Sky Full of Bacon

When I ordered turtle for my Southern party from, I had to order some other stuff to fill out my minimum order.  So my freezer has been home to, for the last few months, antelope and kangaroo sausages, and yak burgers.

The evening never having come when the kids said, “Can we eat kangaroo tonight?”, a friend planned a sausage-oriented grilling party and that seemed the perfect time to throw a kangaroo on the barbie.  But what, exactly, do you put on an antelope or kangaroo dog?  A few years ago the answer might have just been German brown mustard all around, but now, Hot Doug having raised the bar for exotic sausage condiments, I knew I had to come up with something that raised these sausages to a Dougian level of creativity and elegance.

First I checked the site for some guidance as to what the meats tasted like.  It was of limited help; “it tastes like venison” is apparently the new “it tastes like chicken,” except who actually has done that much cooking with venison?  My one previous experience with kangaroo involved slices which were rather like venison or elk, which is to say like steak but a little gamier, so I figured a fruit-based topping couldn’t go too wrong.  I made a blueberry compote with a little port and shallots in it, then mixed that with dijon mustard and added white wine vinegar till it seemed both fruity and possessed of some bite.  Since Doug likes to use a goat cheese with bits of black truffle in it, I topped it with that as well.

Antelope I felt less confident about, having never tasted it.  But I did have one bit of guidance— several people at LTHForum had posted about Michael Carlson at Schwa using white chocolate with antelope. I wanted this to have a distinctly different flavor that the other, no fruit aspect, so starting with chocolate I went in a mole direction, making an ancho chile fromage blanc, then grating the white chocolate over the result.

In each case I cut the dogs into four pieces so as many as possible could try them. How were they?  I’d say I did pretty well on flavor combinations, for guesses in the dark.  The kangaroo was, again, a very slightly gamey beef-venison taste, and the blueberry mustard complemented it well.

The white chocolate-ancho combination got a “hmmm… not sure” reaction at first, but I think the sweetness and the bit of spice worked very well with the mild meat (which didn’t especially have a strong profile, certainly didn’t scream game).

All in all, I was very pleased not only with the chance it gave me to go around saying “Antelope dog, anyone?” but with the taste of the results.

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UPDATE: Helen at MenuPages has been blogging this deathmatch but Serious Eats actually responds in a shockingly reasonable way.  That’s no way to run a feud, guys!  Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie didn’t become famous by shaking hands and saying “Good game!”  (I realize you’ve probably never heard of at least one of those guys, but trust me, they were famous once.)  There’s somewhat more nasty fun to be had in the comments below.  

I will quibble a little with the idea that any list like this can be “authoritative”; I think any list like this is worthwhile only in that it gives you a strong selection of places to try for yourself, but the question of best can never be settled, should never, except personally.  That’s why the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurant awards don’t pick the best Thai restaurant in Chicago, they give awards to four different ones (I think) which each represent a very high level of achievement above the pack.  I know which of those I think the best is, I named it below, but all that is is my choice.  So, we’ll look forward to what Serious Eats’ Chicago guy picks across the board… and we’ll maintain our private opinion that there would have been a lot more slagging on the idea of deep dish if we hadn’t called them on it in advance.  Take that, Winchell!

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Ed Levine is a smart guy who loves New York pizza and food generally, and has a blog called Serious Eats which (MenuPages informs us) now intends to provide a guide to essential eating experiences in major cities. (You can see New York’s here.)

The problem is, Ed Levine hates Chicago pizza. No, perhaps it would be fairer to say Ed Levine has a blind spot for Chicago pizza. As in, Ed Levine, looking at a map of the United States, would not see anything between Brooklyn and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, basically.

So Ed Levine writing about essential Chicago foods is going to be sort of like Sean Penn’s guide to Great Republican Secretaries of Defense. There are many things I would like to hear from Ed Levine, but I can’t see how this list is going to be anything other than tired old rehashings of tired old New York-Chicago rivalries. Anyway, in advance of Levine’s list, I’ll use his categories for New York (don’t know if his list will use the same ones, but whatever) and offer a non-jaundiced local’s alternative set. If anybody else wants to play the game, do so in comments, I’ll be happy to see your list too.

