Sky Full of Bacon

I request review copies sparingly, because I feel it’s important for the overall honor of bloggerdom to make it clear that you weren’t just trying to cadge a free copy and to actually write something (and I’m not going to go to the trouble for something I don’t care that much about, I’d rather just pay the $24.95). And especially because if I plan to review a cookbook, there’s only one way to really do that… which is to cook from it.

That presented a problem for James Villas’ new cookbook Pig: King of the Southern Table. Which was, if I was even going to make half a dozen things from it in a short time, that would be a lot of Southern-style pork for my family to consume.

Villas ranks with Lewis & Peacock, John T. Edge and only a few others among chroniclers and preservers of Southern food culture. His book The Glory of Southern Cooking was the very first thing I posted about here, and I also like that he actually knew and wrote about the legendary bon vivant and character Lucius Beebe. Whose book The Big Spenders I count alongside Mad Magazine and Monty Python as one of the things that shaped my view of the splendid absurdity of life, through its chronicling of such Gilded Age excesses as the party given on horseback, a waiter at each place holding reins in one hand and champagne bucket in the other, or the story of James Gordon Bennett Jr. being forced to flee to the Continent after committing the ultimate high society faux pas of drunkenly pissing in the piano at someone’s soiree…

…but we were talking about Villas’ book. And who could not be charmed by a book full of such dishes as Tennessee Pigs’ Feet and Field Pea Snert, Open-Face Pig and Pimento Burgers, Roasted Pork Shoulder With Applejack Gravy, Texarcana Pork and Bean Pie With Cornpone Topping, Birmingham Porcupine Balls or Palmetto Scrapple. As the geography covered in that list suggests, the book roams the South widely and learnedly, and knowing that the story is half the fun of many Southern dishes, Villas provides context with both a researcher’s rigor and an eye for the color that makes these recipes beguiling beyond their humble ingredients and make you immediately want to jump in the car:

Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-i-tosh) would be only a dot on the map of central Louisiana were it not for the distinctive half-moon meat pies that a place called Lasyone’s has been producing since 1966…

In Cajun Louisiana, it is custom in the fall at hog-killing time for home cooks (especially women) to make two styles of rice sausages with the pork trimmings: sturdy boudin noir with liver (and often pig’s blood), and the more delicate boudin blanc with chopped chicken and heavy cream added to the pork.

For generations, hogs’ brains and scrambled eggs have been considered a great delicacy in the South, and my own mother still remembers a certain Mr. Norwood including a container of brains in his biweekly house delivery of farm-fresh eggs, butter, milk, sausage and chickens.

They are made of different stuff, these Southern housewives who can open a box first thing in the morning and see brains in it, and not let out a bloodcurdling scream.

So this book will offer fun leafing through for years to come, nestled on my shelf next to other definitively one-word titles such as Fat and Bones. My only complaint about it is that I find the typography distressingly clumsy, both the fat display font (chosen to evoke the porcine?) and a too-coyly-moderne text font seem ill-chosen for easy reading and unattractive on the page. Beebe would have sniffed at them as striving too hard for effect.

* * *

North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue (p. 276) and South Carolina Mustard Barbecue (p. 280)

But I wanted to put the book to some practical use, and then the opportunity presented itself when my wife’s best law school friend and her family were announced to be coming over for dinner… two days before Thanksgiving. The last thing I wanted to do was cook a Thanksgiving-level fancy meal, so it seemed a perfect time, especially with kids involved (who would likely turn their noses up at many of the alternatives I could have considered), for Villas’ take on barbecue.

Even though it’s not a barbecue book per se, the section on barbecue gives a solid overview of regional styles in about 40 pages.  I decided to make two wet rubs in two different styles.  The first was North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue, very similar to what I had at A&M Grill in Mebane, North Carolina this summer, a powerfully vinegary, almost clear dousing sauce or mop with just a hint of ketchup in it:

Though I should point out, again, that I didn’t find the allegedly time-honored and hard-fought distinction between Lexington (ketchupy) and eastern (non-ketchupy) sauce to have much validity, since I had vinegary without ketchup at the place in Lexington named Lexington Market, which would seem to be pretty definitive as to what the Lexington style is. But Villas’ recipe was dead-on for the ketchupy style.

