Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Same ol' same ol
Smith and Wollensky, Great Diner; Sabri Nehari, Greasy-Good; Peninsula, Great Tea/Lousy Tea

In the last 48 hours, I have visited three of my favorite places in Chicago. Here's a quick re-cap, but the bottom line, nothing's changed (thank God!).

Smith and Wollensky
It was not wine week, and as I was soon off to a business meeting, I had no wine, but even sober, I love this place. It remains, to me, not so much a steakhouse, but a great American diner. The burger was maybe even more delicious than ever, the steak sammy remains an ideal lunch combo--$15 for a thin prime ribeye steak, plenty of fresh-cut fries, better than decent cole slaw and even a nice pickle. The chowhounditas split the truffled mac and cheese, which one daughter liked a lot more than the other. After taking her first bite, she says, "hey it has mushrooms too." Service was ideal, with the pit boss system also used to great effect at Hugo's Frog Bar and all the Emeril restaurants. The other thing about S&W, it just seems so urbane. If you rarely see men well dressed these days, it seems you rarely see men at S&W not well dressed. I loved the image of these two older gentleman at the bar (or as the kidz would call it, the counter) in perfect chalk-striped suits, imbiding on amber manhattan cocktails (like extras from a Thin Man movie).

Sabri Nehari
Bread and meat, robust, spicy and with all the right amounts of grease, what could be better on the coldest day of the year? The signature nehari was as good as always, but my favorite dish of the night was the lamb gosht, more red than usual but with a huge amount of ghee that counter-balanced all of the spices.

Afternoon Tea - Peninsula Hotel
One of the chowhounditas was especially not happy when confronted with the the kidz tea menu. With her mom's sense of justice, she just knew she was getting a raw deal (actually that is a very un-fair analogy, because the Condiment Queen knows a real raw deal when she sees one). Still, when Hannah's deal arrived it changed her completely! On a clear glass plate, she (and Sophia) got a small burger (but a very nice looking burger), a shot glass of fries, a shot glass of jelly bellies, a shot glass of jello w/real whipped cream, a terrific fudge brownie, and "tea sammy's" of peanutbutter and ham and cheese (crustless). It was supposed to come with hot chocolate, but the kidz wanted tea--and ordered the mint melange. The parents, of course, knew we'd like our tea. Great scones, cookies, sammy's, a mint chocolate souffle, what was not to like? My only complaint with the Peninsula's tea is the tea. It's just too weak. And they do not bring milk with the tea.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Getting Sauced - Babylon Eatery

Babylon Kitchen appeared yesterday at the right time, when Mom and Dad were hungry and tired after a trip to Costco (kidz quenched by that amazing rubber pizza that tastes not bad did not share the need to eat). And Babylon might not be the place I would go to in search of Arabian food, but I cannot say I did not enjoy my food last night, especially the sauces. Babylon reminds me of a place in New York City, where you run across good and inexpensive ethnic eateries outside of ethnic enclaves, with good enough food. Like NYC, inexpensive is relative.

The chowhounditas, while sated on pizza have a need to consume, experience. They dickered over what to share, finally agreeing on the falafel sandwich. Now, $4 for a falafel sammy is not that expensive, but not the dirt cheap falafel found in other parts of the city. Still, the falafel, shaped like tiny Bedouin tents, gets thrown in the fryer after we ordered them. As it has been said 1,000 times before, a fresh falafel is a fine falafel. I do not think the thin pita used was a concession to low carb mania, but I liked it that way. The Condiment Queen got the vegetarian combo. I tried the baba ganoush and the grape leaves and liked both. The grape leaves had that tight-dense structure that requires recent handiwork, and the baba had that nice smoky flavor from too long on the grill. I did not try the hummus, but Sophia lapped it up (Forcing Ms. VI into my plate of mixed shwarma).

I liked the shwarma least. If the falafel benefited greatly by getting ready for us, the shwarma suffered awfully from not being ready for us. I should have know better because the two spits of shwarma, meat and chicken really looked spent, yet we all have our benchmarks. They fry the shwarma in a pan to get it ready to eat. It did not get slimy or otherwise yucky as some re-heated shwarma gets. I actually was fine with the dry, shall we say arid (crisp?) texture, but the shwarma also lacked much in the way of flavors. Luckily, Babylon supplied a real good hot sauce. With a bit of investigating, I learned that Babylon's Mexican cook put together the hot sauce. He said it included chile de arbol, but I really think it included that canned chipoltle chiles in adobado, it had that smoky flavor. Another good sauce, that also seemed borrowed, was a green sauce served on some fried potatoes. The sauce had the same look, although not quite the same kick as the green sauce served at the Peruvian restaurant around the corner from Babylon.

Like I say, Babylon does not come close to the hospitality of Steve's Shish Kebab House or Salaam. At the last second, I threw an order of torshi, pickles, into the order, again to try. Again, the pickles were good enough but darn too few for the price. If I was in the area, say coming home from Costco again, I would probably return to Babylon for the food though.

