Friday, December 19, 2003

Where Yat?
Keep in touch with the New Orleans food scene

I mentioned to someone yesterday that I partially picked Tulane Law School because of the food and bars. I have had several chances to return to New Orleans since those days, but obviously, I cannot go as often as I'd like. To partially make up for this, I get Tom Fitzmorris's daily e-newsletter on the New Orleans food scene. While Fitzmorris is a little lacking in his descriptions of "ethnic" food, his reporting of creole/cajun and similar places is spot on. No one can tell you better exactly how to eat well in New Orleans. Go here to subscribe.

Note, Fitzmorris is one of the leading proponents of the non-anonymous school of food journalism. Not only is he well recognized in New Orleans, he has had various business ventures with restraunteurs. I think this is a valid approach, and I will write on this more when I have time.

Mexican Sandwiches

On the SF board of Chowhound, having seen the tortas at La Torta in San Diego, got to talking about tortas.

UPDATE: Stanley Stephan turned me on to this post about Tijuana torta's and the differences between a torta and a lonche.

I recently wrote a thing about Mexican sammy's in Chicago. This RST post is even more informative on the subject.

Mexican food includes a lot of sandwiches, but these sandwiches were a late entry on most Mexican menu's in the USA. Up until recently, how many people even knew about the sandwich as part of the repatoire? Now, we see tortas and other Mexican sandwiches all over the place. Here are some good choices for sandwiches, Mexican style in Chicago.

Taqueria/Restaurant La Oaxaquena - The warm, generous owners of this place serve only a dabbling of actual Oaxacan food, fearing the Chicago market will not go whole hog for grasshoppers and other things. Regardless of the regionality, their kitchen produces some tasty food, and some of the tastiest are a group of sandwiches shown on their menu as "Super Torta's". One of the best Chowhounds for finding things, ReneG, first brought these sandwiches to wide acclaim. They are truly super. Each torta, a sandwich on a soft, almost superfluous, squishy roll, contains a stack of ingredients. One favorite smashes grilled chicken breast, grilled cesina, guacamole, onions, tomatoes, and cheese into the bun. Another favorite uses cactus and roasted jalapeno to join the cesina. An odd version throws in a gnarly fried hot dog. They make 3 outstanding salsa's that are practically my excuse to order the tortas.

Taqueria Puebla - The most intrepid and dedicated of all Chowhounds, RST found this stand on the NW side of Chicago. Owned by a former sports reporter for a Spanish radio station, the inside is plastered with posters and photo's of Mexican sports stars. It specializes in the street food of Puebla state, and a key part of this street food is the cemita sandwich. The cemita is much distinguished from the torta by roll. Crustier, egg washed and seeded, it has a flavor element that the torta roll, bollilo, does not. Flavor also comes from a spray of Mexican herbs, authentically, the soapy papalo, but they use whatever they can find. Olive oil dresses the sandwich instead of mayo.

Dona Lois - A bit of Mexico City on the far north side of Chicago. Most people get the quesadilla's made from scratch and filled with exotica like squash blossoms, but those with iron stomachs try the pambaso. In Mexico, the pambaso may refer also to a kind of bread, but in Chicago, it mostly refers to the act of drowning any sandwich roll in a vat of bloody chili sauce. It is served with soft cooked potatoes. A great combo!

Tortas USA (a/k/a Dona Torta) - Not so much a specialist in a regional style, but a restaurant selling 30 or so kinds of tortas. Beside a range of interesting fillings, the use a better torta roll, let you grab at will from a bowl of pickled jalapeno's and carrots (take that Rick Bayless!), and toss a few so-so french fries on your plate. Good fried fish, good breaded meat (milanesa), good pork leg, good roasted chili salsa, all finish the allure.

Taqueria Oaxaquena (2 locations)
3382 N. Milwaukee/6113 W. Diversy

Taqueria Puebla-Mexico
3625 W. North
(773) 772-8435

Quesadillas Doña Lolis
6924 N Clark St

Tortas USA
3057 N. Ashland Ave.

Gorilla Gourmet Stomps Down Maxwell Street
Be Educated and Entertained!

The producers of Gorilla Gourmet insist my net participation points have value, but that there are too many above the line costs. I still believe you should buy a copy of this great production.

