Sky Full of Bacon

The 50th episode of Key Ingredient— that would be about 4 hours’ worth so far, if you were going to watch them back to back— is this week, starring Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe.

Julia Thiel, my partner in chef-torment, has a cool remembrance of our year of eating weird stuff in nice restaurants. As for me, it’s time to recount how the last ten were, as I do every ten episodes (click on Key Ingredient at right to see any of these):

• Luke Creagan/bamboo worms: Fried, they were just fine with cheese, French fries and mustard.
• Dirk Flanigan/sugarcane: Flanigan worked his butt off to experiment with this in so many directions; I wish I loved some of them more but they didn’t always pay off (like the pink powdery sawdust). The dish was fine in itself, it’s just that sugarcane didn’t contribute as much to it as one might have hoped.
• Kevin Hickey/Mountain Ash berries: the berries were fine, very well made upscale dish— but what blew me away was the squab, easily the best and most flavorful of that bird I’ve ever had.
• Beverly Kim/black cardamom: One of the few I’ve actually made at least part of— I made her black cardamom ice cream, which was very good.
• Edward Kim/turtle: A very pleasing pot pie… but turtle is just one of those ingredients that doesn’t have any character of its own, really.
• Kristine Subido/balut: I’m the only one who wasn’t grossed out too much by the fetal duck to eat this. I was actually more grossed out by the overwhelming egginess of it.
• Ariel Bagadiong/haggis: This was really tasty— the slight Asian touch on a funky comfort food dish was totally pleasing.
• Rodney Staton/calves’ liver: I can eat calves liver but I don’t love it, that’s for sure. This was an elegant approach, but still, liver comes through like a bell.
• Mike McGill/grass jelly: I didn’t get the bitter aftertaste from the grass jelly, so this was just a pleasant ravioli to me.
• Duncan Biddulph/cod milt: Although the cod jizz stunk up my fingers for two days, in the dish it was just a subtle brininess. I still find the idea of putting it on toast repulsive, though.
• Jason Hammel/gjetost: I thought this was pretty irresistible, actually— he was dead on about giving it some bitterness to cut the cheese (so to speak). I got the sense that being both cheesy and sweet, Jason thought it was a little white trash for Lula, though.

The debut of a new blog a few months back devoted to what cabbies eat reminded me to pay more attention to this subgenre, which is truly the cutting edge of the immigrant experience in Chicago, places least devoted to serving any clientele other than the most recent immigrant from the third world, and thus offering, in a very gritty way, as direct a reflection of other cuisines at home as you are likely to find. This is not a new observation, of course; there were 24-hour Pakistani joints on the 24-Hour-A-Thon nearly a decade ago, which was one of the key bonding events of the earliest Chowhound posters becoming ultimately LTHForum. (I didn’t go on it, but I read Monica Eng’s account in the Tribune avidly.) Here are three I’ve been to recently, all worth a stop for at least something.

The sort of undefined slice of west Edgewater and Rogers Park between Clark and Ravenswood is a definite cabbie haunt and, not coincidentally, probably the city’s main concentration of African food. Barwaqo Kabob is an East African spot on an obscure stretch of Ridge, hidden back by Ravenswood cemetery, and it will serve to introduce several of the giveaway signs of a cabbie hangout, including 1) TV tuned to popular native channels (which means an Indian one for South Asians, and Al-Jazeera for the middle east and Africa), 2) communal seating (no one thinks anything of sitting right down in the bubble of personal space Westerners tend to expect exists around them), and 3) a menu whose existence is basically theoretical; what you get is basically whatever you see cooking behind the cash register. Which means, in fact, that there were no kabobs that day at Barwaqo Kabob. What I got instead was a plate of chicken and rice:

This was kind of bland in a mildly spiced, slightly tomatoey way, and, frankly, the vegetables and the chicken had a kind of industrial cast to them, as if they came from a large bag at Costco. What saved this was some sort of dark, bitter sauce served on the side, sour with tamarind. I don’t know that it was supposed to go with the chicken, but I used it that way, and it made it far more interesting. What really saved my trip to Barwaqo was the free soup that came with it:

I don’t know what it was exactly— mashed lentils would be my best bet, but I’m open to other suggestions— but it was powerfully garlicky, and full of deep stewed flavor. It was great; it’s worth ordering randomly among the entrees, just to get this soup. Barwaqo definitely deserves more exploration (and there has been some in this LTHForum thread).

