Sky Full of Bacon


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

Grub Street shut down its blogs in cities outside New York today; I learned about it this morning and, not surprisingly, had no more than about 20 minutes before Twitter blabbed it to everybody. I can’t speak for others but I wasn’t shocked that the day came that a New York-based publication shut down operations outside New York; I’ve been in enough ad agencies expanding and then shrinking to be unsurprised by that happening eventually. We’re in an age when things grow fast and die fast, you have to make that work for you, or go work at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.

I am very gratified by, but also slightly uncomfortable about, the kind words of sympathy that have flowed in because I don’t feel like someone who lost a job, mainly because I have at least two others at any given moment. At most I’m merely underemployed again. (Not to discourage your kind words, keep ’em coming!) But I’ve long been the guy who worked to keep his own brand alive— Sky Full of Bacon came about initially because I figured it was too hard to stand out as a food writer named Mike or Michael in this town, and needed something more memorable— and developing and being known for a set of portable skills that were bigger than any given assignment (and reinforced each other). I am grateful to a year and a half and change at Grub Street and my editor Alan Sytsma for expanding my access to the restaurant scene immensely, giving me countless opportunities to devise my own opportunities without having to pitch them to anybody most of the time (easily the thing I’m worst at in this game, reading the minds of editors to figure out what they’ll want and haven’t assigned yet), and letting me do so many things just because they sounded cool to me, which by the way reminds me that I haven’t posted this video which ran at Grub Street yet:

Anyway, no hard feelings, at the very least the next Key Ingredient will appear in about ten days at the Reader, and I have no idea what I will do next with what I’ve learned and can do, no actually I have about 20 ideas at any given time but I have no idea which of them will pan out. But there is no danger of my disappearing, as long as there is self-promotional breath in my body.

And yes, really, thank you to everyone who emailed or tweeted kind words of support, for being readers then and friends now. For a decade now I have tried to cover food in a way that was personal, funny, thoughtful, and not just about grabbing bucks but about what food means to us on every level, and I will continue to do that, probably in several places at once, as usual.

In the second installment of a series devoted to real Chicago places and people, I talk with John Veliotis, of Bridgeport hot dog stand and neighborhood center Johnny O’s, sharing stories of the old neighborhood and looking at two unique South Side treats, the Mother-in-Law and the breaded steak sandwich.


There was an article in Slate last week* about how your foodie-ism is an awful snobbish vain planet-destroying thing. Okay, I know, I know, the easiest freelance sale on earth is something contrarian and attention-getting to Slate, like “Why Your Oxygen Addiction Is Killing the Atmosphere” or “Attention Boy Scouts: Actually, Busy Traffic Is Good For Little Old Ladies.” And too often this kind of Puritan deploring of modern habits is vanity in disguise, the modern equivalent of the medieval flagellants who would beat themselves the hardest in public for the attention, declaring “I am the worst of all!” You wish.

Take a statement about trendy farmer’s markets like the following:

It used to be that human ingenuity was valued in the kitchen. Now, what matters more is chefs’ knowing the right producers and buying the right products. Culinary excellence can no longer be achieved simply by learning the right technique; it can be acquired only by knowing the right things to buy—and by, it needs hardly be said, shelling out however much money it takes to buy them. In this way, modern foodies’ materialistic definition of refinement is more exclusive than that of yesteryear’s dogmatic French cooking. What appears to be a celebration of the natural and the simple is in fact more constrictive and less attainable, because it depends not on talent but on means and access.

This is complete insanity, an argument only possible if you know NOTHING, absolutely nothing, about the brutality and forbidding class divides of the classical French kitchen. Remedial reading of Henri Charpentier’s Life a la Henri is recommended. But it also seems to know nothing life as it’s actually lived in 2013, either, because it imagines this world in which chefs and diners are one-upping each other over the provenance of carrots, apparently. And honestly, they are? Who, where? I want names and addresses, because I keep hearing this stuff about these awful entitled annoying locaboors and farmer snobs, and I just don’t find them in real life, anywhere.

I was thinking about this while I was at Sous Rising, an underground dinner experience put on by chef Jake Bickelhaupt and his wife Alexa, which I first really heard about when he was picked to do this Key Ingredient:

That’s his kitchen, and we ate at their table, seven of us, and it was just such a warm, and kindly, and eager to please experience, a communal experience of delight, that it’s simply impossible for me to reconcile a dinner like that with the pinched, sour, grasping notion of modern dining that the Slate piece would have you believe is inevitable now.

