Sky Full of Bacon

This pizza has been formatted to fit your wall.

Note: I’ll be on Outside the Loop radio Thursday at 10 am, talking food. WLUW, 88.7. Check it out.

So the opening of Three Dots and a Dash, the tiki joint talked about in the new Airwaves Full of Bacon, prompted a little controversy as half the food media in town went to the “friends and family” night before its official opening (media didn’t used to be friends and family, usually). (See Josh Steinfeld’s post here.) Would I have sloshed a few tweets about how friggin’ great my Zombie is if I’d gone? We’ll never know, because I had another pressing engagement that evening and I wasn’t going to break it even for the cocktails I’d spent several days of editing and mixing hearing about. Dan Zemans and I were set to roam the northwest side that night in search, again, of great unknown Chicago pizzas. Anonymously, and paid for with our own money. That’s right, we have a solid ethical principle as food writers, and the name of that principle is pizza.

As you’ll recall from the first installment, Great Unknown Pizzas of the South Side, Part 1, the goal here is to find unheralded places in overlooked parts of the city serving classic, old school pizzas of one form or another. Last time we looked in an area near Midway, but this time, after identifying several interesting clusters, we decided to focus on suburbs just north of O’Hare, ultimately hitting one in Park Ridge and two in Des Plaines. We chose those because, as Zemans tersely put it in email: “Multiple generations of Italians.”

The Rules of Unknown Pizza Exploration

Our modus operandi is to order thin crust sausage, thin crust because it’s more common and takes less time, sausage because it best shows off the skills or tastes of the restaurant, if they make it themselves or even if it merely shows their own taste preferences and the level of quality they’re willing to pay for. (This time we also mixed it up half and half with some ringer combos, as you’ll see.) Our preference is, the longer a place has been in existence the better, but in any case, it should seem to be inspired by pizza tradition (and not be a Domino’s wannabe). Our main method for identifying them is simply searching Yelp for ones that give off clues that they might be promising. Every pizza place has somebody calling it the best pizza in the world, that doesn’t tell us anything; we’re more interested in comments that a place makes its own sausage or does something else that gives a clue that there’s blue-collar craftsmanship at work here. Again, by way of demonstrating how obscure these were, only one has anything substantive written about it a few years ago at LTHForum, a second was mentioned once in passing, and the the best one never at all.

And the northwest suburb contenders are…


Spuntino, Park Ridge

You’ve driven within 500 yards of Spuntino a million times— it’s on Higgins, on the back side of hotels you pass on I-90 on the way to the airport. But you can’t see it from I-90, so it remains in obscurity. It was a pleasant, friendly place— all these suburban places would prove to be— which has been there for about 7 years, with not only pizza but a list of decent-looking subs. (The “Chicago Hotdog Factory” on the sign is a mystery; my guess is that it doesn’t refer to Spuntino at all but to Vienna Beef, and Vienna helped pay for the sign.) I can easily imagine being the guy working near here who convinces his coworkers to get Spuntino for lunch instead of some chain.


Anyway, so it was a perfectly decent sausage thin, the other half of which was Italian beef and giardinera, which we picked as kind of an “only in Chicago” combination. They didn’t actually make it normally, but since they have an Italian beef on the menu, easy enough to make an Italian beef pizza special for us. The crust is a style that I don’t think has really been described by anyone but me: it’s basically deep-fried. That is, there’s enough oil in the pizza pan that the crust kind of fries in the bottom of it, making a distinctly crispy, almost fritter-y crust. (I talked more about this in regards to this Unknown Pizza of Northwest Indiana.) I mentioned to Zemans that I had noticed a similar effect on the crust at what appears to be his favorite place in Chicago, Pat’s Pizza, and he denied it and immediately went off on some pizza fanatic thing about how YOU HAVE TO EAT PAT’S PIZZA THERE and when you do the crust reveals the full majesty of its filo-like layering. He says there’s some video online that shows it, not sure if this is the one but it hints at what he’s talking about here, around the 1:10 mark.

But back to Spuntino. So, crispy crust, pretty good cheese, sauce and sausage, good caramelization (I snuck a peek at the kitchen— they use a classic Faulds oven, just like Pizza Castle last time)— in the end Spuntino would wind up ranking third but really, it’s a perfectly good neighborhood pizza run by nice people. If you need a bite on the way to O’Hare sometime, check it out.

516 W Higgins Rd
Park Ridge, IL 60068
(847) 696-0282


Caruso’s, Des Plaines

Des Plaines turned out to have a lot of neighborhood pizza places that sounded pretty good, but even given our predisposition against paying any attention to the ratings on Yelp, it was hard to ignore the fact that Caruso’s had nearly all five-star ratings and virtually no bad ones (which in all these cases were usually service complaints), which put it well above the pack. We popped in there and it was, indeed, pretty much the perfect Chicago hole in the wall in a strip mall, located in the boondocks of Des Plaines for 20 years and run, it looks like, by two brothers. That it’s dedicated to the old school ways is clear from the menu board, which has three sections— the entire first one is devoted to sausage pizza; all other topping choices are crammed onto the middle board. While we were there the other customers were a Muslim family feeding hamburger pizza to their kids, and an Italian guy in a pink track suit and gold chains who could have walked right out of Casino.


