Sky Full of Bacon

(The number refers to my pledge to write about 50 restaurants largely untalked-about on food sites to date. Others are accessible by clicking on the Restaurant Reviews button at right.)

Middle-eastern restaurants fall into two categories for me. Dives and “pillow of rice” places. Dives, like Salam or Alma Pita, have tasty authentic food in a dineresque no-atmosphere atmosphere. Pillow of rice places, like Reza’s, have a dressier atmosphere and serve grilled meats atop a pillow of rice which would feed five. Pillow of rice places may seem of good quality at first, but they inevitably bore the spit out of you long before you’ve eaten even a quarter of all that rice. Spare me the massive, flavor-extinguishing pillow of rice.

Habibi is a newish Egyptian place in Rogers Park which has definite pillow of rice tendencies— it’s done in a style that might be called Restrained Garish, photomurals of Egyptian archeological treasures around the walls, a fountain in the middle of the room, neon in the floor. The food is of high quality and often had bright fresh-spice flavors that can be missing in other middle eastern spots, but it’s a bit undercut by some pillow of rice-isms.

One son had falafel, which were freshly made and had a fresh-garlic bite; another had a beef shawarma sandwich which tasted of good meat and a little dash of something (cumin? sumac?) I had maklouba, said to be a kind of vegetable stew, though it was more like some freshly sauteed vegetables atop a pillow of rice, covered in turn with some pretty good, slightly overdone by fine restaurant standards slices of lamb. The maklouba would have been better not overwhelmed by a pillow of flavor-reducing rice, just as the hummus we had for a starter would have been better if it hadn’t been counteracted by day-old pita.

They brought us not one, but two freebies to try— mint tea (which the kids didn’t really touch, alas) and a fattoush salad which was very fresh-tasting and nicely made. They’re trying hard, and overall the food seemed a cut above, but some pillow of rice-isms are holding it back a little, and would make it a little hard for me to race back here when there are dives not far away offering tasty food without starchy impediments.

1225 W. Devon Ave., Chicago
(773) 465-9318

Many links to thank people for.

Andrew Huff at Gaper’s Block has linked me twice lately. Much appreciated.

I made the HuffPoChicago’s blogroll. Thanks, somebody (and thanks Riddlemay for noticing it and posting it on LTHForum).

Steve Dolinsky tried out P&P yesterday and said nice things about my Reader piece but alas, wasn’t too happy with what he had. Well, like me the other day he ordered the spare ribs, it sounded good to me too but you gotta stick to the rib tips. I haven’t tried the jerk chicken but it sounds like maybe he just hit it at the wrong time. Oh well. Soul and barbecue places seem pretty variable, and P&P has some misses (I went there for breakfast with the kids the day I interviewed the owner, and it was tolerable but nothing to write about, which is why I didn’t), but I’ve been happier than not with what I’ve had— including the yams and the peach cobbler. (On the other hand, the Hungry Hound was pretty happy with Yats, the place the Hungry Mag loathed with every fiber of his being.)

Finally, I haven’t mentioned the launch of The Local Beet, Michael Morowitz’s and Rob (Vital Info) Gardner’s locavore site/blog/forum/webzine thing, but it’s clearly a good thing for those of us trying to eat in a way Michael Pollan would approve of, and though at first I felt like I had nothing much to add about eating local, sure enough I will have a piece in it on Monday as well. So watch for that.

And Liam will be 7 on Saturday.

Let’s see how long it is before these two appear in the same article anywhere again.

A few months back I went to a dinner at Mercat a la Planxa, the celebrity-chef-spawned Spanish restaurant in the revived Blackstone Hotel, and came away convinced that it was the most authentic Spanish restaurant Chicago had seen by a country mile. Where most Spanish restaurants dabble in a sort of Spanish-American which is like Mexican-American was in the 60s, a stock set of dishes which you might or might not see in Spain, made “Spanish” by the use of certain spices identified as Spanish, food in Spain is actually often very simple and unseasoned, a matter of eating a spectacularly tasty pork skewer, a bunch of sauteed sea creatures you simply can’t get here, or a roasted pimiento de padron garnished with coarse salt. Trying to replicate that doesn’t mean taking Cisco meat and seasoning it from a big jar of “Spanish” spices, it means getting pork that actually tastes like pork. And needless to say, that’s a lot harder and more expensive.