Babylon Eatery
2023 N. Damen Ave

Monday, November 08, 2004

Places Already Mentioned - Less Satisfied Edition

Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I got to go to three places I generally enjoy, but in each case, I enjoyed them less than usual. I offer this not so much as "downhill alerts", just data points. Mostly, it goes to show, it's not all good.

The Colombian Place on Fullerton near Kedzie - Gloria's
There has been a place offering Colombian food, especially roasted chicken on Fullerton just west of Kedzie for about 6 or so years. For many years, it was owned by the same family that owned Flying Chicken of various locations on Lincoln. Sometime in recent times, the place on Fullerton changed ownership. While it is not widely noted on-site, I believe the current name is Gloria's. Now, I have been a few times since Gloria took over. Until Friday, I found the quality the same--very good. Not Friday. The roast chicken had a very off taste, like maybe it was just old, the grilled chicken breast was devoid of any marinade and hence was devoid of much taste. Only a grilled steak satisfied. Some sides were decent enough. (Sorry, I do not have the exact address)

With the demise of the Slovakian restaurant, Happy Noodle, can the 2900 block of N. Central still carry weight as the best chow block in Chicago? After a week of pain and anguish, I thought a bit of pigging out would help. Groto, for a while, has been our favorite Polish buffet. And yes, for $6.75, it was worth it, but it was not quite as worth it as usual. Some of the things that always "make" the buffets for me, paled. The potato pancakes were especially greasy, and the blintzes were not much better. I still liked the stuffed cabbage a lot and all the cold salads and Polish style spareribs, and the buffet included soup, like all Polish soup, that would be delicious to the extreme. Again, it was more than enough good food for the money, but in the past, I have not had anything to quibble with at Grota besides weak coffee. Saturday, the results were mixed. (3112 N. Central, Chicago, IL)

El Guanaco
We met SethZ and Kerensa for my new passion, pupusas last night. Like Grota, there was still a lot of great things on the table, especially for the money, but it was not all good this time. The biggest disappointment was the homemade sausage. Like the Colombian chicken above, it just tasted too old. The herbs seemed dead. The other problem with the dinner was, you just cannot share pupusas across six people. It was just unsatisfying eating the slices. I liked fried yucca with bits of chicharron and a slightly spicy red sauce, but no one else liked it that much. A pastel de carne, which I had not had before, was worth ordering. (6345 W. Grand, Chicago, IL)

Monday, November 01, 2004

Cannot Get Enough of the "New" Mandarin Kitchen

The Condiment Queen could, push come to shove, eat Chinese food more often than me, but she has a much greater need for variety. I'm quite comfortable camping out one place, one place being the garish Mandarin Kitchen. Right now I would offer Shanghainese food as my favorite form of Chinese food. Plus, I would offer that Shaghai food more closely "fits" our climate in Chicago than other kinds of Chinese food. Which is just a few reasons that I want to keep on eating at the Mandarin Kitchen. Really liking the food helps too. I especially like Mandarin Kitchen with the Brilliant One, who like at all Chinese outings with him, enables a little deeper menu probing.

The ever competitive B1 HAD to have some kind of Shanghainese soup mentioned on the Vancouver Chowhound board. There was no way I could have ever got to this dish without him unless I had ordered the dish purely at random*. We were told that this was a very homestyle dish, and just the tureen alone, when it showed up at the table with its various burn marks and other dings and dangs, seemed straight from someone's kitchen. Surely, this soupish item did not seem like "casserole with fresh pork and salt pork." See here for more on this delicious soup.

We had two dishes that looked quite similar, the classic Shanghainese braise of rock sugar, dark soy and vinegar. One contained meatballs, the other chicken with chestnuts. It was worth having both. I really liked the chestnuts that got just soft enough in the braise, and the flavors of liquid did just enough to off-set the heaviness of chestnuts.

The flounder with seaweed was still as tasty as Seth Z previously described, but it was not quite as salty this time. I prefer the saltier version, but the enormously charming Idee, who manages The New Mandarin Kitchen, sez that Shanghainese prefer it less salty. I suppose the version Seth and I had, that we liked so much before was the less authentic version.

Cold appetizers, yesterday tendon in chile oil and peanuts with seaweed (sea moss) and hot appetizers, complimentary vegetable dumplings and the de rigueur soup dumplings were as good as always.

It is gonna be hard to get me to another restaurant in Chinatown in the near term.

The New Mandarin Kitchen
2143 S Archer

*It goes without saying that but for Seth Z's dinner at the famous New Green Bo in NYC, I would never know of the value of fish with seaweed. As I have said 100's of times, it is amazing how much better my eating has gotten since the discovery of Chowhound/LTHForum.com

Sunday, October 31, 2004

The best of all was an 80 year old African American man who said to me: “When I first started I wasn’t even allowed to vote. Then, when I did, they was trying to intimidate me. But now I see all these folks here to make sure that my vote counts. This is the first time in my life that I feel like when I cast my vote it’s actually gonna be heard.”

