Sky Full of Bacon

I’m not saying the only consolation of driving 14+ hours to my hometown of Wichita and spending the entire week in 100+ degree weather is the food along the way. No, wait, I pretty much am saying that, at least since we exhausted the list (two items long) of tourist attractions I wanted to see last year. We managed to find another excellent one this year, or rather my sister-in-law did. But otherwise, family aside, the only thing to do was eat.

I wanted to visit L.C.’s BBQ in Kansas City again for dinner; there’s always a danger with barbecue of being wowed by one, irreproducible experience. As it turned out, it wasn’t as good as last year, but in ways that paradoxically confirmed its superiority. Huh? What am I smoking? Well, the thing with barbecue is, it’s always variable. And this year compared to last, the variation was that the burnt ends, luscious little meat and smoke nuggets, weren’t as done as last year, and hence were a little fatty and chewy. But you could tell what they’d be in another hour or two— and meanwhile the ribs, which hadn’t stood out last year, were terrific. A second visit, even though not perfect, convinced me that L.C.’s remains in the front rank of pit barbecue joints, and in contrast to so many new Kansas City places popping up, is still gritty and real enough to treat my kids to a real-life episode of Cops as we pulled up.

My original goal upon reaching Wichita the next morning was to eat at an old favorite, Takhoma Burger, which had apparently reopened in a former Tiki Dancing bar just south of downtown on the somewhat sketchy strip of South Broadway mainly familiar to me, as I was growing up, from news reports of massage parlors being raided. (My friend Scott once called up the Tiki Dancing place to ask what Tiki Dancing was. He was told he’d have to come in to find out which, as he was 16 at the time, was not possible.) Alas, it was no more, so a quick call to my mom produced the alternate suggestion of a Walt’s on Tyler.

Ersatz diners in Wichita are so common that the real old school diners feel compelled to look like the ersatz diners. The difference is, no real diner would have billboards for its “Wok’n’Roll Bowls,” as the annoying Spangles chain does.

I say “a Walt’s” because various places called Walt’s, of varying quality, have popped up around town over the years, started by different descendants of the original Walt. This one, though, is in a gleaming diner building imported from the east coast (I couldn’t tell if it had been bought new or well-used already) and the loosely-packed fresh-meat burger and fresh-cut fries were textbook perfect, every beefy thing you want a diner burger to be and rarely find in Chicago. I tweeted that it was one of the 10 best burgers in America, perhaps an enthusiastic exaggeration, but certainly not an absurd claim.

Presumably the oldest surviving hamburger chain in Wichita is the Kings-X chain; Jimmie King was an original White Castle franchisee in Wichita (where the chain started) and went out on his own some years later. Kings-X was always a slightly downmarket but good enough family restaurant chain with classic old school burgers with grilled onions. When a yuppie area on the east side took off, the younger generation built a new restaurant called Jimmie’s Diner which successfully managed to draw yuppies for, again, a real diner’s imitation of an imitation diner.

We stopped there for lunch after a matinee of Captain America. The burger was not up to Walt’s, though still better than 98% of Chicago family restaurant burgers, I’m sure. The odd thing about it, though, was that it tasted exactly like a Five Guys burger. Did Kings-X burger’s always taste like that, even before Five Guys existed, or are they imitating that chain (which has reached Wichita) instead of their own heritage? I don’t know, but it was strange.

Another old chain, food’s decent enough but I always loved the logo. I grabbed an excellent cherry limeade here.

My last burger stop was on the near West side, in what you might call the hippie-biker-artist part of town. T.J.’s had come highly recommended over the years, and it did not disappoint. The patty is bigger than a canonical 30s style thin patty, but I was impressed that they nevertheless managed to get a Schoop’s-like outer crust on it without murdering the inside. I ordered a chili burger just to have something different, and the chili was old-school beanless with some nice heat, again bridging tradition with modernity.