The pizza maybe had a little too much cheese for some connoisseurs of the Chicago old school thin, but on the whole this managed a narrow win for the evening— better sausage than Spuntino, a nice crackly crust, flavorful sauce— really, it’s everything a thin crust sausage pizza should be.

Caruso’s Pizza
9576 Potter Rd
Des Plaines, IL 60016
(847) 827-7171

You’ll notice that I haven’t really talked about the Italian beef half of the first two pizzas yet. I think we ordered it in part because we thought it might be a way to sample the Italian beef, but… no, you don’t really taste the Italian beef in any way that could lead you to say “I should come back and try the Italian beef.” It’s kind of lost in cheese and tomato sauce and grease, which is WHY THEY DON’T PUT CHEESE ON ITALIAN BEEFS.

It’s also why we didn’t order Italian beef at the place that actually had the neon sign announcing…


Gigio’s Pizza, Des Plaines

This Gigio’s is no relation to the divey Uptown Gigio’s, but as it happens, it does have a Chicago history. But let me back up. We get there and see an older couple making their way, slowly and a bit stooped, to a car at the side of the restaurant. We go inside and the guy is very pleasant, just perceptibly eager to get us to make an order. I realize it’s 9:55 and they close at 10, so we hurry and order. He never says a word explicitly that we should hurry up, lets us order what we want, so I thank him for that.

We’re done with the Italian beef experiment, but Zemans notices bacon on the menu and he wants that for the other half. I suggest black olives, thinking it will be sort of like ham and olive, a reasonable combination. I’ll just say, there’s a reason you’ve never seen bacon and olive pizza as anybody’s special. It’s a strange, strange combination of flavors, smoky-sweet and salt-cured, and not in a complementary way.


They have pizzas sitting out for slices, too, and they look more like New York pizza, frankly, but somehow when we get ours it’s not like that; the crust is a little tall but it’s not really like the big roll at the edge of a New York pizza at all. The pizza rates very highly, overall, the best, most fennel-y sausage of the night, but I would ask for the cheese cooked to well done next time, that’s a little of a letdown next to Caruso’s. Interestingly, the size we ordered is normally cut in NY-style triangle slices, but the sizes further up are all cut in squares, Chicago style.

Anyway, as it’s baking we chat with the guy. Sure enough, that was Mama Nitti, his mom, and his dad going out to the car after working a whole day in the restaurant. They started 40-some years ago at Devon and California, were located in Niles (where they live) for many years, and moved to Des Plaines a few years ago, bringing the Mama Nitti neon sign the whole way. There’s nothing that exceptional about the story he tells about the family running the place— the sausage is made for them to their recipe is the most interesting part— except that, of course, everything about a family running a business the right old way like this is exceptional and deserves to be known and celebrated. I will definitely find a reason to go back and try Mama Nitti’s Italian beef one of these days.

Gigio’s Pizzeria & Restaurant
1603 E Oakton St
Des Plaines, IL 60018
(847) 298-5700


So exploring the northwest suburbs proved to be different from exploring the southwest side. In the less prosperous city, the danger is that places which were once good have lowered quality to be able to sell cheaply, and where a family might once have run it with pride, employees could care less and it loses what made it distinctive once and becomes mere generic pizza. That was why Pizza Castle seemed such a happy find by comparison.

Here, the places we tried were all pretty good and pretty well run, they all had their strong points, and they’re all plainly rooted in a serious pizza tradition and are trying to live up to a model of Italian-American, classic Chicago pizza that hasn’t been compromised by the popularity in other suburbs of blandly American chain pizza. All of these were pizzas you’d be pleased to have nearby.

And so the quest continues…

Lisa Shames of CS • Bon Appetit’s Jason Kessler • Tiki Symposium With Paul McGee of Three Dots and a Dash • BBQ Legend Mike Mills



afob logo

In the new Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast, I mark a milestone— the first piece produced by somebody else for the show. But first…


I talk on the phone to Lisa Shames, dining editor of CS (Chicago Social), about what she saw as she put together this year’s dining issue (which you can read in “digital edition” form here; the food part starts around page 86).

Then I talk to Jason Kessler, who writes for TV as well as The Kessler Report for Food Republic and The Nitpicker for Bon Appetit, about what an expat in LA eats when he comes back to Chicago. Here’s his satirical piece about the Food Network, referenced in the podcast. He also appears on camera in this Sky Full of Bacon video about St. Croix:

Paul McGee at Three Dots and a Dash, photo courtesy LEYE.

Our Tiki Symposium was produced by Roger Kamholz and features Paul McGee, who is the mixologist behind Chicago’s new Tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash; Rob Christopher who writes for Chicagoist and covered the closing of Trader Vic’s in Chicago here; and rum expert Ed Hamilton who wrote this collectible and has this site.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.16.53 PM

The music for the Tiki segment is by Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, a modern ensemble playing exotica and Esquivel among other things. You can check them out and get some free tracks from them by signing up for their website, or contribute to their in-progress new album; check that out at

A couple of references that pass quickly in that conversation: Witco was the company that made much of the vintage Tiki decor (giant Eastern Island heads and that sort of thing), and one of the best places to see that is in the Chicago area, Hala Kahiki in River Grove. The central figure in Tiki revivalism that Ed mentions is Martin Cate; here’s his site. Another author mentioned is Jeff Berry; here’s his site.