Bickelhaupt is young and earnest, like John Cusack in Say Anything, has some fancy experience (Alinea, Charlie Trotter, Schwa) but is also kind of inexperienced in a good way, in that he doesn’t come off like a lifer in the biz already— he’s more like Iliana Regan of Elizabeth, he knows what he wants so much that practical experience is only a small piece of who he is, really. And in any case, the last thing you’d ever say is that he doesn’t know what he’s doing in the kitchen— he and another chef did everything, with hardly a word, turning out something like 21 courses in a standard apartment-sized kitchen, about 4 feet behind my back, and every time you looked at the kitchen, it looked as clean as if they hadn’t started cooking yet.


The food, I suppose, came closest to Schwa, there’s a lot of tricky stuff in it as in this “cocktail” which froze one liquid and gelled the other:


but things were also just plain beautiful, delicate, no matter what music was headbanging in the room at the time. And there’s not only a lot of skill but a pretty good understanding of what people enjoy that goes into a dish like this:


basically, a soup made with the flavors of caviar and potato, including the little fingerling potato chips and the dried tomato slices. It’s pretty, it’s local (note the pea tendrils, on everything this week), and unlike the deconstructed version of this caviar-potato dish I can imagine having at many places, it tasted great, a warming, nurturing dish.

There was maybe one dish I thought was a botched modernist experiment— parmesan puff crisps for scooping up parmesan foam, which sort of crossed the line from cheese smell to puke smell. And I’m going to say right now, this thing of making savory-sweet main courses with cake in the middle of them doesn’t work for me— everyone else was delighted by this duck confit-duck crackling dish in a garden pot, but I wanted something more robust and meaty at that stage in the meal than this:


But that’s two out of 21. Then there was this amazing combination of tart, jarring tomatillo broth with delicate peekytoe crab:


or this sugar-cured beet, as gnarled as a prune, topped with a bit of anchovy and dill:


Bickelhaupt said it was his tribute to his Scandinavian ancestry and most guests hated it, but I loved its Nordic plainness mixed with the surprising lushness of the pickled, but not vinegary, beet.

I could go on course by course, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, and in any case, it’s sort of not the point, I don’t want to do 7 THINGS YOU MUST EAT AT SOUS RISING RIGHT NOW, because in so many ways it wasn’t about the food in a list-the-ingredients sense, certainly not in any my-carrot’s-morally-superior-to-yours way (though I will say that Bickelhaupt seems to have no trouble getting hold of the same things big name chefs use, mostly just with a phone and a credit card). It was about the pleasure of experiencing someone else’s pleasure at making food for you, and the shared pleasure at the table as we had each new thing set in front of us. It wasn’t an entirely new experience— you could analogize it to Schwa, to Elizabeth, to EL Ideas, and to my first dinner of this sort so long ago when Trio in Evanston had just gotten a new young chef named Achatz in who was doing crazy things. Maybe something in fine dining has gotten a little too pinched and status-driven at times, though I’d blame media at least as much as chefs for looking at food in terms of gets and firsts and musts. But all it takes for all that to melt away is one chef to welcome you into his space and make delightful things for you. Well, two chefs and a server-slash-wife— this was, as much as anything, a meal suffused with the happiness of two people who are happy at home:


A restaurant is rumored and, surely, inevitable. It will change some when that happens, but in the meantime, go here and book yourself a place at the table of the apartment on the top floor, left.

* Between the time I started this and when I finished it, Whet Moser wrote this excellent piece taking the Slate article down in more detail.

* * *

One son had to be in Glenview for a 4-H meeting. Which gave me just enough time to grab sushi. Wait, why do I associate Glenview with sushi, you ask? Isn’t it a pretty whitebread north shore suburb? Maybe, but all I know is, there’s a cluster of sushi places there. Akai Hana is right off the 94 exit at Lake. Others are a mile away on Waukegan Road. And these aren’t new, trendy, lame-o sushi places for hipsters, but places that have been around for a number of years, mostly Korean-run (like most sushi in Chicago) and aimed, it seems, at an Asian audience.

