guisados at Carniceria Jimenez.

El Gigante
2500 N. Laramie

Not gigante at all, but this small market with a new taqueria has neon in the window to announce Barbacoa and Carnitas on weekends, which is promising. A weekday steak taco had good, tender beef, but was undercut by rubbery tortillas…

Carniceria y Taqueria La Loma
2535 N. Laramie

…while infinitely better tortillas were a strong point across the street; the steak seemed slightly cheaper (and cut to tiny bits) but it was greasy and salty in all the right ways. Pastor was given pride of place on the menu, so even though no cone was visible, I fell for it, and was reminded once again: If you don’t see a cone, leave the pastor alone!

El Gigante.


Carniceria Guanajuato
Multiple locations

This grocery chain is one of the easiest supermercado taquerias to find, but I’ve never had anything at the taqueria I thought was better than okay, though I’m sure quality varies by location. Still, in the case of the 1436 N. Ashland location, it would be a shame to come here over Tierra Caliente.

Tierra Caliente
1402 N. Ashland

The former Carniceria Leon is the one supermercado taqueria widely known to gringo foodies, complete with Dolinsky icon.  It also has the highest ratio of taqueria to grocery, suggesting where their attention really lies.  The star attraction is unquestionably the pastor, which if you get it at the right moment (a little after lunch rush) is a perfect blend of crispiness and juiciness, and a contender for best in the city.  But LTHers have identified other notable items such as the gordita de chivo and weekend carnitas.

Danny’s Fresh Market
2140 N. Western

You’d think proximity to possibly the best steak tacos in the city, Las Asadas, would step up your game, but everything about Danny’s was dingy and tired; a pork guisado had the taste of seasonings that expired in 2005, and a steak taco came with purple (!) onion, lettuce tomato and mayo, giving it an unmistakable eau de Whopper.

Huarache at Laura.

Carniceria y Taqueria Laura
1051 N. Ashland

The enormous huarache I got, piled high with lettuce, starchy winter tomato, avocado and crema, looked like a monstrosity, and the fact that both meat and huarache were reheated seemed a second strike. Then I bit into it— and was surprised how good it was.  The steak was full of flavor and the huarache toothsome and comforting.  This place is surely overlooked due to the three La Pasaditas being just up the street (though Vital Info praised it in a long-ago Pasaditathon on Chowhound), but it deserves more attention and a return from me.


Carniceria Aguascalientes
3132 W. 26th St.

This meat market located near the La Villita gate has a large open dining and cooking area in 50s diner white tile, which serves to point attention to the main attraction: a woman hand-patting gordita shells and laying them out in neat rows.  Everything benefits from the toothsome, comfort-foody appeal of the piping hot masa shell, but that’s not to slight well-grilled steak or the complex spiciness of a pork guisado, only two of many choices.

La Chiquita
3555 W. 26th St./2637 S. Pulaski/others

Big, bustling supermarkets on the south side and in suburbs like Cicero and Aurora, these have functional-looking taquerias inside whose main attraction is handmade gorditas, sopas, etc. (Pulaski’s is much nicer, but seemed deader, than 26th St.’s 70s throwback.) Fresh masa made for a very good gordita with pork in red sauce at the 26th street location, though I’d still choose Carniceria Aguascalientes for that first.

Jerry’s Certified
4524 S. Ashland

I came here at off-peak hours, so it was kind of dead like a coffeeshop at three in the afternoon, but I have a feeling that at prime time on weekends, this is an exciting place. There are lots of good signs (literally), with weekend specials like chile rellenos and caldo de siete mares (seafood soup). The emphasis of the everyday menu seems to be on the tortas, and the torta milanesa I had was exemplary; on the other hand, it was one of the only places where I got gringo’d on a steak taco and it arrived with lettuce, tomato and cheese.

Carniceria y Taqueria La Loma.