To be honest, though, I have to admit by this time I was pretty worn out by burgers, fries, black and white checkerboard tile, jukeboxes, pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at the counter, etc. One thing I noticed driving around town this year was that there are lots of new barbecue places. Two Brothers is the one we tried (my in-laws ordered takeout one night) and it’s perfectly solid Kansas City-style BBQ, but I wonder about all these other places. Maybe next time that will be my quest– to see if Wichita can finally compete with Kansas City as a BBQ destination, too.

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More interesting to me this time, though, was that Asian food has exploded in Wichita. Much of it, admittedly, is pure fakery, like a bunch of new Mongolian barbecue places. But a Chowhound thread pointed me to a place that was supposed to be a Thai-Lao Cafe— like the Malaysian restaurant I ate in last year, something we can’t get in Chicago. And like that Malaysian restaurant, located in a former pancake house where my sisters used to waitress, the Lao restaurant was located in a pretty ironically nostalgic location, a one-time Davy Crockett-themed arcade on the south side:

We went inside and the atmosphere was something between a VFW hall and the place the GI’s would have gone for R&R in Full Metal Jacket, a sort of tropical disco feel with the Lao extended family hanging out watching Dancing With the Stars or something at a long table littered with beer cans:

The menu looked straight Thai to me and I had to work my way through the entire family in search of Lao dishes. The son called Mom over, Mom barely spoke English and seemed unsympathetic to my desires, Dad finally came over and was much more amiable about helping me pick out things that he claimed were at least a little more like Lao dishes, though he said they didn’t have many of the Lao ingredients on hand. When we had made a decent list, he reached under the counter, and came back up with a dusty 1980s cash register, which he plugged into the plug next to the coffee maker to ring me up. Not a lot of food traffic, I thought, which made his greeting query (“You call for pickup?” even more curious. But no more curious than a (painfully) white family, 9-year-old son included, sitting there at the Phnom Penh disco waiting for takeout must have seemed to the occasional Thai or Lao person wandering in; pretty sure they’re not getting a lot of traffic from the east side of Wichita. It was pretty good authentic Thai, in the ballpark of our best places here, but if there was anything Lao about it, I wouldn’t know.

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But I said we hung out with eagles. My sister-in-law found this privately run bird sanctuary west of town; with 100 degree weather the guy didn’t want to exercise the birds during the day, but he said if we came out early in the morning, he’d give us the tour. So we saw and interacted with hawks, kites, falcons, and…

He says he has the only bald eagle tame enough that you can pose for pictures with it. I’m always awestruck when I see a bald eagle in the flesh; it’s like seeing a president in person.

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My old LTHForum colleague Aaron Deacon suggested Brobeck’s as another possible Kansas City BBQ destination, and being located right off 435 on our way to Iowa and Chicago, we decided to give it a try, even if it was white suburban barbecue in a strip mall.

It’s really good white suburban strip mall barbecue, though— like Smoque, getting about the most you can out of a Southern Pride. Burnt ends were terrific, ribs and smoked sausage quite good, and the sample of ham salad offered at the start worth a lunch trip (well, not from Chicago maybe, but from the KC area, sure). One thing that amused me: besides their own sauces, they offered dispensers of other popular sauce brands like K.C. Masterpiece and Gates’. To me that’s Coke offering you a shot of Pepsi to put in your Coke, but I guess these sauces have such a following that it makes sense in Kansas City.

Noticeably missing, though: Arthur Bryant’s.

Finally, we stopped over in Iowa City. Being a college town, Iowa City’s culinary scene seems dominated by pizza, and the Yelp reviews for any of them are not spectacularly good, but the best of the bunch seemed to be an old place called Pagliai’s.

Last year we ate pizza in the Quad Cities area; this, though another hour further from Chicago, seemed much closer to a Chicago pizza, the same rolled-out crust you see around town, a thin tomatoey sauce like D’Agostino’s, and where the Quad Cities pizza’s idea of sausage was crumbly breakfast sausage-style, as it is through much of the midwest, this had nice lumps of pretty good Italian sausage. A very decent pizza— and at least it wasn’t another damn hamburger.