Best Pizza: deep dish, Art of Pizza spinach. Thin, Vito & Nick’s sausage.
Best Burger: Top Notch Beefburger in Beverly.
Best Ice Cream: Scooter’s.
Best Late Night Eats: I dunno, I don’t eat out late. Kuma’s, since they didn’t make the burger spot?
Best Bar Food: Avec, in a walk.
Best Date Night: Surely this category says more about you than about the restaurant scene, depending on how you determine what makes an ideal date night, but I’m going to say that the most romantic place I can think of, good food in a great building, is North Pond Cafe. If you want energy and scene, though, you’ll want something else entirely.
Best Japanese Food: Katsu.
Best Cocktails: Just to be difficult, I’m going to skip the obvious choice (Violet Hour) and plug the surprisingly great natural-organicky cocktails at Crust (though it’s not much of a bar).
Best Market: Again, what do you want precisely? I suppose I’ll say Paulina Meat Market, a Germanic place being quintessentially Chicagoish.
Must Eat Before Leaving City:
see Best Pizza.
Best Bagel: Ironically, NY Bagel & Bialy on Touhy. Or go have an apple fritter at Old-Fashioned Donuts.
Best Eating With a View: Long time since I ate with a view I paid much attention to. North Pond again? Mercat a la Planxa? (Though I’m not convinced you actually get that view from most of the tables; it’s best when you walk in.) Tank Noodle?
Best Chinese: Sun Wah! Well, for that style, anyway.
Best Old School [Chicago] Landmark: We’re kinda shy on those any more, there really isn’t a Peter Luger of Chicago (yeah, Gene & Georgetti, I did remember you and I still stand by it). Manny’s?
Best Deli: Manny’s. Gee, that was obvious.
Best Streetside Bargain Lunch: Humboldt Park vans.
Best Fancy-Pants Bargain Lunch: huh?  (EDIT: My wife suggests Trotter’s To Go, where she eats soup for lunch practically every day.  Makes sense to me.)
Best Brunch Without the Wait: Go early, sucker. Over Easy Cafe.
Best Bargain Italian Food: I’m not convinced there is one.
Best Barbecue: Uncle John’s.

I guess New York doesn’t have a Best Indian place. Too bad, Ed, maybe next time you can skip pizza you don’t like, and eat at Khan BBQ. Then have Best Thai at TAC (there’s something I have, if not before leaving city, certainly after spending any length of time in a Thai-deprived zone), and Best Mexican at Maxwell Street on Sunday morning. (I have to say, a New York list that’s focused so much on burgers, Italian and old school fancy pants dining seems a little fusty to me. That’s just not the food that keeps me prowling this burg. Here’s hoping Chicago isn’t forced to follow New York’s categories exactly, and can shine on its own in a few specific areas.)

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Go deep into the smoke-stained barbecue country of central Texas as I talk to two legendary pitmasters in a town that almost has more great BBQ joints than people— Taylor, Texas.

Sky Full of Bacon 03: The Last Brisket Show from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Taylor, Texas is a small town still just far enough from Austin to feel like the middle of nowhere, rather than a suburb of somewhere. But when it comes to barbecue, Taylor is a big somewhere in its own right— home to three of Texas’ most famous barbecue temples as well as an annual BBQ festival. I visit two of these barbecue meccas and find them incredibly evocative of Texas’ past. A former basketball court turned meat emporium, Louie Mueller’s is the most smoke-stained place I’ve ever seen in my life. While Taylor Cafe, once a rowdy and potentially dangerous cowboy bar, is calmer today, but full of memories as related by 84-year-old owner Vencil Mares. It runs 13 minutes.