Modern documentary and black comedy. You will learn much about how to eat and shop at Chicago's weekly open air market and chowarama, and you will be thoroughly thrilled with the exploits of the fressers.
I'm figuring out how to put images in the blog. How does this look? Gwiv brisket

Thursday, December 18, 2003


I got a the link up for Metromix. For all the shots at the Trib, I think that Metromix is a good site for chowhounds. First, you can get addresses and directions as needed. Second, there is some content, not altogether brisk, but some content outside the main paper. All those Cheap Eats reviews we love are there, but sadly the more interesting stuff like the World Eats or the 24 Hours of Chow story are missing. Sometimes Metromix can really be helpful.

Spoon Thai is one of the most beloved of Chowhound restaurants, yet how did it get so famous. It is one of several Thai restaurants in the same area. Well, of course RST scooped some things out, complete with notes on TP, but it was Zim, inspired from some reading in Metromix that got the ball rolling. The rest (and $27) is history. So, do poke around Metromix.

UPDATE:I'd be interested in hearing other stories on using sites such as Metromix for greater good.

UPDATE UPDATE (SPOON THAI): I would be horribly remiss in not mentioning the role the Ultimo, Gwiv, had in spreading the word on Spoon. This is his first post on the subject, but subsequent to his postings he hosted many a meal there amongst Chowhounds that gained this place fame and even a spot in the Trib.
Coffee talk - i.e., open thread. Go ahead, be as un-focused as you'd like

N.B., thank Seth Z for his skill in making the link section look nicer. More links will come, especially from suggestions.
Taboun Grill
Great but expensive Israeli food - Kosher too!

Israel has always had a bad rap for food. I mean from a tourist perspective. A lot of that, I think has to do with low quality beef. Avoid the McDavid's. Does that mean the food of Israel is really bad. On my lone trip, I found nearly all of the meals outstanding, especially the multitude of stuffed vegetables at a Yemenite place and the multitude of stuffed falafel sandwiches, everywhere. For those falafel sammy's chose at will from a ton of salads, offered from countless street vendors. My opinion of Israeli food is also futzed up by an especially good restaurant in North Miami Beach run by Israeli's. From them, I expect every other Israeli restaurant to have superior fresh cut fries and bowls full of sour pickles for the taking.

I enter Israeli places with that prejudice, but I also soon find myself at ease entering any Israeli place. I believe, but could be wrong, that there is something relaxing for nearly every American born and raised Jew when they enter a room filled with yamulked men. Outside of a pledge party for ZBT, are there any other settings where you feel more comfortable with your Jewishness? (On the other hand, my wife, felt totally il-at-ease, expecting stones to be hurdled her way any minute because she was wearing a sleeveless dress.) On top of this, your kids are no longer, by a long shot the worst behaved, and even if they were being particularly poorly behaved, no one would hear much of their commotion over the rest of the commotion. Finally, it gives a Jewish man special pride to be served by a slew of dark haired, dark skinned stunning waitresses, who also know how to take apart and put back together, an Uzi while blindfolded. Portnoy would not complain.

So how bad could the food be? Not bad at all. I will say up front, I think the prices are pretty high at Taboun, much more than they should be. I wondered if Rabbinic supervision costs that much more, and my sources in the kosher community tell me kosher meat even at the market costs a lot. Still, what they served at Taboun is very, very good.

If you need a first course, and unfortunately you might, the portions are small, I've enjoyed the Moroccan salad, the standard dips like hummus and baba ganoush and the Yemenite soup. The soup is a greenish yellow, like lakewater, with a taste of odd spices (not like lakewater). A dose of very hot, hot sauce (zug I think it is called), not only heated up the soup, but it amplified the other ingredients. Fresh vegetables helped a lot too. Forget the color, order the soup.

The main course are mostly simple but well done. I like their kefta and their shwarma, and again, the worst I can say about them is, the portions are too small. The sandwiches are stuffed just as in Israel with several toppings, although not as many as you would find there. Also, again, the hot sauce enhances. Now, the fries were nothing special, not fresh made. No pickles graced our table, which I miss. Still, when you wake up the next morning with the flavors still parading your palate, well you want to return.

Service, besides being beautiful, has been efficient and fast. Very fast, they really get you your food quick for a place with table service, although with all the din, lingering is not that important.

UPDATE: The newly mysterious Stirs-the-Pot (that is he/she is not becoming more mysterious, but that he/she is new to Chowhound and rather mysterious), reports on Chowhound that ample pickles appear when dining at Taboun. I'll have to confirm.