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The so-called aquarium smoker— I say so-called because the main manufacturer, Avenue Metal, doesn’t actually call them that, and the term was probably invented by Chowhounders/future LTHers in this thread— has seemed a bit of an endangered species to barbecue-minded foodies, facing the double threat of local restrictions on open flame and smoke smell, and the fact that gas-fired cookers with smoke boxes are easier (and, in the best hands, can produce excellent barbecue, as at Smoque).

So there was some excitement when the proprietor of a new spot, Smoke Signals, sent out press releases announcing the best BBQ in the universe or something, and featured a glass pit prominently in the middle of his shop. (I believe it is an Avenue Metal-made pit; I learned you could spot theirs by the design quirk of the hexagonally-rounded corners.) So far reports don’t seem to suggest that his ‘cue lives up to his claims, but you know, give him six months or a year, who knows? I’m glad to see someone trying, anyway.

The real news is, his isn’t the only place with a new glass pit in town.

I’m kind of surprised no one’s spotted Mary Lee’s Smokehouse, because it’s in a fairly high-profile location— on Cermak just east of Chinatown, opposite Cafe Luciano’s. And the signage isn’t shy. I’ve hit it twice now, and if it’s not a great barbecue place yet, it clearly is modeling itself on the places that do it best, and doing an entirely creditable job by the classics:

My sons and I ate a combo of rib tips and links at Ping Tom park on a nice day and enjoyed the light but definite smoke flavor and the spicy hot link just fine. There are a couple of other wrinkles to Mary Lee’s that are worth checking out, though I haven’t managed to have them yet due to being there at the wrong times. One is that they cook steak in the smoker— has anyone done that before? They sell a ribeye steak, which you can have either off the regular grill, or the smoker. Needless to say, I think you’d be a fool to do anything but have it off the smoker; alas, the second time I went, they were sold out from the night before, so I have yet to try that, or the chicken which the menu seems proud of.

I also knew I’d be eating rewarmed barbecue that day, my fault for hitting a bbq joint at noon sharp, but having failed in my quest for steak, I figured rewarmed tips and links was still better than most other things close by. (I wasn’t thinking about Chinatown.) And I discovered something else about tips and links that have been cooked in the same smoker as steaks… they taste like steak! A definite beef-juices-hitting-hot-coals flavor coated the porky pork. Feel free to think that that’s either kind of cool or gross, I can’t decide myself. But I finished them. Sauce was very good in the typical sweet-spicy Chicago style; note that if you follow the standard LTHForum advice to order sauce on the side (which I mostly agree with), they’ll charge you something like $1.50 for a sauce container. I let it slide the second time and just let them dunk everything in the sauce.

So check out Mary Lee’s, timing your visit as to how much you want your pork to taste like beef, I guess. I’ll be back for pig-tasting steak one of these days.

Mary Lee’s Smokehouse
2 E Cermak
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 225-4544

Your barbecue zen moment:

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Not to bury the lede, but I’ve been visiting a lot of barbecue places lately… because I’m finally working on a new Sky Full of Bacon video podcast. I don’t want to hear any guff about how long it’s been since the last official one, I’ve made well over two hours’ worth of Key Ingredients in that time, but I promised a segment about barbecue long ago, going back to last summer when I shot interviews with a few well-known pitmasters for a Time Out Chicago print piece, which also yielded this short video. So I’ve been conducting other interviews and I think I will have some new insights into the history of Chicago’s own barbecue style by the time it’s done (whenever that will be).

Anyway, doing so I found myself deep on the south side, down where street names have three digits, and so I took the opportunity to finally try a couple of barbecue places that have been written about on LTHForum and elsewhere, but which I had never been to with favorites like Uncle John’s half as far away.