Mercat is only about half or maybe 2/3 of the way there, but it’s far closer than any other restaurant I’ve eaten at in the US. The primary piece of evidence for that was the centerpiece of the meal, a roasted baby pig ($55 per person, several people required, large box of leftovers provided). The pig was indeed sourced from an Indiana farm where they’re raised naturally, and it had a clean, delicious flavor which needed no heavy sauce to hide any industrial-pig funkiness— or make it seem Spanish.

That said, I’m just not the sort who likes to make an entire meal of one hunk of meat, and I vaguely regretted that we only got to dabble in the rest of the menu, because the best thing we had wasn’t the pig at all— it was a simple plate of white beans, deep with porky jamony flavor, that came on the side. Simple and profound. So I have been eager to get back and try some of the regular dishes on the menu.

My chance came when Santander announced an LTHForum event at the downstairs bar at Mercat. Said “event” proving to consist of three of us standing there, enjoying a first-rate caipirinha from the Brazilian bartender Ricardo, and sampling the tapas menu in three waves.

The first wave included pimientos de padron— rather, an acceptable-but-no-more imitation of them with some local pepper; tocino con cidra, slow-cooked pork belly served with foam of cider and truffle, which was more silly than tasty, and patatas bravas, which came out looking disturbingly like the fake-food version at the late, lamentable Del Toro, six cones of potato topped with a red pepper sauce. They tasted better than Del Toro’s Potato Poppers, but still, simpler, cheaper and better could be had at several places within a reasonable distance. None of this suggested that Mercat was a stellar Spanish spot.

The second wave was far more successful than the first, and restored Mercat’s position in my mind. Squid ink pasta, rabbit agnolotti, and grilled morcilla sausage were all impressively delicate and tasty, and a warm salad of fava and white beans, tossed with some herbs and jamon serrano, was magnificent in its simplicity— interesting, that the two most awe-inspiring dishes of my two meals were both basically beans and ham. We concluded with two desserts— a peach cobbler-y thing with Pop Rocks (the trend du jour, I guess) and some tiny salty balls (RIP Isaac) of melon, which wasn’t bad, though only the second best peach cobbler of my week, and a really nice, very arty row of six little chocolate balls, in a rosemary-flavored sauce with a tiny piece of banana marshmallow. Visually it’s the sort of dessert you find next to the word effete in the dictionary, but it was a nice, light ending to the meal, the rosemary reminding me of one of the desserts I made from a Spanish party I had last year.

So a meal at Mercat seems to be struggling with the problem of Spanish authenticity rather than entirely solving it, but there is much to admire in it, and I continue to regard it as easily the best Spanish restaurant in town. The only knock I have against the place is that, having been started by a celebrity chef, Jose Garces, it’s now in the hands of his executive chef, and as a result… the menu has not changed one jot that I could see since that first visit in April. Which is not the worst thing, especially for a place that seems to be drawing on the tourist trade to a considerable extent, but I have to admit it dampens my excitement for a place slightly, or maybe denies it a spot in the first rank, if there isn’t the sense of someone at the top tinkering and evolving the menu, but merely executing dishes (however expertly) placed there by someone else. Nevertheless, what virtues Mercat a la Planxa has are very real and considerable, and if Spanish food interests you (and it must interest a lot of people to judge by the rate at which Spanish restaurants are opening lately), a visit is essential.

Mercat a la Planxa
638 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, 60605

My report on visiting Spain.

