Sky Full of Bacon

Not toro the sushi fish, toro the bull. I use this cliche for a heading because, driving on Armitage to what would ultimately be my lunch destination—


—I passed, first, a storage place whose sign said “Got stuff?,” and then an attorney whose sign said “Got lawyer?” Got lawyer? If I needed one, would I feel like being that flip about it? Would I want one who advertised himself that way? Jeez, got enough of cliche already?

But let us answer a more serious question, namely, “where’s the beef?” A place called Taqueria Toro Grill would seem to be a promising answer to that question. I spotted it by my patented new awning technique, and pulled the kids over to check it out. Taqueria Toro Grill is new management in a place that’s been around a while, but it seems clean and welcoming at first glance. The kids wanted to sit at the counter, so we did and chatted with the main guy (owner or not, I wasn’t sure). The first thing we spotted sitting there was this:


Real pastor, complete with pineapple on top, turning and roasting away. I knew what I was going to have to have:


I also had a carne asada taco, and a carnitas sope, big chunks of pork:


This isn’t a great place but it’s an above average one, gaining bonus points for a commitment to keeping the pastor running all the time, and for generally friendly demeanor. Maybe with time (they’ve been open a month) it’ll get really good. I wished for more crispy edges on the pastor and steak, but at least I was impressed by the high quality meat used in all three cases, not the frequent low-grade gristle-y beef. Carnitas was a little dry, but brightened right up with the addition of the red salsa. A nice place, worth a visit.

Taqueria Toro Grill
3561 W. Armitage

Retroactively declared #3 in my 50 new restaurants challenge.

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Now, now, no snark. It’s inevitable that Sun Wah’s Peking duck would get attention from others besides myself… right as the Beijing Olympics start. Good for Sun Wah.

(I didn’t even think of the Olympics thing, initially— I just wanted an ethnic restaurant where they spoke English well enough to make good interview subjects, and Kelly had already demonstrated that at an LTHForum lunch. And I didn’t explicitly reference the Olympics because that kind of timely tie-in seems like exactly the sort of thing a TV station would do. My show’s about food, I don’t need a timely tie-in to give me a reason to cover something.)

Anyway, it’s interesting to me to see how they shot the exact same stuff. (I’m not sure where that big blue burner is, though; I wonder if that’s simply one of the grills without a wok pan sitting on it, in which case it has nothing to do with the Peking duck.)

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Today was my first chance this summer to take my kids to do what they’d been doing nearly every day at camp— play in the gentle waters of Albion Beach in Rogers Park, where a sandbar keeps the water at a kid-friendly height. An idyllic day, the sort of day you think you would pick if you were given the challenge of the film Afterlife— in which the deceased are forced to pick a single memory to hold for all eternity.

The kids played in utter happiness; but the adult mind is never at rest, and I couldn’t help laying there on the beach, wishing I had a book, an iPod, wifi. Sad, I know.

I had my one moment of satisfaction of an adult interest when we went for lunch. The kids love Chipotle, who knows why, but they could do worse than the simple bean and cheese burritos I get them (and pay dearly for). I, however, had my eye on a newly-opened place next door, Pita Grill.

There were both promising and unpromising signs. Unpromising, hot dogs and hamburgers figuring prominently. Promising, a cake display full of mucver, the fried zucchini fritters available at a few of the local Turkish restaurants, such as Nazarlik (where I think they’re the best thing to be had there, frankly). Unfortunately it was impossible to get kebab meat of any sort and not get great heaps of fries or rice, I wanted hummus or something like that as a side, so the eager counterman, seemingly happy that someone was asking him for something that wasn’t all-American, pointed to a falafel and hummus special. I was sold.

It was okay. The hummus was fine but nothing special, the falafel was a little rubbery, somewhere in between fresh and not-fresh. Pita Grill seems like a place that wishes it could be better but has already been beaten down by the reality of its location in a hot dog-eating neighborhood.

The kids were happy with everything— their burritos, their day at the beach with Dad, the bottle caps they found on the street, which they evaluate in terms of perceived rarity (Dad has to avoid laughing when they pronounce that a Miller Light cap is “really rare”). Their simple, complete happiness is the most contentment I can wish for, some days.

