Sky Full of Bacon

My 0% of the Maxim Food Awards

One of the amusingly fluky things that happened right after I started doing all this was that I got caught in an internet-wide sweep of freelance writers by Maxim magazine, looking for people to nominate things for the 2008 Maxim Food Awards. I suggested 14 possible candidates, of which they used precisely one (Khan BBQ). Whether or not I made good money at this depends on whether you judge it by the dollars per word published (pretty damn nice) or the hours spent generating the other 13 unused ideas (suddenly not so hot).

They asked again in 2009, and I offered suggestions in two categories they said they were looking for. One was, “Places you should eat before you die,” which I took to mean extraordinary culinary experiences. The other was, “Places to eat before they die,” which means places full of history and culture and flavor. I suggested five of each. Their cover touts 77 total. They used… zero of mine. (Actually at least one is mentioned in the magazine; some guy named Achatz writes about Schwa.)

Since they’re not using them, I thought you might be interested to see what I submitted. If you want, you can compare to what they actually published, and see if you think they really did give their readers the hyper-edgy, super-authentic culinary insight promised.

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Places to eat at before you die:

1) Schwa, Chicago

Like an indie band that refuses to sell out to a big label, Schwa serves some of the most fearsomely accomplished haute cuisine in Chicago from a fixed-up storefront where the cooks not only serve as waitstaff but the chef himself answers the phone (when you can get through). Also like an indie band, they broke up in a drug-fueled haze once, but back together and apparently cleaned up, they’re dishing up their greatest hits like the blatantly sexual quail egg ravioli alongside new material like pad thai made with velvety slivers of jellyfish.

2) Hot Doug’s, Chicago

There are ten million average hot dog stands in Chicago and then there is one and only one Hot Doug’s, the “encased-meat emporium” where whatever sausage Doug Sohn can get his hands is done up however he feels like it. The standard Vienna Beef char dog stands side by side with the likes of wild boar, alligator and elk sausage topped with truffle creme fraiche, bleu cheese, or even foie gras– Doug was the only actual perp busted under Chicago’s short-lived foie gras ban. Some are great, others not so great, but it’s always worth checking to see what he’s concocted this week (and you can always fall back on the thuringer with caramelized onion and brown mustard, which cognoscenti know is one of the best things to eat in Chicago).

3) Apple fritter at Old-Fashioned Donuts, Chicago

A hundred blocks south of the Michigan Avenue tourists see, in the black Roseland neighborhood, a donut shop that looks like nothing turns out catcher’s-mitt-sized fritters so unspeakably indulgent, so addictive in their perfect fried sugariness, that they can only be the product of the same CIA plot that created crack cocaine.

4) Cemitas Atomica at Cemitas Puebla, Chicago

Mexican sandwiches are mostly gutbombs, and God knows the fact that this one contains ham, pork, AND fried breaded steak suggests that the name Atomica was chosen with its fallout in mind. But El Dios is in the details and the specially baked cemitas roll, the Pueblan cheese imported by the owners from their hometown, the hand-roasted chipotle, the schmear of avocado and the medicinal hint of the papalo herb make this one a superbly balanced sandwich that will light your lunch up without a prolonged half-life.

5) Arnold’s, Nashville

Southern “meat and threes” cafeterias are often more about meat and dessert than the soggy vegetables served alongside. But the meats at Arnold’s, even the ham and the garlic-studded roast beef, take second place to the Bordeaux-like profundity of the pot likker in which the turnip greens stew, which proves that vegetables can be great art.

Places to eat at before THEY die:

1) Burt’s Place, Morton Grove, Illinois

Imagine a pizza place tucked on a side street in an obscure suburb, which nevertheless is so busy that you have to call ahead to reserve your dough and find out what time you’ll be expected to be there. Oh and by the way, the phone number is unlisted. But Burt’s isn’t some insane too-hip-for-you joint, it’s just that Burt has started and sold half a dozen pizza places, and now he’s 70+, and in his place he does it his way, and if you don’t like it, or if he gets any more customers, he may just up and retire. The reward for doing it his way, besides basking in his stoner-grandpa presence, is an impeccably balanced and brightly-flavored pan pizza, not thin but not the phone-book-thick deep dish you find all over Chicago either.

2) Klas, Cicero, Illinois

Al Capone’s name is to Chicago joints what “George Washington Slept Here” used to be to New England country inns. And most of the time, well, the connection is probably exaggerated at best. One of the few surviving places that really can claim a Capone connection is this Czech cuckoo-clock of a restaurant in what was long a Mob-run suburb, though the decor suggests Castle Dracula as much as Roaring Twenties. All the same, go upstairs and you can still see the back room where Al would play gin rummy with owner Adolph Klas while “hostesses” entertained the boys in the private alcoves.

3) Hollyhock Hill, Indianapolis

“Like eating at Grandma’s” is not necessarily the compliment that people think it is. But this place, which started in the 1920s as a country inn and is now well within the suburbs of Indy, shows just what simple but spot-on cooking chops midwestern grandmas had back in the 20s– perfectly crisp and golden pan-fried chicken, flaky hot rolls, iceberg lettuce with old school vinegary-sweet dressing, and ice cream with your choice of toppings to end every meal. There’s no irony to the retro here, just pure rib-sticking midwestern hospitality.

4) Calumet Fisheries, Chicago

When steel mills dotted the south side of Chicago, every bend in the river had a shrimp joint to serve working men a fried lunch that went well with a beer or three. The mills are gone and so are most of the fish shacks, but one of the few survivors sits in the shadow of the bridge the Blues Brothers jumped, frying shrimp and smelts and best of all, smoking chubs and other fish in its riverside smokehouse.

5) Taylor Cafe, Taylor, Texas

When Bobby Mueller of the legendary Louie Mueller’s passed away last year, it made his rival in this tiny town with more great barbecue joints than people, Vencil Mares, that much more of a living legend. At 83, Vencil still wrestles his briskets into his smoker himself, though most of his day is spent holding court in his bar/cafe, telling anybody who stops by about the cottonpickers’ brawls he used to break up with his fists or how he integrated his place by taking out one of the two jukeboxes and forcing blacks and whites to listen to each others’ music. The barbecue’s pretty darn good, but an afternoon listening to Vencil’s stories as the trains go by is the real treat.

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