Via Talking Points Memo

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Monday, October 25, 2004

Can We Talk - Places Mentioned Again

What's the rule for reposing. Does one need new information about a place. Must there changes? Should we regularly update our old posts?

Here's a quick rundown on recent meals at places I have written about before:

Yum Thai
Has the attention made this strip mall Thai better? I have been twice in recent weeks and the food was as good if not better than ever, and they have hired a few extra servers. Rumors abound of a new version of the "secret" menu. Until then, you can work off of the old foodfirst version. An orange soup-curry from the Thai menu on a recent visit was too hot for some of my dining companions. You might love it. I nearly always order one dish from the regular menu, a dish of grilled steak, too much garlic, too much sliced fresh peppers and a bit of dressing. Amazing. Chewy rice noodles have been especially good too. 7748 W. Madison, Forest Park, IL.
(708) 366-8888

La Quebrada
Breakfast has to be a winner when the chilequiles come from fresh made tortillas. A recent order of ceviche Acapulceno was a bit tiny, and it took a while to get the extra jalepenos needed to make it exactly as I like it, but once I settled in on this limey pleasure, I did not care about much else. 4859 W. Roosevelt Rd. Cicero, IL (and other locations)

Grand Slam Pizza
This is not "classic" Chicago thin pizza, Vito and Nick's style pizza with no border, but it is exceedingly good thin crust pizza. Lately, the crust has been a bit harder, and while I am no crisp fetishist, the extra cook only made this pizza better. Go here for coupons and other info.

OK, I do not think I have ever written about the Berwyn branch of this red sauce-aria. They have a great sampler, chicken parma, sauteed mushrooms (you wonder why until you cannot get enough of the mushrooms), cheese ravioli, sausage and meatball all drenched in that red sauce, Sunday sauce any day. 7111 Roosevelt Rd. Berwyn, IL

3-D Jerk Chicken
Not the best jerk chicken in Chicago, but...I wish this still used the jerry-rigged Weber under the hood instead of the gas fired Southern Pride as the meat, while well cooked, tastes a bit of gas (and I do not buy the idea that gas has no flavor). More than great chicken, the $7 chicken is one of the finest deals in Chicago. You get a 1/2 chicken well hacked, over a lot of gravied rice and beans, a slice of dough bread (always a reason to have jerk), a good portion of well cooked, peppery cabbage, and another good portion of sweet, sweet potatoes. The dish of jerk sauce, a Chicago thing, seems too small until you realize its scotch bonnet intensity requires not much more in the bucket. 5317 W. North Ave, Chicago. Take Out only (773-637-6518)

Thyme and Honey
$14.95 for home-made soup, several fried shrimps, a nicely flavored and tender butt steak, fresh made garlic mashed potatoes AND dessert. It made an unexpected fine dinner on a Saturday night when we meant to go to Chinatown but left too late. 100 S Oak Park, Oak Park

The "New" Mandarin Kitchen
I have yet to go here when I cannot possibly come close to ordering all the things I want. Too many good things. I keep on, however, veering to a few key dishes: homemade noodles, salty vegetable with minced tofu, soup dumplings, fresh sesame pancakes. They have lunch specials that are amazing deals at less than $5 for food, and they are worth it just for the boiled peanuts. Based on a post card, the hot pot looks well worthwhile to order. 2143 S Archer, Chicago

Monday, October 18, 2004

To Know Salvadoran Food Is to Love Salvadoran Food - El Guanaco

I was on a jury most of last week, inhibiting slightly the passing out of vital information, but on the other hand, I got an extra visit to El Guanaco before writing about it. I have become rather smitten of Salvadoran food, at least as served there.

Until a few weeks ago, my knowledge of Salvadoran food ended about at: pupusas, something I thought of as cole slaw, and fried bananas with sour cream eaten years and years ago in DC. With this Salvadoran place, El Guanaco, opening very close to me, I am starting to learn a bit more about this food. The majority of the items on the comida Salvadorena section of the menu at El Guanaco (the menu also includes comida Mexicana, Pizza--thin, pan and by the slice--and even a section of antojitos Colombianos*) are under $3 and only one item, a combination plate extends to $9.50. What this means, at least to the VI family, is that we order tapas style from El Guanaco, lots of plates of things to try. And thus, we are learning a bit more of Salvadoran food.

The oddest thing we have learned is that Salvadorans appear to appreciate a jarring array of flavors at the table. Of course there are pupusas, heavier than say a quesadilla, with a hot but not Zim hot red sauce and the vinegary and oregano dominated slaw. But there is also the fried plantain with sour cream, also quite heavy but not spicy at all. Sweet. Yet, not nearly as sweet as the empanada de platano con leche. This should be a dessert, but it is clearly not in the section called postres or desserts. It is like a plantain donut, covered with sugar but stuffed inside with a log of condensed milk. Also, highly sweet and highly unusual was a kind of atole we tried last visit--not on the menu, ask. It is served in two parts. Part one is a bowl of mashed, very, very, very ripe yucca with a few dumplings similar to the above sugared milk log. It is very sweet. Part two is a large wobbly bowl (placed in another bowl for balance) of something yellow, tasting mostly of licorice. One of the chowhounditas compared it to the candied fennel seeds eaten post dinner in Indian restaurants. Like I say, you get a lot of flavors quickly on the table.