Louie Mueller Barbeque
206 W. Second
Taylor, TX

Taylor Cafe
101 N. Main
Taylor, TX

My LTHForum post on visiting Taylor (and other BBQ meccas)
Hill Country BBQ tour by Bill Daley in the Chicago Tribune

Vencil Mares’ recipe for slow-cooked beans
The best guidebook to Texas barbecue joints is this cookbook by Robb Walsh, which is actually more history than cookbook; here’s a new book that will be out in a few days and looks promising.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon 02: Duck School

Sky Full of Bacon 01: How Local Can You Go?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

(Oh, and why is a Chicago food podcast doing a segment from Texas? Because I’m a Chicago food podcaster, but the podcast is about anything that interests me. And hopefully you, too.)

So the two halves of my belly are having an argument about Urban Belly, the new ultrahip pan-Asian place from some Charlie Trotter vets which is the hot lunch spot of the moment on LTHForum.

The Right Belly looks at dishes like these…

lamb with brandy dumplings…

shortribs with rice…

Chinese eggplant with Thai basil…

Porkbelly ramen… and admires the subtlety and cleanness of the flavors, the quality of the ingredients, the non-stinky pork, the crunch of the eggplant…

And then the Left Belly says “$41! For four little bowls? Are you freakin’ nuts?” (This was for two of us, by the way. So lunch would be a mere $20 or so if I was by myself.)

I’m not quite sure where I, as a whole person, come out on this. Part of me admires the miles-beyond-Penny’s, Korean-version-of-Avec ambition of this place, part of me thinks that people who came straight from Trotter have no freakin’ clue what things in a little strip mall on California ought to cost. On the other hand, they’re just down the street from another guy who’d serve a combination like lamb and brandy, and he’s doing land office business selling hot dogs for a lot more than the usual buck fifty, so who knows. I suppose the ultimate proof of where I come out on this will be whether (since it’s close to home) I get into the habit of popping in there once a month, price be damned and quality be praised, or if I find myself just unable to say “Swimming-pool sized bowl of soup at Tank Noodle, $5, little teeny bowl at Urban Belly, $13, I’ll take the $13 bowl please.”

And whether a whole lot of other people do, too.

3053 N. California
Chicago, IL 60618

P.S. Two small comments. What’s with the whole edamame? How are you supposed to eat those? And the spritzing of one end of the table with Windex while the other end is still eating is a seriously bad idea. At least get some froufy natural cleanser that smells like Meyer lemon or something.

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I have a little bit of a qualm about the idea of upscale Southern, I think there was upscale Southern dining which is largely extinct and there is downscale Southern which is wildly popular in many forms and then there is an attempt to take the latter and serve it like the former. This is a bad thing if it just means charging more for a tamed version, like upscale barbecue or Cajun, but a good thing if it means taking the produce and flavors of the region and treating them with the respect we now pay other regions— using them freshly and seasonally and with respect for time-tested traditions. On the whole Big Jones, a “coastal Southern” restaurant in Andersonville, seems to be oriented to that better sense of upscale Southern dining, and with at least the start of some sophistication in that direction. The menu is still somewhat short and limited to pretty familiar things— gumbo, pulled pork, steak (!)— but maybe, over time, it will dig deeper into Southern traditions and become a Chicago equivalent of some of the innovative new Southern restaurants.

Very traditional start (because it started the same way as my recent Southern party!)— pimento cheese spread on a cheese biscuit.

This was the best dish of the night– a really tasty wilted salad with tasso ham, and pickled yellow beans. Fresh, tart, full of flavor, this is the sort of dish I imagined I would have (and didn’t, really) when I went to Vie some months back.

I doubt this pulled pork ever saw anything resembling a smoker, but very good when you combined it with the rather vaguely-named “Carolina sauce,” a green dressing that might have been Green Goddess, or perhaps something with mirliton, which appears multiple times elsewhere on the menu). The slaw that came with it was missing some oomph, though, needed mustard or vinegar or something:

I was a little surprised that a Southern menu offered little that would have flown with the younger son, and the presence of a stereotypical kids’ menu (chicken tenders!) was not the help to this parent that was intended. At least the mac and cheese was freshly and impressively made.

Fried chicken salad, untried by me.

A nice, authentic if not exactly world-changing gumbo, plated artfully with a pyramid of rice topped by an okrapus.

The bill was a very reasonable $60ish (the mac and cheese was comped, not for any fault that we saw, possibly for the fact that they saw me taking pictures….)

