Sky Full of Bacon

Airwaves Full of Bacon 16: Greg Biggers of the Sofitel Vs. The City • What’s Next After the City Shut Down Underground Chef Julia Pham • Kevin Hickey Returns To Bridgeport • Kate Bernot Leaves Chicago For Beer

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.


It’s the city episode! All the stories have to do with dealing with this city… and the City.


(1:16) First up, chef Greg Biggers of Cafe des Architectes in the Sofitel Hotel takes me inside their circuitous kitchens to tell the story of how he had to work with the City to get to do the things he wanted to do… notably, make cheese. It’s a great look inside the health and regulatory process in Chicago.





(20:06) Then I talk with underground chef Julia Pham, whose Relish Underground Dining came to a halt when she was busted by the City.

After that, I list some of my favorite Asian restaurants in the Argyle area. I wrote about Nha Hang here, and made this video about the old Sun Wah. Here’s more about Double Happiness, where we met up.


(35:05) Kevin Hickey’s the Duck Inn marks his return to Bridgeport. We talk about that most traditional of old school Chicago neighborhoods, including mentions of Ricobene’s and Bridgeport Bakery. A much longer version of this ran in two parts here and here at the Reader.

Here’s the original Duck Inn, c. 1935, owned by his grandmother (the lady behind the counter).


(50:01) And finally, I talk with Kate Bernot, late of Redeye, about leaving Chicago. Here’s her farewell piece.

The church of Santo Domingo, with the most spectacular interior in Oaxaca.

The cloister at Santo Domingo, now a terrific museum containing the major artworks from Monte Alban, the Zapotec city overlooking modern Oaxaca. We also saw an excellent exhibit devoted to the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci and one of his recent books.

A Nativity scene in the Zocalo in front of the protest banners about the murders of the 43 students in Mexico, by a gang allied with the mayor of Iguala. This is the kind of thing that makes you think the parts about Herod in the Nativity story probably hit home harder in some countries than others…

So we had plenty of time to eat at many levels in Oaxaca, and with my first post devoted to the low end, this one will cover off the higher end in various forms. Oaxaca apparently is convinced that it’s the next hot dining destination, or so I read somewhere, and I’ll say this for it: it may not be as polished as current dining capitols, but the prices are so reasonable that you can experiment with little fear that you’ll get ripped off. It’s hard to complain that execution is a little below Chicago standards, as judged by a pork dish fairly crudely butchered, or that service is a bit rushed at a tasting menu, when it’s going for, at most, about a third of the cost in Chicago. Restaurants here have the kind of enthusiasm that forgives a lot.

I mentioned that Rick Bayless was not far from where we were—to judge by a tweet, I missed him by about 20 minutes in the Zocalo, the central square, one day—but I already had some advice about where to eat from him, by way of Topolobampo’s chef Andres Padilla. So I made reservations in advance for two of them, Origen and Pitiona, though as it turns out, even in the tourist-heavy Christmas week it seemed like you could pretty much walk into any place in town.

The main thing was just knowing where to find them—the fine dining Oaxaca is kind of in a different area than the busy everyday tourist Oaxaca, centered on the bustling Zocalo. The restaurants around the Zocalo are, according to most guidebooks, kind of middling, but we visited one called Del Jardin a couple of times for quick meals and local atmosphere, and it was quite decent—Liam discovered a love for Oaxacan tamales here. Honestly, there’s almost no such thing as a bad mole negro in Oaxaca, though I think this one was sweetened up a little for the presumed American palate.


But if you want food at a higher level than that, you want to go north from the Zocalo. Just a few blocks and you hit the square around the church of Santo Domingo, which seems to also be the heart of upscale tourist Oaxaca. The square is quieter and less frantic with peddlers, all around it are better restaurants, coffee shops (otherwise often rare in Oaxaca) and the better shopping for Mexican clothing, jewelry and knick-knacky artworks. Also a very happy find in this area on some of the days were street markets devoted to locally produced goods and artworks; we picked up everything from handwoven cloths to carved figurines a cut above the usual tourist geegaws, to local chocolate and manzanilla (apple) jam.

Calle Macedonio Alcala, the main shopping street near Santo Domingo, a couple of days after Christmas.

We bought several excellent carvings from this stand, though not this guy, alas.