Taboun Grill - Kosher/Meat
Address: 6339 N. California
Chicago, IL 60659 Phone: (773) 381-2606
Meet the Family
Who are these people you always talk about?

In which I reveal the secret of the Condiment Queen

One of the reasons that I am blogging instead of posting to Chowhound is that I prefer to report the way I report, with ample inclusion of friends and family, nicknames and all. My chowing is frequently going to include others. They will be in the reporting, so you might as well know who some of them are.

More often than not, my chow companions are the three other people in my family. I get to chow with them more because, well they need to eat too, I get a lot more control over where we go, and as explained below, they are generally excellent chowers. People marvel at the fact that the kids, the Chowhounditas, eat at so many kinds of restaurants. The key, though is to zero in on a few things they like. For instance, they'll eat satay and mee krob at any Thai place. Quesadilla's and nacho's satisfy in Mexican places, and noodles and stir fried vegetables help a lot in Asian places. Here's more on them:

THE CONDIMENT QUEEN - It might be believed that my vivacious wife gets her title from the 16 bottles of olive oil in our cabinets, one for each region of Italy/country in the Mediterranean she cooks, or the five kind of mustards in the fridge, her need to buy an extra jar of jelly just in case, and all the other things we have. No. She is the Condiment Queen because of her ability, early in our relationship, to produce endless varieties of pasta from jars of salsa, hot sauces and other condiments. The Condiment Queen will eat all kinds of food in all kinds of restaurants. We only split in the sense that I eat more offal and fatty things and she likes certain yuppier choices like breakfast burrito's.

CHOWHOUNDITA #1 - HANNAH - My older daughter is one of the healthiest eaters in existence. She not only willingly eats high fiber bread, she already expresses concern about her salt intake. Anecdotal evidence shows that her eating habits keep her from being routinely sick. Hannah is much more willing than Sophia to eat things generally, and will try a lot. Still, her favorite dish remains, anything on the adult portion of the menu.

CHOWHOUNDITA #2 - SOPHIA - As naturally un-healthy as Hannah is healthy. Sophia has a hard time enjoying any form of protein not hot dogs, bacon or eggs scrambled with cheese. The other drawback of dining with Sophie, is that she is one of the slowest eaters around. She is so busy being charming, food becomes irrelevant, but then we want to get home. Sophia is a budding oenophile, or at least Dad fantasizes about this. She does have a great nose and can often, although not always, name the aromas listed on the label.

UPDATE/EDIT: Forgot to mention how Hannah's never sick because of her healthy diet.

UPDATE/EDIT 2: Added the extra bit about olive oils from around the world at the direction of CQ who said the earlier understanding of her use of olive oil was dumb.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


While some have accused our Chicago chow community of being cliquish and closed, I find that wholly un-substantiated. First, we are open to all. It is NOT a club, and there are no dues. Every event is priced per event, and there is no cover charge. Second, we have an extraordinary high recidivism rate. Once people start participating, they continue to participate. Everyone has their own agenda's as to what is fun, affordable, logical and doable, and you have no need to do it all. But the chance is there.

Nearly every event, formal and spontaneous, is discussed and planned on a e-mail listserv. This link will help you get on the listserv.

It is nice, but not necessary, that when you join the listserv, you introduce yourself.

See you soon.
Link Suggestions?

Up until yesterday, Chicago Chowhound was my home page. Now it is this blog. One of the things I like about having this as my home page, is that while I wait and pray for a comments, I have links available to me for other sites of interest. In other words, from one page, I can get where I want, and then back again.

I plan on expanding the link section (or blog roll to be a blogger). Of course, first I have to figure out how to move the Haloscan icon. I had more links but they bleeded into the icon. Anyway, tell me what you think should be in the link section.
Chicago Food Media [ed., you mean we have a food media?]

Why blog?

I think nearly everyone who posts on Chowhound bristles at one single rule, "keep things laser-focused on Chicago Chow". As I said (or alluded to) earlier, the interests of people who read, post and contribute to Chowhound on a frequent basis, often veer from the Chowhound mission. These posters need to talk about things that interest their chowing, but are not really in the interest of the Chow database. I am a firm believer that these discussions help the community and lead to more food finds and better collective eating.

Not here. All things of interest related to eating in Chicago are welcome. Specifically, I seek comments on the Chicago food media: the major reviewers, the weekly food sections, TV programs, Reader reviews. Give me your input as well as your gossip (which I will evaluate before publishing--rumors but no rumor mongering!).