One called Tatami seemed the most promising and once I circled Waukegan Road three times to find its location at the back of a strip mall, invisible from the street, I knew it had to be good. It’s a small, slightly dated-chic dark room; two chefs stood at the counter, talking in Korean (I assume) to a couple sitting there. Unfortunately, that meant I never had a chance to engage the chef directly to give my standard spiel for wanting him to pick me good stuff that wasn’t all tuna and salmon, and the options for ordering proved pretty thin— there was a $30ish plate that I was warned would be all safe stuff, or a $70 platter for two that had more unusual stuff like fluke or needlefish on it. I seemed to have no choice but to order enough sashimi for two.


So yes, I ate way more sashimi than I needed to, and to some extent I paid for it the next day, I suspect, because I strongly suspect one of the white fishes was actually escolar, a tasty fish but one known for, shall we say, a castor oil effect. And there was a lot of each fish. That said, I was really impressed by the quality, and if I’d had, say, 60% of this amount of fish for $45, or if there was another person to split it with, this would have been a great deal, quality approaching the best places in the city for substantially less; next time I’ll force my way into a conversation with the chef and get what I really want. But as it is I liked the delicate, supple fluke, the nearly translucent, ultralight needlefish (whose spine was used to make a ring to hold the bed of daikon it sat on in the middle), red snapper, salmon… nothing fancy or filigreed about it, just straight up fish of good quality. A find in that area, for sure, if you can find the name on the strip mall’s sign and know you’re in the right place, that is.

Tatami Restaurant
1859 Waukegan Rd
Glenview, IL 60025
(847) 998-8887

* * *


I popped into Little Goat Diner for lunch on a Monday and snagged the last seat at the counter. It is amazing that through sheer star power and, it seems, an unabashed willingness to make juicy fat food, someone can open a coffeeshop, with decor that echoes the 70s (not the retro chrome diner 50s but the beige coffeeshop 70s, like a Greek place in Lincolnwood called Omega doing omelets or something), and absolutely pack the place.

I ordered the kimchi reuben because, believe it or not, it seemed one of the lighter items. As I saw enormous things like the sloppy joe or whatever it is above come out, it seemed downright dietetic.

Little Goat Diner

Here’s what I found funny. Some people have accused Little Goat of basically being stoner food, pile-everything-on-and-stuff-yourself food. But the logic of a kimchi reuben is perfectly clear— substitute one kind of pickled cabbage for another and take it in a new direction while retaining what the reuben’s primary dynamic is. Fair enough, except… they didn’t substitute. There’s sauerkraut on there. There’s an entirely (quite good) reuben on there, and then there’s kimchi on top of it. Which to me seems almost unfair, unsporting— you could just pile anything on there, pulled pork or pickled beets or vanilla ice cream. Give me a side of mac and cheese and I’ll make a mac and cheese reuben at my seat. The point was achieving a kind of chef alchemy in which you traded one cabbage for another and made something new and Asian-hot that still had the Aristotelian unity and economy of the original.

It’s the only thing I tried so I have no deeper thoughts than that— I just wanted some cheffy Steffy magic out of this dish and it turned out to be more conventional, philosophically, than I expected. Though it is, still, a pretty good reuben.

Tags: , ,

The Green City Market opened at its outdoor location Saturday with the relief of somebody busting open the windows for the first time in months. Sometimes I have to drag my sons to it but this time they seemed eager to go— a chance to taste old favorites they haven’t had for months. I also told them that if they wanted to bring their cameras, I’d post their pictures, and so, when their hands weren’t full of food, they snapped away, Myles the 14-year-old with his Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, Liam the 11-year-old with a brand new Canon Elph 330 I picked up as a new pocket camera (I have a DSLR for my better photos, but it’s always useful to have a little one to carry around, too). Anyway, here’s what they chose to look at at the market, which was pretty well picked over by the time we got there around 10:30.

Credit: Liam.

Credit: Liam.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Liam.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Myles.

Liam waits for his zeppole. Credit: Myles.

All out of hand pies at Hoosier Mama. Credit: Liam.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Liam.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Myles.

Credit: Liam.

Credit: Liam.

Pide at Pide ve Lahmacun.