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I went back to P&P BBQ Soul Food with the kids and saw that they offered a 1/2 slab of ribs on the menu. I ordered it sauce on the side, but was somewhat surprised to find that the ribs had no smoke ring; they were a uniform gray and had, at best, only a hint of smoky flavor, even though some speckles did suggest time in the smoker. Not at all like the rib tips which even before being coated in candy-red sauce:

had the unmistakable pinkish hue of true BBQ. After I ate them I asked Keith Archibald, the pitman, if they had been cooked in the smoker or an oven. He assured me the smoker, but then explained that because of ribs’ tendency to dry out, they were only cooked for so long, compared to the tips, and then held or rewarmed or something.

Well, that’s a new one on me, and certainly contrary to my own experience, but hey, I guess all it means from a practical basis is, be sure and get the rib tips, which have plenty of real smoky flavor.

Meanwhile, Myles ordered the smothered pork chop. And frankly, it’s a reason to go there and not even worry about barbecue. A catcher’s mitt-sized hunk of pork– Myles, no slouch, barely made a dent in it– it is not merely smothered but downright drowned in thick, greasy, peppery gravy, and is absolutely wonderful.

Toss in a nice homemade cole slaw, real mashed potatoes, some candied yams, a peach cobbler for dessert… and nice folks.

P&P BBQ Soul Food
3734 W. Division

My Reader piece on P&P

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Normally, no doubt at the cost of my advancement in the foodblogosphere, I try not to suck up to local fellow writers. (Someday I’ll find a WordPress template that actually shows the damn blogroll, I promise.) But today has been International Michael Nagrant Day and homage must be paid.

In the Sun-Times, he does a piece on Ming whoever, that chef guy with that TV show on PBS, which contains a perfect little precis of how and why FoodTV stopped being for people who can cook, and started being for people who can’t:

A 10-year veteran of food television and a former personality of the burgeoning Food Network, Tsai made his move to PBS because it allowed him more control over the end product.

“Back in the day, we [at Food Network] were all really boring. Emeril was horrible. Bobby [Flay], Sara [Moulton], we all admit this, we jumped on Emeril’s train,” Tsai says. “When ‘Emeril Live’ took off, it brought us to the next level. We could do whatever we wanted. I was making foie gras shumai, roasting whole duck and whole fish. But then, it [Food Network] became such a big business all based on Nielsen ratings and all on advertisers. Some of those advertisers don’t want to see the head of a duck or foie gras because of PETA activists. You started getting boxed in.

“There’s like two chefs left. No one cooks. It is opening cans of this or that … and it’s ‘yummy’ that. Look, that’s fine, their Nielsen ratings are high as hell, and that’s what middle America kind of wants. But that’s not for me…”

Nailed, it’s as simple as that. But the nail gun is set aside for a chainsaw in New City, as he rips into a ghastly-sounding Cajun chain import from Indianapolis, which I predict will come close to this year’s open/close record after this London restaurant reviewer-style evisceration. I hate that kind of thing when it’s routine, like it usually is in London, but when someone who’s normally thoughtful and fairly generous sees fit to get his Old Testament Prophet on, it’s always a worthy read.

(BTW, I saw the first on my own when I picked up a Sun-Times to ignore my kids with at Johnny’s Grill this morning, but I didn’t see the second until Helen linked to it and was similarly impressed at MJN’s righteousness.)

Abby Mandel, who spearheaded the creation of Green City Market, and who had been generally known in the food community to be battling cancer for the past year, died this morning— fittingly, while the market was open and busy with growing things and customers.  Melissa Graham, of Purple Asparagus and the Market’s membership chair, has an especially nice remembrance here.

G Wiv and D4v3 post at LTHForum about a generic Greek chicken place that has just opened in Rogers Park. This reminds me of my own recent, easily forgotten experience at such a place, which raises the question— why are all these Greek burger/chicken places in business if they’re all C-pluses at best?