Origen is a restaurant you can certainly see people like Rick Bayless admiring, because it was the most serious about exploring Mexican flavors and not just doing a Mexican spin on continental cuisine. I couldn’t tell you what the seven moles are, but I’d bet I had more of them here than anywhere else, tasting a variety of sauces (which is all a mole is, really) in conjunction with a lot of locally grown things, from squash to quinoa. The downside was that I felt the execution level did not always match the ambition of the dishes; there were at least one dud (a charred romaine salad, which came out a neat rectangle of mushed lettuce with the consistency of a peat bog) and a very good dish of pork rib meat suffered from the meat having been roughly hacked off the bone, fat untrimmed. Still, at about $130 for 4 people it was a creative meal offering a lot of insight into Mexican flavors we didn’t get elsewhere, and I would recommend it.

Pork rib meat with chicatana sauce, yucca and squash.

Tortillas at Pitiona made of different kinds of corn—the top one made with agave (in some form).

Pitiona was in some ways less adventurous in cuisine, but moreso in form—the chef worked at El Bulli and there was a lot of Adria-esque playfulness in the form of the dishes, and as the first full-fledged tasting menu for the kids (Myles and I went to Ing once, but that’s it) everyone had a good time waiting to see what they’d bring out next—usually, curiously, plated on something the shape and size of a brick, like the paint-covered block this plantain fritter arrived on.


Highlights included a venison taco, another with tocino (pork belly)…


and the most El Bulli-like item of the night, a tomato noodle soup with a spherical ball of cream in it, which you broke and stirred into the soup.


The meal was fun, the restaurant which rambled over several rooms of an old colonial era house was charming, the only downside here wasn’t execution but service, which raced through the meal and couldn’t wait to remove any plate that seemed possibly finished. I’m not sure what the cause of that was—it seemed unlikely they were desperate to turn the table. I think the kitchen probably wasn’t pacing it as well as they should and the servers were scrambling to make it work. Nevertheless, I’d recommend Pitiona too; not to dwell on price here, but $300 for four compared to the $500 and up for two you’d pay in the U.S. for a tasting menu goes a considerable ways toward covering your airfare to dine like this.


I hadn’t planned to eat at Los Danzantes, named (somewhat macabrely) for the most famous carvings at Monte Alban, of captured, castrated rival chiefs, but on the last day before our evening flight, it was right there and seemed like just the place to kill 2 hours at lunch. Which it was; the room could not be more dramatic, surrounded by three-story concrete walls with a catwalk wandering through foliage to a lounge and the bathrooms. Choose your own movie descriptor for this space—Bond villain HQ, the wall of Kong, no matter what, it was undeniable spectacle. (I especially loved that the bar turned out to be made of cars crushed into cubes. Wild!)



The food would have trouble living up to this and despite a Slow Food designation and a high rating (from Americans, presumably) on TripAdvisor, it wasn’t as artful or intriguing as Origen or Pitiona, tasting more like upscale Mexican flavors on American-style dishes. An appetizer of duck with Mexican spices was best, a white ocean fish rubbed with ash and Myles’ steak were fine, but something advertised as somebody’s grandma’s mole rojo didn’t have the kick or funkiness you’d hope for. This was the first that seemed more tourist-oriented than a local expression, but still, a grand setting from which to salute Mexico and say goodbye with a daytime drink in hand.


Other than taxis taking the shortcut over the hills, Itanoni marked my only venture even further north, into a neighborhood near the Park Llano that seemed sort of like the Upper West Side of Oaxaca, plenty of upscale shops and a relaxed air. Itanoni wasn’t nearly as upscale as the places above, but Alice Waters is said to have called it her favorite restaurant in Oaxaca and it’s easy to see why—it’s very serious, almost curatorial, toward the tortilla and what goes in it, dividing the menu by different kinds of corn from different microclimates, and the fillings specific to those (micro) regions— which you order like dim sum, checking them off on a sheet. (That said, my main inspiration for going here was less Alice Waters than Nick Kindelsperger and what he had to say about it here.)


Could I really taste the difference in tortillas made by hand between corn grown on the mountains and corn grown on the isthmus? No, but everything bespoke really careful craftsmanship, everything tasted clean, the way Rick Bayless’ Mexican food often does, and when I peeled open this flor de la calabaza tortilla to see its gorgeous petals inside, I felt like the peasant Juan Diego when the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was found on his cloak.



One last food experience, which both kids would rank among the best things we did on the trip. Belatedly I had the idea of doing a cooking class for the four of us, and found this blog post which talked about five popular classes. A couple were booked all week, one didn’t respond to the email form I sent through its website—and then I saw Casa Crespo as we were walking to Santo Domingo from the bus, across the street from Pitiona.