Finally, I talk barbecue with a true legend of BBQ, Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, Illinois, who is the central figure in my latest video podcast, Woodsmoke Nation:

More about him, and that video (which follows a BBQ competition for 28 hours), here.

In this Sky Full of Bacon I embed with a barbecue competition in downstate Illinois to experience the world of championship BBQ teams.

Go inside the world of competitive barbecue in this edition of Sky Full of Bacon. Mike Mills of Murphysboro, Illinois was co-captain of the winningest team in BBQ history, three time Memphis in May Grand World Champions, and 2012 was the 25th anniversary of his BBQ competition Praise the Lard. Meet the teams, hear their secrets, and join in the camaraderie and tension of competition as 75 teams compete for the title and demonstrate how BBQ brings people together. As Mike Mills likes to say, “I’m pretty sure the spaghetti people don’t get together like this.” (26:58)

Here’s the site for 17th Street Bar & Grill, sponsor of the contest, and for this year’s competition which will be September 19-21. Here’s Mike Mills’ and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe’s book Peace Love & Barbecue.

I shot both stills and video there— for basically about 28 hours straight except for sleep, something I plan not to do again— and here’s the original slideshow I put up right afterwards at Grub Street Chicago. (Don’t look at it until after the movie if you want to preserve the suspense of who wins, though.) Dave Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray’s— who’s in the film briefly when Duce’s Wild is brought the news of its results— also posted a very moving firsthand account of the contest, using my pictures, here.

As it says at the end, I’ve made other films about barbecue. Here’s one about African-American barbecue in Chicago; here’s one about Texas barbecue.


My sons and I took advantage of a (between engagements) week together to get away from computers and futzing around the house and take a road trip. We saw museums! We ate at places we’ve wanted to go but were a bit too far for a practical trip, just for a 30s-style slider, even for me! And we got a fantastic guided tour of one of the great food stops of the South— the privileges of being a journalist with the ability to work your connections and status to get to see cool things you’re interested in. Here’s what we did:


I’m not a car guy, I think I changed my own headlights once, so when I say that I nearly wept at the beauty of the restored Art Deco vehicles in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, it’s less for the cars than for the elegance of a lost era of American style replaced by one successively hideous or simply dull decade after another. (If you want to make a Studebaker Avanti look like crap, put it at the end of a room that goes from Duesenberg to Corvette.) It’s hard to believe cars like these once went over the roads— they look like Roger Rabbit props, impossible to believe things so exquisitely styled roamed ordinary streets:


Okay, maybe not so ordinary, since the one above belonged to Hollywood producer/Jean Harlow husband Paul Bern, of mysterious and tragic end fame.


The museum is actually in the old Auburn Cord showroom, with dazzling terrazzo floors— again, it all looks more like an 90s Batman set than something that could have ever been real life in America. How did we fall from such an ideal? Why did people not see the pinnacle we had reached and work to stay there?

Other buildings in the former factory complex include other museums, which is to say, other car collections, and one of them had this rarity— a Valentine diner, a prefab diner sized to fit on a truck, manufactured in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas in the 40s and 50s. Very few survive, and this is surely the best restored one.



Not a Valentine diner, but surely a fitting dinner afterwards, was Powers’ Hamburgers in Fort Wayne. We sat at the counter next to the tiny grill as the freshly made, don’t-mention-White-Castle in the same breath burgers were cranked out:



As Myles said after, “I guess I’ve never had a good slider before.” No, probably not, and it was particularly fun to be able to tell them that this is basically what the 5-cent burgers recently revealed on the façade of the former La Pasadita on Ashland were like, since they’ve been fascinated by that bit of urban archeology. History lives, even if it’s been hunted to ground.

We stayed the night in Indianapolis and hit the Children’s Museum, just enough of it still interesting to my older kids, with the help of a traveling exhibit about Avatar’s special effects and fake biology/anthropology (which one might question the appropriateness of in a more serious museum to begin with, but this is more like attic full of interesting junk). We had done that museum on an LTHForum road trip almost a decade ago, and so we couldn’t resist basically the same lunch we had then:


Pastrami at Shapiro’s, a great century-old Jewish delicatessen.


On to Louisville, where despite not needing to see brisket again for a few weeks, I somehow wound up finding it irresistible to order at Milkwood, the newest restaurant from Edward Lee, located in the basement of the Actors’ Theatre building. The room is borderline charmless— it’s a bit like the basement beer hall in a student union— but that ceases to matter when you taste Lee’s Southern-meets-artisanal-meets-charcuterie-meets-contemporary food. I could compare it to Trenchermen for porky quirkiness, or to Carriage House for new take on Southernness, but I kind of found it more satisfying than either, more deeply rooted and yet freer with Southern flavors. I especially liked octopus bacon, which was somehow a cured octopus dish:


and, as noted, brisket served with hunks of biscuit, milk gravy, barbecue sauce, grilled mortadella and pickles.