Big Jones
5347 N. Clark
Chicago, IL 60640
(773) 275-5725

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Director’s cut version of post starts here.  So here’s a dilemma. (If the following seems too woolly/inside-basebally for you, skip to the picture and the shorter version of the post.)

If you’re reading this you probably know about LTHForum (Chicago food chat site I co-founded) and the Great Neighborhood Restaurants awards (also started mostly by me), which are designed to call attention to, well, any kind of good restaurant, but with a special love for the little ethnic place that tries harder than the other 3 places just like it within a block, and produces something really special.

For instance, Cemitas Puebla, formerly Taqueria Puebla, on North Ave. In fact it figured rather prominently in philosophical discussions we had about the awards, especially in regards to whether we should apply tougher standards on places the more money they charged, or whether there was some absolute standard of deliciousness and that was all that mattered, money or class didn’t enter into it. Me, I took the practical argument that if Rick Bayless makes a Mexican sandwich (which is what a cemitas is) and charges $13.50 for it, you expect it to be made freshly of the highest quality ingredients, and so that’s merely the baseline for him, but if a neighborhood place charges $5 and yet manages to import its cheese and roast its chipotles and cook everything up fresh (as Cemitas Puebla does), then it gets credit for all that going-the-extra-mile-ness compared to the other places serving the same stuff in a more careless fashion. So yeah, Cemitas Puebla stands out for doing all that…

And then today I go to another cemitas place from Puebla, and they do it all too. In fact, better than the last meal I had at Cemitas Puebla, not that it’s not still an estimable place. It’s striking, in fact, how similar the two places are, not just the cemitas but the other things they have, like chalupas and Tacos Arabes, all of which must be typical for Pueblo. But now I wonder, did we give a lot of credit to Cemitas Puebla for doing things freshly and getting the right ingredients from back home, when in fact that’s what any respectable place of this kind would do? Did we give it extra credit… for our ignorance?

While you contemplate that deep question, I’ll let you feast on a picture of the cemitas from Cemitas China Poblana:

Shorter version of post starts here. This is a milanesa, that is, a very thin breaded steak, cooked up fresh as I sat there, in a particular kind of crusty Mexican bun (quite nice), with Pueblan cheese, avocado, roasted chipotle, grilled onions, and— the little leaf— a distinctly floral-medicinal herb called papalo, which they told me is actually grown locally during this time of the year, imported from Mexico in other seasons. They (or rather the woman there; I never heard the male cook say a word) said they also change the weekend specials based on seasonality as well— for instance, making chile en nogada, aka stuffed chiles in walnut sauce (a dish that RST once rhapsodized about when it was made at a now-closed Oaxacan place), in the fall when they have fresh peaches. (I didn’t ask why they weren’t making it right now with fresh peaches, and where it is exactly that peaches are in season in October.)

What’s with the China in the name? The menu explains it, there’s some historical tale of a baby kidnapped by pirates, of Asian descent, who wound up being raised in Puebla, circa 1600-1700, and so the place is named for her and her good works.

So here’s a place that looks like nothin’, it’s about six feet wide and 20 feet long, half a dozen cheap little booths, enough heavy-duty tile on the wall to be a bus station bathroom, and yet the people in there— a couple? Not sure— are in there sweating their butts off making not only the freshest, tastiest cemitas they can, but using local produce and changing their weekend menu with the seasons. Wow. If I had an award to give, I’d give them one. They deserve it as much as Cemitas Puebla, not to take anything away from them. But will a hole in the wall like this in an invisible neighborhood like Brighton Park ever make it onto anybody’s radar, the way a place like Cemitas Puebla, which is soon to be on Diners, Dives & Drive-Ins, just barely has thanks to the attention paid it on LTHForum? Hard to imagine, but if you’re ever anywhere near 42nd and Archer, check ’em out. You won’t be sorry, though you may be lonely there.

Cemitas China Poblana
4231B S. Archer
Chicago IL

Incidentally, the awning says they’re also in Los Angeles, so presumably the Chicago folks are related to somebody who has a similar cemitas business out there.