It was an American crowd doing it, save for one Swedish woman, including a couple from Logan Square—who asked me if I knew Grandma J’s in Humboldt Park. Talking to another couple, a police officer from L.A. and his wife, they mentioned a recent trip to Chicago and how they liked going to places on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives—and said they’d been to Cemitas Puebla. I told them I’d had comments from Tony Anteliz, its owner, in response to my Tweets about this trip.

Anyway, we started off by going to a nearby mill to grind the corn for our tortillas, and then to the Sanchez Pascuas organic market to shop for ingredients (and sample some fruits you can only find in Mexico, like black zapote, which is like a plum filled with squid ink).



Back at the school, we began making an ambitious lunch ranging from handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese, flor de la calabaza and other ingredients, to chicken with mole, a cold avocado soup, and chocolate ice cream. I was really happy that the kids got into it and were proud of what they contributed to making. Gotta do more of that at home. It was a tasty lunch and a great experience.


And after working themselves up to it for most of the week, they tried bugs. At least, Myles put chapulines, grasshoppers, in his tortilla, while Liam at least tasted a salsa that had agave worms ground into it. Dad was proud.



A couple of final notes:

• Coffee. We didn’t have a coffeemaker in our villa so getting coffee before too much of the day had passed was a constant struggle. The only places serving anything like American-style coffee seemed to be in the touristed area between the Zocalo and Santo Domingo, so I pretty much had to be in one of those areas by lunchtime; finding caffeine in the rest of the city could be very hit or miss, or at least require you to sit down for a substantial breakfast to get a cafe con leche (not a fan, but it’ll do in a pinch). I relied mainly on two Italian-style chains, Cafe Brujula and The Italian Coffee Co., with multiple locations in this area.

• Baked goods. One thing I’ve never been wild about is Mexican baking. Mexicans can make really nice French pastries, but their own styles seem bland and flavorless to me, and it was disappointing to see so much of it in the markets and never find anything particularly good. The Italian-style coffee shops were your best bet for sitting down with something to nosh on; buying in quantity, the best French style pastries we found were just west of the Zocalo on Independencia at Pasteleria Carmelita, while we got a nice panettone and some crusty bread for Christmas at Pan & Co. near Santo Domingo.


• And one more ice cream place, just north of the Santo Domingo plaza: Manolo Nieves. This place had a somewhat unfriendly system— you had to order the quantity you wanted and pay for it, then tell them what flavors you wanted— but the flavors were top notch, a simple vanilla was terrific with burnt sugar notes. I had a rose petal one, which I knew I wouldn’t like but it was recommended by a woman there, Spanish or Italian or something, and as someone who gives a lot of advice, I sort of felt I had to take it. I’m still not a huge fan of rose flavor, but it was probably the most I’ve ever liked any thing rose flavored. By the way, tuna is not tuna ice cream—it’s prickly pear.

Zapotec foot bowls, in the museum.





One of the things I most wanted to see in Oaxaca was a single hallway in the markets just south of the Zocalo, the main square, lined with meat vendors and blazing charcoal grills. Yet when I got there, it was frightening and overwhelming, a Dickensian vision of bloody carnage and belching inferno, vendors swirling around me telling me what to buy (onions from him! tortillas from her! drinks from him!) as I could barely keep track of it all. Oaxaca’s market wasn’t magical, as the equally frantic Grand Bazaar in Istanbul had been, it was oppressive, a maddening hive of activity and din.

In another couple of hours I knew why I was having such a reaction: I was coming down with the cold two of my family had already had, coming down with it fast and hard, and my senses were already closing up shop in anticipation. The next day one son and I barely went out, and I was faced with the prospect of spending my entire time in Oaxaca in a hotel room as deprived of my customary diversions as a jail cell, while the very idea of spicy Mexican food turned me slightly green. To add to the postmodern preposterousness of my situation, one of the people whose Oaxacan recommendations I had followed, Rick Bayless, was tweeting from within a mile or two all the things I should be doing, as he lived in social media a Martha Stewartish vision of the celebrity’s glamour-filled, perfect in every way visit to Mexico:

Seeing the families turn out in the zocalo, the square, for Christmas Eve had been one of the goals of the trip— but we’d have been courting pneumonia to be out that night. Instead we found the only subtitled movie in town— El Hobbit— and plopped into chairs for three hours with big soft drinks on Christmas Eve, as if we were the stars of a Family Channel holiday special called “The Most American Christmas In Mexico Ever.” For dinner I ate a prefab ham sandwich at the movie theater. It was great.

The zocalo, facing the Cathedral of Oaxaca.