Exsenator’s in south suburban Markham looks more like small town America than south side Chicago. You expect a cozy cafe serving early bird specials to retirees from the outside, and it’s a bit jarring to find the usual intimidating bulletproof glass ordering system inside. But apart from the building, this is authentic Chicago barbecue with deep wood flavor. There’s just one thing I didn’t like about Exsenator’s, and it’s a big one if you forget the usual sauce-on-the-side advice. The sauce is the other thing that resembles a place where old folks would eat; it’s cloyingly sweet and completely devoid of any spice or complexity. It was like dunking your barbecue in applesauce. In this case, I’d tell them not just sauce on the side, but skip sauce entirely; the BBQ will be fine on its own.

Exsenator’s Ribs and Chicken
3349 W 159th St
Markham, IL 60428
(708) 333-1211

George’s Rib House’s notoriety among local barbecue fans is that George won’t cook with wood— he uses pure charcoal, because wood has worms, he says. So George’s BBQ doesn’t have a wood taste, it tastes like a backyard barbecue. But with these big meaty tips, cooked with care by a multi-person staff even on a quiet Saturday afternoon, you’re unlikely to be dissatisfied. Sometimes you feel like you’re eating around bone more than actually eating meat with rib tips, but not here. Good spicy sauce; fries were mushy, but maybe I just caught an off batch.

George’s Rib House
168 W 147th St
Harvey, IL 60426
(708) 331-9347

There will be more to come, I don’t want to give away the show yet, but you won’t go wrong this weekend hitting any of these three places as a new stop on the Chicago south side BBQ circuit.

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I was shocked today to learn that Bobby Mueller, one of the two Texas pitmasters profiled in my current video podcast, died over the weekend at the age of 69.  (Which was a good ten years older than he looked.)  Mueller was happy to let me dog his steps with a camera as he prepared his meats for lunch one morning in July, and though he was the quintessential taciturn Texan, when he answered a question, his answer was always thoughtful and to the point.  I hope my podcast serves as a fitting tribute to one of the great keepers of the BBQ traditions, and I wish his family and his son Wayne, who now takes over, the best in preserving this legendary BBQ temple for a new generation.

If you haven’t seen the podcast, click here.

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Let’s see how long it is before these two appear in the same article anywhere again.

A few months back I went to a dinner at Mercat a la Planxa, the celebrity-chef-spawned Spanish restaurant in the revived Blackstone Hotel, and came away convinced that it was the most authentic Spanish restaurant Chicago had seen by a country mile. Where most Spanish restaurants dabble in a sort of Spanish-American which is like Mexican-American was in the 60s, a stock set of dishes which you might or might not see in Spain, made “Spanish” by the use of certain spices identified as Spanish, food in Spain is actually often very simple and unseasoned, a matter of eating a spectacularly tasty pork skewer, a bunch of sauteed sea creatures you simply can’t get here, or a roasted pimiento de padron garnished with coarse salt. Trying to replicate that doesn’t mean taking Cisco meat and seasoning it from a big jar of “Spanish” spices, it means getting pork that actually tastes like pork. And needless to say, that’s a lot harder and more expensive.

Mercat is only about half or maybe 2/3 of the way there, but it’s far closer than any other restaurant I’ve eaten at in the US. The primary piece of evidence for that was the centerpiece of the meal, a roasted baby pig ($55 per person, several people required, large box of leftovers provided). The pig was indeed sourced from an Indiana farm where they’re raised naturally, and it had a clean, delicious flavor which needed no heavy sauce to hide any industrial-pig funkiness— or make it seem Spanish.

That said, I’m just not the sort who likes to make an entire meal of one hunk of meat, and I vaguely regretted that we only got to dabble in the rest of the menu, because the best thing we had wasn’t the pig at all— it was a simple plate of white beans, deep with porky jamony flavor, that came on the side. Simple and profound. So I have been eager to get back and try some of the regular dishes on the menu.