The second was a mustardy South Carolina sauce, which was much more of a glaze:

The next question was pork. One of the things I find paradoxical about barbecue fanatics is that as wound up as they get about this or that, they rarely seem to pay all that much attention to the meat itself as an ingredient. We had an outbreak of controversy in Chicago over cooking styles recently when an old school tavern serving baked ribs, Twin Anchors, won a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guides, and the usual barbecue suspects decried this honor being paid to a practitioner of “meat jello.” In the barbecue-fanatic lexicon, meat jello refers to ribs where shortcuts such as parboiling are used to speed up cooking, producing a soft, fall-off-the-bone texture; for barbecue heads, proper barbecuing— and I’ll agree with this so far as it goes— over woodsmoke produces a chewier texture which still takes some effort to gnaw off the bone.

Yet the same people who go on and on about the crappiness of meat jello will routinely buy the cheapest cuts of industrial pork they can find, and seem to have no interest in improving their barbecue by improving the quality of what goes into it. They would never assume that you could buy the cheapest steak you could find and get satisfactory results, yet the lesson doesn’t seem to transfer to pork. For me, I’m happy eating a cheap steak in a South American restaurant, say, I’ve never been one who was obsessed with dining upon dry-aged this or wagyu that, but I sense a vast difference between lean, mushy, pale tannish-pink industrial pork tasting of the wastes the pigs are raised on top of, and a beautiful pinkish-red slab of thick, marbled pork raised by someone who cares about raising something beyond the most basic commodity hogs. What do you really get if you cast your pearls of technique before flavorless industrial swine?

Instead I contacted Jake’s Country Meats, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and they set aside two pork shoulders for me, one bone-in (my preference), one boneless. The cost was $80, which was probably about three times what I’d pay at a Peoria Packing (though they were substantially larger than the industrial ones typically are), but the result was a massive amount of beautiful marbled shoulder. Here’s what one looked like after a few hours of smoking (they were too big to both fit on one level of the Weber Smokey Mountain until they’d shrunk a bit with cooking):

After about 4 hours or so, I painted the boneless one with the mustard sauce:

Another couple of hours after that, I scored the bone-in one and dabbed it with the vinegary sauce, making sure it ran inside the slits:

The boneless one was done first, and that’s mostly what we ate that night. The sweet-hot mustard sauce made a terrific lacquer, almost a little Chinese, on the boneless shoulder. Partly pulled and partly chopped (the meat could have taken another hour, but the kids couldn’t) it was a hit. The other came in after about another hour or so, and tasted by all the adults, it was liked well enough, but it was clear that the mustard glaze was the star. I didn’t find this surprising, as the vinegary North Carolina style is very much a minority taste. But everyone loved the smoky, good-tasting meat. And I had leftovers for the rest of the week and enough to make two large freezer packages as well.

to be continued…

I have a bunch of projects happening— announcement of at least one will happen very soon, I promise— and I haven’t been anywhere or done anything except those projects, or meeting about those projects, so going into the holiday seems like a good time to put up something I never got around to posting when it happened, which was August. I made jam, for the first time.

My friend Cathy Lambrecht has been giving canning seminars of late, but as with my piccalilli canning session last year, I succeeded in luring her over to my house to help me can something (and teach me how to do so without creating deadly toxins) by posing a challenge that would pique her curiosity. In this case, it was… peach fennel jam.

There’s this woman on the west coast named June Taylor who makes jams. No, not this June Taylor:

This one:

She does very high quality, very expensive little jars of preserves, you can find them at places like Fox & Obel or order online. Their secret is no secret: really great in season fruit, and as little sugar as you can get away with, so the fruit flavor really comes through. They may be runny compared to Smuckers, but they’re excellent. She also does some interesting combination flavors, and one that sounded intriguing to me was peach fennel. So that was my challenge: add fennel to peach jam, and see if it would be any good.

I had a half bushel of peaches I bought at a farmstand in Libertyville, and some great in-season raspberries (which were so good this summer!) in the freezer, and one head of fennel. Cathy brought some likewise in-season blueberries, and she also brought this:

Nduja, the spreadable cured Calabrian sausage which everybody suddenly was talking about and making. This was from Boccalone in San Francisco (brought to Cathy by Charlotte Tan, aka LTHer Crazy C). The flavor was good but the Underwood Deviled Ham texture is kind of offputting; I like my cured meats to have some chew, frankly. Still, I meant to go try Mado’s for comparison, but… guess now I’ll be trying The Butcher and Larder’s for comparison!