And happily, that and 12 hours of sleep seemed to break it. I’m still snuffling— I can’t put out my next podcast until my nose and throat clear enough to record the narration— but energy and interest began to return on Christmas Day and stayed with us for the remaining week of the trip. By the end, Oaxaca had gone from a fate I was cursing to a place I was halfway in love with. The first day back in Chicago, I regretted not being able to wander down the street to a tent hawking tacos al pastor. It seemed so quiet, having to have actual buildings for restaurants, after Oaxaca where they sprout between cracks in every sidewalk.

Before I got sick, we managed to see the Noche de Rabanos, carvings from locally grown radishes which line all four sides of the Zocalo, which are displayed on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve.



Anyway, despite losing a day and a half in the middle to the cold, and operating at half speed for a few days after that, we saw our way to a lot of really enjoyable food in Oaxaca, a town of about 400,000 which sprawls over the valleys and hillsides a couple of hours inland from the southernmost side of Mexico as it curves toward central America. Booking late, we couldn’t find anything in the central area, and wound up with a condo in a hotel complex up on 190, the Pan-American Highway, in an industrial/residential district of no particular loveliness. But in a lot of ways that was good; instead of being in an American B&B bubble in town, we took the Mexican buses (about 50 cents) into town and got to see things like the Sunday used car market— where everybody with a used car lines up along 190 and, of course, taco tents sprout everywhere.

The Mexican buses alone were worth the opportunity to take— they’re a whole community unto themselves, the expression of the driver’s personality, decorated up in various fashions, often with a buddy riding along to call out the stops and occasionally picking up vendors demoing the latest release by local musicians or selling trinkets. Other than the fact that they’re built for people on average a foot shorter than me, they were always interesting to ride.

We’re all riding on a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus. This was actually a tour bus to Monte Alban, not a city bus, but you get the idea.

The Best Tacos in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is so fecund with itinerant taco stands that you could spend a decade here and not sample them all— on the way back from Monte Alban, we saw an entire taco row we’d never had a glimpse of until then, which had the best-smelling rotisserie chicken of the trip. Another time! The point of taco-hunting, I think, is less to look for some internet recommendation of the very best in town, than to have a sense of how to taco-shop. Look for places where things are being freshly made in front of you, like tacos al pastor being sliced off the cone, or carne asada sizzling on the grill. Up on 190, this friendly place made very good pastor:

Cafeteria Los Dos Angeles, Oaxaca


Taqueria El Grillito, alas, did not grillito.

but another fooled us with the cone sitting out, but the meat being cooked on a griddle. Even there, though, we found something kind of interesting, tacos de papas— what would potato tacos with meat turn out to be? The answer was great drunk food, a baked potato finished on the grill and then topped with meat and cheese.


On the weekend, amid the used cars, a row of Michoacan-style carnitas and taco tents popped up. The carnitas were fantastic, pink as ham and maybe the best I’ve had, and the taco tent to its south not only served excellent carne asada but “enchilada” (which I think is just the same thing with a hotter seasoning). I’m not really recommending that you hop a bus out of town a couple of miles to try these specific places, but rather showing how high the level is, that almost anywhere you find a few tents making food, it has a good chance of being this good.

Carnitas de Michoacan.




But I promised the best tacos in Oaxaca and maybe I can fulfill that promise. Here’s my theory— food gets better with close competition. So if you were going to find a great taco place, it would likely be in an area dense with competing places, close to the heavy traffic of downtown. The epicenter of tacodom, then, seemed likely to be a specific spot just south of Trujano on the Periferico road that half-circles the central district, a 30s-Shanghai-like warren of stalls next to the enormous Abastos farmer/flea/fenced goods market and right where both the buses and the ride-share taxis all come together in the most harrowing clusterfark of traffic I’ve ever seen. Naturally, my older son and I took off one night to explore it.

Working the comal at Taqueria Los Cuates.

The taco stands here are more permanent, often cramming into a tiny space both a pastor cone and a metal comal, sort of like a convex wok, on which different kinds of meat will be sizzling. One guy operates the comal, another the pastor cone, slicing off meat and then flicking off a slice of pineapple from the top onto the tortilla held a few feet below. Tacos here are small and dirt cheap— two or three pesos, which is 15 or 20 cents each, though like sliders, you’d probably order a bunch at once, meaning a full dinner could run to as much as $1.50. At the first we tried pastor and tasajo, which is chopped beef (but pretty much has the texture of hamburger):

Our first stop— which part of the sign is the name? I’m not sure.