Stanley’s Market on Elston, famous for the great signs of Stanley on a flying watermelon (one of the signs recently blew down and was replaced, but the other survives), and well worth a stop for value-priced fruit (some good quality, not so good, but smart shoppers can do all right there), some years ago spawned a burger/chicken place across the street.

It’s reasonably attractive, in a generic kind of way, nice bathrooms if you need such in that part of the world, but it’s exactly like every other Greek burger/chicken place. Maybe the chicken’s better, but the burger is the epitome of the kind of carelessly made food that these places specialize in. A frozen burger patty that tastes of barnyard more than beef. 8 times as much starchy white bun as beef, and three times as much iceberg lettuce and styrofoam tomato, between them extinguishing both the flavor and the temperature of the meat. Frozen fries, more starchy styrofoam.

But it’s all served on china, so you know it’s a class joint. Restaurant china, the kind you could play basketball with and not so much as chip it.

Places like this exist all over the city. To my mind they’ve crowded out the possibility of better burger joints run by displaced Okies (like in California) or old Germans (like in Milwaukee). Some of these joints at least have character (White Palace Grill), a very few rise above the pack foodwise (Dengeo’s in Skokie), but mostly they define an entire subset of diner dining which is mediocre enough to seriously make you appreciate fast food chains for the few things they do right by.

To me they’re the white noise on our dining scene, everywhere, mildly annoying but not rising to the level of offensiveness— because how can you get interested enough to be angry about something that has never once stirred the passions of the people who make it?

Stanley’s Grille
1543 N Elston Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

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So I’ve sort of been out of the business of trying to discover and write about new finds on the restaurant scene. A few years ago, I had vast stretches of the north side to myself, it seemed. But as Time Out and the Reader and various other publications got more serious about covering The Lands Beyond Yuppieville— partly, I believe, because of the influence of LTHForum in making ethnic food the happening part of the restaurant scene— I got less interested in trying to beat them to the new spots in my hood.

Well, times change and now I’m sort of bored with the same dozen places I seem to go to over and over (either quick bites in my immediate neighborhood, or very tried and true LTHForum faves). So I’m on the hunt again, kicked off, I suppose, by the fun of discovering and writing about P&P BBQ Soul Food for the Reader. And as you may have noticed, assuming there is a you out there reading this, I’ve posted a couple of recent reviews on places that are either completely off the radar (Taqueria Toro Grill, Pita Grill) or at least, if reviewed by some parts of the press, were new to me (Bull-Eh-Dias!) and not widely discussed to date on LTHForum.

So here, at last, is a reason for the blog to exist beyond facilitating the video podcasts. I’m going to try and post about 50 places meeting the above criteria (either completely unknown, or at least not discussed beyond bare mentions on LTHForum or anywhere else). These will be 50 discoveries, turned up by me and available exclusively here. (To find them easily, click the Restaurant Reviews link at the right.) Those were the first three, now here’s number four.

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Back to Bellefontaine, by Jim Flora

Wauconda is one of those places somewhere out in the northwest burbs which has gone almost uncharted on LTHForum— only about three vague mentions. [EDIT: Cathy2 points out this full review, of a place right by where I went, don’t know how I missed it.]  Well, there’s not a lot there— it mostly surrounds a lake, and there’s the bare minimum of dining places on the water, nothing too fancy (this is the more blue collar/ethnic part of Lake County). But given the ethnicity, there might be things there— maybe one of the pizza places named things like Vince’s or Giuseppe’s is really good, who knows? Or the Polish deli, or one of the Mexican places.

I took the kids up there for an exhibition of artwork by Jim Flora, who did cartoonishly surreal album covers back in the 50s, at the Lake County Discovery Center. The exhibit was okay— not that much original art seems to survive, so it was mostly prints (helpfully advertised as also being on sale in the gift shop, just like the Monets at the Art Institute)— but the museum offered enough of a grab bag to be mildly worth a trip, including a very nice exhibit on postcards (based on the collection of the Curt Teich company a few blocks from my house in Lakeview), and some nostalgic/historical stuff about Lake County back in the days of dances at Ray’s Diamond Palace dancehall on the Chain o’ Lakes and stuff like that, which had a certain charm but overall tended to reinforce the impression that people have always moved to Lake County in the expectation that nothing historic will ever happen there.