My favorite thing so far on our table at El Guanaco is their home-made sausage, "estilo cojutepeque". It reminded me twice of Thai sausage, both with its loose mixture of pork and its high herbal element. It is served with a medium sized handmade Salvadoran style tortilla, essentially an unstuffed pupusa. Those pupusas, they do not match my all time favorite served at the Hollywood California weekly farmer's market, but pupusas by dint of being made to order are almost all universally at least good. The pupusas at El Guanco come with the usual cheese and beans and chicharron but also unusual (to us) stuffings of lorocco, some type of Salvadoran flower and ayote, a kind of squash. Sliced jalepenos can be added to any pupusa. The only quibble we have had with the pupusas at El Guanaco is that on both visits, the pupusas we got did not match what we ordered. So, for instance, we have had the lorocco twice, but I am not quite sure what it tastes like. We got a chicarron pupusa by mistake the other night. I liked it a lot more than the rest of the family. It is not the really goey chicarron served in Mexican stews, but neither is it bacon crisp like you would get at Colombian resturants, about like a confit or rillete (to continue to be cross-cultural in references).

Even though dinner might include those sweet things, order dessert. El Guanaco makes a highly delicious homemade cheesecake, a bit in the style of Eli's but with a much better crust. Also, I should add, on the sweetness front, El Guanaco serves a whole range of Salvadoran drinks, pops, agua frescas, atoles, and they are all sweet, very sweet too. The atole, however, does come with a nice chunk of corn on the cob.

El Guanaco is a very good place to continue to learn about Salvadoran food. The staff, son and daughter of Mom who is in the kitchen, speak excellent English, and they are keen on introducing you to their stuff.

*Which is also how I learned about the Colombian fare. I noticed the owner's younger kidz eating Colombian empanadas. It gave me my opportunity to ask about the Colombian antojitos section of the menu. It seems that Mom, upon arrival from El Salvador many years earlier, took a job in a Colombian restaurant, eventually managing it. There, she learned how to make killer empandadas, or so her son says. Perhaps I will try, but I am still anxious to become a bit more expert on Salvadoran food.

El Guanaco
6345 W. Grand
Chicago, IL

Friday, October 15, 2004

"What they are currently objecting to is the fact that their hypocrisy has been exposed. To which the only answer is: if you don't want to be exposed as a hypocrite, don't be one."
Andrew Sullivan on Bush-Cheney and their "outrage" over the mention of Mary Cheney as a lesbian.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Slow Food Guide to Chicago + Sabri Nehari

I got my copy of The Slow Food Guide to Chicago the other night. In my humble, but vital opinion, this is (by far), the best guide book available for Chicago. OK, I have a vested interest, being one of the contributors, but I wrote about five pages worth of a 350+ page book. That's not a lot of pride in ownership.

Maybe like other contributors, the first thing I did was see where my name was, and unfortunately, like a few other contributors, I got my name spelled wrong. Next, we all played the what got left out game (or they put that in game). A few things jumped out at me. No MacArthurs in the soul food section, some of my favorite Colombian and Mexican places absent. Still, you can not judge a book like this from its inclusions or exclusions. Any collaborative effort will not be the exact book you would do. Yet, when you start looking at the book in its entirety, you find, clearly, the best, most complete, most thorough, most informative guide to Chicago's restaurants, markets and bars. I highly recommend finding this book ASAP.

You know this is a better guide book when you look in the neighborhood & suburbs index. First, Albany Park, and there are eight listings. Not only does this book range around the city from Austin to Wrigleyville, it includes more than a couple of, that's what that area's called neighborhoods. Did you know that La Oaxaquena was in Kilbourn Park--sounds like a new late night comedy collaboration. This book really covers ground. More important, the entries educate and entice. Ms. VI said to me after hearing me read some to her, "they remind me of Jonathan Gold's [guide to LA]." Could there be higher praise? I especially like the Polish section which really helps demystify. The BBQ section, slightly previewed a few months ago in the Reader, carries the eater to a bunch of interesting and "real" places. The best section, perhaps, is the final, on markets and shops. The Slow Food researchers cover the city like no one else. Not every shop is covered, but nearly any category of food shop (excluding Jewel) gets a spot.

