Sky Full of Bacon

I will drive an insane distance for something new and great to eat and the true is same, though less often put to the test, for a movie presentation. Years ago my wife and I drove to Dayton, Ohio for the only Cinerama theater left in the country. I made a somewhat smaller trek to Lincolnshire to see The Dark Knight Rises in 70MM (film that is four times the size of normal 35MM) at an IMAX theater (beware that there are IMAX theaters and there are IMAX theaters; go here for more explanation). Some of the movie was shot in 70MM, some in widescreen 35MM, which meant that the movie would expand to a full square image and then back to a rectangle, sometimes shot to shot. Unexpectedly, this is not distracting; I think most rarely notice it. One reason, however, that most didn’t notice it is because the Regal theater in Lincolnshire didn’t have the focus perfectly sharp, so the effect of 70MM— when the slight blur of 35MM suddenly gives way to the pinpoint sharpness of 70MM— was somewhat lost. Normally I’m the guy who goes and bitches about that… but it’s hard to do that in an IMAX theater when you’re wedged in the center of 25 people and the auditorium is raked at a 40-degree angle.

So I paid extra to have a less than perfect 70MM experience. Alas, the same was true of dinner, which proved to be Movie Dinner since we didn’t get there in time for one of the local specialties, like a hamburger at Red Robin. I kind of like, nostalgically, hot dogs and movie popcorn for dinner, even if I nearly have to pay the price of dinner at Next Childhood to relive this childhood experience too, but it’s not just that the Nathan’s dogs aren’t especially good, but they’d been sitting in the warmer long enough to petrify the bun– literally, I had to break pieces of it off like dried plaster to find edible bread. All in all, a rather sad attempt to recapture the lost excitement of the rapidly dying big movie theater experience. And if this theater isn’t up to par, I don’t know where I’m going to go when Lawrence of Arabia is reissued in October.

How was the movie? I admire that Nolan makes the apocalyptic disaster real for the people living through it, unlike all those movies in which giant robots smash cities without a thought for what that actually would be like. I admire a summer blockbuster that makes a French reign of terror allusion without spelling it out in dumbo letters for the clueless audience. I was absorbed, but it shows you how much a charismatic villain adds to these things, as Heath Ledger did to the last one; I find it hard to imagine caring enough to watch Bane make speeches and flex bulky shoulders for 2 hours and 40 minutes ever again. And if I do, it’ll be at home with Thai food.

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Can I admit now that when everyone else was loving the first sandwiches at Publican Quality Meats, I wasn’t quite so ecstatic? Oh, I liked them, I had no doubts it was an estimable place, I admired the bread (which really is great) and the sausagemaking immensely, I knew early on that its place on my ten best list for the year was secured. But sandwiches are a less is more kind of thing, and the sandwiches I tried were always a little too much and yet less than the sum of their parts. I got to taste the cocido (a stew with their housemade sausages) once, and felt it blew any sandwich there away, having the depth and richness and soulfulness that the sandwiches didn’t achieve. For me, the best sandwich has the least stuff on it necessary; a ham sandwich with swiss cheese and mayo is almost invariably better than a ham sandwich with Havarti and pepper jack, pickled fennel gremolata, housecured turnips, red bean paste aioli and a latke on green apple foccacia. Publican Quality Meats’ sandwiches were good, I was always happy I ate there, but great? Not yet.

Then I had this:

The chicken parmesan sandwich with provolone (why it’s a chicken parm then I don’t know) and tomato sauce used to be a Chicago classic, though I’d guess, like the similar steak sandwich, they’ve gotten pretty rare except in redoubts of the south side. (I love the one at Johnny O’s, which tastes like Chicago in 1952 to me.) This is a less is more sandwich without question, no olive tapenade or grilled favas on it, and all they’ve done is exactly what you’d hope Paul Kahan & Co. would do, which is improve every one of its few elements— better chicken, better cheese (fresh mozzarella by the look of it), their great crusty bread, totally solid tomato sauce. I said to Kahan when I was shooting this that it was the best white trash sandwich in town, and I know he didn’t think that was exactly a compliment, but it was in every way: this has the irresistible deliciousness of low-class food made with the skills of high-class food, and it’s unimprovable.

Almost as good, though it’s starting to veer away from less is more territory, is a new pork belly sandwich:

Frankly, I’m a little thrown by the pork belly designation, there aren’t stripes of fat in the meat, looks more like a thick slice of shoulder, but it comes off like carnitas on a crusty roll with some fairly simple flavor accents (some green leaf, a green spread like gremolata, some little sticks that might be apple) which are fairly restrained as toppings at PQM go. In any case, if this is the second wave, the PQM guys have been going to sandwich school on the first wave, and you want to check their work now.

Publican Quality Meats
825 W. Fulton Market

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What will Red Door do in the winter? That was David Tamarkin’s question in Time Out, and he meant that the sometimes slack food would have trouble surviving without the help of the gorgeous patio it inherited from Duchamp in the same space. I disagree that the food is slack at all— okay, yes, the steak needed salt, and the burger isn’t a highlight (same is true at Longman and Eagle, say), but overall I love the simplicity of Troy Graves’ food, which dresses farmer’s market produce or seafood with just enough of something to make it pop. In two visits, I’ve really liked nearly everything, even the poutine Graves sent me after I said I wasn’t a fan of poutine. Did I like it? I ordered it the next time for my kids to try. I loved gnocchi with bitter greens, carrots tossed with chimmichurri, a perfectly cooked octopus salad, a beef tongue reuben, a Thai hemp cocktail.

But winter is a question not only because it will revert to being a fairly small, dark bar then, but because all those wonderful green flavors waiting for Graves to just twist them a notch to something great will be gone. We’ll have to see if it can weather the cold and make it to another summer, and what that will bring out in Graves’ cooking in the meantime. But for now the patio is gorgeous, one of the most tranquil outdoor spaces in town, and you should make an effort to go to Red Door early and often.

Red Door
2118 N. Damen

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Among other projects I’ve been up to lately is this taco slideshow at Grub Street; I was determined to present my definitive word on taco culture in Chicago, and I think I did; in any case, thousands and thousands have clicked their way through it, most to the end. In many ways it sums up the knowledge accumulated over the past decade at Chowhound and LTHForum, but I tried hard to knock familiar names off if I could find a better one, and most of the time I didn’t. One place I found and really liked that I want to call attention to, however, was a discovery made by searching Yelp for vegetarian-friendly taco joints. It’s a place named, even more generically than most, Tacos y Salsa in Berwyn, and besides a first rate cactus taco, they make one of the best fish tacos in town; it’s not breaded and deep fried, but pan fried I think, but what makes it stand out is that it’s marinated in lime and who knows what, so it really packs a citrusy kick. Plus, the service couldn’t be friendlier, and it was amusing that the TV was tuned to Toy Story 3, to my kids’ pleasure and the annoyance of the Mexican working stiffs who kept walking in.

Tacos y Salsa
6346 26th Street

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The third chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

Finding Grace 3: Plates from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

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