So while I diced fennel and skinned peaches, Cathy prepared two pots, one for peach and fennel, one for peach and raspberry, which is a classic enough combination that it has its own name: peach blush.

Five jars of peach fennel were done first. (I put a bit of the fronds in each jar for an arty touch.) And what we learned was… far from being overpoweringly vegetal (I had feared something like peach-celery or peach-garlic), the fennel apparently volatilized so much during cooking that it was barely detectable at all, just the slightest hint of licorice in the peach. So basically it’s peach jam, nothing wrong with that, but if you want peach-fennel, you need more fennel, at least another head for this ratio.

Peach blush was up next, lots of it. It is a great combination, at first you think you’re just tasting the brassy raspberries but then the cello notes of peach develop underneath. It’s my favorite of the bunch, again, because raspberries were just so good this year.

Getting those two done felt like a day’s work, but there were peaches left and we had the blueberries and… well, we knew we’d be glad we did. So we cleaned the pot and tossed in the blueberries (at least they didn’t have to be peeled):

This came out really well, too, though I’d still say the peach blush was my favorite. And it was the one that really drove home the point, the miracle of canning: here’s something that was so evanescent, 6 or 8 weeks of amazing raspberries, I set them down in my kitchen after one farmer’s market trip and by the time I was back from walking the dog, the whole kitchen smelled like raspberry. And Cathy and I took that fleeting moment… and gave it immortality. Or at least another year. That’s a pretty wonderful thing, and if I haven’t put the photos up till now, believe me, as winter has come I’ve enjoyed our efforts from that day on plenty of mornings.

Fresh from toasting the winners of Bib Gourmands at The Violet Hour, I dined with one of the one-star anointees. I was invited to Everest for a lunch hosted by Chef Jean Joho and the Spertus Institute in honor of Joan Nathan, author of a couple of previous books on American and Israeli Jewish cooking, who has a new one on French Jewish cooking, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous. (Yes, the irony of Sky Full of Bacon attending such a lunch was noted.)

From the remarks (kept as brief as she could), we got a glimpse of what seems to be an interesting hidden world which made relatively few inroads into restaurant culture in France (beyond some falafel shops) but has a lot of depth to it— France is, she said, the third major Jewish country after Israel and the US and one of the only Holocaust countries where Jews returned in numbers after World War II and reestablished their culture. And most of her research was in homes rather than professional dining settings.

For Joho, who called himself “half Catholic, half Protestant and half Jewish,” and is from Alsace where the Jewish presence was strongest, cooking out of her book made for an interesting experience as his newly Michelin-starred kitchen had to turn out what are basically very homey, humble recipes. So Gemarti soup seemed wonderfully rustic until you noticed how perfectly brunoised the tiny bits of vegetable in it were:

Actually, one interesting thing she said about French Jewish cuisine is that it’s often the last place that older French recipes survive. She said this recipe, with carrots and toasted semolina, was exactly the sort of thing that was replaced otherwise in French dining by potato-leek soup when potatoes arrived from the New World. Similarly, she says this sweet-sour fish dish can be found in Taillevent in the 14th century:

My thought was, she’d found the missing link between Jews and Chinese food. This one may have stirred a little fuss at the end, because Joho said that it’s traditionally made with carp, but he doesn’t like the carp in this country, so he used another white river fish: catfish. I immediately heard people saying that catfish wasn’t kosher, however because it’s a scavenger. So’s carp, I thought, but what do I know about all this.

Anyway, after a couple of homey courses, we finished with a dessert fit for a Rothschild, in fact named for them:

A very interesting meal on a topic new to me; I recommend leafing through Nathan’s book when doing your half-Catholic, half-Protestant, half-Jewish holiday shopping. Being in a food-cultural mind as I left, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition that summed up for me our own mix of food cultures even in the Loop:

I am doing some copywriting work for Falafill, currently at 3202 N. Broadway, soon in the Loop and elsewhere. This means I won’t be writing about quick-service middle eastern food concepts (as they’d say in the biz) anytime soon.