Sounds like too much, but it worked, like nearly everything did— including the blueberry cobbler dessert with sorghum ice cream, which I liked enough to recreate when I got home.

We didn’t do that much in Louisville, partly because of a big thunderstorm that canceled plans to walk around downtown and sent us to a movie theater… which had a Skyline Chili nearby. Eat way too many Coneys and you get your picture taken; however, look at the record-holder closely before you decide to challenge him:



I first heard of Newsom’s Country Hams, one of the great Kentucky country ham makers, in the book Pig Perfect. The business is carried on by Nancy Newsom Mahaffey in the cute small town of Princeton, and I contacted her a week before my trip about the prospect of doing an audio segment for Airwaves Full of Bacon… not quite realizing that even speeding it was 2-1/2 hours from Louisville to Princeton. I got my very tolerant kids up early and we hurried down there. Anyway, we got to the old country store-slash-artisanal food market that is what the original grocery is today, and sampled both their “preacher ham” (typical modern “wet” ham, good enough for the preacher) and then the prosciutto, which is what’s on the scale above. The standard country ham wasn’t available that day, but after chatting for a while, she took us to the various places where the hams age— one of which is still in her parents’ backyard:


I don’t want to give away too much of what will be in that upcoming Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast, but I have to make mention of the most fascinating, and terrifying, part of our tour. The whole ham business started with her grandfather simply making a few on the side for his neighbors, back in the 20s or so. Today, she makes them in much larger quantities, but there’s still an “on the side for neighbors” aspect of the business: if you want your ham to age further, she’ll keep it hung after you buy it for another six months or year, during which time it will grow a spectacular Rip Van Winkle beard of deathly gray fuzzy mold. (The government doesn’t care; once it’s been sold it’s your business how it’s handled.) I’m sure it’s good inside there, and picking up all kinds of fantastic umami flavors, but… it’s hard not to look at that and shudder.


We didn’t come away with one of those hams, but I came away with all kinds of unexpected treats, from the sorghum I used in that ice cream to Kentucky butter cream candies, which are the most insanely rich thing ever, to corncob jelly (not sure what it is, but couldn’t resist).


From our tour of the ham caves we went to another cave, Mammoth Cave. My wife and I had gone in the traditional entrance years ago, so the kids and I took a different entrance, recently fixed up and reopened, which started with a 400-step descent down 250 feet below the earth.


I mentioned that I had miscalculated how far it was from Louisville to Princeton. I felt bad about the itinerary I stuck the kids with that day— almost exactly as much driving as our return to Chicago would be— but in fact they loved this day, between the hams and the caves (and they laughed about still smelling like ham fat and smoke in the cave). That was nice, that my day of indulgence in foodie stuff went over just fine with them, and in fact prompted a comment from Liam after all of Nancy Mahaffey’s hospitality: “Why are Southerners so nice?”

We drove back to Indianapolis in the morning, making one more foodie stop— Gnaw Bone Sorghum Mill, another spot selling things like sorghum and corn cob jelly, along with ancient videotapes and paperbacks, chainsaw-carved art and some odd souvenirs. Road Food calls it “Worth driving from anyplace”; maybe the fact that I had just stocked up on these things at Newsom’s prejudices me but my evaluation would be more like “Just barely worth the 15 minute detour from I-65 if you’re bored.”

In Indianapolis we came full circle by visiting another car thing— the Indy 500 museum, including taking the bus tour of the actual track (kind of cool to be on it, but the landmarks were all unknown and meaningless to me). By far the best part was the display of about one third of the winners over the years, including the very first one, which allowed you to see the evolution of race car design over time. The obvious place to eat was another Road Food fave, Mug N Bun, a nice if not world class carhop joint a few blocks from the speedway, and a fitting end to a trip bookended by vintage cars and burgers, with Southern food and caves in the middle.


* * *

By the way, I’ve started contributing to Serious Eats Chicago, no particular agenda but trying to write about places a million miles from the places that everybody writes about on the food scene at the moment. I’ve had two pieces so far; read about an unknown Italian beef here and a piece about Chill Cafe (previously posted on at my blog) here.

Texas BBQ Meets Filipino Food • Julia Kramer on Life as an Anonymous Food Critic • Foodie Parents and Kids: My Story



afob logo

It’s back: the Chicago podcast about food and food media. Here’s what I talk about (and with who) in episode 2:


First up, I talk to Joaquin Soler, chef and co-owner of Smalls Smoke Shack & More, a tiny BBQ place which I predict is going to be huge any second now— in attention and lines out the door, if not physical space. Soler and his partner Dan Scesnewitz had the Brown Bag Lunch Truck and refined their BBQ there, so this is the rare BBQ opening with no learning curve. The other cool thing about it is that Soler, who’s Filipino-American, makes Asian-tinged sides which are a great alternative to the usual fries-and-cole-slaw BBQ model. Here’s pulled pork (which is fantastic) with elotes and sugar snap peas:


and they also do great fried chicken, not as armor-plated as many deep-fried chicken offerings because of the two-step method they use to keep it crispy, which Soler learned from his mom:


The barbecue comes out of this tiny Southern Pride smoker, but they’re already looking at where to stick a bigger one in their tiny location at 4009 N. Albany:




How much do I love this place? Well, I ate lunch with my kids there one day, and went back the next to interview them— and at the end of it, bought $45 worth of smoked meat from them to bring home for the 4th of July. The only thing I think some people are going to hold against it is that the sauces that come with the meat don’t match the usual BBQ profile; the brisket comes with a “tiger cry” sauce, a spicy-sweet vinegar dip, while the pulled pork comes with a mustard-bacon sauce. Both sauces have some precedent in the BBQ world (mainly in places like North Carolina) but I have to admit I broke out the Famous Dave’s sauce, my standard supermarket-available BBQ sauce, when it came to eating the stuff at home.