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Not Frontera/Frontera - Continued

The feedback/questions surrounding my Frontera posts go something like this:

1) Was I holding back anything on Frontera, in other words do I think it worse than I said

2) Is Frontera worth it ever, that a skilled, committed chef can add little to the process or experience of eating Mexican food. Or, put slightly different, that Not Frontera will ALWAYS be better.

My responses to the issues about Frontera Grill, I believe, boil down, likewise to two points:

1) Frontera has been a very good restaurant, but it has slid

2) Frontera Grill can a good job of cooking authentic and real Mexican food but does not right now.

To address whether Frontera is a good restaurant, I have to say, resoundingly, that Frontera's success as a restaurant is not tied explicitly to its ability to provide Mexican food. I support fusion and even inauthentic presentations if they taste good. Believe it or not, I like eating at Chipoltle. Heaven on Seven is another not very authentic kitchen I like. Authenticity can help a restaurant in many ways, but it is not the mark of a good restaurant.

What I seek in a good restaurant, or at least the criteria I look at include decor, service, style, value, panache, originality, comfort and the product of the kitchen. I am, of course, highly subjective in my ratings, as those who know me know. Yet, even if I can be happy eating in a dump, I respect, enjoy, appreciate and value all the other factors. Frontera falters right now because, as a restaurant, it is missing so much. It is crowded, noisy, the service is not very adept, there are tons of niggling charges (on top of high prices), some of the dishes are not wholly well executed, and some things, like the table salsa's are just too industrial for me.

The other question, can Frontera serve good Mexican food? Can a white guy sing the blues? It was offered to me that none of the high price affectations of Frontera quite matter, that no fancy Heirloom pork could ever improve a lowly carnita. I disagree. I believe Frontera can truly bring the recipes of Mexico to Chicago, and I believe that all the finer products just make for better food. Good ingredients do help.

I believe that "ethic" food does not have to be cheap, but when I pay more for ethnic food, any food generally, I am seeking, more than anything, better ingredients. I expect the piece of fish served at Frontera to be of much higher quality than the piece of fish at Not Frontera. In this case money matters. Not just that, but I expect a Rick Bayless to just know how to get better fish than most of the places in Not Frontera. In my opinion, Frontera has the ability to put out very good Mexican food. They are just not doing it.
Guide to Asian Vegetables

This site seems to be the in thing on Chicago Chowhound. A very cool way of finding what you ate in an Asian restaurant.
Why blog?

Blogging is so 2002 is it not? Why start now? Really, when such a good forum as Chowhound exists, especially its Chicago board, why break away?

Well, I guess the coolest reason, with Blogger/Haloscan, is because I can. I believe strongly in the moderation policies of Chowhound, and I think those moderation policies have, more often than not, been used wisely. Most of what is kept off of Chowhound, I think is rightly kept off. Still, there are things I want to do and say, that I cannot do on Chowhound.

1) I want to continue to foster and encourage our little Chow Community in Chicago. It is a community open and welcome to all, but it is a community that exists. I believe in the community more than I believe in the database.

2) I want to be a resource for the community and similar communities.

3) I want to be able to promote and publicize people and causes I know and believe. Nothing is being done for financial remuneration, but if I can help in some way, I will. For instance, notices for the Culinary Historians of Chicago, welcome. Announcements of cook books by Chicago writers, welcome.

4) I understand and appreciate Chowhound's commitment to be a forum for consumers. I am willing to be a bit more lenient. I welcome and seek the opinions of those "on the other side" of the food business. Yet, in the vein of Chowhound, I do not want hidden or anonymous attacks of one restraunteur to another. Also, no food illness stories.

I'll see what happens. If it does not work, I am sure you will see me back on Chowhound.

Bangladesh Food in Chicago

I wrote a post on Chowhound on The Sonargaon Restaurant, the only place in Chicago I am aware of, that serves the food of Bangladesh. When the family and I ate there, we had for dessert, ras malai, the dessert of fresh cheese curds and condensed milk. Sonargaon told me it was a Bangladesh version, but it tasted like any other ras malai. My friend and guru, Zim finally got around to explaining it for me.

It seems that ras malai is essentially a Bengali/Bangladesh dish, so pretty much all ras malai, where ever it is served in Chicago, is serving the Bangladesh version.