Pita Grill
6604 N. Sheridan

Retroactively declared #2 in my 50 new restaurants challenge.

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I am informed that the Maxwell Street tour this Sunday, which I cited as a rare example of a recent moderator-planned event on LTHForum, is in fact also part of the elaborate eGullet festivities for which LTHForum moderators are providing extensive planning and logistical support.

There are no LTHForum moderator-planned events for LTHForum users for the entire period from late June (when there was a dinner at Sun Wah) to early September (the LTHForum picnic).  Sky Full of Bacon regrets the error.

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Check out this slideshow at the New York Times’ site about the home of the film director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day). It is every bit as jawdroppingly stupid as his last few movies (10,000 B.C., The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla), though in a much more pretentious, Sprockets-y way. Really, you will have to see it to believe it.

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Bull-Eh-Dias! is a Spanish tapas restaurant named, apparently, for a mispelling or mispronunciation of “bulerias,” which D. Hammond says is a flamenco rhythm. All I know is, it doesn’t have the most awkward and inappropriate name on Southport, because that prize has already been sewn up by La Poupée, which may mean “The Doll” in French, but which reduced my sons to hysterics (“They called their restaurant The Poopy!”)

You can tell Bull-Eh-Dias is a tapas restaurant because, like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! and Azucar! it ends in an exclamation point. Helen at Menu Pages had sage words on this topic the other day:

we also would like to say, as an aside, that we deeply deeply love the Broadway musical punctuation in [Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s] name, and the inferred obliviousness on the part of whoever came up with it to the fact that it is the dumbest thing ever

More interesting to me was the fact that it turns out to occupy the space that was one of my early Chicago foodie revelations. As Tony Soprano said, “Remember when is the lowest form of conversation,” but I’ll just indulge in it long enough to note that when I moved here in ’88 and saw a promotion at The Music Box for a long-forgotten restaurant down the street called Chezz Chazz, I felt like I had done something so big city cool, finding an edgy neighborhood place not in the guidebooks and trying it myself. A couple of years later the same space was Tamales, run by John Terczak (whose brother Dennis had the much-acclaimed Sole Mio on Armitage), and I had pumpkin tamales there, the very concept of which expanded my Mexican food mind substantially.

Now it’s 15 or even 20 years later and Southport isn’t the frontier, it’s a Trixie and Chad neighborhood. This doesn’t promise much for the Tapas joint with the goofy name. But if no great revelation, Spanish food-wise, Bull-Eh-Dias! managed to pull off a bunch of by now fairly standard items with reasonable success for a reasonable price. Patatas bravas came with a weak tomato sauce, but a bright and searingly garlicky mayo. Grilled chorizo tasted like the real thing that we ate at Maceiras in Madrid, and was satisfying. A tortilla was poor, mainly because it was freshly cooked— so it tasted like an omelet (clearly the sitting out on the bar under plastic wrap is an essential part of its comfy deliciousness); but grilled calamari, tossed with some sauteed onion, was quite nice. Bacon-wrapped, goat cheese stuffed dates were delectable if not quite as good as ones I’ve had elsewhere (including the surprisingly decent Twist Tapas, even further inside the Trixie Nexus).

There’s one exceptional Spanish restaurant in town now, Mercat a la Planxa, and everything else exists on a plane well below it, but that’s not to say that at its modest pricepoint and with its easygoing vibe, a place like Bull-Eh-Dias isn’t perfectly capable of giving you a satisfying meal which will, from time to time, vaguely remind you of meals actually eaten in Spain.

Bull-Eh-Dias Tapas Bar
3651 N. Southport, Chicago
(773) 404-2855

Retroactively declared #1 in my 50 new restaurants challenge.

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P.S. As this thread on LTHForum approached the point of going to its second page having said nothing about woodburning barbecue but a vast amount about whether “Chicago” commonly includes or excludes the suburbs (and how incensed suburbanites should get about this kind of city snob slur), I posted the image below:

With Chowhound-like alacrity, my bon snarque was quickly pulled. Look forward to many more, fascinating revelations on this topic. Meanwhile, if there’s anyone who actually wants to try a new, good woodsmoked barbecue place conveniently located to the north side of Chicago, I suggest this one. So far, it has gone unnoticed on LTHForum, which is, simply, a damned shame.