That was the first thought I had when I read Rich Melman’s comment on Laurent Gras’s departure from L2O in The Stew (Aschie30 at LTHForum had it too):

“I had a customer call me, upset, because he’d made a special request, and nothing outrageous, and he (Gras) refused.”

Now, that could refer to a lot of things. But one of the things it could refer to was the incident that led to this epically preposterous thread on LTHForum, in which Plotnicki, a wealthy food blogger who likes to throw his weight around supposedly on behalf of all restaurant diners but, in my opinion, seems to mostly make his meal worse when he does, asked his L2O waiter to ask the chef to “cook for him.” Meaning, make something special just for his table and send it out at his choice.

While I’ve certainly asked chefs I know well to just send me out whatever they think I should have from the existing menu (and occasionally gotten something off menu in the process), it makes no sense in a restaurant where there’s a set menu already; the chef has already made his choices of the best things to be had, why ask him to whip up something on the fly as opposed to serving you what he’d been working on all day? How could you expect that to be better than simply ordering like a normal person? But don’t let me rehash it, read pages 6 through 12 and don’t miss this parody in another thread.

So anyway, Plotnicki certainly fits the profile of the customer who might have raised a stink directly to Melman (and gotten through). The problem is, Plotnicki’s complaint is completely wrongheaded to my mind, and while part of being Melman, Gras or L2O is properly handling the wealthy with weight to throw around, that doesn’t mean you should actually listen to them. Anyway, for all that people rag on bloggers as sleazy little pajama-clad toads who demand freebies, I’ve never ever seen a blogger of my socioeconomic status try that (let alone succeed). But here was a guy who was already in the Rich Pain In The Ass Customer category, which long predates the internet, now amplified even louder by his blog. If his complaints did play a significant role in souring Gras’ and Melman’s relationship, then they represent a new menace to adventurous chefs with a strong personal vision everywhere.

So I went to the instantly sold-out pre-Michelin event at the Violet Hour last night. At least, that’s what it was supposed to be. Since there was never a moment that any Michelin person came out and said anything about anything, the only real clue that that was what it was— and not any other reason why I’d be scarfing free food and drink at the Violet Hour, which does seem to happen at least once a year— was that Michelin Guides were sitting around, free for the taking.

No, not the Chicago one.

So I chatted with some LTHers, touched base with Nick at Grub Street, finally met the lovely Patty Erd of The Spice House in person (if you want one piece of advice for Thanksgiving, go to Spice House and buy their pumpkin pie spice mix, which is doubleplusgood), met a bunch of Gaper’s Block people I had never met before, talked with Ari Bendersky of Eater Chicago about the alleged Yelp list of Michelin winners (I think it’s a plausible-looking phony, we’ll know shortly), and I think I saw Jason Lardone but didn’t get a chance to talk to him. (Actually, I thought for a moment of pulling a full Tony Clifton and going as Jason Lardone, but I just got a haircut and didn’t feel like immediately wasting it by shaving it off. I also proposed climbing onto the bar and improvising a welcome speech in half-French, half-English, but would have needed at least $100 to be barred from The Violet Hour for life, and only managed to raise about $60 from my immediate companions.)

Speaking of The Violet Hour, from which I am not barred for life, I say this unequivocally, on my index of visits I’d say this one was a definite uptick, the best since my first. There’s a new chef and the food, if less distinctively bar-like, seemed the most sophisticated and accomplished to date— I really liked the bacalao fritter, and a lamb sausage on a little slice of roasted beet in particular. Although we had a set list of cocktails to make serving en masse easier, it was no trick to walk up to the bar and request something special, and one of the bartenders (who LTHer Ursiform eventually realized had been in a band that recorded at her house— weird small world moment) was more than happy to take my vaguely inebriated desires for something unusual and translate them into, first, an excellent rum-based cocktail with black walnut liqueur, and second, a vermouth cocktail with some half-heard reference to “artichoke juice” in the description. This was better once the ice melted a bit and cut the syrupiness of the vermouth.

I’ve been meaning to get back to Big Star, people like Michael Nagrant keep raving about it, and it looked oddly quiet over there so after our drinks, we went over for some tacos to wash them down (this made sense at the time). Big Star has improved the basement-slash-submarine feel of its cold gray box space with some pink Christmas lights, which work far better than they sound. The tortillas were much improved over my previous visit, when I felt like they were rubbery and bland. But I’m still just not wild about the food there, in fact, I had pretty much the same feeling about the tacos as last time: pork belly quite good and different, chicken not bad (there’s more flavor to chicken here than at most Mexican restaurants, admittedly), the pastor, just not right. Too sweet, no crispy char-ness.

