Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions Rematch, Pt. 4: Faster, Cheaper, Tastier

Continued from Part 3 here, and be sure to read yesterday’s comments— some excellent ones in there including from our buddy David Hammond and one from an anonymous server who says I’m way underestimating how annoying foodies can be…

MICHAEL GEBERT: So we ended yesterday talking about Black Dog Gelato, which I’ll happily endorse if you don’t buy Stephanie Izard’s endorsement, and the tendency of chefs in the media to follow what I used to call the Paradise Sauna Paradigm.  Which is, the media would ask a chef where they like to go eat when they’re off work, and the chef doesn’t want to give business and props to direct competition, so he picks some place that poses no threat.  Which somehow usually seemed to work out to be the late Paradise Sauna on Montrose for sushi.  (Hey, it was open late, and… well… who knows what else it may have offered.)  So yes, there is this paradoxical thing of people wanting info straight from the chefs, forget the media gatekeepers, they want that connection to the chef’s knowledge… even when they know they’re getting an answer that’s good politics for the chef.  (Paul Kahan says he loves to eat at Avec or Big Star!)  But hey, there may be a rational calculation there on the part of readers that even a calculated answer is closer to the insider knowledge that everybody wants, than some publication’s “Ten Places You Must Eat Char Siu Now” listicle which is totally generated out of some 20-year-old intern’s Googling.

Anyway, that’s my roundabout way of getting out of the fine dining sphere and into talking about more casual food, not that much of our talk about fine dining hasn’t been about how it’s becoming increasingly casualized.  How do you feel about the under $20-a-plate scene in the last year?  For me, one big story was that— in a cosmic joke on Kevin Pang, who had just stopped doing his video segments about them— Chicago finally became a pretty good burger town.  I wasn’t that wild about the chains that opened, from Five Guys to Epic Burger (though Meatheads out in mallburbia is actually quite good), but of course Edzo’s was an instant classic, this year’s Hot Doug’s, and I was really impressed by DMK Burger Bar, too, for its (successful) use of (admittedly expensive) artisanal meats.  And speaking of Hot Doug’s, creative sausages seem to be everywhere, too.  So how do you feel about the casual scene?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: But doesn’t Black Dog use corn syrup in their ice cream? Hahaha….foodies.

Do people know they’re getting politically correct answers from chefs? I mean they’re probably all convinced that all chefs do is drink Old Style, eat at Avec, and get the occasional burrito from Taco Burrito Palace #2. Actually, that’s a pretty good picture. Except when they’re on vacation, chefs don’t eat out much because they’re so hard at work late night that everything is closed by the time they get off.

Wait, you were impressed by DMK burger bar? This is a set-up, right? I mean I’m sort of reluctant to say any more than I did in my column because I don’t want Michael Kornick to think I have some weird vendetta. Because, I don’t. But, bottom line is I don’t like the flour top bun. It’s dusty and has a weird mouth feel. In many cases I think the toppings take away or overwhelm the burgers. I didn’t think you could taste the difference in meat or that the patties were made with “love”.

I mean I thought Epic burger – South Loop made a more satisfying a burger (cooked well-done!). Neither excited me anyway. I loved the fries at DMK and the drinks were good. My biggest problem I guess is that Kornick’s MK in the early days was rock solid, and I see DMK as a dilution of the brand. I don’t feel that way about Big Star where Kahan et al have created maybe the best taqueria in town or Xoco, definitely the best whatever it is, hot chocolate stand/torta joint, in town. If Kornick had created Edzo’s, now we’re talkin. I mean I loved M Burger too. They got the bun and the secret sauce right and they make a righteous strawberry shake. Franks and Dawgs is great. All they need is Doug Sohn and they’d have lines down the street.

I was on the fence about Saigon Sisters French market outpost, but I love their lunchtime bao and banh mi at the new spot. Their dinner probably doesn’t fall in to the casual price range, but I’m really happy with what they’ve done. I’d like their Pho to be a little more beefy, but it’s the best we have in the West Loop.

I liked Del Seoul. I think they got the “Korean” taco right for the most part – the seasoning on the meat was righteous, even if the tortillas were just aight.

Davanti Enoteca which is pretty much all reasonably priced small plates was the big surprise of the year. I’ve always liked Mia Francesca and I respect what Scott Harris does, but it is what it is, a place to get really consistent Italian standards and good service, i.e. Lettuce Entertain You like chain level food. Davanti has real personality and a nice convivial neighborhood vibe and really excellent food. If there’s any complaint, it’s that all the poached or fried eggs garnishing the plate will raise your cholesterol to dangerous levels, but that’s pretty much par for dining out anywhere.