Fueled by Slow Food prose, the Condiment Queen demanded that we visit my particular area of "expertise" last night, Da'Bomb. Specifically, we returned to Sabri Nehari, one of my favorite restaurants on the strip. We got a ton of there stuff: chicken chunks (boti), frontier chicken, lamb curry, strips of beef liver (not on purpose but turning out to be well worth the mistake), both kinds of samosas (their ground beef samosas are especially good), lentils featuring a lot of roasted garlic, tons of naan and pizza like wedges of parantha, and of course, the namesake dish, the nehari. And of course, the nehari was the best dish. The muddy brown sauce belied a hotter than usual sauce yesterday, but it was more than heat as wave after wave of flavor hit you as you soaked it up with the bread. I sat facing the kitchen door. Nearly every order came out the door the same way, huge stacks of naan and bowls of nehari. If you got nothing else, you would well appreciate Sabri.

Sabri Nehari
2511 W. Devon Ave
(773) 743-6200

Thursday, October 07, 2004

I Love That I Know About the Authentic Kabbabish

I have three things to say about Kabbabish, the tiny 24 hour steam table joint in Cabbie Alley along Orleans:

  1. Perhaps the biggest never ending debate amongst foodies is the authentic thing. I sympathize slightly with the team that underplays authenticity because, of course, it matters most how it tastes. And if you futz with recipe in a way that produces something delicious, why argue. The problem, as those on the authenticity team point out readily, is that when things are made "authentically" or the way it has been made, it tastes better. In other words, there is a reason things have been done one way. Kabbabish tastes so good because it is authentic. It may not be totally authentic in a sense of ingredients or cooking tools; they offered canned peas today. But it tastes the way it is supposed to taste (judging by its clientele, I really have no idea how it is supposed to taste).
  2. The very fact that I love Kabbabish so is testament to the chowhound process. Hounds like ReneG scouted out the various cabbie places, singling out Kabbabish for me to enjoy, and hounds like Zim helped me learn so much more about the product being offered. As was noted in today's Reader, we are a tribe that likes to eat AND talk about eating, and believe me, the latter is just as important. Kabbabish is a prime example of the actions of talking and eating.
  3. Ah, but the eating, once again I ate so well at Kabbabish for the never changing price of $6. Today's table featured a bit of leftover orange semolina (halwa), two forms of goat curry, a chicken curry in a very dark sauce, ground beef (keema), grilled chicken, a vegetable (canned peas with potatoes) and a yellow thick dal, plus the away from the table, superior fish tacos. Starch could be rice or fresh made chapatis. I went with the keema, Pakistani sloppy joes (or in today's multi-culti society, Pakistani picadillo), a mixture of sauteed hamburger, whole cinnamon sticks, tiny whole dried peppers (the ones that look almost like crabapples Zim), intriguing black cardamon, bell peppers, tomatoes, and a bit of Kabbabish magic. I kicked up a few notches by asking them to take a bowl of chopped jalepenos that was sitting around doing noting, and toss it on my beef. Like ceviche and papaya salad, keema is the kind of dish I cannot make too hot.


939 N Orleans

Chicago, IL

Thursday, September 30, 2004

More Fun Down River -- Jolietathon II

There are all sorts of pleasures in eating experiences. There is the canoodle with your honey; a meals made special from the libations alongside; high rollin' steak with buddies in Vegas; a work dinner closing a big project. Walking into lone restaurant on an industrial stretch of Roosevelt and finding the best restaurant in Chicagoland means something as does a multi-course degustation. Still, I find special pleasure, as I noted the other day, in sitting down with a bunch of likeminded folks and ordering for all of you, a few steak sandwiches, extra garlic butterine, and a side of relishes. Anyone can have a good meal, but hounding is about having it all at the table. Follow a very special Mexican meal with steaks coated in garlic butter. It is possible.

We had it all last week in another adventure down river from Chicago: hand made caramels and caramel apples from Dan's, very special chicken legs in green mole and beef with green tomato at Ameer Tapatio and steak sammy's, extra butterine (and three relishes) at Merichka's. I would say that the scenery along IL Route 83 alongside the Des Plaines River is suprisingly, gorgeously, bluff-y, and the food in and near Joliet is well worth the schlep.

I am incapable of heading toward Joliet without stopping at Honey Fluff Donut's, especially as they have a special of $3.50 for a dozen donuts after 2 PM. I negotiated hard to include a portion or apple fritters, the LTH house treat it seems, in my dozen. We settled on 8 "real" donuts and 2 fritters. Unfortunately, these donuts tasted like they were priced to go, not a showcase at all. My donut stop put me behind schedule, and my pleasure in taking the slow way, put me even further behind. I missed entirely Dan's Candy, benefiting, however, from Dickson's proxy purchases and SteveZ's pictures.

Dan's Candy:

I would say of Dan's, great caramel apples, great plain caramels, so-so caramel with nuts. For whatever reason, the caramels with nuts had a distracting chemicalish flavor.