At the end, we talk a little about other Filipino restaurants so here are some links to help you find them; here’s Merla’s Kitchen, Michael Nagrant did a nice review for Isla Pilipina here, and I wrote about Pecking Order at Grub Street here.

Next I talk with Julia Kramer, Time Out Chicago food critic who has since moved on to Bon Appetit, about life as an anonymous reviewer. We met for lunch at Chill Cafe— which I wrote more extensively about here:


Chill Cafe is at 2949 N. Belmont, but as noted in that thread, it’s not necessarily easy to spot, so look for the storefront shown in my earlier post.

Finally, a couple of months back I read a story at a storytelling event put on by 2nd Story and Fete Chicago at Ina’s Restaurant. You’ll hear that, about my adventures in food with my kids in tow, too.


2nd Story posted Ina’s story from the same event as a podcast; listen to it here. And after you’ve listened to mine, you can compare how I shaped the stories dramatically in 2013 to how I recorded them way back when they happened at various food sites; here’s The Pharaoh’s, here’s Himalayan (though I think the “red chicken” story came from a later visit), and here’s Brothers Coffee.

I’ve received many kind words since the first Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast went up last Friday, though I think my favorite so far is above. The post below ought to be saved to around the time of the next one in a few weeks (I think, haven’t really decided)— but I’m not going to wait, because the discovery of the place it involves goes to the heart of what this is all about. So I’d love to encourage a few people to surprise the owners of this place with some business this weekend, and enjoy it as much as I did.

Here’s the story: the next podcast will include an interview with former Time Out Chicago reviewer and, ultimately briefly, food editor Julia Kramer, who moves to New York this weekend to start a new job with Bon Appetit. I wanted to do it over food and somewhere more interesting than my house, so I asked Julia for a suggestion of a restaurant and she came up with one called Chill Cafe, a Central Asian restaurant at 2949 W. Belmont suggested to her by Abe Conlon of Fat Rice (which is exactly a half mile south). I said why not, and went over there to scope it out for recording and get their permission to do so. When I got there I realized I had noticed the space a few times, but since the words “Chill Cafe” or any other clue of ethnicity appear nowhere on the exterior (or interior, for that matter), it’s not surprising that no one has figured out from this that there’s a Central Asian restaurant inside:


Yeah, you could drive by that and have no idea there was even a functioning business there… and I’m pretty sure I have, vaguely noticed the signage, and never investigated further. So I went to talk to them and, doing my best to explain the concept of “podcast” to the husband-owner, Ilkhom, won them over to the idea of letting us record there and interview them. Here’s Ilkhom and his wife Sultana with today’s specials behind them (and in front of them):


There is an English menu. Anyway, what’s in front of them is samsa, cheese and meat pies in a flaky crust:


and also, a stack of hachapuri, which are like naan filled with sour cream and green onion:



The owners are Russian but ethnic Turks, and draw a crowd— well, crowd might be overstating things at lunch that day— from all over, by which they mean Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan…. Then I asked the important question: you make all this here? At this point I was introduced to Tamina and her assistant Iko:


and Tamina, seeing that attention that I was paying to her samsas, rushed out her real pride and joy, a many-layered cake with sour cream frosting:


So all of this and more is made in-house, from scratch, from real ingredients. I don’t know when they get the business to finish off a cake like this every day or even every other day, but they’re making all this stuff the good way, not a premade ingredient off the Sysco truck in sight. Here’s more (as we recorded they brought us way too much food):

Dumpling soup.

A sample platter overflowing with a lamb and rice dish, more dumplings (manti), a lamb skewer, rice, bulgur wheat, who knows what all.

Potato salad.

And it was all really good. You might see dishes that look much like these in a Polish or Serbian restaurant, say. But they’d be kind of bland and underseasoned by our standards. Here, though, we’re close enough to Turkey, the middle east, even India that there was enough spice in this to make them more than just gray meat and starches. The soup gave off a whiff of curry as soon as it was set down. The lamb skewer would have passed as kifta kabob in any middle-eastern restaurant. The rice with the lamb tasted of tomato and something or other. The potato salad reminded me of the artful little salads on the sandwiches at Duran European Sandwiches. Everything was artful and skillfully made far beyond the expectations of a native Central Asian cafe— of which we have a good number these days, Jibek Jolu, Bai Cafe, Lazzat, Bereke, etc.; but this is easily the one that I would go back to first. It’s a real gem hiding behind a storefront opaque enough to be a secret agent’s cover. Your mission: check it out soon.