Barwaqo Kabob
6130 N Ravenswood
Chicago, IL 60660

When Kennyz said there had been a 24-hour Kyrgyzstani place called Bai Cafe in a storefront in my neighborhood for the past nine months, on a stretch I frequently walk by (or at least I though I did), I found it hard to believe him— but I eventually found the city inspection records and he’s right. My only extenuating circumstance is that apparently it only put up a sign in the last month or so, and even now could easily be mistaken for a place that’s going to open soon, and hasn’t moved much of anything into the space yet.

But David Hammond and I popped in there late one night when most other options were unavailable and had a meal that was plain and perhaps best described with the word “sturdy,” yet had one stellar component— besides the warmth of the welcome. There were two employees at work at 10 pm— one a Chinese-looking man, the other a round little Eastern European-looking woman patting out balls of something. (To be honest, I’m not sure which of them was more likely to be Kyrgyzstani, if either.) After we looked, a bit hopelessly, at the menu written in impenetrable Kyrgyzanglish (stuffed into a plastic holder which, bizarrely, had some copies of papers from the City stuffed into it, the Asian-looking guy waved us into the kitchen and showed us what was on the stove— a soup, a stew of chicken wings and corkscrew pasta, some fried ovoid balls about which the little round woman beamed and said “pieroshki— you like?”

We said we liked all of it and the guy, rather than try to calculate an actual price, said “I give you some of everything and two pieroshki.” We said one pieroshki was probably fine, and sat down to wait.

The soup (below) wasn’t bad. A simple beef broth, with handcut noodles in it, it was easy enough to like if not something that will stay with me as the Barwaqo soup did. The chicken wing pasta— well, it was like something you might eat at home. Not my home, the home of someone who doesn’t cook as well as me, and doesn’t know how much to season stuff. Nothing offensive about it, but very plain, and the only thing to dress it up with at the table was sriracha, which seemed really incongruous with something kind of goulashy like that.

But the pieroshki— they were fantastic. I expected a dense ball, sort of like a samosa minus the seasoning, but in fact they were as light and fluffy as a beignet. We ate our one, then kind of looked at each other— and decided maybe we’d better have that second one after all. Which we did.

Bai Cafe
3406 N Ashland Ave,
Chicago, IL.
(773) 687-8091

Tabaq is a Pakistani (probably) place near the beginning of Clybourn, in the no-man’s-land before you start reaching things like the Apple Store, and nearly as white and tidy as that establishment. As I walked in I got a serious stinkeye from an imam-looking guy in a floor-length garment, to which I responded with a look of bluff German-American heartiness, but the actual proprietor couldn’t have been more welcoming and was happy to put together a plate out of the things lined up as a sort of buffet behind the counter. They had chicken tikka, fried tilapia and another kind of fish, nihari, and a couple of vegetables; I tried to suggest vegetables, but wound up with two meats and a plate of lentils over white (not basmati) rice, along with some salad/garnish type vegetables and a small bowl of very thin coriander sauce.

The tikka was very good; the lentils were good, though the bland rice sucked flavor from them and I tried to eat them off the top of it; the fish had a nice spice but muddy flavor (catfish maybe). Unlike my other two cabbie meals, this one was of a cuisine which I actually have experience with, so I can say that it wasn’t the best of its kind I’ve had, but it was pretty decent, and I’d go back to check out more things, and especially to push to try some of the vegetable dishes which included some things I hadn’t seen before.

Tabaq Restaurant
1245 North Clybourn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60610-6655
(312) 944-1245

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This week’s Key Ingredient is cod milt. Which is to say, cod sperm, and the glands it rode in on. At least what we did is less disgusting than what the English do— spread it on toast.

I made a couple of short videos for Grub Street this week at Takashi Yagihashi’s new, very busy ramen diner type place, Slurping Turtle— one about ramen and one about the bincho grill. I have to put them in separate posts to get them to display in the screening room, so here’s the second one.

I made a couple of short videos for Grub Street this week at Takashi Yagihashi’s new, very busy ramen diner type place, Slurping Turtle— one about ramen and one about the bincho grill. I have to put them in separate posts to get them to display in the screening room, so here’s the first one.

What do I do when I have a new gig at Grub Street and some advertising freelance work to get done? Why, I commit myself to make two movies for the Chicago Food Film Festival in three weeks, naturally. And wind up making three.* (You can see more pics of the fest here.) This is the story of my life in the last few weeks, which is why things I might have spread out over multiple posts are going to get lumped together in a comprehensive post here. Let’s go, we have too much time and very little to do!

