Sky Full of Bacon

Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *

$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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Way back when I reviewed Cemitas China Poblana in my series of restaurants not yet talked about on LTHForum or elsewhere, I made note of a roasted chicken place across the street…

Now, just the other day I had fantastic grilled chicken, one of the best things I ate all year, at a place I will write about shortly, so I had high hopes that lightning might strike again.  Did it?  It did not.  The first time what strikes you may be lightning, but the second time it’s usually just an ’88 Pontiac with a lot of rust damage.

Restaurante El Campestre is a spiffy looking place, almost chain-like in its bright, clean interior and slick signage.  (Nevertheless, there only seems to be the one.)  It has one dish, roasted chicken, which you can have plain or adobado, that is, marinated in a bright red adobo.  Sides are, well, what you’d expect— beans, rice, fries, cole slaw (clearly aiming beyond the Mexican crowd alone), mashed potatoes, etc.

For about $9 I got a half a chicken with two sides, plus chips, salsa, and tortillas.  A moment later, another $2 got me a limeade; there’s a nice-looking fruit stand in the back where they make jugos, although as I would later note, probably the one they don’t make out of fresh fruit is the limeade.  (So of course they’re promoting it.)

The salsas were a bit odd; the one in front was almost bubbly, like it’d just been pureed at a very high speed, sort of applesauce texture.  The one in back, a little better, had a slight citrusy tang to it.  Not sure what style either was aiming for, they were okay.  (A lot of the population in this area seems to be from Zacatecas, maybe this is one of their styles.)

Got my chicken.  It was cooked decently— white meat a little dry, but dark meat dead on, which is pretty much how you usually get chicken like this.  But it didn’t sing.  It didn’t have that fresh-off-the-grill charcoaly sharpness, the adobo didn’t have the zing of fresh spices.  It immediately brought to mind a picture of a 10-gallon drum of institutional adobo sauce.  No freshness, no life.  Washed out.

The limeade was a refreshing choice, but it too had the flattened flavor profile of something from a jug, not a living fruit or vegetable.

Incidentally, I noticed a sign on Cemitas China Poblana that it had moved as of the end of November— it’s now, apparently, at 3138 W. 47th St.  Maybe someday someone else will check it out— for all the crowds now visiting Cemitas Puebla, no one seems to be burning to try another example.  There’s still a lot happening on this block— a carne en su jugo place, a store window full of boxers’ photos, an old nickelodeon becoming a massage parlor.  A colorful slice of the city, worth checking out— though I can’t really recommend the chicken.

Restaurante El Campestre
4226 S Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 927-1333

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