My chance came when Santander announced an LTHForum event at the downstairs bar at Mercat. Said “event” proving to consist of three of us standing there, enjoying a first-rate caipirinha from the Brazilian bartender Ricardo, and sampling the tapas menu in three waves.

The first wave included pimientos de padron— rather, an acceptable-but-no-more imitation of them with some local pepper; tocino con cidra, slow-cooked pork belly served with foam of cider and truffle, which was more silly than tasty, and patatas bravas, which came out looking disturbingly like the fake-food version at the late, lamentable Del Toro, six cones of potato topped with a red pepper sauce. They tasted better than Del Toro’s Potato Poppers, but still, simpler, cheaper and better could be had at several places within a reasonable distance. None of this suggested that Mercat was a stellar Spanish spot.

The second wave was far more successful than the first, and restored Mercat’s position in my mind. Squid ink pasta, rabbit agnolotti, and grilled morcilla sausage were all impressively delicate and tasty, and a warm salad of fava and white beans, tossed with some herbs and jamon serrano, was magnificent in its simplicity— interesting, that the two most awe-inspiring dishes of my two meals were both basically beans and ham. We concluded with two desserts— a peach cobbler-y thing with Pop Rocks (the trend du jour, I guess) and some tiny salty balls (RIP Isaac) of melon, which wasn’t bad, though only the second best peach cobbler of my week, and a really nice, very arty row of six little chocolate balls, in a rosemary-flavored sauce with a tiny piece of banana marshmallow. Visually it’s the sort of dessert you find next to the word effete in the dictionary, but it was a nice, light ending to the meal, the rosemary reminding me of one of the desserts I made from a Spanish party I had last year.

So a meal at Mercat seems to be struggling with the problem of Spanish authenticity rather than entirely solving it, but there is much to admire in it, and I continue to regard it as easily the best Spanish restaurant in town. The only knock I have against the place is that, having been started by a celebrity chef, Jose Garces, it’s now in the hands of his executive chef, and as a result… the menu has not changed one jot that I could see since that first visit in April. Which is not the worst thing, especially for a place that seems to be drawing on the tourist trade to a considerable extent, but I have to admit it dampens my excitement for a place slightly, or maybe denies it a spot in the first rank, if there isn’t the sense of someone at the top tinkering and evolving the menu, but merely executing dishes (however expertly) placed there by someone else. Nevertheless, what virtues Mercat a la Planxa has are very real and considerable, and if Spanish food interests you (and it must interest a lot of people to judge by the rate at which Spanish restaurants are opening lately), a visit is essential.

Mercat a la Planxa
638 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, 60605

My report on visiting Spain.

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I went back to P&P BBQ Soul Food with the kids and saw that they offered a 1/2 slab of ribs on the menu. I ordered it sauce on the side, but was somewhat surprised to find that the ribs had no smoke ring; they were a uniform gray and had, at best, only a hint of smoky flavor, even though some speckles did suggest time in the smoker. Not at all like the rib tips which even before being coated in candy-red sauce:

had the unmistakable pinkish hue of true BBQ. After I ate them I asked Keith Archibald, the pitman, if they had been cooked in the smoker or an oven. He assured me the smoker, but then explained that because of ribs’ tendency to dry out, they were only cooked for so long, compared to the tips, and then held or rewarmed or something.

Well, that’s a new one on me, and certainly contrary to my own experience, but hey, I guess all it means from a practical basis is, be sure and get the rib tips, which have plenty of real smoky flavor.

Meanwhile, Myles ordered the smothered pork chop. And frankly, it’s a reason to go there and not even worry about barbecue. A catcher’s mitt-sized hunk of pork– Myles, no slouch, barely made a dent in it– it is not merely smothered but downright drowned in thick, greasy, peppery gravy, and is absolutely wonderful.

Toss in a nice homemade cole slaw, real mashed potatoes, some candied yams, a peach cobbler for dessert… and nice folks.

P&P BBQ Soul Food
3734 W. Division

My Reader piece on P&P

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