The Sonargaon Restaurant
2306 W. Devon, Chicago
Even more Fu Choy/Fujian

Limster adds more to my education here.
Fu Choy Follow-Up

Culinary Rainman, RST, added his usual depth and thoroughness to the Fu Choy dinner here and in the subsequent post. Another Chowhound of Chinese origin who has helped educate much to the secrets of the Chinese table, Limster, told me that "in Singapore we consider Fuzhou as distinct from Fujian; the dialect’s also different (I’m Fujian, or Hokkien as we say, and I can’t understand the Fuzhou dialect). Kinda similar to the distinction we make between Teochew (city in Canton) and Cantonese (the province) -- there’s also a complete language difference."

I have, obviously, in my eating, only glanced at the differences between Teochew (a/k/a Chiu Chow), Hakka, Hokkien, modern Hong Kong, etc. as well as the places further north and east such as Fuzhou (Fu Choy). I am both interested in finding more examples in Chicago and learning more generally about these versions of Chinese food.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Not Frontera - It aint always perfect
Taqueria La Oaxaquena

With Frontera fresh in my mind, I looked forward to lunch at Not Frontera, in this case the now much closer to me, Taqueria La Oaxaquena. I specifically wanted to eat and compare their mole and their tamal.

Now, the very Oaxacan tamals here, steamed in neatly bow-tied banana leafs, have never had a huge following. Some people object to the chicken bones--hey authenticity. I like them, and I like the house brown mole. A three dimensional mole with distinct layers of fudgy brown, rust and yellow. No hiding the grease, I mean soul in this mole. The tamal pollo con mole should be very special. And it can be.

Here, however, Not Frontera shows its glaring weakness. My tamals came to me from a shvitz longer than any denizen of the Division Street Bathhouse could stand. The long steam leached out most of the corn succor and also nearly burnt the mole. I salvaged some of the lost moisture with a side of mole.

The risk of Not Frontera is that the best recipes are not always done right or there are compromises based on economic issues. I am sure they are not selling enough tamals to keep them at a proper temperature. Instead, they get blasted before serving. For all its shortcomings, I do not think Frontera would nearly ruin a dish.

I still love this place, especially the highly non-Oaxacan super tortas. I always kvetch them to add more Oaxacan style items to their menu. Complimentary nibbles of their stash of grasshoppers does not do it for me, although whenever I give my menu suggestions my wife is in the background saying, "Jerry you a bad man."

UPDATE: I was asked, given that La Oaxaquen's tamals have had mixed reviews, if I generally like them. Yes, they can be good and interesting. Just be aware of the bones.

Taqueria La Oaxaquena
6113 W. Diversey
Chicago, IL
Not Frontera/Frontera
Lunch at Frontera Grill

Perhaps, my most consistent recommendation on Chowhound has been for that place, Not Frontera. I never meant to denigrate Frontera or Rich Bayless per se. I surely give Bayless credit for turning me on to all the wonders of the Mexican street food on Maxwell Street, and I respect what he has done to encourage Mexican eating. I would not know and appreciate Not Frontera if it was not for Frontera. I also appreciate Bayless's support of various forms of sustainable agriculture even as I have always taken issues with a few things at Frontera. The prices, the countless extra charges, the wait, always bugged me, but I did not really attack the food.

Not Frontera meant go somewhere else. Go somewhere new, somewhere not mentioned in every story about Chicago food. Go to someone without cookbooks, without reviews in the newspapers, without a listing in Chicago Magazine's Top 20. Not Frontera gave me so much enjoyment with its tastes of all parts of Mexico. At Not Frontera, I was constantly impressed with the effort put into the smallest of details. Like at a small burrito stand on the farthest Western fringes of Chicago, they make a delicious salsa from burlap sacks full of dried peppers. I am confident in my love of Not Frontera.

Over my existence on Chowhound, (I believe) I have written about more Mexican than any other kind of food. I backed up Not Frontera by introducing people to exotically stuffed quesadilla's at Dona Lois and the glories of a simple place amidst some industrial buildings in Cicero. I helped bring the many regions of Mexico here in Chicago to the eater, including restaurants specializing in the food of Nayarit, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Michoacan. I showed that behind the doors of a rusty purple van existed the best sopes ever, and talked about lesser known dishes like carne en su jugo and pozole. In turn, others on Chicago Chowhound added and expanded, the whole meaning of Not Frontera, with essays on the origins of cemita's, guidebooks to 26th street, and thoughts on all thing Geno Bahena (plus way more things on Mexican food than can be mentioned in this one post). Chicago Chowhound contains a hell of a lot of support for Not Frontera. So, in the end, Frontera.