The one new thing we tried was the Sonoran hot dog, a massive, and impressively charred, beef frank allegedly wrapped in bacon (I’d say more like there’s a piece at the bottom) and then wildly overdressed with crema, beans, diced jalapenos, I don’t know what all. As Sharon Bautista said of the dressing, “It seems like the right things on it, but it’s way too much when you’re actually eating it,” you wind up basically smearing a couple of tablespoons of gooey stuff onto a napkin with every bite. It’s kind of a weird one-shot for them to be offering but I think it’s the thing I’ve liked best there to date.

Still, after two visits, I have to say that Big Star is just not the bar or the Mexican restaurant for me. Somehow I think they’ll survive, even so.

In a moment, we’ll have the real list of Michelin winners, and then… Michelin mania will be over. For at least a year or two.


When injustice besmirched the lobster bib of France in the Dreyfus case, the fearless writer Emile Zola cried out: “J’Accuse!”

Today, when another injustice is done by Frenchmen, I must be no less bold. No less courageous. No less willing to put my opinion right on the front page, with my name in type as large as Zola’s: J’Accuse!

What is it that prompts me to make this j’accusation?  Why do I willingly choose to be such a big j’acc?

It is, simply, the only choice I have when I look at the list of Bib Gourmands, the supposed list of “Chicago good values” issued by the Guide Michelin last week.  Someone has to stand up for the best in value-priced cuisine in Chicago, and as the founder, CEO, chef de content, and Chief Visionary Officer of, je suis that someone:

• Melange: Un Creperie. No, no, no, M. Naret and all your anonymous reviewers. As I made clear in my definitive post, “Puckle Density in Chicago Crepes, A Spectrographic Analysis,” Melange’s use of a powdered crepe mix results in an insufficient puckle to plane ratio of 1.6:1-1.83:1, depending on whether it’s Arturo or Manuel in the back doing the mixing. The best creperies in Paris achieve a standard of at least 2.12:1, and the anti-griddle crepes at Jean-Chauve Souris’ experimental crepe atelier Désespoir in Toulon achieve an awe-inspiring 4.67:1 (see Lardone, “The Creperies of France: A Study With My New Nikon DXL650SI” and Lardone, “I Can’t Believe Delta Won’t Let Me Use My Miles To Go To Freakin’ Paris Directly”).

• Go Thai Yourself. Really? Really, France, did your experience in Indochina teach you nothing about Asian food? Go Thai Yourself’s boat noodles are a sad, lumpish mockery of a classic dish, the gristly, wizened nam tok redefines the meaning of “insult to the customer,” and the nam khaa pla vim kra ban tuu fok Chiang Mai style is blatantly inferior to the version available on the upstairs back room secret menu tattooed on the owner’s 100-year-old mother’s inner thigh (may require anti-wrinkle cream to read completely) at Thai You Too Pal— as anyone would know who has read my extensive posts on Thai food. Did you even open your browsers, Team Michelin? Why do you even go out to eat if you aren’t willing to do due diligence? The best you can say for Go Thai Yourself is that the hostess, Gum, is an especially attractive young lady whose pert breasts exhibit all the perfection of form, shapeliness and jiggle sadly lacking in the chive dumplings. Um, now that I think about it, this one was fine, actually.

• Ye Scurvy Dog. I am shocked at the inclusion of this pathetic old school excuse for a Chicago fish and chips house. Yes, it may have been popular with vintage celebrities such as Mitzi Gaynor, Gordon McRae and Cardinal Mindszenty back in the 1950s and 1960s, but we’re not living in Kup’s Chicago any more. What makes this choice such a mockery of everything I have devoted my life to (see Lardone, Dreams From My Waiter, coming Spring 2011 from Harper Collins Perennial) is that it continues to serve the style of fried fish I call “fish kugel,” in which the fish is encoated in a gummy, flavorless batter which quickly turns insipid with exposure to air. True fish and chips devotees such as myself know that only a light cornmeal-based dusting achieves the perfect viscosity-to-aeration ratio which allows the full flavor of the tilapia to shine through.

