Sky Full of Bacon

I will drive an insane distance for something new and great to eat and the true is same, though less often put to the test, for a movie presentation. Years ago my wife and I drove to Dayton, Ohio for the only Cinerama theater left in the country. I made a somewhat smaller trek to Lincolnshire to see The Dark Knight Rises in 70MM (film that is four times the size of normal 35MM) at an IMAX theater (beware that there are IMAX theaters and there are IMAX theaters; go here for more explanation). Some of the movie was shot in 70MM, some in widescreen 35MM, which meant that the movie would expand to a full square image and then back to a rectangle, sometimes shot to shot. Unexpectedly, this is not distracting; I think most rarely notice it. One reason, however, that most didn’t notice it is because the Regal theater in Lincolnshire didn’t have the focus perfectly sharp, so the effect of 70MM— when the slight blur of 35MM suddenly gives way to the pinpoint sharpness of 70MM— was somewhat lost. Normally I’m the guy who goes and bitches about that… but it’s hard to do that in an IMAX theater when you’re wedged in the center of 25 people and the auditorium is raked at a 40-degree angle.

So I paid extra to have a less than perfect 70MM experience. Alas, the same was true of dinner, which proved to be Movie Dinner since we didn’t get there in time for one of the local specialties, like a hamburger at Red Robin. I kind of like, nostalgically, hot dogs and movie popcorn for dinner, even if I nearly have to pay the price of dinner at Next Childhood to relive this childhood experience too, but it’s not just that the Nathan’s dogs aren’t especially good, but they’d been sitting in the warmer long enough to petrify the bun– literally, I had to break pieces of it off like dried plaster to find edible bread. All in all, a rather sad attempt to recapture the lost excitement of the rapidly dying big movie theater experience. And if this theater isn’t up to par, I don’t know where I’m going to go when Lawrence of Arabia is reissued in October.

How was the movie? I admire that Nolan makes the apocalyptic disaster real for the people living through it, unlike all those movies in which giant robots smash cities without a thought for what that actually would be like. I admire a summer blockbuster that makes a French reign of terror allusion without spelling it out in dumbo letters for the clueless audience. I was absorbed, but it shows you how much a charismatic villain adds to these things, as Heath Ledger did to the last one; I find it hard to imagine caring enough to watch Bane make speeches and flex bulky shoulders for 2 hours and 40 minutes ever again. And if I do, it’ll be at home with Thai food.

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Can I admit now that when everyone else was loving the first sandwiches at Publican Quality Meats, I wasn’t quite so ecstatic? Oh, I liked them, I had no doubts it was an estimable place, I admired the bread (which really is great) and the sausagemaking immensely, I knew early on that its place on my ten best list for the year was secured. But sandwiches are a less is more kind of thing, and the sandwiches I tried were always a little too much and yet less than the sum of their parts. I got to taste the cocido (a stew with their housemade sausages) once, and felt it blew any sandwich there away, having the depth and richness and soulfulness that the sandwiches didn’t achieve. For me, the best sandwich has the least stuff on it necessary; a ham sandwich with swiss cheese and mayo is almost invariably better than a ham sandwich with Havarti and pepper jack, pickled fennel gremolata, housecured turnips, red bean paste aioli and a latke on green apple foccacia. Publican Quality Meats’ sandwiches were good, I was always happy I ate there, but great? Not yet.

Then I had this:

The chicken parmesan sandwich with provolone (why it’s a chicken parm then I don’t know) and tomato sauce used to be a Chicago classic, though I’d guess, like the similar steak sandwich, they’ve gotten pretty rare except in redoubts of the south side. (I love the one at Johnny O’s, which tastes like Chicago in 1952 to me.) This is a less is more sandwich without question, no olive tapenade or grilled favas on it, and all they’ve done is exactly what you’d hope Paul Kahan & Co. would do, which is improve every one of its few elements— better chicken, better cheese (fresh mozzarella by the look of it), their great crusty bread, totally solid tomato sauce. I said to Kahan when I was shooting this that it was the best white trash sandwich in town, and I know he didn’t think that was exactly a compliment, but it was in every way: this has the irresistible deliciousness of low-class food made with the skills of high-class food, and it’s unimprovable.