Other than shooting a Key Ingredient there, I hadn’t been back to Fat Rice since opening night, but there we were at home on Friday night, all in one place and hungry at 5:40, so I knew what we had to do was jump in the car and be there when the restaurant opened at 6— before the lines, which are supposed to run up to two hours these days, became hopeless for a family with impatient kids. A few months ago I found Fat Rice promising but not yet something that could change my ideas of Asian food— not the Chicago answer to Momofuku or Pok Pok or other hot Asian places around the country. It shouldn’t be something one worries about to wish we had a place that scored on the food-hipster scale like those do, but hey, we have civic pride, just ask Rachel Shteir.

Or take her to dinner at Fat Rice, which is fantastic and might just change her whole outlook. Asian fusion is often just Asian food minus the funkiness and with the sweetness dialed up. It’s a form of upscaling ethnic food that basically trashes it. Not at Fat Rice, which reaches into one of the original Asian fusion cuisines— Portuguese-influenced Macanese (Macau) food and finds a cuisine that has the brightness and funkiness of Asian mixed with the deep earthy slow-cooking virtues of European peasant food from Spain or southwest France.

The best dishes, like the eponymous Fat Rice, are deep and dark, dotted with funky sausage, dishes you could burrow into for the whole winter. Others, like the chili clam with fried and sashimi clam on chilis and glass noodles, are nimble, as light-fingered and fresh-tasting as anything at Arami or, for that matter, L2O. Even fairly conventional dishes, like the pot stickers (which come as a single piece attached by a crepe-like skin) or the pepper steak with coconut rice, light up your mouth like a Christmas tree with bright flavors of fresh vegetables and meats that instantly set them apart from the muddle of the conventional Chinese-American food they might resemble at first glance.

Not to be confused with the farm to table restaurant of the same name on the roof of Roots Handmade Pizza, the Homestead at 6144 N. Lincoln is a cute little breakfast and early-bird dinner comfort food place whose country decorations and welcoming air seem to have come straight out of a small town cafe in downstate farm country. The staff is sweet as can be, the restaurant is squeaky clean, and the food is maybe a little too squeaky clean if, like me, you like a little funk and soul in your diner food. But they bring you homemade chicken soup before Sunday breakfast (and it’s probably the best thing here)— c’mon, the whole place is adorable.


Laschett’s Inn is walking distance from my house, yet I hadn’t been there since a meal commemorated on LTHForum in its early days. That is, I’ve tried 3 or 4 times and had an endless run of bad luck— they were open but not serving food, they were closed for a private party… whatever. Finally went with my sons and found, from the menu, that they had an expanded back area and another set of new owners (at least the second set if not more since Karl Laschett took over an even older business, apparently). Still, it remains one of the best examples of an authentic ethnic restaurant in town; it totally captures eating German food in… Milwaukee, with a supper clubby feel and waitresses who not only call you “hon” but are downright overflowing with gemütlichkeit.

Starters were great— the giant freshly-baked pretzel with a tart cheese spread made of camembert and brie (and cheddar, surely, to judge by the color), and the hearty, satisfying goulash soup (a dollar upgrade when they ask you “soup or salad,” and well worth it). So it was a bit of a bummer that main courses took German heaviness a little too far— Wienerschnitzel was coated much more thickly than at Resi’s across the street, the frikadellen beef-pork burger seemed a bit dried out, while the potato pancakes ought to have been crispier. It’s still a charming slice of a Chicago that existed into the 80s and early 90s, but set your expectations more for hearty good time than culinary distinction.

A more exotic act of ethnic recreation takes place at Pide ve Lahmacun, a new Turkish restaurant at Irving and Ravenswood. Actually two new Turkish restaurants, there’s another storefront called I-Cafe but you can have the food from either one at the other. I don’t usually play the “This is just like the feng shui we ate in Yokohama” game, not being the world traveler some are, but having been to Cappadocia, I can say that this is just like the food in Cappadocia, because there are only two things to eat in Cappadocia and pide was one of them so I had it several times. What is pide? Basically it’s Turkish pizza, football shaped and topped with cheese but not tomato sauce, and often eaten with very salty air-dried basturma (pastrami) on top. Is it better than the pizza you normally get delivered? No, but it’s pretty good, and so are the other things they have— their version of Iskender Kabob (doner meat, tomato sauce and tangy yogurt) was bright and flavorful too. But my son and I went there to eat pide, and for a moment, we were members of a secret society remembering the strange thing we had eaten in our travels in the east. Remembering it exactly, in fact.