When you review this sorry list you wonder how anyone could be so far astray from the truth of Chicago dining, which can easily be found via my blog (follow me on Twitter: TheLardone). Far better choices for the visiting European to gain a real sense of our city’s bounty would have been the shrimp dosa at Klang, the pork intestine panini at Uub, or the Lemonhead pot stickers at The Sheepman. How can anyone know Chicago who has not tasted the bacalao testa at Archerman & Trenchfoot, the delicately piney piquancy of the mulattoes y castratos at El Muerte de Castro, the Imploding Plasma-State Margarita at Cassowary, or the crabapple-based giardinera at Sal’s South Pulaski No Loitering? The answer is as stark as the shuttered Mister Freeze of my youth: they can’t. And much as it pains me to have to say it, if they come to Chicago clutching the Michelin Guide instead of on their iPhone (get the FooderChicago app at iTunes, $1.99), they won’t.

NOTE: Speaking of pizza, as this post will shortly, check out my color commentary and, more to the point, Dan Zemans’ definitive bestiary of Chicago pizza styles in this Serious Eats piece.

Almost is the saddest word in a food writer’s lexicon.  Of course, most often it’s saddest in the sense of “We almost like your idea enough to pay you to write it for us.” But it can also be in the sense of, a place that almost pulls it off, almost gets what it takes to go from okay to really good, but misses. Herewith, two recent examples.

I first spotted Sanfratello’s a zillion years ago on, I think, the way south side ice cream tour on LTHForum. (Sadly, the photos aren’t linked any more.) The original Sanfratello’s is down in Glenwood, wherever that is, somewhere around Tinley Park or somewhere. And under Mike G’s rules, as a pizza place that’s been around since the 1960s, it deserved to be tried. But it’s also sprouted a half dozen other locations all on the Indiana side of the southeast side/Northwest Indiana region, in places like Highland, so when I took the boys over there for an event a while back, we spotted a Sanfratello’s and tried it for dinner. (Actually we spotted one and went in, turned out it was takeout only, so they told us how to find another a couple of miles away.)

In many ways it’s a typical Chicago thin crust, except for one eccentricity— which turns out to be of huge importance. Basically, this is fried pizza. Yes, fried. You heard it right.

It’s not as weird as it sounds. Basically it means you put the dough in a metal pan which has been very liberally greased, and the grease liquefies enough and fries it enough to crisp up the outside. It’s actually done with a lot of pan pizzas, producing a characteristic moonscape texture on the bottom where bubbles form, and so on. (Pizza Hut’s pan pizza is something of an example.)

But on a pan pizza, it helps fluff up the fast-rising, bready-spongey crust. Here, on a short dough, it hardens it like a popover, and fries the edges of the cheese that spill over. It’s a very different sensation, there’s something essentially un-pizza-like about this cookie-like crust and the caramelized grilled cheese edges, something that seems halfway to being pastry.

But I’d have liked it as an oddball outlier among south side thin crusts, except for one thing— well, two things: the toppings and the sauce just didn’t have that much flavor. Give me a tasty tomato sauce, even a sweet one like Aurelio’s (another south side chain), and give me Italian sausage with some real fennel-y kick and porky funk to it, and I could have loved it. Unfortunately, I felt both these things were kind of bland. They really did taste like a pizza place from the 1960s, and in a sense that’s no compliment.

Still, I almost liked this weird pizza enough to hunt it down again any time I’m in some farflung place on the southeast side. Almost.

Hacienda Los Torres
Is there a cuisine that breaks your heart by getting wrong what would be so easy to get right, more often than Mexican?

I spotted the word Birria on the sign for Hacienda Los Torres on the west side, and decided to give it a try. There were a lot of signs (literally in some cases) of potential greatness— pork on a pastor spit, this poster proudly advertising their birria, the promise of handmade tortillas. Maybe too many things for them to be good at all of them.

It was also dead at noon. Not a promising sign in this big a place. But I ordered a plate of birria, and a pastor taco on the side.