Chill Cafe
2949 W Belmont Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 539-3938

And then watch for the upcoming podcast in which Chill Cafe will be featured… along with Julia Kramer.

Tags: , , ,

Homestead on the Roof • Riots and Food in Turkey • The Shrinking Food Media Scene, With Anthony Todd


Ready for some smart, interesting talk about the Chicago food scene? You know, the kind of thing I was doing at Grub Street Chicago before I was interrupted? Well, I’m excited to announce a new place for it: my new audio podcast, Airwaves Full of Bacon.

afob logo

Every few weeks I’ll present a new episode in which I talk with chefs, talk with other food journalists, talk with diners, take you to interesting places in the world of food. Beyond that, who knows where it will go— this is an experiment for me, too, in a new medium (audio).

But first— there’s episode one. I talk to Chris Curren of Homestead about the rooftop restaurant’s plans for its rooftop garden, and along the way beverage director Benjamin Schiller turns up too…


Next, I talk to my friend Dan Schleifer, who was just in Turkey where he tells us about both the rioting and the food. Here’s a cell phone pic from Dan of the wet hamburgers he talks about:

Islak Hamburgers

Islak Hamburgers

I mention a couple of restaurants to try along the way. Here’s doner meat and hummus at Cafe Orchid, 1746 W. Addison:


and pide (Turkish pizza) with Turkish pastrami at Pide ve Lamahacun, 1812 W. Irving Park:


You can read more about my trip to Turkey in late 2011 here.

Finally, I talk with Chicagoist food editor Anthony Todd, seen here at a Big Jones event with his colleague Amy Cavanaugh.


Among other things, we talk about this review of Next and this piece about a much-written-about chef.

The classic Chicago pizza oven: a Faulds oven. No longer made, you have to keep yours up and running by cannibalizing parts from others.

The great thing about food on the internet is that if you publicize something, lots of people wind up going to the same place. The bad thing is, lots of people wind up going to the same place… and never check out other places that might be good, too. This is especially true for certain iconic foods whose definitions are pretty clear— you could know Vito & Nick’s alone, say, and claim that you had a pretty good handle on old school Chicago thin crust pizza, such as is typically found all over the south side. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly where I was on the subject.

And yet, I wondered… could there be other, outstanding, undiscovered pizzas out there, unsung and unheralded? To answer that question, Daniel Zemans, who has written on classic pizza widely (including this definitive Serious Eats roundup some years back, in which I am quoted), and I scouted out some listings on Yelp that looked like they might offer something above the ordinary. (Almost nothing’s completely undocumented by now, but by the most obvious measure for pizza joints, mentions on LTHForum, these were pretty darn obscure— one mentioned merely in passing in a 2005 thread and not since, another in that thread and again parenthetically five years later, and the third (which is relatively new) had a similarly brief mention earlier this year.)

Longevity is a good sign in a pizza joint.

How did we choose these three? We focused on a specific area— they’re all within a narrow corridor in the western section of Gage Park/West Elsdon, a once-white-ethnic, now mostly Latino section of town straight east of Midway Airport, the kind of neighborhood that should still have old pizza joints around. And we searched Yelp for clues, ignoring the typical Yelp hyperbole for signs that suggested a cut above— like that they made their own sausage, say. Anyway, we narrowed it to three, and settled on a single dish for all three— thin crust with sausage. (The thought there is that sausage is the meat which most shows the taste preferences and philosophy of the owner, versus meats like pepperoni which tend to be ordered somewhat generically and are also common around the country. Chicago pizza sausage is a fairly unique thing, fat little wads of ground pork heavily spiced with fennel, very different from the crumbled breakfast-style sausage which most of America eats on pizza.) Here’s what we found.



Few places quite live up to the name “hole in the wall” as well as Geneo’s. The brown paneling exterior and the ancient sign make it hard to tell if Geneo’s actually closed in 1977, and once inside you’re in a narrow little room consisting only of a window into the much vaster kitchen, and the almost comically large menu:


All three of the places we tried had enormous menus like this, full of things which surely would go straight from many months of deep-frozen sleep to a fryer if you ordered them. We stuck to pizza, even as we were fascinated by cryptic offerings like the Fat Freddie sandwich (their version of this) or Bosco Sticks, whatever those are.


Anyway, 20 minutes pass and we take the pizza to my car parked across the street and dine al hatchbacko. The pizza is maybe just a little thicker than we wish, certainly thicker than Zemans (whose perfect pizza crust is Pat’s ultra thin) wishes. Still, it has a nice Saltine-cracker taste like a pretty good Chicago thin. As for what’s on it— plain, straightforward tomato sauce; pretty good sausage with noticeable fennel; good quality cheese that doesn’t taste like the glue factory— for the price, about $11, this is quite a good neighborhood pizza. But we both agree it’s not a drive-all-the-way-to-the-south-side good pizza, and I can taste the things I’d do to brighten and heighten it (like introduce it to the taste of garlic, somewhere). If it’s what you grew up on, it’s still good, but it’s not noticeably different from a pizza near you almost anywhere in Chicago.