Here were the restaurants within walking distance of our motel in Springfield: Applebee’s, IHOP, Outback, Red Lobster, Panera, Long John Silver’s, Bob Evans, Jimmy John’s, Smokey Bones, Hooters, Cheddar’s, and Carlos O’Kelly’s.

In other words, at first glance you might think a visit to Springfield is a journey into deepest Generica. But in fact Springfield has a surprisingly healthy (well, in one sense of the term, anyway) local food culture, and given that it boasts several of the state’s major tourist attractions, the person who finds himself there anyway can certainly eat interestingly, if not exactly well, there.

The occasion was a history long weekend for ourselves and the kids. Within a couple of days we managed to see Lincoln’s log cabin days in the rustic, WPA-era reconstruction in New Salem, trace his life and presidency at the high tech, Disneyfied (but quite captivating) Abraham Lincoln Museum, see his tomb in the classically grandiose, Gilded Age memorial at Oak Ridge cemetery, and walk through his rather overdecorated Victorian home (as so often, it’s the most modest and homey historical site that gives you the real lump in the throat, as you think… that’s the desk where he sat and wrote his side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, that’s the house he said goodbye to as he went off to become the Lincoln of history).

Oh, and we saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House, an odd man out in an otherwise Lincolncentric weekend (though there is the connection of Lincoln Logs), but absolutely worth the tour for one of Wright’s most exquisite, Arts-and-Crafts-meets-Shinto-temple spiritual architecture experiences. And on the way back, we visited Cahokia, once the largest city in North America (this was about 1200 A.D.), and still an impressive mound of earth which manages to evoke, despite encroachment by modernity on every side, what a thriving mesoamerican village on the outskirts of East St. Louis might have been like.

But the mention of spiritual experiences naturally will bring to mind the fact that Springfield is the birthplace of the corn dog, so let me turn now to food. Things we ate in Springfield:

Gabatoni’s— Saputo’s is the Italian place people usually talk about, and some place called Vic’s usually scores highest for pizza in local polls, but this also received high marks, so we gave it a try. It’s a perfect south-side Vito & Nick’s-type pizza place, undisturbed 60s-style Eyetalian decor,

very good cracker-crust thin pizza,

and waitstaff that treats you like you’ve been coming in since you were a kid. Part of the reason I suspect that they treat you that way is because they’re largely undiscovered by out of towners, so be among the first– and treat ‘em nicely back.

300 E Laurel St
Springfield, IL 62703
(217) 522-0371

Mel-O-Cream— Some months back I had an outstanding seasonal-local-donut experience at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance presentation on midwestern sweets; one of the talks was on Sweetwater Donuts in Kalamazoo, and the highlight by far of the assortment brought down for us to try was donut holes made with bits of real Michigan cherries. I had no expectation that Mel-O-Cream, which noted donutologist Vital Info long ago had ranked as merely a middling donut mini-chain, would offer an experience to rival that– but then I saw peach donuts on offer, and grabbed the three they had as quickly as I could. Real peach chunks in season in cake donut batter— maybe Mel-O-Cream only goes from good to great for a few short weeks each summer when these peach donuts are in season, but if you have a chance, this is a donut almost worth the drive on its own.

(Various locations, which Cathy2 indefatigably catalogued here. Note that they’re open 6 to noon only.)

Cozy Dog— Inventor of the corn dog, I agree that this center for Route 66 fandom could use a dog that didn’t, as JeffB observed, taste so much of liquid smoke and chemicals, but it’s still pretty fine anyway.

But as Vital Info noted, this is also a first-rate old school burger place, slapping fresh meat on the grill and cooking up fresh-cut fries; I took his advice and had the greasy all-meat chili on the burger and it was a first-rate dogwagon meal unchanged from 75 years ago.

2935 S 6th St
Springfield, IL 62703
(217) 525-1992

Coney Island— Speaking of chili from 75 years ago, this spot downtown has a great old “Since 1919” sign; the interior, alas, is redone, but the food seems unchanged, and here too a dog with all-meat chili and onions on it seemed like a perfectly preserved silent-movie-era meal.

