Sky Full of Bacon

I have seen the future, and it works from home.

Or at least from a cute little sandwich shop in Roscoe Village.

So I read there was this new Hawaiian cafe in my neighborhood, Roscoe Village. Hawaiian? I realize that the stereotype, that the main ethnic type in Roscoe Village is Strollermom-American, is well founded, but there’s a reason nearly all the Turkish restaurants in town are within walking distance of me, too, to name one other socio-ethnic group, and so I guess I thought it was possible that there were Hawaiians with a hitherto unsuspected desire for Spam musabi in the vicinity. So I walked up, and saw the day’s special:

Uh, yeah, Hawaiian. Turns out the name was just chosen for its new-agey visualize-your-inner-beach qualities, and otherwise, this is a sandwich shop targeting, yes, Stroller Mom America. It’s attractive, it’s low-key (so no death metal will come on the iPod and wake Baby), the stuff is tame and fairly fresh… and the meats are all, Proudly, from Boar’s Head. Which is when I realized another thing: someone had posted something on LTHForum about a place in my hood selling charcuterie, which had picked up a fryer on the cheap from the late Kaze down the street.  And this was it.  At that moment, my visions of a Salumi-level charcuterie mecca disappeared down a Boar’s Head’s gullet; it’s not that Boar’s Head is bad, exactly, it’s a supermarket brand and it’s one of the better ones, but all that means is, it’s processed to still resemble what it came from, it’s not totally fakey. But it’s not fresh-roasted turkey from Paulina, either, and there are places, like Wicker Park’s Birchwood Kitchen, that don’t just settle for the obvious marketing support you get if you commit to a full Boar’s Head program, but insist on real, fresh (or in the case of La Quercia, cured) food.  And I didn’t just get one of those two minutes from my house.

That said, nothing says you have to eat the things that use Boar’s Head meat-like meat™, and so looking around the menu of fairly light, very white food, I spotted a chicken salad sandwich.  It had asparagus spears in it, which was a nice touch.  It had a lot of lettuce and mayo mixed in, it was clean-tasting rather than especially interesting, if not for the asparagus and the rosemary bread it would have been bland, but (this is the dirty secret of my life as a food explorer) there are plenty of days when I just have to grab something on my street, none of which is going to lead to shouting great discoveries from the rooftops.  So I will be happy just to have this place making fresh, decent food within walking distance.

In any case, what interested me most about this place, as I sat there, wasn’t the food.  Like a lot of people, I think my reaction to Apple’s announcement of the iPad last week was somewhat contradictory: on the one hand, it seems a bit underwhelming, but on the other… I can’t help but feel, and hope, that this oversized iPod Touch is an important first step toward whatever the next thing computing will be is.  It’s a little glimpse of the future, even if it doesn’t quite do much that’s new yet.

Across from me there was a large table.  Two women sat there, with laptops, working.  Next to them was a kid’s table.  Sunlight streamed in the window.  Soft music played overhead.  They nibbled at their food.  We imagine that the future will be shiny, metallic, vaguely fascist in a nice way.  We imagine a future in which all of life is sort of like the Air Force Academy, basically, modernist and hyperorganized:

But in reality, this is the future for which Steve Jobs is creating the iPad, and it’s already here: Mom sitting at a table, doing her work while somebody else is making her lunch, just as when she was a kid herself, and drew at a table while her mom made her lunch.  Or maybe she wasn’t drawing; maybe she was using an Etch-a-Sketch.

Aloha, 21st century.

Nohea Cafe
2142 W. Roscoe
(773) 935-7448

A jibarita at La Bombonera.

I haven’t posted one of my 50 Places Not Talked About on LTHForum for a while, because most of my new places in the last few months were those 14 supermercado taquerias I posted about the other day. And while there were probably enough new places on that list to get me to 50, it would have been boring to finish off the list in one post.

But that doesn’t mean I had my eyes shut all that time.  In fact, I noted a number of places as I was scouting out the supermercados, including several new Cuban or South American places on the northwest side.  One of them, I found interesting enough that it turned into a blog post at the Reader, so go read it there.