Almost as good, though it’s starting to veer away from less is more territory, is a new pork belly sandwich:

Frankly, I’m a little thrown by the pork belly designation, there aren’t stripes of fat in the meat, looks more like a thick slice of shoulder, but it comes off like carnitas on a crusty roll with some fairly simple flavor accents (some green leaf, a green spread like gremolata, some little sticks that might be apple) which are fairly restrained as toppings at PQM go. In any case, if this is the second wave, the PQM guys have been going to sandwich school on the first wave, and you want to check their work now.

Publican Quality Meats
825 W. Fulton Market

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What will Red Door do in the winter? That was David Tamarkin’s question in Time Out, and he meant that the sometimes slack food would have trouble surviving without the help of the gorgeous patio it inherited from Duchamp in the same space. I disagree that the food is slack at all— okay, yes, the steak needed salt, and the burger isn’t a highlight (same is true at Longman and Eagle, say), but overall I love the simplicity of Troy Graves’ food, which dresses farmer’s market produce or seafood with just enough of something to make it pop. In two visits, I’ve really liked nearly everything, even the poutine Graves sent me after I said I wasn’t a fan of poutine. Did I like it? I ordered it the next time for my kids to try. I loved gnocchi with bitter greens, carrots tossed with chimmichurri, a perfectly cooked octopus salad, a beef tongue reuben, a Thai hemp cocktail.

But winter is a question not only because it will revert to being a fairly small, dark bar then, but because all those wonderful green flavors waiting for Graves to just twist them a notch to something great will be gone. We’ll have to see if it can weather the cold and make it to another summer, and what that will bring out in Graves’ cooking in the meantime. But for now the patio is gorgeous, one of the most tranquil outdoor spaces in town, and you should make an effort to go to Red Door early and often.

Red Door
2118 N. Damen

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Among other projects I’ve been up to lately is this taco slideshow at Grub Street; I was determined to present my definitive word on taco culture in Chicago, and I think I did; in any case, thousands and thousands have clicked their way through it, most to the end. In many ways it sums up the knowledge accumulated over the past decade at Chowhound and LTHForum, but I tried hard to knock familiar names off if I could find a better one, and most of the time I didn’t. One place I found and really liked that I want to call attention to, however, was a discovery made by searching Yelp for vegetarian-friendly taco joints. It’s a place named, even more generically than most, Tacos y Salsa in Berwyn, and besides a first rate cactus taco, they make one of the best fish tacos in town; it’s not breaded and deep fried, but pan fried I think, but what makes it stand out is that it’s marinated in lime and who knows what, so it really packs a citrusy kick. Plus, the service couldn’t be friendlier, and it was amusing that the TV was tuned to Toy Story 3, to my kids’ pleasure and the annoyance of the Mexican working stiffs who kept walking in.

Tacos y Salsa
6346 26th Street

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Sunday, driving up Elston.  I spot that a perpetual, never especially interesting hot dog stand has suddenly become a taco place.  The name, Taqueria LP Express, seems generic, but they are touting their steak tacos.

I soon understand why: the LP stands for La Pasadita, the famous trio of steak taco joints on Ashland near Division.  The same family owns several places with various names (Las Asadas, for instance), and this is a slightly less hidden-in-plain-sight version, since signage and clippings are at some pains to establish that you’re getting the real La Pasadita deal.  Which you pretty much do; I’ve never thought La Pasadita’s were the greatest steak tacos on earth, but they’re certainly good, and they’re certainly better than anything else Mexican I know of on that stretch of Elston (not far from the supremely 1950s-looking Las Cazuelas).