I ate at Frontera for the first time in a few years this Saturday. I recognize that while Not Frontera may be generally more pleasurable to me, I have never ruled out Frontera as good place to eat. Plus, I was meeting someone from out of town who had a limited timeframe in Chicago. We had no opportunity to truck it out to Not Frontera. Really, in the intervening years, I wanted to see how Frontera stacked up against Not Frontera. And will you be surprised if I said, not that well.

I remember the original lay out at Frontera, when the bar dominated one room. Over time, they have expanded their seating, enhancing the decor and its theme of Mexican primitive art, especially the day of the dead tchotkes. It is a styled decorator look that you will not see in the barrio. In this time, Frontera crammed as many tables into this space as possible. Over our lunch, we constantly had to shuffle plates and such to maintain space on the table, and because we had no room for the tortilla's, they kept on trying to snag them from us because I put them on the ledge. Pretty, but not very comfortable. The service too was rather schitzo. We arrived within minutes of opening, and when the place was still quiet, we got a fair amount of attention and warmth. By the time the place was filled and bustling, the service broke down. We never saw our server toward the end of the meal.

On the plate, and quickly, I know this is getting long. One dish really impressed me, it was exactly the dish I want from Frontera. A tinga de honga, a stew of wild and exotic mushrooms; spiced mysteriously and with a good amount of heat. Highly delicious wrapped in the fresh made tortillas (which I must add are not as good as some found at Not Frontera). Not Frontera, however, would never, never have mushrooms this special, and this was a dish planned, conceived and executed with chef skills. The tortilla soup also benefited from an organized kitchen, having a well-performed stock behind it, yet the flavors on top were still a bit muted for me. On the other hand, Not Frontera serves more tasty tamals, Frontera's tamal was flat--both in shape and in flavor. Two moles paled to some found at Not Frontera. They just lacked soul. Me, I like a little trail of oil behind my mole. It should be thick, greasy, maybe gritty, and unctuous, not smooth and refined. Same thing for the table salsa's, which I believe are just from the well-displayed jars, tasty, refined but not nearly as satisfying as what you would find at Not Frontera. I have said before that I feel much more safe ordering ceviche at Frontera vs. Not Frontera, but right now I really preferred Not Frontera ceviche, say Islas Marias ceviche. Frontera's ceviche was way over marinated and again, not as forward with the flavors. Finally, I tried dessert, something I rarely do at Not Frontera. Believe me, no dessert may have beaten out the dry and plain pay de coco (coconut pie) served at Frontera.

I understand always the need for some people to try Frontera. After all, it made the most sense for me on Saturday. Still, after giving Frontera a good whirl, I am more confident than ever with Not Frontera.


Frontera Grill
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610

Go here for more info on Frontera Grill

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Fu Choy You! - Chinese Kitchen
Chicago's only Fukien style place

Other opinion's of the meal can be found here.
Fu Choy You! - Chinese Kitchen
Chicago's only Fukien style place

About a week ago, I met my friend often called the Ultimo, Gwiv, in Chinatown for a satifying bowl of won ton soup and side plate of mixed bbq meats. (One reason we call him the Ultimo is because he subscribes to the too much of a good thing is a good thing school of eating). After lunch, I did a bit of scouting around Chinatown. Several places recently opened. One intrigued me becuase it offered the food of the city of Fu Choy. They claimed to be the only place in Chicago with such food (Fukinese), and I pretty much could not doubt them. I knew I needed to try.

I threw an invite out, eventually answered by 22 other folks. Chicago's encyclopedia of all things food and wine, and also a speaker of Chinese, RST, helped me arrange a menu. While Chinese Kitchen serves a range of Cantonese and even some Americanized dishes, we went 100 % Fukinese.

After dinner, one of the group said, "it hit parts of my tounge that have never been hit before." It surely was a different series of dishes for all of us. Mostly a parade of subtle flavors and endless textures. Not everyone liked the stuff as much as me, but we learned a lot, and since we had several bottles of bourbon, home-made rice wine, $100/lb tea and other drinks, we all had a good time regardless.

Here's what we ate:

Taro Cake - A block of taro, mashed and then fried not so artfully. Some know taro as the heaviest of foods. The mashing lighten things up, and it had the intriguing spice of taro. Good, could have been better if less oily.

