Sky Full of Bacon

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.

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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

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