219 S 5th St
Springfield, IL 62701
(217) 528-1193

Sgt. Pepper’s Cafe— I have to admit that the “horseshoe,” Springfield’s local specialty consisting of meat of your choice on toast, covered in French fries and a sharp cheddar sauce (traditionally tinged with mustard), sounded like bad drunk food to me. I had planned to accidentally forget to try one, but a comedy of errors trying to find a place that was actually open for lunch on Sunday put us at this Beatle-themed place where nothing sounded all that great. So I decided, might as well try one. And you know what? It was horrifying. It was a nightmarish culinary clusterfark of glop, rapidly cooling and setting like epoxy on my plate faster than I could have shoveled it into an undiscerning, alcoholically insensate mouth. Really, the vilest thing I have had his year, I have more sense than that even when I’m drunk, and yet people were eating it in the cold light of day.

Oh, but you didn’t have it at D’Arcy’s Pint, you say, or whatever place you think has the good ones. I grant you that Sgt. Pepper’s may have been a bad one, but nothing about what I had suggests that a good one is even possible. And if it is, someone else will be the one to discover it, not me.

3141 Baker Dr
Springfield, IL 62703
(217) 525-5939

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Thanks to Helen at Menu Pages, my latest double linker. Who knew that posting about Wauconda was one of the secrets of blog success?

Elsewhere in the journalismosphere, Slate has a piece about cooking from a mid-60s Vincent Price cookbook, full of funny ha-ha surprise that Price’s recipes don’t contain human brains and the like. Apparently no one but me remembers any more that in addition to being a horror movie ham, Price was quite the culture vulture*, so renowned for his educated good taste that Sears put him to work picking art for them to sell next to the Kenmore washing machines:

A strange but true moment in American cultural aspirations, back when the middle class wanted to seem well-educated. Anyway, my point in bringing this up is to point out that hey, they’re not the first ones to cook from old cookbooks in search of sociological lessons.

* They also apparently don’t remember that he was in lots of non-horror movies like The Ten Commandments, Laura, Dragonwyck, His Kind of Woman, etc. He’s especially fun playing a sendup of his own hammy self in the latter.

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An olive oil store at Woodfield seems like the old Saturday Night Live sketch of the mall Scotch tape store, but considering how quickly it relieved me of $45, it may be a goldmine in the making— though probably not as much of one as the indoor Legoland that drew me there.

Legoland first: we loved the outdoor Legoland in San Diego, two years later the kids talk about it, but I had serious doubts about stuffing it in a mall building and charging not that much less. Great for suburban kid birthday parties, maybe, but at $50 or so for the three of us, just barely worth it. The 3-D interactive movie was a lot of fun, the build-and-test-Lego-vehicles area was a hit though wheels were very hard to come by. The “factory” was a dud, a dragon ride was not bad, the little Lego Chicago was fun enough— Baudrillard would have loved the idea of seeing Lego buildings inside a mall that is itself a faked village of “buildings” (actually one big one with phony storefronts). There’s a cafeteria, and yes I could have been the first person to review its offerings, but I gave them a pass. Would I spend this much money to entertain the kids for two hours again? Maybe once a year. God knows any visit to Barnes & Noble seems to cost me as much these days.

On to the Olive Oil store. Inside there’s a table and rows around the wall of metal containers, like samovars, dispense olive oils and fruit vinegars. Some of the oils are icky concoctions (a blood orange-flavored olive oil was a nasty combination of flavor and feel) but there are some pretty good ones along the back wall and I was really impressed by the organic one at the end, and bought a bottle. The flavored vinegars are, for all I know, another blasphemy by the standards of Italian vinegar purists, but the kids really got into tasting them— I think they liked the challenge of tasting puckeringly-tart liquids— and we wound up leaving with strawberry and black cherry flavored ones. Hey, whatever it takes to get the kids to eat salad— and, eventually, to have a taste for real balsamic vinegar.

The Olive Oil Place
601 N. Martingale Rd. #145 (Streets of Woodfield mall)
Schaumburg, IL

Read all about ’em at The Local Beet.

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