Taqueria LP Express
4968 N. Elston

Driving down Ashland, scouting out unknown sout’-side places.  I see what looks like it used to be a fast food place I can’t quite identify, advertising tacos, breakfast, rib tips, all kinds of stuff, but not actually bearing a name.  41st and Ashland.  It’s next to a pork processing plant so I make two quick assumptions: one, it’s their de facto cafeteria, two, order the pork.

Both seem correct to me.  I order a pork and a steak taco.  The steak is lame, overseasoned to make up for many manifest deficiencies.  But the roast pork seems pretty good and tasty, roast pig, what’s not to like.  I get a call from Pigmon on my cell (this stop was, I must admit, merely a recon stop for our real lunch to follow immediately) and tell him he should come have the carnitas, the pork.

Ten minutes later he orders the pork and the al pastor.  The pastor is lousy, mealy, kind of gross.  A moment later I notice he’s eating the pastor while avoiding the pork.  “You’re not eating the carnitas?”

“The pastor blows.  But it’s the best thing here.”

“I didn’t think the pork was so bad…” I say, suddenly my own opinion of the meal thrown in doubt, like a guy who was standing up for Franzia Rosé in front of a stranger who turns out to be Robert Parker.

“Worst I’ve ever had.  Totally tastes like ass.”

So I don’t know what I think now.  I mean, it’s not like I would have recommended this cafeteria-like place overall to begin with, but I did think the pork was okay, it’s roasted pork, a pretty simple pleasure that I was okay with.  I guess the only thing to do is to sum it up like Alpana on a Check, Please:

“And we tried carnitas at Kiki D’s Carnitas Family Restaurant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.  Mike enjoyed the pictures of the soccer team they sponsor and the roast pork carnitas.  Pigmon thought everything tasted like ass, and wouldn’t feed that shit to a dying donkey.”

Kiki D’s Carnitas
4117 S. Ashland

Academy award winner Sir Ben Kingsley as Kiki D, the ex-military soccer coach from Kazakhstan who turns a lovable gang of inner city kids into international champions in Carnitas! from Touchstone Pictures.

P.S. Chuck Sudo reviewed Kiki D’s once.  He agrees with Pigmon.

P.P.S. We finally had lunch here.

To see more in this series, click Restaurant Reviews at right and look for the numbered reviews.


Not toro the sushi fish, toro the bull. I use this cliche for a heading because, driving on Armitage to what would ultimately be my lunch destination—


—I passed, first, a storage place whose sign said “Got stuff?,” and then an attorney whose sign said “Got lawyer?” Got lawyer? If I needed one, would I feel like being that flip about it? Would I want one who advertised himself that way? Jeez, got enough of cliche already?

But let us answer a more serious question, namely, “where’s the beef?” A place called Taqueria Toro Grill would seem to be a promising answer to that question. I spotted it by my patented new awning technique, and pulled the kids over to check it out. Taqueria Toro Grill is new management in a place that’s been around a while, but it seems clean and welcoming at first glance. The kids wanted to sit at the counter, so we did and chatted with the main guy (owner or not, I wasn’t sure). The first thing we spotted sitting there was this:


Real pastor, complete with pineapple on top, turning and roasting away. I knew what I was going to have to have:


I also had a carne asada taco, and a carnitas sope, big chunks of pork:


This isn’t a great place but it’s an above average one, gaining bonus points for a commitment to keeping the pastor running all the time, and for generally friendly demeanor. Maybe with time (they’ve been open a month) it’ll get really good. I wished for more crispy edges on the pastor and steak, but at least I was impressed by the high quality meat used in all three cases, not the frequent low-grade gristle-y beef. Carnitas was a little dry, but brightened right up with the addition of the red salsa. A nice place, worth a visit.

Taqueria Toro Grill
3561 W. Armitage

Retroactively declared #3 in my 50 new restaurants challenge.

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