It was very good, but then we reached the next, Taqueria los Cuates. This time I ordered cecina, marinated pork. The pastor was letter perfect, crispy and with a citrusy tinge, but even better was the cecina, cooked with bits of grilled onion which made it taste like a 30s-style hamburger. The meat was flavorful, the tacos, warmed on the center of the comal, were crispy with little toasted edges… this was truly, The Best Taco in Oaxaca that we would find that night, or ever. We tried other things that night, including an empanada from a very peasanty-feeling stall which was however just fair (we abandoned it after a few bites), but nothing would top Taqueria los Cuates, and a few days later, we’d swing by there for another round, just as good, as a pre-dinner amuse-bouche.

I liked the Achewood-like mascot.

Flicking the pineapple.


Empanadas on a comal.

Myles and I making notes on video before we forget what we liked.

A few more notes on low-end dining:


• We only tried Pollo a la Lena, grilled chicken once, on Christmas Day, and encountered an odd situation where they didn’t want to sell us any of the chicken because they were already out of tortillas. At that point I’d be giving the stuff away rather than waste it, but we eventually succeeded at talking them into charging us the full price without giving us any tortillas. Victory! It was perfectly fine, but you’d have to take another trip to try more chicken places to get a sense of what makes for the best.

• There was a Tacos Arabes place I saw, near the Abastos area, selling that doner-inspired precursor to pastor, but he must have taken the time after Christmas off, because it was closed every time after that, alas.

The Mercado de Benito Juarez/Mercado de 20 Noviembre


And what about that Dickensian meat hall I mentioned at the beginning? If you’re not out of sorts as I was, it’s a must-visit just for sheer chaos and atmosphere, as is the entire market complex just south of the Zocalo. There are actually two market buildings; the northernmost, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, is full of vendors of trinkets, sombreros, mezcal for tourists to take back, and so on, but it also sells a lot of retail foodstuffs, from chickens and fish to baked goods, the local quesillo cheese (which is a million times better than any Mexican cheese you can get here) and moles, and ladies selling chapulines, spicy fried grasshoppers.



The southernmost, the 20 de Noviembre, is full of restaurant stands serving comida (a homier sitdown lunch than taco stands), usually Oaxacan tamales, Sopa Azteca, that kind of thing. To be honest, although we had a nice meal or two there, after we had been to some of the other markets in the area the 20 de Noviembre seemed grimy and oppressive with both the restaurants and the vendors constantly hawking you (and some elaborate system of hoses bringing up foul odors from the nether regions of the building), and I’d recommend a much more relaxed experience at one like the Sanchez Pascuas organic market a few blocks north.

A pleasant comida of Oaxacan tamales and soup in the 20 de Noviembre market.


But there are two food stops in the first building, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, that you want to make. One is the aforementioned meat hall, which is somewhat separate and difficult to find from the inside, most easily found by looking for its separate entrance on the east side of the building. It’s an elemental food experience well worth having, though I was a bit disappointed that all the steak seemed to be thinly sliced and grilled to chewiness; I’d have loved a thicker cut cooked to medium rare. You order by the kilogram; we got one kilogram, 1/4 the balls of spicy chorizo, 3/4 steak, plus onions, salsas and tortillas, each ordered from and paid to a different person, in an atmosphere of complete frenzy where it seems hard to imagine anyone really collects all the money they’re due, but apparently they do.


La Chagüita.

The second is La Chagüita, an equally chaotic ice cream stand. Rick Bayless talked about this on The Feed but was vague about the precise location, and the rest of the internet is vaguer yet when not flat-out wrong (like Google Maps), so let me tell you the easiest way to find it: it is inside the Mercado Juarez, which has five main aisles, and the stalls in each are numbered something like 15, 115, 215, etc. La Chagüita is #27, so enter at the southeast corner, where the fresh fish are, and look for the first aisle, the two-digit numbers. Go straight north in that aisle and you’ll soon hit it (and other ice cream places).


Anyway, the reason that you want to do this is for the wildly exotic array of flavors of— what is it exactly? Sorbet? A slushy? I’m not sure, but it’s pretty great and the scene is highly entertaining. I ordered mango with chile and guanabana, which for some reason provoked hilarity from the staff, but I was happy as could be with my tangy, slushy choices.

That pretty much covers cheap eats; a post on fine-ish dining will follow. But I took two things away from taco hunting in Oaxaca— one, how good the street food is, but two, how good the Mexican food in Chicago is, in that I didn’t have things that made the food we have here seem a pale shadow of the real thing. Our batting average isn’t as high, but you can find things here that are about as good as most of the food we ate. Oaxaca is one of the great Mexican food cities, but in its own way, so is Chicago, don’t let anybody kid you. Well, except for the Mexican cheese.