Fish ball with soup- Classic Fukinese version of gefitle fish, although no bubbie would put a drop of shark/pork inside their's. Not rubbery like other Asian fish balls. Because the filling left an air pocket inside, they were incredibly light. I could have eaten a few more.

Shark's skin "Butterfly Soup" - What happens to those sharks when you take away the fin? Fukinese make use of the rest of the body, flavoring soup with this fishy, slimey, think nearly heering, skin. With the soup, you could taste the origins of mall hot n'sour soup. Lots of back-bite from white pepper and a good dose of vinegar kept this soup from being bland.

Mixed platter - It may be odd or axiomatic, but Chinese food can really teach you to like innards. Nothing on this plate of intestines, ear, tendon, beef brisket, tripe or egg tasted gross, gamey or gooey. With an interesting sweet-soy sauce, it proved to be a worthy addition to the table.

Jellyfish - I was told, going into the dinner, that this was the head of the jellyfish, not the more commondly used tentacles. Another dish prized only for its rubbery, chewy, gelantous texture (like Ricola cough drops) and as a vehicle for a sesame based sauce. Good if you like this sort of thing.

Eggs with oysters - Chinese hangtown fry. Eggs and oysters seem to have universal appeal. This was my favorite dish. Someone at my table who, not quite as keen at the plainer flavors, noted, it was still an extremely well executed omelete, neither dry nor greasy as some of these egg dishes can be.

Salty Chicken - At the second meal planning meeting, we decided to add another meat dishe. This is what they suggested. Very different, a dried chicken, chicken bacalao, recontstituted and served as is. I think the nearly unanamous opinion on this one was, well we tried it.

Ribs in rice wine sauce - The ribs were more like pork chops, breaded and fried and then stir-fried in a the rice wine. The rice wine tastes strongly of fungus (the Chinese style yeast) and also has sweet undercurrent. It made a nice base for the fatty pork.

Conch with chinese celery - Another texture dish, although the conch, while looking similiar to tendon, melts much easier in the mouth. The Chinese celery tasted strong and fresh and set up the conch well. This may have been my wife's favorite.

Red cooked duck and dried bamboo - The first dish made with red lees "hong zhao". This is the mash leftover from making the rice wine, and dishes stewed in it are the most characteristic of Fukinese cooking. While people appreciated the tradition of the dish, many scoffed at the heavy "barnyard" aroma as well as the chewy items in the dish. In the minority, I liked it, and like a lot of very strong, very new flavors, it grew on me over time.

Red cooked rabbit with fresh bamboo's - Some contrast to the dish above. This was not so stew like, more of a red stir-fry.

Fried fish with noodles - Not what I expeced, which is deep fried fish fillets on a bed of noodles. Everything about this dish was different. The noodles were rice and wide, the size of fetuccini, the fish was in chunks stirred in (not deep fried), and several clams dotted the dish. Very Italian in style and execution, especially if you like strong flavors of the sea.

Chinese green with tons of garlic - My menu helper, RST, made them run out and find some kind of special green instead of the pea shoots they had planned. About as good as can be from fresh bought greens, cooked well, with tons of garlic.

Eel in soup - As in Shanghai, Fu Choy uses the eel a lot in its cooking. When I did menu planning for this meal, they told me the eel was alive still. Well, it was dead by the time it got to our table near the end of the long procession of dishes. It came in chunks, scored, in a broth about as fatty as the eel itself. Not a hugely popular dish with me or anyone else. Fish fat with bones, mild.

Whole fish "special sauce" - My one contribution to the menu planning. They had suggested sweet and sour fish, I could not resist anything in a special sauce. They wondered if we could eat whole fish. I assured yes for sure. The fist itself was frozen, from China. We debated long, whether to use this fish or the tank swimming tilapia. The fish came out nice, only slightly tasting of the freezer. Amazingly, while most everyone else liked it, I found the taste wierd and not really pleasant.

Sweet rice with pineapple steamed in fresh pinapples - Terrific version of rice pudding.

Sweet soup with taro and tapico - Soothing sweet end to a fantastic meal.


Chinese Kitchen
2343 S. Wentworth
Chicago, IL

Note, I have not provided an expert translation of the dish names. They may appear slightly different on the menu. Our waitress Windy spoke English good enough to be able to help you find these and other fine dishes. In general, the Fukinese dishes are on the last page of the menu.