On to Ameer Tapatio. As much pleasure as Ameer Tapatio gave me, I could not avoid some frustration. After the house-made salsas, after the salad, after the guisado of beef and fresh green tomato, after the 12th plate of home made tortillas, but during the wonderfully complex green mole, it boiled over. How could any summary of Mexican restaurants in Chicagoland, as Chicago Magazine recently attempted, skip this place. Sure, there was no lavish tequillas menu, and I do not think any of the workers knew Rick Bayless, but this place should be included. First of all, it is no secret at this point. Mugs did the hard work, finding this gem amongst the strip malls on the road out to the prison. It has been written about often on Chowhound and LTHForum. Second, it is truly fine Mexican food. You do not walk into a strip mall restaurant and normally expect a mole composed of about 10 ingredients including romaine lettuce, radish greens, pumpkin seeds and tomatillo's. And at that same dinner to have another sauce made with the linguistically similar but very different (botany speaking) green tomato. I am sorry. My anger at Dennis Wheaton diminished ever so slightly, my pleasure.

Here's the res entomado (beef in a sauce of green tomatoes)

And the chicken legs in green mole

We moved quickly upon the closure of Ameer Tapatio to Merichka's. I s'pose at one point, Merichka's was roadhouse in the mold of the late Horwath's, but like Horwath's, it is now surrounded by development. Merichka's menu of steaks, relishes, cracker baskets and $3 mixed drinks remains very old school. The house specialty at Merichka's is butterine, a mixture, we think, of butter, margarine, and fresh garlic. As much butterine as you can handle glistens the bread on the house steak sandwich. You can also get a hamburger done butterine style, which of course we did. Steak dinners come with relishes, but we had to order them on the side. Pickled beets, kidney beans and cottage cheese, the always amazing ReneG amazed me by downing a good portion of that cottage cheese with his steak sammy. I did not notice if doused it in butterine. We dispersed quickly back up river.

Sorry, I do not have the addresses handy.
My Friend Guido

If you were in high school, in Chicago's North Shore circa 1980, you were amazed to find that one Hollywood movie spoke directly at you. Your life was Risky Business. Even if you never played choo-choo with a hooker on the milk run of the, well it was not called the Red Line back then, you related to this movie. Fretting about colleges, your fall-back school, padding your resume with dumb activities in pursuit thereof; maxing out your parent's stereo (although me and my friends liked to make the glass shake with Led Zepplin's Dazed and Confused, not Bob Segar); raiding the bar and otherwise seeing what could be done while they still trusted you. Of course, we were never chased by a killer pimp named Guido instead of studying for a trig exam, in my all time favorite moment from the film. But now, I have my own Guido.

I just adore Club Lago. If it is not the coolest restaurant in Chicago, it is in the top five. I mentioned to Aaron D, who I dined with yesterday, that it was imperative that the city of Chicago landmark the entire interior of Club Lago. From the wooden booths, to the tile floor to the giant ugly heater, no place could be designed this perfect any more. At times, I have followed the lead of JeffB and John M with the Executive Salad. The dish that conjures up Larry Tate and three martini lunches in my mind. It is an ideal combination of saline treats. It has, however, one huge flaw. It is too tiny for my appetite, yet too expensive for my tight wallet. In other words, I could eat two, but I would never do that. So, lately, I have been searching the menu for other treats. "Old School", an infrequent Chowhound poster who eats at Club Lago nearly daily, once pushed the yankee pot roast. I made the mistake one day of trying to insert roast beef for pot roast, and now I am pretty much scared of meat and gravy at Club Lago. I could do what Old School does, compose my own dish--it is a treasure to see him in action there, "make me the veal the way I like it, with the garlic.." Maybe, though, I will stick with the Guido.

Like most things Club Lago, I am following in the footsteps of giants (as C2 might say), and it was Andy O'Neil who I first saw with Guido. Unlike me, Andy does not dissect his meal while he eats it, preferring instead to enjoy a range of discussion. Yet the look on his face convinced me to meet Guido soon. You ever go into a good Italian sammy shop, say La Milanase or JC Bombacigno's with total indecision. What appeals today. They all sound good. Well, if you are having one of those days, head over to Club Lago. The Guido combines meatballs and Italian beef and sausage and grilled onions and sweet peppers (and a nice giardinari if you ask). All of this gets smashed between two slices of D'Amato's long bread. In fact the use of D'Amato's bread would be enough of a reason to eat this sandwich, but this Italian wedding feast on a bun is pretty special regardless. Some of the component parts were better than others, the meatballs were especially good, the beef no Johnnie's, but like a lot of things in life, the sum was greater than its parts.

Me and Guido get along quite well these days.

Club Lago
331 W. Superior St
Chicago, IL
(312) 951-2849

Monday, September 27, 2004

Yes, No, Depends on the Question -- Arun's

I'm gonna give away a good key bit from my forthcoming and now past due report on last week's Joliet-athon. It was how, but for Chowhound/LTH, could one sit down in a restaurant AFTER a big meal, and do this: order (for six) 2 steak sandwiches, extra garlic butterine, and side of relishes. How many of us longed to do things like that for ages? DougK famously noted, it took finding our tribe. Which gets me to Arun's.