P.S. Different animal, same sentiment.

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One of the more popular things a few years back at Green City Market were the hamburgers made from farmer-vendor meat and grilled by cooks from Campagnola/Bistro Campagne. Eventually, though, Campagnola chef Michael Altenberg shut down the burger operation in order to concentrate on the opening of Crust.

I learned today, though, that Sunday Dinner/Eat Green Foods (which I’ve never paid that much attention to and am not entirely sure what they offer) is cooking up burgers again. They’re a real Green City collaboration, too— Bennison’s makes the buns, Brunkow cheese is on top, the meat is Heartland’s terrific Piedmontese beef, and there are some greens on it which I assume did not come from Costco. Being a GCM special, it’s expensive— $9 for the cheeseburger, $8 for the hamburger, both of them kind of on the small side (if fat)— but it is, in the immortal words of Samuel Jackson, a real tasty burger! Certainly more satisfying to me than the not-all-that-exciting Epic burger. And you can’t argue with how directly your princely sum is being shared among the real producers without any middlemen, at least.

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There’s a report on LTHForum this morning that stores in the same block as Sun Wah BBQ, subject of my current podcast, have burned.  Sun Wah seems to be fine, however.

One of the things that really struck me after getting involved with LTHForum is how common restaurant fires are.  Khan BBQ, Sabri Nehari, Chuck’s, Hot Doug’s, City Noor, Sabatino’s— all popular places which closed at some point due to a fire.  Fortunately all but City Noor bounced back sooner or later, usually expanding, but it’s an unavoidable fact that the restaurants we love are ephemeral.  Go to one today; it might not be there tomorrow!

In other news, the TribStew is the next media outlet to check out my find, P&P BBQ Soul Food. They liked it!

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Mil-Walk-A-Thon, April 2004.

I don’t pay much attention to eGullet, nothing against it but I never had the urge to lavish even more of my time on a different food chat board when I was already spending vast amounts of time helping run one, LTHForum. It would have been sort of like learning both WordPerfect and WordStar, back in the day. So I was fairly floored today to run across this mention of an event being planned at eGullet. One LTHForum moderator was plugging it, another was in fact the planner— of a weekend-long orgy of dining to which literally dozens of people were coming from out of town to dine and drink at multiple restaurants.

I don’t fault Ronnie Suburban for planning something with his old eGullet buds, far from it. And indeed I assume the original announcement was made long before he took on any official duties at LTHForum. Nevertheless it drives home a thought that has been floating half-formed in my head for a while, which is that the social aspect which was the primary cause of LTHForum’s existence seems to have just about died out there. (Short history: Chicago Chowhound users tended to get together socially, unlike most other Chowhound boards; Chowhound management discouraged this because it might lead to broadening of laser focus; eventually harassed-feeling Chicago users started board of our own where getting together at places we were talking about was a feature, not a bug.)

Pulaski-thon, May 2004.

It’s great that this is going on for eGulleteers. But where are the LTHForum events to which comparable organizational effort is being devoted? (There is the annual picnic, which will recur around Labor Day.  But where are the new ones, the ones that don’t have inertia and Cathy2 behind them?) One of the big attractions for so long of LTHForum was the frequent array of events to which total strangers were invited to come and introduce themselves to the broader group. This could be anything from casual lunches to planned dinners to the epic “Thons” I’m commemorating with these photos, in which a dozen or two LTHers, group slowly morphing as the hours passed, would minutely examine some stretch of the city and wind up eating a little something at, literally, a dozen or more places in one day. It was a huge part of what built the community and kept it civil and made it stand out from the various other places (Yelp, say) where one could certainly express one’s opinion to likeminded folks online, but never expect to make friends or have lunch with them.

There are still some events on the board— even ones planned by LTHForum moderators; David Hammond is planning a Maxwell Street tour this weekend, highly recommended, for instance. And there’s a dinner here, a dinner there. But where are the lunches thrown together in a fit of enthusiasm to hurriedly check out this or that new discovery?  Is there really institutional support for the events people plan? Do the heavy hitters sign up and show up to set an example and encourage the shy to come out and join the fun? Not that I see.