Sadly, I could see that they were flubbing the potential of the pastor taco the moment the cook went to make it. He could easily have flipped on the gyros-spit and made me a beautiful crisped-up taco; but instead he gathered up some meat that had been cut some time earlier from the greasy tray at the bottom of the spit, and put it into a pan to reheat it. Not surprisingly, the result was pastor jerky, pastor Hubba Bubba, and given the time that it had probably spent unrefrigerated… well, I know the rules at LTHForum are that you can’t know who gave you an upset stomach the next day with a definitiveness that would pass legal muster, but let’s just say that that pastor cone would be a key person of interest in the investigation.

The birria wasn’t much better. Okay, it was probably quite a bit better, without being good. The flavor was all right, but nothing great. But even for a gristly bony meat, this was a seriously fatty, cartilagenous plate of goat. I basically got one, maybe two tacos out of it for about $9; the rest was scrap.  I never understand the attitude that insists on dishing up a lousy plate in an empty house— you’ve got one customer for the whole lunch period, and you give him something as bad as this?  Shouldn’t you figure that a lot of it’s going in the trash at the end of the day anyway, you might as well dish your only customer up the best plate you can make?

It’s too bad because there were two things that came as part of the meal that were actually quite good. One was the handmade tortillas; though rewarmed, they were still freshly supple and heartily enjoyable. The other was the consomme de chivo (goat soup) that came with the birria:

Surprisingly, this had all the complexity and depth of flavor that the birria was lacking— and frankly, it had hardly any less usable meat than the woeful plate of birria, either. This was the only thing I might conceivably return to Hacienda Los Torres for. But as I was leaving the empty restaurant, I saw the cook was taking raw arrachera (skirt steak) and putting it on the grill, to cook it up ahead of time so that it would have the dry, greasy texture of reheated meat whenever a crowd actually came in to order tacos. A pity, almost— but one that suggests habits of convenience over excellence so ingrained there’s no hope of overcoming them.

Hacienda Los Torres
5245 W Fullerton Ave
Chicago, IL 60639

*  *  *

But to end on a happier, Mexican-flavored note, I went back to Chantico last week with my family, and it continued to be what it was, which is to say, a restaurant that has some impressively flavorful and well-made dishes (a special of caldo de res) and some that seem a little too blandly Ameri-Mex (the fish tacos, mole poblano that’s too chocolatey); but even the less authentic ones are always well prepared with good quality ingredients.  And just as pleasing, they are extremely friendly and welcoming, and thanked me for returning by bringing us out a complimentary dessert.  No almost about that.

So you’re Ruxbin and you’re riding the wave of good initial reviews, and seeing hour waits for a table between 6:30 and 8:30 on weeknights. But you need to work up a new menu for fall. So you… close down one of the hottest restaurants in town for a week.

Most people in the restaurant biz would call that crazy— would call it leaving money on the table, the way Grant Achatz apparently tried to get Michael Carlson to understand how much money he was leaving on the table by not having a wine program at Schwa. But Carlson is so focused on the food that he just couldn’t listen to that, and neither, apparently, can Edward Kim, the chef and co-owner (with his sister and another Korean friend named Kim) of this tiny, funky little restaurant on Ashland just north of Chicago Avenue. And it’s the kind of craziness that deserves cherishing, and championing.

Ruxbin is not another Schwa— it’s a more down-to-earth neighborhood restaurant, with dishes that sound like fairly plain American bistro food, with a touch of Asian fusion. With its thrift-shop look (like some Korean-American cross between Avec and Chicago Kalbi, with a little Amtrak sleeper coach thrown in), it looks more like the kind of place you’d find in a college town than in money-flashing 2010 Chicago. But besides the similarities to Schwa of being tiny, hard to get into and BYO on Ashland, you get the sense of a comparable degree of intensity, focus, and something like perfectionism in the food. According to Sula in the Reader, Kim “externed at [Thomas Keller’s] Per Se,” whatever that means; I think it means we don’t really know where he learned to cook, but we know who he admires, Mr. Obsessively Clear Broth himself. And as much as I have trouble with cooking totally Keller’s way myself, I’m fine when someone else feels they have to.

This was my second attempt to go to Ruxbin, and I’d learned from the first to be there by 6:30 at the latest, and to expect a wait. Ironic that in a restaurant decorated with book pages, it’s far too dark to read while waiting, but on the plus side, you get a front-row seat on the kitchen, which is Hong Kong-dense with cooks at work, yet surprisingly peaceful and purposeful, like everyone says Alinea’s is. That lack of the customary testosteronish bustle in the kitchen was perhaps the first clue that this place was professional beyond its years (or location, or budget).