It was my birthday dinner, and I could essentially pick any spot, from the most humble and favored skinny hot dog at Gene and Judes to Rick and Gale's grand tasting collections at Tru. I chose Arun's. And I choose Arun's not that much on my longing for its version of Royal Thai (or what ever they consider their food), but I choose Arun's as fodder. JustJoan, the baker, warned me against going. I told her I wanted to go. I wanted to go to because I felt that someone who likes to proclaim all sorts of things about Chicago dining should have some understanding of the full range. Moreover, as someone who has specifically proclaimed on Thai dining, I felt I wanted a meal at Arun's for balance (just as I seek one day to go to Monsoon or Vermillion for comparison). Arun's was a birthday present to myself, something to write about. What an expensive folly.

The questions about Arun's stand twofold: is it worth the price and is it the most spectacular Thai food in Chicago. As one of my favorite blogs would say, sadly, no! With no irony, I can say, the only one bite was good (one bite salad). They served up food both astoundingly pedestrian and astoundingly mediocre. Nothing sums up our meal like a plate of not very good pad Thai. The kitchen entirely composes the meal, and what you get seems a bit of a crapshoot. For instance, they did not provide us oyster pancakes or crabcakes that other tables received, but were, of course, privy to the pad Thai. They do ask about spice preference, and we said very hot. They said Thai hot, and we said yes. A few of the dishes got exceedingly hot, Zim hot, from very ample use of Thai chile peppers, but in these cases, the balance in the dishes was so off, that it just hurt the mouth. To pile on, their method of serving the entrees family style resulted in dishes being cold by the time we got to them. And, sadly no, we did not leave wowed by the desserts. I would say that I had a very nice bottle of Sancerre, tasting like the best grapefruit juice imaginable. It highly complemented the meal, but then again I could bring my own Sancerre, for a fraction of the price, to Spoon or Thai Avenue, and get a good meal along side.

Here's the play by play:

Unlike anything else in its pricepoint (that I know of), Arun's does not open with an amuse, a little freebie to impress. Right down to business here. Right down to business with an especially un-impressive first course, a skewer of tempura vegetables, all neatly cut in matching squares, on top of a salad with a Thai fish cake. Both my wife and I went for the tempura first, thinking eat fried hot. Instantly, the greasy batter, hardly light tempura, put us off. I can tell you that the vegetables included Japanese sweet potato but I stopped eating the tempura too soon to remember all the other vegetables. The fish cake was OK, no better or no worse than any fish cake around town, with the same gummy texture that comes from working the fish to death before frying. With the fish cake, Arun's blew its first chance to step above the genre. Could not you see a skilled chef taking the idea of Thai fish cake and lightening it up, mixing in chunks of fish and otherwise keeping the dish true but in a way better? Under the fish cake was a salad of very fine greens and a few bits of Asian long beans, but the kitchen made a dressing essentially from the bottled chile sauce associated with Thai grilled chicken. This was not the first time during the evening that a bottled sauce would serve as the main condiment.

Next, we had pike fish, grilled with a heavy hand of salt and pepper alongside a small serving of sauted greens and bean sprouts, a few Thai chiles perking up the vegetables. In my many crusades of late, I seek more use of freshwater fish, so I should be happy here, but as the old joke goes, did you like it, no and the portions were small too. I thought the again too much grease marred, but the portion was too small to really appreciate the light flavor of the pike. They sauteed the baby-baby spinach well.

We followed with one bite, one bite salad. Here finally, Arun's justified if every, every so slightly, their higher price. The one bite salad, a mix of dried coconut, shrimp and stuff came on a real betel leaf unlike Spoon Thai's dish which comes on lettuce. The betel leaf numbs the mouth. It is cool to loose sensation in your mouth for about 60 seconds, but while the Condiment Queen had no quibble with this dish, I gotta say it missed some of the zing of Spoon's. Spoon uses bits of lime, and the lime peel included gives the dish a dose of bitterness that makes the dish so much more. Arun's was good.

I've already discussed the pad Thai.

After the pad Thai, we got another normal Thai dish, glass noodle salad. It got upscaled by a big shrimp, although we had just had a big shrimp on the pad Thai, so the gesture seemed meaningless. With this dish they really went to town with the chile peppers, but the dish lacked lime, sugar and fish sauce like most Thai salads. Therefore, the chiles just bombarded your tongue with no assistance. A really lousy dish.

Our final appetizer was a dumpling filled with more shrimp, a bit of chicken and a nut or two, like a piece of dim sum. I s'pose we were to be impressed by the tapioca pearl wrapper, but like I say, I've had better dim sum. Underneath the dumpling was a thin schmear of bottled chile sauce.

As I noted above, entrees come family style. Three plates looking very beautiful and a small bowl of rice. I believe these entrees were the exact same as what JeffB had when he reported about Arun's on Chowhound, which says something too, no?: red snapper with crisp seaweed and bottled sauce, chicken in a yellow curry and beef mussaman curry, and a lobster (and more) shrimp medley. The soft texture of the beef, advertised as tenderloin, but I believe flanken appealed and the quality of the lobster was high, but the dishes had just no substance. Like I said above, they were further marred by being cold after a while.