The lavish, ambitiously planned and extremely well-attended eGullet event stands in striking contrast to an LTHForum which seems… too pooped to party? Perhaps. I’d love to see you prove me wrong, LTHForum. They were good times, just look at the pictures.

47th-a-Thon, April 2006

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The two weeks and a day I spent on jury duty at the Daley Center are the longest stretch I’ve done of daily work in the Loop since March First (or as they spelled it in those wacky dotcom days, marchFIRST, or as we sometimes anagramatized it, crramhFIST) blew up in late 2000. One thing that quickly became apparent is, the Loop’s choices are a LOT better than they were in my daily work day. I mean, even if you’re stuck eating lame sandwiches, there’s no way that Cosi isn’t a big improvement on Wall Street Deli or Subway. And since I was trying to go vegetarian part of the time— figuring I’d end up grabbing fast food for the kids too often in the evening— I found the choices there surprisingly decent. So here are my notes on things I grabbed in my relatively few moments away from courtroom 2811, the Daley Center:

Cosi— I hit this three times the first week. After having their tomato-and-mozzarella sandwich on Monday,I was kind of craving it the next day, it’s so simple and tasty despite the fact that the mozzarella is nothing special and fairly flavorless. The second time, though, I forced myself to try the pizza. It’s simple, that’s for sure, but somehow I wasn’t that wild about its mere mix of crushed tomatoes and cheese on Cosi bread; it was fresh and basic without making the jump to interesting. I went back Thursday or Friday, I forget, and had the tomato-and-mozz sandwich again. That was a mistake, never eat the same thing twice in one week, that’s just being boring. Anyway, Cosi isn’t free of plasticness, to be sure, but it’s pretty good and real for a sandwich chain.

Sopraffina— This was a real food alternative back in the day, and the grilled veggie sandwich was more imaginative and restauranty than Cosi’s, but I don’t know that I’d travel that far for it now, as I once did. Or maybe didn’t, I think I mainly only ate there when it was straight downstairs at the Amoco/Aon building.

McDonald’s— got dragged to the one in the Theater District one day. How can things not be fresh at lunchtime in the Loop? Yet a QP was dried out and lukewarm. Lame.

Lavazza— I got coffee a couple of days at this Italian coffee chain, but the one time I tried something for breakfast, a raisin roll kind of thing, it was way over the hill and dried out.

California Pizza Kitchen ASAP— their basic vegetarian pizza is really unimaginative, same things you’d find on a veggie pizza at Chuck E. Cheese— green pepper, black olive, onion, oh boy. I was splitting it with someone else or I would have tried to get something better.

Oasis— Did I dare go home again to the middle eastern restaurant I had eaten at at least weekly all through my Leo years (1991-5) and much of the rest of that decade? Knowing that it had just reopened in its old place, I had to, even as I suspected my tastebuds for middle eastern food had grown far more sophisticated in the interim. Well, they had, and I’m not going to claim Oasis is great ME food, but it’s not bad, and for the Loop, it’s a nice slice of ethnic realness that gets you away from the chains— just as it was in the 90s.

Caffe Baci— Grabbed coffee here a couple of times, too, and one time I had a pain aux chocolate that was first-rate, it really was. However, this place also has the concession for lunches brought in to people who can’t go out (such as juries on deliberations), and the stuff that was made to the county’s spec was pretty lousy, and didn’t make me want to check out lunch there on my own dime.

Indian Buffet— I can’t remember if this place had an actual name; I think it’s just an Indian buffet being offered by the 7-11 downstairs. Anyway, as noted in the LTHForum thread, there’s an assortment of entirely decent Indian food which you can get either by paying $10.99 to load up your plate, or $6.99 a pound. I went the former way because I couldn’t decide if Indian food would tend to be heavier than average.

Hannah’s Bretzels— I tried this well-liked upscale sandwich place once a year or so ago and wasn’t that excited by what I had. This time, though, I ordered a Spanish ham and cheese sandwich— and it was terrific, honestly, good enough to be considered for my ten best list, what with the flavorful jamon serrano, a sweet-citrusy spread and thin slices of onion that tasted like they’d been soaked in something (red wine vinegar?) All in all, a remarkably good sandwich for lunchtime in the Loop.

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