Sky Full of Bacon

Lately I go to a lot of restaurants with professional representation— I don’t mean lawyers, I mean a PR firm. I don’t have a problem with that, he said as he nibbled on leftover mignardises from Tru last night, but I do like to get back in touch with the people on occasion. Here are two restaurants which are far from having much in the way of marketing support (though one has, at least, some professional logo design, and the other has a very nice painter). They are trying to get by on merely doing things well and hoping to attract foot traffic. Unfortunately, what they also have in common is a near total lack of media attention of any form (including LTHForum). So please notice them and give them a try.

Banh Mi & Co. suffers the problem a number of restaurants have— how do you make it if you’re doing the same thing as a really well-liked place very close by? Located at 3141 N. Broadway, it’s the other banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwich, spot in that area since Nhu Lan Saigon Subs, a branch of the widely-liked Lincoln Square spot opened on Belmont. Banh Mi & Co. doesn’t have all of the authentic funk of Nhu Lan, with a thinner menu of less exotic things, and maybe purists would quibble at the bread or something as not being quite the perfect banh mi bread, but what they do they do well and by hand, and they deserve a look.

It’s run by a couple— it looks like he’s Vietnamese and she’s maybe half, or she could be Mexican for all I know— who apparently (assuming they’re the owners) have other shops, although every time I’ve been in there they’ve been there, so I guess this is their flagship; they don’t act like people who have anywhere else to be. If you talk to her she’s quick to tell you how they make things themselves. I really liked the classic banh mi with the pork pate they make— not as funky as Nhu Lan’s, but this is a great lightish sandwich, satisfyingly meaty yet with the crunch of vegetables. I was a little less personally enamored of the “meatball” sub, which turns out to have something like a pork ragu in it, but if that sounds good to you, eating basically a bolognese sauce sandwich, go for it— it actually compared well to a wild boar sloppy joe that Longman & Eagle used to serve.

There are some other things around the edges of this bright, clean little shop to nosh on, including the occasional sweet fried ball of something or other, and you can get a special that comes with a bowl of very creditable wonton soup (at top). Something else that just might happen: the guy from across the street might spot you taking pictures in the window…

and take your picture doing it.

Banh Mi & Co.
3141 N. Broadway

One of the parlor games that used to come up at LTHForum was, what’s the best food block in Chicago? Rob Gardner had some Polish block on Central he loved (and no one else did, mainly because everyone else was afraid of a Polish buffet he liked called Grota). Well, I’d give serious consideration to the 7000 block of north Clark in Rogers Park, which has Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero, one of the city’s best tamale shops; A&T Grill, an old coffeeshop place with kind of elderly atmosphere but good ham on the bone; an entirely pretty good Mexican tacos and cheap steak place called La Choza… and this:

Like Birrieria Zaragoza on the south side, Taqueria Mi Guadalupe took over an old diner counter spot but mainly serves Mexican food, comida-style (so you get a bowl of very pleasant vegetable noodle soup at the start).

I got four tacos and have four recommendations. One, alas, is negative— the fish taco was an uninteresting slice of slippery white fish that didn’t taste like anything I wanted very many bites of. The other three are positive though— solid steak, which tasted like a little bit of marinade and was served in good-sized, juicy chunks, good cabeza (steamed head), and excellent crispy pastor. The kitchen is basically invisible from the room, so after I had taken the food photos I asked the couple running it if I could take their picture and chatted with them a little bit:

When I asked if they had a pastor cone, Armando shook his head sadly— the health inspectors wouldn’t let him have one. So he does what a million places do— fries pastor in a pan instead of cooking it on the cone, gyros-style— but unlike all the others, he carefully browns it to get as close as he can to the crispiness of real pastor. I think that’s pretty cool.

Of course, once I had taken so many pictures they wanted to know where they could see them. Facebook? Well, yes, I guess so. So not only did I enjoy their food and write about it… I’m now friends with them on Facebook. So they can come to this piece… and meet the couple who run Banh Mi & Co. … and the guy who tweeted and blogged the picture of me taking pictures of the Banh Mi. I think that’s pretty cool, too.

Taqueria Mi Guadalupe
7021 N. Clark

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Today was my first chance this summer to take my kids to do what they’d been doing nearly every day at camp— play in the gentle waters of Albion Beach in Rogers Park, where a sandbar keeps the water at a kid-friendly height. An idyllic day, the sort of day you think you would pick if you were given the challenge of the film Afterlife— in which the deceased are forced to pick a single memory to hold for all eternity.

The kids played in utter happiness; but the adult mind is never at rest, and I couldn’t help laying there on the beach, wishing I had a book, an iPod, wifi. Sad, I know.

I had my one moment of satisfaction of an adult interest when we went for lunch. The kids love Chipotle, who knows why, but they could do worse than the simple bean and cheese burritos I get them (and pay dearly for). I, however, had my eye on a newly-opened place next door, Pita Grill.

There were both promising and unpromising signs. Unpromising, hot dogs and hamburgers figuring prominently. Promising, a cake display full of mucver, the fried zucchini fritters available at a few of the local Turkish restaurants, such as Nazarlik (where I think they’re the best thing to be had there, frankly). Unfortunately it was impossible to get kebab meat of any sort and not get great heaps of fries or rice, I wanted hummus or something like that as a side, so the eager counterman, seemingly happy that someone was asking him for something that wasn’t all-American, pointed to a falafel and hummus special. I was sold.

It was okay. The hummus was fine but nothing special, the falafel was a little rubbery, somewhere in between fresh and not-fresh. Pita Grill seems like a place that wishes it could be better but has already been beaten down by the reality of its location in a hot dog-eating neighborhood.

The kids were happy with everything— their burritos, their day at the beach with Dad, the bottle caps they found on the street, which they evaluate in terms of perceived rarity (Dad has to avoid laughing when they pronounce that a Miller Light cap is “really rare”). Their simple, complete happiness is the most contentment I can wish for, some days.

Pita Grill
6604 N. Sheridan

Retroactively declared #2 in my 50 new restaurants challenge.

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