Sky Full of Bacon

The Beer Episode: Nathan Sears Revives the German Beer Hall • Jared Rouben’s Moody Tongue • The State of Chicago Beer with Karl Klockars • Golden Shrimp Mystery Solved


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Beer and food go together in this episode like something to drink and something to eat.


First up, Nathan Sears, who I’ve known as Paul Virant’s #2 at Vie for years and years (he appears on camera in this Sky Full of Bacon video from 2008). He’s opening The Radler and DAS, a German beer hall and restaurant with a ten-seat chef’s table (DAS) in Logan Square. That’s him in front of the mural he talks about, for Bohemian Beer.


Next, I talked to Jared Rouben (seen at right in a photo with Allium chef Kevin Hickey from this Grub Street shoot I did), longtime brewer at Goose Island Brewpub who is launching his own “culinary brewing” brewery, Moody Tongue, in Pilsen. (Parts of the same interview were used in this piece at the Reader.)

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 4.38.11 PM

Karl Klockars (of Guys Drinking Beer) wrote Chicago magazine’s current cover story on beer, which you can check part of out here.


We talked about beer and beer media at Four Moon Tavern at Roscoe and Wolcott; his recommendations for underappreciated beer bars included The Green Lady and The Local Option. Some of the other things mentioned along the way: here’s an interview with the guy who revived Bäderbrau, here’s Ten Ninety in Zion, here’s Good Beer Hunting, here’s The Beer Temple’s podcasts, here’s Begyle Brewing’s subscription program, here’s The Fountainhead, and here’s The Huettenbar.

And finally, we solve the golden shrimp mystery from last time.

So the Reader, where I’ve been foodblogging for the past few weeks, runs a thing in its print issue showing what the most-read blog posts— across all sections, not just Food & Drink— were during the previous week. Here’s how I did:
Week 1: The top two most-read blog posts for the whole site, #1 and #2.
Week 2: #2 and #4.
Week 3: #2 and #5.
Week 4: no ranking, not shown.
Week 5: #1.

reader most readreader most read2Reader rank 3Reader rank 5

Week 6: #1 again, third time in six weeks.
Week 7: #2 and #5.
Week 8: #4.
Week 9: no ranking, not shown.

Reader rank 6Reader rank 5dReader rank 5b

Two sort-of Asian places have opened recently and occasioned back and forth on Twitter and such outposts of cutting-edge discussion. Mostly negative. I’m more okay with both, though less than enthusiastic:


Lao 18 is Tony Hu’s new sorta-posh River North spot. It has come in for plenty of beating from people who think it’s dumbed-down Chinese inferior to his Chinatown spots. Okay, it probably is. The extremely Caucasian waitresses in their Suzie Wong outfits probably don’t know jack about real Chinese food or drink. The giant upside down soup cups that decorate the lounge are goofy, but c’mon, they’re funny. All that said— it’s not bad. When you consider the kind of gloppy Chinese that Hu himself was recruited to dish out by the gallon at House of Hunan a few blocks away 20 years ago, this is amazingly decent for vaguely authentic Chinese food in this Disneyland neighborhood. I tried four things— some dumplings, that old favorite black pepper short ribs, twice cooked pork belly and salt and pepper squid. To a man (or a squid), they were about 80% as good, or hot, or funky, or whatever as they would be on Wentworth or Archer. And of course, given the location, they cost more. But they were not a mockery of what you’d get there. They were a pretty good lunch for downtown. (The short ribs might have even made it into the 90th percentile.) I mean, sure, if you can hop the red line to Chinatown, do that instead, but it’s not a crime to open a Chinese restaurant across the street from El Hefe Super Macho Taqueria. I feel like the scorn is a preview of what Mario Batali’s in for when Eataly pops up and starts making Italian food a few blocks away.

18 W Hubbard
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 955-8018


Mott Street has been praised as the hippest coolest newest thing from the hip owners of Ruxbin, and blasted as bland and underwhelming and bearing no resemblance to whatever the pre-opening publicity about serving “Asian night market food” implied. I’m of two minds about it. Mind #1 says that this is a pleasant place to hang out with a cool design, a nice patio, good drinks and very good and concerned service. Mind #2 says that there’s nothing here for $10 that is as good as something you can get for $6 somewhere else. (But give it credit for being $10, not $18.) The whiskey-soaked pork neck above, for instance, was chewy (maybe because it was cut in such thick chunks) and not very whiskey-soaked; you’d be better off with pork neck larb at TAC Quick. The Harry’s Butter Thighs:


was a real dud, Trader Joe’s-level depth of Indian flavor, you could have two really good things at Ghareeb Nawaz for the price. The fried rice with crab brains:


came closest to being an original and interesting dish, but didn’t have enough funk to get there. This “funky miso” broth:


was too bitter to eat. A few vegetables floating in the pungency of a household cleaning product, $8.