I Dream of Falafel is very good and the endless pickled toppings are nice. I’m still waiting for an awesome cheap take-out fast casual Indian spot. Delhi 6 was on the right path, but they closed up faster than a chef who’s been asked about his worst dining experiences of the year.

GEBERT: I kid you not, you need to get back to DMK, maybe they didn’t have their act down yet when you went.  It’s one of the few places where I felt like I could really taste the difference of using better meat— Bad Apple is another, the New York-sourced beef is great but I’ve never found a topping combination on the menu that I really liked at Bad Apple, where the first burger on the list, at least, at DMK, the one with fried onions and blue cheese, was dead on and not over the top.  (I also like that in both cases, the burger patty isn’t grotesquely huge.) That said, I must admit that I don’t entirely understand the Kuma’s-inspired dress-it-up-like-a-Vegas-stripper mentality toward burgers, or even toward dogs.  A sausage with some mustard on it, or a burger with mustard pickle and onion, are pretty much perfect things, time-tested and true; if you’re going to add all kinds of stuff, you really need to make sure you still deliver on the primal snap of the grilled sausage and the bite of mustard and onion on ground meat.  I can’t exactly diss Franks and Dawgs considering I’ve been there twice in the last three weeks, but too many of those creations seem so far from the basic, root-level delights of a grilled sausage, so gilded with things that are sweet or vegetably or whatever that isn’t mustard and onion.  (Maybe I just need to ask them to actually char mine.)  My feeling about gussied-up burgers and dogs is, first, do no harm to the time-tested paradigm of the foodstuff.

Big Star, Big Star… okay, I can understand liking Big Star as a whole package, beer, taco, hipsters going downscale in a rehabbed Phillips 66 with vinyl on the turntable, hot neighborhood location.  But as far as calling it the best taqueria in town— I just think settling on one tidy-white place is missing the whole point of Mexican in Chicago, which is that there’s never an end to it, there’s always another place that holds out the promise of greasy, funky discovery.  Most will be bad or at least totally ordinary, but then somebody finds a Birrieria Zaragoza or Cemitas Pueblas and, wow.  Columbus discovers another new world.  That chase is what it’s about, not one moderately solid (it has its good points) place.

That said, Mexican is both the most tantalizing and the most frustrating cuisine in town.  I mean, every fine restaurant in town is full of Mexicans, right?  How ironic is it that in one of the Key Ingredients I’ve been doing for the Reader, the chef at Blackbird didn’t know how to cook bull’s testicles, so he asked his prep guys and dishwashers and they all did?  Every restaurant has two entirely different sets of institutional knowledge inside it, which probably barely communicate with each other.  Yet somehow, that exposure to fine dining and the world so rarely seems to translate into a bigger commitment to excellence and creativity in Mexican restaurants.  Only Bayless managed to spawn some proteges who could take Mexican to a higher level, meanwhile, all over town the same shortcuts— precook meat before making steak tacos, cook pastor meat in a pan rather than on a cone, etc.— continue to hold Mexican joints back.  Isn’t there one guy making $2 steak tacos who realizes he could make $3 steak tacos for gringos with real charcoal and the same meat cooked to order?  They’re paying it at Big Star…

I haven’t been to Saigon Sisters’ restaurant, only their French Market stand; I thought the banh mi I had there was fine, but Nhu Lan’s easily beat it.  Anyway, as I said in this space last year and also in Eater last week, to me one of the most interesting things on our food scene to me is that we’re getting a younger generation of Asian-Americans who are opening up fun, chic, cartoony, whatever new concepts that break with the traditional Asian restaurant mold which is so tired and shabby-genteel.  Ming Hin or Sweet Station may be a little tamer foodwise, a little more gringo-friendly in their flavors, but only a little, and the atmosphere is fun and vibrant.  And as people dig into the menus, they’re finding more stuff that’s new and good— I really liked the corn and pork cake at Ming Hin, Rob Gardner recently cited the beef brisket and rice noodle rolls in a pot, and so on.

I hope that outlook and youthful energy will spread to other ethnic cuisines— Indian badly needs to be shaken out of the shabby-genteel buffet mode, too, and there’s at least one kabab/kati roll place that’s kind of a start, J.K. Kabab House.  But there ought to be ten wild and crazy Bollywood joints on Devon packed on Friday nights.  Korean has potential, too, that’s a cuisine that really needs to break out of its shuttered, Howard Hughes-private dining paradigm and is starting to with the Korean taco thing (though none of the explicit attempts at that have impressed me that much, not even Ruxbin’s).  The one cuisine that’s kind of a disappointment is the one that, like Mexican, I would have called one of our local glories five years ago— Thai.  Every new Thai place seems to be Ameri-Thai mixed with mid-level sushi.  If anybody has opened a place serving authentic Thai food since Sticky Rice or TAC, the word hasn’t reached the gringo foodie community.  So for now we just have to keep exploring the menus at the ones we know (I’ve been big on Aroy this year), and keep an eye out for better— I had a couple of new and interesting things at a place called Kan Pou… but it closed.  And became a sushi joint.