In the meantime, a quick followup to my Bolzano Meats post: take some thin slices of guanciale.  Heat in microwave for about a minute, to sweat some fat out.  Dice and place on pizza:

I don’t know if there was such a thing as guanciale pizza before, surely there was, but I was very happy with my possibly-not-original invention.  P.S. Just did a search, should have guessed.  Mozza, whose menu is visible in the entrance at La Quercia, has a LaQuercia guanciale pizza.

Back in the day, when the “auteur theory” stressing the director as the primary creator of a movie was a hot topic, film buffs squared off into two camps, the auteurists (or “Sarrisites,” named for Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice) and the anti-auteurists or Paulettes, named for Pauline Kael, who had made both herself and Sarris well known by attacking him in a lengthy essay. A story Kael told summed up the difference in their attitudes: an auteurist said to her “I can’t imagine Howard Hawks making a bad film!” to which Kael replied, “Go see Red Line 7000,” which was Hawks’ latest picture and playing at that moment in theaters. Kael was clearly sensitive to directors and the degree to which producer-directors like Hawks shaped their films; she certainly would have agreed with any discussion which focused on, say, the consistent role of strong women in Hawks’ films, from Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday to Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep to Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, for instance, as evidence that there was such a thing as A Film By Howard Hawks.

But what she didn’t believe was that having a strong personality in filmmaking guaranteed that your next movie would be any good. Hawks made a number of movies which are clearly his but which simply don’t measure up, every artist does. Kael was a great resister of orthodoxy, of anyone telling her that she had to like something because she ought to like it, and for her, being told that you had to like a movie because it was a Douglas Sirk or an Otto Preminger was no better than being told you had to like it because it was about an important dogooder subject like race relations. Every movie was up for judgement on its own, to either please you or not by itself.

What prompted all this was a thread at LTHForum about Jimmy’s Red Hots, a kind of ratty, somewhat scary (the countermen are rumored to pack heat) hot dog stand on the west side that is undeniably full of character— they’re rabidly anti-ketchup (they don’t carry the stuff), food is served in whatever paper bags they got cheap (which may well mean Burger King bags, say), there are guys selling bootleg CDs and DVDs out front, and so on. Now, all this is charming as hell to us connoisseurs of urban decay, but I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone that a business that is ramshackle physically can also be inconsistent in the product it turns out.

Oh, but wait, it does surprise some, so much in fact that it’s unimaginable. Never mind the reports of overboiled, inferior skinless dogs at times, or flavorless fries at other times, not fried in the claimed beef tallow, all from respected posters (including myself). One could never imagine that a place using Chicken Delite bags that fell off a truck would ever use a lower grade of hot dog for a week or two because they got a deal! The Jimmy’s partisans, having declared what Jimmy’s should be, then insist that that is what it always is, who do you believe, me or your lying tastebuds, and go so far as to question the basic intelligence of the people who went to Jimmy’s as to whether they even went to the right place.

I suppose there’s something to savor in the fact that this degree of orthodoxy is being established not to protect a Trotter or a Bayless but on behalf of something as lowly as a ghetto hot dog stand. Still, orthodoxy is the enemy of open minds, now and always, and never so much as in discussions of something as mutable as restaurants. There should never be untouchable restaurants, restaurants that, because you liked them in 1998, must still be good today— especially if you, personally, are no longer out there tasting as widely and knowledgeably as you once were. Set up a shelf of your favorite places that are untouchable, and you make it impossible for others to see new things that might well be better. If George Stevens is unquestionably a great director and Shane established forever as the great western, you keep people from seeing Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, who each made at least two or three greater westerns than Shane in the same decade.

And that’s antithetical in every way to the spirit of open inquiry. It’s like a reporter being on the take; he’s no longer capable of seeing and reporting things clearly. And The Untouchables knew what fate lay in store for reporters who don’t report on the level.

As for me, if I want a great hot dog and fries and real Chicago atmosphere, I go to 35th St. Red Hots. It’s always good, you can count on it. Trust me.

35th St. Red Hots
500 W 35th St
Chicago, IL
(773) 624-9866

So some years ago, a guy who had experience under one of the most respected chefs in town went out on his own and opened a comfort food restaurant, which I have expressed love for on many occasions.  It was in an unpretentious suburb (Burbank), had his name and a picture of a pig on its sign, and in general, it looked and felt like exactly the place in which you expect to get comfort food like chicken-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, sage gravy, and green beans with bacon bits for about $8.99.