Geneo’s Pizza
2945 W 59th St
Chicago, IL 60629
(773) 767-5545



It’s not clear how old Positano’s, 3 or 4 blocks east of Midway on 55th, is, but it’s plainly newer and spiffier than the other two we would visit. But our hope that we had found a proud new South Side Italian joint were quickly set straight by the owner’s accent… his Polish accent. He and the gal at the counter were very friendly, but as happens sometimes in this town with Eastern European businesses trying to reproduce other ethnic restaurants, they just don’t get it right. It’s not just that Positano’s crust was way too thick and bready for South Side thin, but the sauce tasted more like Paul Newman’s pasta sauce than pizza sauce, too far the other direction from Geneo’s plain tomato sauce. And the thick shelf of cheese was also overkill (and made it really hard to eat cold the next day). Now, all those things are probably virtues for many people— this is a pizza that will fill you up, for sure. It’s just not a Chicago South Side pizza, for me and especially not for ultrathin crust freak Zemans. (I should note that the LTHForum mention recommends deep dish anyway, but we had too many pizzas to eat in one night to sit around for 45 minutes waiting for that to cook.)


4312 W 55th St
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 284-7745


Pizza Castle

A photo similar to the one above at Yelp nearly scared me off Pizza Castle, making it look like a mattress store having a going out of business sale. Only the claim of housemade sausage kept them in the running. But 30 seconds inside this place, we both knew that it was the gem of the night.

The walls are covered with photos of kids in Halloween costumes— literally thousands of them; for decades Pizza Castle has handed little squares of pizza to trick or treaters, and they get kids from all over the south side now, lined up for a block for two bites of pizza and their picture to be taken. About ten seconds of chitchat from Zemans produced a photo of owner Rich Jensen, much younger and 70s-haired, posed with Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins. A little more produced the information that he was, somehow in this old Slavic turned Latino neighborhood, of Danish extraction, the business started by his Danish parents who belonged to a long-gone community of South Side Danes.

The Danish flag decorates Singing Pizza Elmo. “That’s not dust, it’s pizza flour!” he points out.

We’re inquisitive enough that he asks us if we’re from out of town and we explain no, but from far enough away on the north side that we might as well be, and that we’re on a pizza tour. He quickly explains that his shop does things the old-fashioned way— rolls its own dough, grinds and seasons its own sausage, and so on. He’s trying to be self-deprecating about it and not seem like he’s bragging (“It’s how we’ve always done it, so we just do”) but he soon gets to the heart of the matter — “If we opened this place now, we’d just call up and order everything [premade], and ours would taste just like everybody else’s pizza and we’d go out of business in a year.” He’s reluctant to outright brag, but he knows exactly why his unassuming place is treasured by its community.


If the inside of this Faulds oven looks familiar, check about 26 minutes into this Sky Full of Bacon video.

So we’ll brag for him. This is a completely admirable pizza, one I’d drive a considerable way (from Hyde Park, say) for. The thin crust gets crisp on the bottom and caramelizes the cheese on top in a way the previous two, thicker pizzas could not. The sausage and sauce are both brighter and tastier than what we’d had before. We weren’t exactly full when we came in but we had eaten enough that we didn’t expect to finish this pizza— but in fact that’s just what we did, a bit painfully but not sorry that we did so. I’m not going to claim that we toppled the South Side crown from Vito & Nick’s, but whatever south side pizza came in second before (Aurelio’s?) just dropped a rung. Pizza Castle is easily a discovery good enough to have made the whole night worthwhile.


And yet… we’ve only begun with one small neighborhood out of the south side. We pulled a bunch of potential candidates from the Beverly/Evergreen Park vicinity, before deciding to focus further west. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode… sometime.

Pizza Castle
3256 W 55th St
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 776-1075

Tags: , , , , ,


So here we are, where we left off not quite two years ago when I took the job at Grub Street Chicago; the procession of high end meals will surely slow for me at least for a bit, and it’s back to ethnic food in farflung bits of town— not that I ever stopped that. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a nostalgic, taking-stock kind of moment; LTHForum is going through a blush of love for a place called Rainbow Thai that seems to be trying to recapture those heady times in 2004-6 when Erik M. was schooling us all on Thai food beyond pad thai and chicken satay, and I was reminded of another round of discoveries by a Tribune piece last week on Almawal in south suburban Worth. It seems recent compared to the Thai discoveries, but it was four and a half years ago that I wrote about the enclave of middle-eastern restaurants (and shops) in south suburban Bridgeview for Time Out (with accompanying blog post) in early 2009, further LTH exploration ensued including Almawal (which didn’t exist yet when I first wrote about the area), the best of them, Al-Bawadi, became a GNR, Mike Sula in time would uncover a sweet shop and Sheeba, a shortlived Yemeni restaurant, down there, and so on.

I tried Almawal a couple of years ago and thought it a fine enough place but not better than Al-Bawadi— and I was not positive, based on the meal that I had, that they charcoal-grilled their meats as Al-Bawadi had. Based on what others have written, they must, but it’s something of a verdict on the results that day that I couldn’t be sure. Anyway, after Pang’s Trib piece I thought it was probably time to give them another shot… unless I found something else new to try.