Okay, jeez, that was pretty rough. But I could still see going back with Mind #1 to hang out and have a drink and nosh on stuff. It’s just, if anybody tells you this is an exciting new addition to the local Asian food scene… no, not yet at least. Fat Rice is an exciting new addition to the local Asian food scene. Rickshaw Republic is. This is a nice place to have a drink, so far, and I hope the folks behind Ruxbin, which I do like a lot, can make it better for food over time.

1401 N Ashland Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 687-9977

So is there anything new and Asian I have liked lately? Yes:


People love the fried chicken wings and bowls of Korean stuff at Crisp on Broadway. Those people are not me. The wings are okay, the bowls are bland, like the Japanese place in the Northwestern station food court I used to order from because at least what they offered had vegetables in it, a novelty in the late 90s west Loop. I suspected the same of DAK Korean Chicken Wings up in Edgewater, which opened around January, had a brief flurry of enthusiasm, and hadn’t been heard from since.

Wrong. I loved these giant, soy-garlic and gingery pterodactyl wings, and I thought the bowl of bulgogi was pretty tasty for simple lunchtime fare, too. It’s pricy, perhaps, but I’m happy to pay more for what I like than scratch my head again at what everyone thinks is so great.

1104 W Granville Ave
Chicago, IL 60660
(773) 754-0255


I’m probably going to be accused of dissing a new LTHForum fave for reasons of contrarianism or worse, so let me say that the last place somebody there (who has no love lost for me) found on 25th street, I loved and recommended unreservedly. (If the link doesn’t go directly, it’s slide #11.) A great find transcends earthly concerns. I had similar hopes for Taqueria Las Barrilitos, starting with the al pastor trompo in plain sight. Add in the housemade pickled onions and such and this looks like a place that cares a little more, which is the gist of the acclaim it’s gotten on LTHForum. Alas, my experience was more in the nature of a nice try; the pastor meat looked nice and crispy but didn’t have the rich, citrus-tinged flavor I was hoping for:


while the steak on the carne asada taco was overcooked nubs of again, underflavored meat. Thinking of La Chaparrita not far away I also gave crispy tripas a try, but the funky-not-in-a-good-way rings had none of the bacony deliciousness of that gem’s. Off days are always possible but this looked to me like how they like it, and I didn’t.


That said, I did spot and try a nice find on the way back to the car (besides this story, which I also came up with while down there to try Las Barrilitos), so the trip paid off— more on that shortly.

3518 W 25th St
Chicago, IL 60623
(773) 673-0102


Circling back to River North, Fabio Viviani is the celebrity name behind Siena Tavern, a massive operation routinely packed to the gills every night. The menu has some goofy modern touches— pasta in a jar— and things whose Italianness is questionable (they move a lot of crudo ahi tuna topped with salsa verde), but order to what they are likely to do well and they do well enough— everything executed pretty well, but not exemplarily well. Fabio’s mother’s gnocchi are beautifully tender, so one wishes the cream sauce they come in too much of had more of the other things on the plate (fried sage or parmesan) to give it flavors beyond, mostly, cream. A side of escarole with white beans, likewise, was a bit too bitter, swimming unsubtly in too much lemon, but you don’t order escarole because you don’t want bitterness, and with the occasional pop of a sweet tomato, it was a good, fresh-tasting summer dish. This has gotten some pretty tough reviews, and there are some misbegotten-sounding things on the menu that may well deserve that, but sticking to the hard-to-screw-up I thought what I had was about as good as most other downtown Italian places— though the fact that a Davanti Enoteca has opened a block or so away raises the bar for good enough Italian, for sure.

51 W Kinzie Ave
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 595-1322


Note: I’m writing for both the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago now (congrats to Nick and Abby on the birth of Mira!) and turning out more than I need to link to every one, especially since you can just click on my name and see everything at each site. But I’ll recommend a few things like this piece about unsuspected family disputes at the much-beloved Cemitas Puebla or this think piece about celebrity chefs (occasioned by Siena Tavern above) at the Reader, or this account of the nearly lost dish Akutagawa and this tribute to an underappreciated Loop-area shop, Bombacigno J&C Inn, at Serious Eats. And of course, the most important thing you can do is listen to the most recent, Tiki-focused episode of Airwaves 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…