Anyway, we had to get lunch, and most of the places on the little Main Street looked pretty ordinary, but there was one called Frank’s Karma Cafe, the kind of name that’s either a sign of pretty good or godawful. I looked at the menu and it was a D.B. Kaplan-sized list of sandwiches, as well as soups and the like. I go inside and in addition to being the kind of place where the guy behind the counter (not Frank; neither of the owners is actually named Frank) seems to know everybody who comes in but us, he’s pushing homemade fruit drinks and a homemade “peach-nectarine-plum-synergy cobbler,” and even more impressively, warning regulars off the caramel cake which he isn’t all that happy with the results of.

I ask him what sandwich I should have that will blow me away, make me glad I drove from Chicago, and he recommends the Reuben, saying they make the corned beef themselves. You cure it yourself? I ask. No, we cook it ourselves, he says. It takes me a moment to realize that this is not as obvious as it sounds, there probably is microwavable precooked corned beef out there being used by 98% of sandwich shops, and for them to take the time to cook it themselves and slice it up is a cut above, no pun intended.

I tell him that I cure and cook my own corned beef and he says he wants to offer pastrami, can’t get it from his supplier, is thinking of making his own. I explain how easy it is and what the practical difference between corned beef and pastrami is, how I smoke it in my Weber Smokey Mountain. He seems intrigued, who knows if pastrami will ever make it onto the menu in Wauconda, but it might.

My Reuben was pretty darn good, nice black rye, good real corned beef, maybe a little gooey but certainly satisfying. The pickle that came with it was fresh and crunchy, the peach-nectarine-plum-synergy cobbler was really good. It’s a nice little place doing a lot of homemade things with a lot of heart. If you find yourself in Wauconda, now you have a recommendation.

Frank’s Karma Cafe
203 S Main St
Wauconda, IL 60084
(847) 487-2037

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My wife bought a box of these cards. Someone at Topps decided it would be smart business to make a complete set of cards under the name of the original baseball card company, celebrating… totally random stuff like the Battle of Thermopylae, James Fenimore Cooper, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Someone at Topps is on crack.

And I have trouble getting mildly clever ad headlines through a couple of layers of management.

I mentioned the TribStew giving P&P BBQ Soul Food some love after my Reader piece, now there’s a segment at Metromix (no direct link; go here, look for the video section), which I assume comes from TribCo’s CLTV, in which a guy with spiked up hair says Wow! about P&P before turning it over to a gal with cleavage to visit and say double yum!

This is why my video podcasts are not like that. But hey, it shows my kids and I are now not the only white people to have eaten there, and hopefully it’ll do them some good.

Don’t know how the eGulleteers enjoyed or didn’t their visit to the jostling madness of Maxwell Street, hardly saw them though I heard there were quite a few, but had a very pleasant time with LTHers Cathy2 and Mhays & family, shopping for Pokemon cards.

New to me: an African woman working spells with incense. Hammond said he’d only seen her once before.

Fishing poles were also new to me:

The stand with the fruit drinks was giving out samples of mamey, a sort of cross between a squash and a canteloupe. I’ve seen it listed as a flavor at ice cream stands, but never seen the fruit.

Not a meatball taco, it’s chicharron (pork skin/fat) on a taco. I passed on that, the better to concentrate on the steak, pastor, red mole and flor de calabaza at Manolo’s. For once I went there not having stuffed myself before reaching it, and was really able to enjoy all those things on superbly fresh tortillas.

Homemade noisemakers for every taste:

I thought this was the creepiest thing I saw (nothing says candy like wrinkly corpse-like flesh):

But the idea of owning a dozen R. Kelly bobbleheads probably beat it.

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