Even if Chuck Pine occasionally shows his Bayless background by making artisanal-Mexican hybrid dishes like Mexican Pot Roast, he’s firmly within what we would call The Comfort Food Paradigm, which is to say, unpretentious, a little affectation of down hominess and honky tonk good times, easy to like flavors, modest prices— in short, nothing that Grandma wouldn’t recognize as food.

*  *  *

So two guys who had experience under some of the most respected chefs in the world, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz to be specific, now turn up in a sleekly modern yet welcoming space in Lincoln Park, Kith & Kin.  And they start serving comfort food in something of a fine dining atmosphere, sometimes with French words or the names of pork breeds on the menu (though in general it’s very light on the ingredient-genealogy thing).  In some ways they’re fitting The Comfort Food Paradigm, in some ways they’re breaking it wide open.  A lot of people are loving it.

Me… some of it impressed me, some of it left me thinking, is that it?  Is comfort food enough when you’re performing on this stage, or should we expect more?  Does the mere fact of being in this fine dining atmosphere, in this neighborhood and with these resumes, oblige you to play at the more elaborate games of teasing and subverting expectations and expanding minds that seem to be de rigeur for fine dining these days?  Can you look like The Hot New Chicago Restaurant Paradigm and serve food like The Comfort Food Paradigm at the same time?

Or am I just asking questions that no else wants the answers to?

Before you answer that, let me walk through a couple of dishes.  One that’s received a lot of acclaim is the fried confit chicken thighs, and this is a good example of how a deceptively simple dish— fried chicken, dumplings, gravy— can have a lot of technique and work behind it which produce incrementally more wonderful results.  Doing chicken as confit produced dark meat that had reduced halfway to a jerky texture in some ways, yet still had the juiciness and crispiness of fried chicken, set off simultaneously by salty gravy and skin, the fluffy blandness of dumplings, and the bitterness of some brussels sprouts.  The technique and balance of this dish were impeccable, redefining the very idea of chicken and dumplings as a dish.

But if you’re redefining dishes, are you still in a comfort food zone?  At the very least, you’re pushing it to the edge of comfort, but with great success in this case.  At the same time, though, my wife had short ribs in a traditional veal stock-wine braise.  A classic dish, executed very well… and exactly as any nice French restaurant might make it, or would have made it in 1920, or indeed, as I’ve made it at home.  You got a problem with that?  Not exactly, but if I’m again expecting something as revelatory as the fried chicken thighs, I’m left waiting for the punchline.

Or is that just me?  Maybe.  But that’s how I felt about the meal— constantly wondering, should I just be happy to be comforted, or do I want my comfort nudged to the next level?  A salad was another good example— pecans and blue cheese and some poached pears could be in a salad anywhere, there’s one not entirely unlike it at California Pizza Kitchen, but not many places would use lightly grilled escarole, softening its texture and sharpening its taste; a wonderfully simple but refined touch.  But hardly safe or expected, if that’s supposed to go with the comfort territory.

On the other hand the pork “crock,” a spreadable pork pate, was pleasant enough (we ate it all) but it hardly seemed memorable as pate goes; here’s where Kith & Kin seemed timid next to the Mados and Bristols and Purple Pigs.  (The LTHer who damned it as being like Underwood deviled ham wasn’t being that cruel.)  Likewise, one dessert pulled off the highwire act with great success despite an executional error— an olive oil cake, served a little hard and cold, but beautifully balanced with a lush orange-vanilla ice cream; the other played it safe (fresh churros with a chocolate ganache to dip in) and was appropriately choco-decadent, but no more.  Again, the one that tickled the mind, too, made the one that merely pleased the belly look a little small.

It could be that Kith & Kin is exactly what it wants to be— sometimes ingeniously innovative, often simply a nicer version of Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap.  An audience for what it is has clearly found it, and so maybe everyone will just live happily ever after and not every meal has to be overthought like I’m doing right now.  But I liked the Kith & Kin that pushed my comfort zone so much more than the one that comforted me and no more, that I think it’s almost a shame if you have that ability and don’t use it to the fullest.  Enjoy your success, Kith & Kin— but don’t get comfortable.

Kith & Kin
1119 West Webster
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 472-7070