I mentioned these marshmallows— made in Indiana, hence the Paw Paw flavor— in a Grub Street post, the maker (240sweet) thanked me, and one thing led to another, and… I wound up with a lovely box of three different marshmallow flavors. I could have questioned whether artisanal marshmallows were even possible, marshmallows are marshmallows, how many ways can you whip sugar and egg whites, but the paw paw flavor was pretty great, full of the banana-on-steroids natural flavor of paw paws, and they’re big enough (and marshmallows go a long way) that I’ve been quite the ambassador for marshmallows lately. (Indeed, I just got some strawberry ones from 240sweet at Dose Market, which may be the best ones yet.)

I was also gifted (as the kids say today) some black cardamom by Judy Shertzer of Terra Spice, after we did a Key Ingredient with it starring Top Chef’s Beverly Kim, and for Thanksgiving I used it in my pumpkin pies and in Beverly’s chai ice cream recipe, which was great (although the chai I found had more cinnamon than hers had, and that flavor dominated). It’s not the easiest ingredient— I had to crush the pods to get them to work in my grinder, then strain them to keep the woodier parts out— but it added a unique, kind of haunting smoky taste.

Bob Andy pie.

As long as we’re talking pie, remember the Bob Andy pie I mentioned a while back that I heard about, but didn’t try, in Indiana? So I made one, to take to a party on Halloween night. It’s super-simple, and kind of plain— just an egg custard with lots of cinnamon in it. But warm and with great cinnamon from Spice House, it was really good, and for all its simplicity, it comes with a built-in cool presentation trick— the cinnamon floats to the top, making a great two-tone look:

There’s been a lot of raving about a burger place on Armitage, the blank heart of yuppieville where I once lived and now never go, called Butcher and The Burger, owned by Allen Sternweiler who had Harvest on Huron where Graham Elliot is now. Serious Eats raved here (I actually ran into Zemans during one of his visits).

The first thing I noticed there was more evidence for my theory that the iPad is, secretly, a computer for women, non-techie women. The things were everywhere, in all their sleekly demure sexiness, an always-on aid to conversation for whatever it is that moms and ladies who lunch in Lincoln Park talk about. One of the iPads in the room was also the cash register-slash-ordertaking device. Unfortunately, I felt that the burger had many of the same attributes of the iPad— great design, lack of real power for the user to wrestle with and make his own.

The list of things you can put on your burger is impressive, except that, screw it, I don’t want any of that stuff; I want a burger, redolent of deep beefiness, onion, cheese, mustard, the basics, not some Sonoran Desert flavoring or Curry-Coconut game mix or any of that froufed-up foolishness. The beef is from Q7 Ranch, near Chicago, and I’ve bought it myself at the similarly named Butcher & Larder and made burgers that tasted of doubleplusgood meat, beefy beef beefitude. This meat just didn’t, weirdly, somehow. For a char-grilled burger, it tasted subduedly pan-fried; I wanted something on it to jump out at me and growl of carnivorous instincts, char or mustard or something, and it didn’t. It was as demure as a patty that thick can get. Surely I’ll give it another try at some point, out of suspicion I’m missing something, but I didn’t find this burger really worth the hassle of parking on Armitage, standing in the kind of inconvenient line that makes you move out of someone’s way 50 times before you finally get to order, and squeezing into a tiny table.

I’ve been to so many openings and events on the high end this past month or so, and as good as most of them were— ramen at Slurping Turtle and the mozzarella tastings at Bar Toma, to name two, I recommend happily— the new restaurant that I really want to explore and know more about is the cheapest one, but a great one, Tony Hu’s latest Chinese regional spot, Lao Hunan.

I went there with Dominic of Skillet Doux (aka Dmnkly of LTHForum) and his sister, and we followed (with one exception) this post by Peter Engler, which gives you a good sense of what some highlights are right now, though the reality is that the menu is growing rapidly. Two things set this Tony Hu place apart from Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing and Lao Shanghai— one, this is an unusually fiery cuisine, even by the standards of Lao Sze Chuan, indeed one dish was nothing more than peppers:

The other is that it’s decorated in a style which can only be called Mao Kitsch, servers in mock Red Army uniforms, a big image of Mao on one wall, famous Hunan citizens on the other. (Of course, the only famous Hunan citizen to us is Mao.)