Nablus Sweets was one of the places I wrote about in Time Out, and when I saw Manara Restaurant in the same strip mall I immediately pulled over to check it out. It turned out that the restaurant was more like the antechamber to the banquet hall, from which middle eastern disco music boomed and into which rolling carts full of food kept disappearing. We were the only customers on the restaurant side but they did their best to look after us as they tended to the crowd inside. As the Jerusalem name suggests, most of the population down here is Palestinian, and I haven’t been wild about their tahini-heavy hummus in the past, but what they offered here was creamy and delicious, while the kefta kabob was terrific, brightly spiced and unmistakably grilled over charcoal, served with moist, flavorful rice. I pressed myself on the owner, a Kurt Kasznar lookalike, just long enough to get his back story: he owns the Loop middle-eastern place Haifa, and apparently turned its lunchtime profits into something grander for his neighborhood. Then I asked if my son and I could grab a couple of shots of the grill, and he invited us back and introduced us to the grill man, whom he said was from Jordan and had been operating this Palestinian style of charcoal grill for 40 years:


Here is a Palestinian grill man to be spoken of in the same breath as great barbecue men, as Michael Cheng the duck roaster of Sun Wah, of all the brethren who devote their lives to perfectly executed meats over live fire. So add Manara Restaurant to your list of places to check out in the Bridgeview area— though as we were driving off I noticed that another of the places I had visited 4-1/2 years ago had changed names and presumably owners again, and was now a place called Yazor Kabob— also promising charcoal fire. So I have that to check out too, now— though I was also made ever more conscious of an irony on the Bridgeview dining scene. The middle-eastern places promise charcoal fire and always have it. The Mexican places promise Tacos al Carbon— and never have live fire. If just one of them would follow the middle-eastern places and start burning charcoal instead of a gas grill, Bridgeview might be a destination for Mexican as well as middle-eastern.

Manara Restaurant
8310 S Harlem Ave
Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 907-5832

* * *

A couple of sweet-looking ladies running the place, all kinds of authentic things on the menu… Taqueria Teloloapan in Logan Square is the kind of place I should have loved. So what went wrong?

First, I ordered a chalkboard special of chicken in salsa verde. The salsa verde was bright and tart. It was the chicken that was the problem— which is to say, I didn’t expect exactly half a chicken. I figured I would kind of get scraps, most likely as the breast was used as somebody else’s entree. But I could have at least had the thigh, no? No, I got a small leg, a skinny wing, a hunk of bony back and the hacked-off pointy end of the breast— maybe a third of a cup of meat. At $4.99, I might have figured that was acceptable. At $7.99, enough to buy me a whole roasted chicken at the supermercado down the street, it was just chintzy.

Then there was the sign in the window that said Tortillas Hecho a Mano— made by hand; something that can redeem an otherwise middling meal. Well, not the ones that I got. A comment on Yelp says you can ask for them that way, though. Okay, fine. I will also tell you that you can ask for them that way— and that you shouldn’t have to when it says it in big letters like that on the glass storefront. That’s a sacred trust, a promise in vinyl letters on glass, not to be trifled with.

I’ll give it another shot someday, what there was tasted good and the ladies seem like they’re nice… but I’ll be more careful about ordering the not-so-special special, that’s for sure.

Taqueria Teloloapan
3641 W. Fullerton

* * *

Speaking of 2008 or so, I was finally downtown at the right time to hit a place that had its day of fame around then, which I had never been to: Cafecito, a Cuban sandwich shop in the South Loop which is bedecked with aging clippings from all the food press of the day; Sula profiled its owner here, declaring it the city’s best Cuban sandwich. Me, I think the best Cuban sandwich, if not the best “Cuban sandwich,” is a lechon sandwich at 90 Miles To Cuba; I like that better than the grilled Cuban concoction of ham and roast pork with cheese, mustard and pickle. But even within that specific sandwich’s universe, I was unexcited by the Cuban sandwich at Cafecito, which was mostly a hard Gonnella roll with very thin quantities of pork and ham. Is the pork marinated in the guy’s housemade mojo, baby? Who could tell when it’s a couple of nanometers thick? I wouldn’t write this off, there’s a long menu and maybe soup is the thing to try, but it was hard not to think that 2008’s best Cuban sandwich isn’t so great in 2013.

26 E. Congress Parkway
(312) 922-2233

Tags: , , , , , ,

Not to make light of Memorial Day in any way, but it was very cheering to have these and other nice things said when the news about Grub Street shutting down went around:

Grub Street Chicago has been one of the mainstays of the Chicago food scene since back when it was Menupages. First under Helen Rosner (now at Saveur), then under Nick Kindelsperger (now at Serious Eats), and it has been one of our daily go-to spots for food news and analysis. Mike Gebert, the current editor, has only made it better — but apparently business got in the way.


Mostly, I’m just upset that I won’t be able to read what current editor, Mike Gebert, has to say about the dining scene. Along with covering the continuous onslaught of openings, he also took the time to tell the stories of neighborhood restaurants far from downtown. His daily commentary will be missed.

Serious Eats Chicago


Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 11.42.38 AM

One more bit of ephemera:

achatz chicago mag