Kim’s deftness with simple ingredients presented simply showed through in the first thing we had, a marvelous salad of sort of tempura-like eggplant slices, cucumber, golden beets and a yogurt sauce. The eggplant had a curious, nobody-can-eat-just-one texture (perhaps partly dehydrated before frying?), the yogurt sauce tasted of simple, honest dairy and herbs, the cucumber (milled into cylinders) and the surprising triangles of beets and the frisee made for new textural sensations with every bite.

Of our three appetizers, that was by far the best; calamari in a Korean chili sauce called bokkum was good, but would have been better still if the sauce had had more funk to it; it seemed like something I would have had at Ed’s Potsticker House, where it would have been half as much, twice as big and three times as funky. While an obligatory nod to the Korean taco-truck thing, an allegedly Korean empanada, was the one real dud of the meal; I might like these fine in a bar, they were fried nicely enough, but the pink goo inside had no particular character of note. If it was meant to be pureed kimchi, it was an argument for allowing kimchi to keep its original texture.

One great and one pretty good out of three is not that great a score, and I suspected that the appetizers would prove to be the highlights next to the almost defiantly plain sounding entrees, since they almost always are these days.  But again, the most drab-sounding entree proved to be the most remarkable.  I very much enjoyed the more inventive take on chicken and waffles, the most playful or deconstructionist item on the menu, which used a cumin-flavored waffle, slices of white meat chicken, “chicken carnitas” (a fancy, if presumptuous, name for pulled dark meat) and a “citrus gravy” (which didn’t add much).  The only downside was that it was the kind of dish that takes so long to assemble that it wasn’t all that warm by the time it got to us.

But in any case, it was bowled over by the trout, crisped to a slight char, sitting on surprisingly flavorful and robust bulgur wheat (cooked in something darkly wonderful), surrounded by basil sauce and topped with a few spears of asparagus and a couple of candied dates. It looks like hotel banquet food, but everything about it was just executed so well, was so full of rich, cold-weather flavor (yes, I know asparagus and basil are not fall produce, but the overall dish was autumnal just the same), that it was almost breathtakingly satisfying— comfort food at its most stimulatingly alert and intriguing.

We finished with one of the only two desserts, coconut-lychee panna cotta, and it was a perfect end, Asian-light yet bright and happy. I would have this dessert with every meal for the next six months.

So it’s a bit of a stealth restaurant, the exterior not all that imposing (the crowds came from the internet) and the best dishes hiding under unsexy descriptions. But the excellence in execution at this early stage will make me interested to see what’s next every time they overhaul the menu (whether or not they shut down to do it); I expect them, like Schwa, to evolve quickly and impressively.

Michael Morowitz has given up foodblogging, but he emailed what he liked about Ruxbin to me the next day, and gave me permission to quote from it:

I think this place really represents what’s exciting about the Chicago restaurant scene. While explosive mega-trends (BBQ, gastropubs) are flaming out there still exists a strain of creative, food-focused, simple places like Ruxbin. It’s a child of Schwa in a lot of ways and of Mado in others (arguably two of the most exciting things to happen to Chicago’s restaurant scene in the last 5 years).

Ruxbin is a tiny BYOB with a frontiersman’s attitude toward opening a restaurant. They’re standing apart from the crowded restaurant scene, figuratively and literally. They’re focusing on solid execution and a fair bit of innovation while still acknowledging some trends and classics. They are not boasting about their gargantuan beer list or re-creation of a specific style of eating: they’re a family business hanging their shingle outside a tiny storefront… In the great European family bistro/trattoria tradition, there is simply a kitchen, some tables, and some good food.

I don’t especially agree that gastropubs are flaming out— but then I know that he just ate at one that greatly disappointed him, so he has reason to be jaundiced about that trend this week. Still, even as admirable a place as Longman & Eagle— which was a safe bet for my favorite restaurant opening of the year until I ate at Ruxbin— seems to be a savvy commercial player next to the almost monk-like, heads-down devotion to making excellent food, and doing nothing that would distract from that goal, here.

851 N. Ashland
Note: BYO; no reservations