I don’t know what I think about glorifying a tyrant who caused a couple of the greatest famines in history in a restaurant; as I said to someone at another dinner, “It’s basically the Hitler restaurant,” but at the same time, maybe kitschifying Mao takes the sting out of him, does what Springtime for Hitler did. If we can mock the object of a personality cult, you have no power over us any more, I guess is the positive spin to put on it. Dom had more interesting comments on the Chinese predilection for famine-dictator kitsch in restaurant settings:

…the only knock on the place so far is that its Mao-inspired decor and uniform clad waitstaff are odd and/or offensive, depending on how comfortable you are with dictator chic. I have a hard time arguing with that conclusion, even if I’ve been desensitized by eating at more than a few similarly-themed establishments back in the mother country over the years. On an old blog, I once chronicled a visit to “First Work Team,” a theme restaurant intended to inspire nostalgia for the days when famine was killing off tens of millions of Chinese by serving unseasoned mashed tubers to diners sitting on bare concrete floors. No joke.

I suppose it’s sort of the Chinese equivalent of this Monty Python sketch— “You were lucky to have unseasoned tubers!”

I can’t say I have that clear a sense yet of what Hunanese food is from this one visit— in general approach it still seemed very much like other Tony Hu food, this fish dish like what you’d get if you added fish to Lao Sze Chuan’s dry chili chicken. The most unusual thing we ordered was the one completely untried dish, Home Fed Chicken Xiangxi Style. It’s a black chicken, beyond that I don’t know what made it “home fed,” or what that gave to its character, but it was a deeply funky dish, almost like stinky cheese, not a flavor that entirely reassures you about safety when consuming poultry. I’m sure it was fine, but I only ate a little of it, even as I sort of despised myself for wishing for startling new experiences, and then being repelled by them when they happen.

There’s probably a lot of that on the menu, or will be as it expands in the next few months (at the moment it’s still sort of transitioning from the restaurant that was in the space, and hundreds of new dishes are promised). It’s the first restaurant in a long time that really made me want to do research before I went back. Mike Sula called it one of his favorite openings of the year, and even as I’m now in the business of chronicling hot new places in yuppieville, of which there are an amazing number, I can’t see how this isn’t one of the most interesting, thoughtful and accomplished restaurants to appear on the scene in 2011, and by one of, I mean five, not fifty. In any case, there’s one title it already has, as far as I’m concerned: Calvin Trilin has written about his persistent fantasy that Mao would come to visit and Trillin would get to take him for Chinese food in New York, and blow his little dictatorial mind. Well, Calvin, I think we’ve finally got just the restaurant for your fantasy-dining Mao, here in Chicago.

* I made the Pleasant House film and the cutdown version of my old Mado/pig’s head video… but the second one only got made after I finished a cut of the Rob Levitt part of the upcoming butcher movie, but then the festival rejected it because it didn’t have appetite appeal… inasmuch as it consists mainly of Rob cutting bright red meat, including with a band saw. Oh well, you’ll see it in a month or so, and keep an eye out for other news about it as well.

Forgot to put Key Ingredient up, so here’s last week’s…

and this week’s.

Me, shilling again (see here for source). Photo by Huge Galdones.

Pleasant House Bakery on the South Side of Chicago embodies the entire farm-to-table ethos… within a few, very urban, square blocks of Chicago. (8:40)

This was my film for the 2nd Chicago Food Film Festival, shown on opening night with chef-owner Art jackson (and everybody who was in it except Eric the bartender) in the house. Always great to have the chance to see one of my videos with an audience, and also great to continue the story of Art’s dedication to local eating and farm to table cuisine, as seen in this long-ago Sky Full of Bacon video, which in turn owes its origins to Art’s comment on my very first video here on my blog. So remember— commenting is the first step to stardom!

P.S. I actually had a second video shown on Sunday, though it’s actually just a cutdown of one you’ve presumably seen, put together to go with some of Rob Levitt’s food at the festival. And check out my pictures of the festival with links to many of the other films at Grub Street.

The challenge came out a little differently this time but still interesting… instead of using the ingredient, Ariel Bagadiong of Aja makes it. It’s the legendary Scottish offal food, haggis, and the article is here.

Meanwhile, I’ll have two films in the 2nd Chicago Food Film Festival this weekend; here the festival director and producer talk about it (and show a clip from one of my two) on Ch. 7. Dolinsky, I’m invading your turf!

Honestly, this is the first one where I ever left my grossest shot out, just because I couldn’t take it. I did eat it though; it wasn’t that bad. The ingredient is balut, and if you don’t know what that is, well, you’re about to find out. The article is here.