What else are you digging in to when you don’t want to drop the big wad on dinner?

NAGRANT: Along the lines of what you’ve said about the thrill of taqueria discoveries, the same pretty much applies for Chinatown. I continued to pretend to be an honorary Jew on Christmas Eve and hung out at Triple Crown on Wentworth this year. I’d never been. While I’ve had dim sum all over the place, Furama, Shui Wah, Phoenix, etc, and I thought Shui Wah was the General Tso’s toes (that’s Chinese for bee’s knee’s if you don’t know), it turns out that Triple Crown is just as good or better. Though, no one has better salt and pepper squid in all of Chicagoland than Shui Wah – you can book it. The best part is that Triple Crown serves dim sum everyday until 2 a.m. Also, they had one of the best and freshest stir fried crabs I’ve had anywhere. So, while I’ve cased most of the bakeries and most of the dim sum, I’m thinking there are still probably like ten or so places in Chinatown with amazing food I haven’t tried yet.

I also will never give up the hunt for the next great taqueria. But, maybe you need to go back to Big Star like I need to go back to DMK. In the beginning I felt as you did. But, that’s all changed. Also, make no mistake, this is not about Big Star being a whitey taqueria. In fact, despite the hipster flavoring, I’d ask is it really a whitey taqueria? Other than Justin Large, that whole kitchen is pretty much manned by Latinos and masa-patting tortilla ladies. The paint job and the language on the signs is all very Spanish. You could argue it’s a gentrified parody, but while the dining room is what it is, the kitchen is pretty authentic.

My last three visits have been extraordinary. Big star is consistently nailing seasoning, texture, and balance of flavor. You won’t find braised pineapple or charred scallion bits or any of Big Star’s gourmet touches at most other places. Likewise, very few places have a better tortilla or house salsa. Though, I might mention La Lagartija has nice house salsas and the best shrimp taco in Chicago. And finally, Big Star is using cuts, read pork belly, that few are. Also, they could probably make the tacos a little bigger and charge $4 bucks a piece, but they don’t, so the price is right on.

Yes, Cemitas Puebla makes the best taco arabe. Yes, Zaragoza makes the best birria (or not – last week I thought it was Reyes de Ocotlan in Pilsen again) and yes Asadero makes the best carne asada etc…but Big Star has taken it to another level generally across the board without pandering or gouging. None is more consistent or inspired across the board.

As for Thai, I thought I was satisfied with the local options until I ate at Lotus of Siam in Vegas. It’s no longer a secret thanks to Jonathan Gold opening the flood waters way back when. In fact, our fearless Hungry Hound, Steve Dolinsky’s ubiquitous 8 x 10 glossy was staring me down as I tossed back some Northern Thai sausage. That being said, every dish at LOS that’s available on the secret menu at say Spoon is better at LOS. Then there are some dishes including this stir fried shell on shrimp dish with chilis, whereby the shells tasted like a deep fried potato chip that aren’ available anywhere in Chicago. Add in one of the best Riesling lists I’ve seen at any restaurant 5 star or otherwise and, well, we have a lot of work ahead of us here.

Better than that was Raku, maybe the only place worthy of being called an izakaya in America. If God issued a proclamation declaring Lance Armstrong clear of all the steroid allegations, I still wouldn’t be as inspired by him as I was a grilled bacon-wrapped cherry tomato at Raku. Of course, once again this was a strong reminder that our own neo-izakaya movement is pretty lame at this moment – though I really thought Masu was promising. I know you found that “real” place or whatever, but it seemed like you were still lukewarm.

GEBERT: Well, I bucked Catholic tradition and had Thai food for Christmas Eve from Spoon, and it was still pretty great. And yeah, the izakaya I went to in Mt. Prospect, Sankyu (which Mike Sula recently wrote about as well) was real in the sense of a good family restaurant, not an exactingly great restaurant. Which points to the quandary with these small ethnic places— Sankyu was more real and a couple of times really good, but it’s obviously not at the same executional level as Chizakaya, which is the izakaya, sorta, in Chicago hipsterville, and whose chefs came from the likes of Trotter’s and L2O— and which is sometimes impressive and sometimes silly, and often no more Japanese than The Purple Pig is.  I guess all we can do is go to both, depending on what we want at any given time, refinement or funk.  We’re lucky to live in a place where there is such finely-honed skill at work in kitchens… and also where you can run away from it and have a really great meal where the menu is written with magic marker on a take out bag and stuck to the bulletproof glass between you and the cash register.

TOMORROW: We round up every other subject that you could possibly be interested in

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