We got two desserts, the first mango with sticky rice, the second a small ball of coconut sorbet. Ms. VI believed that the mango/rice came with a sauce of melted lime sherbert. I just kept on commenting how it was so much less satisfying than the one I had a month or so ago at Thai Aree which benefited so much from the mysterious seeds.

The meal rather ends abruptly after those two small desserts. Anything else they ask, and then shoo you along. It is probably meaningless to say at this point that I was less than impressed with the service and the praised decor. Sure, they removed all the plates quickly and get you supplied always with fresh forks and knives, but the service also was a conveyor belt, just a bunch of younger kids (including someone I know from another Thai restaurant), rushing plates to and fro. There was little sense of being taken care of. There is a lot of pretty paintings, but the small side room where we found ourselves sitting felt like in the extra room where a few tables were unfolded when too many people showed up.

As we were leaving, I noticed a printed menu on the hostess's stand. I asked if we could have it. Well, we could not have that one we were told. It was for Charlie Trotter who was coming in with a few media friends, but they'd make us a copy. She also offered to e-mail me a copy which I accepted. But if I was mad about our nearly $300 meal (with wine) up until that point, well the idea of Trotter and the media soon swooning, well that just got me madder. And of course, I noticed, Charlie was not getting the pad Thai. Still, I'd rather take him to Spoon.

4156 N. Kedzie Ave
Chicago, IL
(773) 539-1909

Monday, September 20, 2004

Fun Down River

We woke up Sunday with the intention of visiting the Maxwell Street market. Me just to eat, the wife to eat and shop and the kidz to pine over porcelain dolls, water yo-yo's and 1,000 other things that they want until they see the next thing they want. Give them $5 to spend for the day, and watch it go before the first taco consumed. Then, I read about the Arizona Charlie's flea market in Bollingbrook in Sunday's Chicago Tribune, and we decided to change plans. It might have been a good flea market with some good Mexican food. We never got there. Instead we did a bit of exploring of the South-West suburbs, some of the great and somewhat hidden gems of Chicagoland.

Whenever possible, I refuse to take the expressway. Sunday morning with little traffic, why not take the mother-road, old route 66 to Bollingbrook. What better way to "accidently" run into Honey Fluff Donuts, one of the great un-discussed food outlets in Chicago. I would not call Honey Fluff donuts truly great. I would not necessarily run from Oak Park to Countryside for a Honey Fluff donut, but when I drive by a Honey Fluff shop on a Sunday morning, damn if I am not gonna stop. For those who adore bearpaw sized apple fritters, Honey Fluff's looked awfully tempting. I limited myself, miserly, to one fresh buttermilk donut in anticipation of eating to come.

One cannot drive the full extent of old route 66. Right about where there is a huge hole in the ground (quarry), Joliet Road/Rt 66 detours and then just stops, forcing you on to Interstate 55. Instead of getting off at the re-started Joliet Road, we decided to get off at route 83 with the thought of brunch at Del Rhea's Chicken Basket for brunch. No brunch. Somehow this got us to Lemont, Illinois. We drove around this town for a while, but did not quite find the place that looked like we wanted. Still, what a great appearing place. Lemont may be a suburb, and I am sure outside Main Street it looks like any other suburb, but in the center of Lemont, along Main and the surrounding streets, it looked like any other small town in Illinois. I look forward to exploring Lemont a bit more some other time.

Going downriver, we ended up in Lockport. Reading the many signs around this town, you learn that at one point in the 19th century, Lockport stood equal with Chicago as the cities in Illinois. The Illinois-Michigan canal that made Lockport, Chicago and Illinois prosper is just a shallow duck pond now. Even with the signs, it is hard necessarily to imagine the locks and the canal traffic. But there are all sorts of historical buildings, left-over stuff from a around Will county plopped down, museums and sites in Lockport (nearly all, however closed mid-day on Sunday). Not only did we enjoy exploring yesterday, we avidly seek to return.

Of course, for me, no trip is worth discussing if it does not include food. Lockport has a couple of places of serious interest to the Chowhound: Public Landing, in the historic Gaylord Building on the canal and Tallgrass, a highly regarded Frenchish restaurant. There are, however, other places for the casual stroller. We ate breakfast and ice cream. The food at neither place was outstanding, but boy are the people in Lockport nice. The service in both places was, like Stepford Wives nice. And more than made up for anything on the menu.

Brunch, we ate at Old Stone Cafe. It's one of those places that serves a basic diner menu in a room devoid of naughahyde and adds eggs benedict and cappuchino to the menu for a bit of class. On the other hand, the prices were much cheaper than the same kind of places in Chicago. Biscuits and gravy tasted real enough but lacked a bit of soul. Same with their "State Street potatoes". The effort was there, but a certain amount of pizzaz was lacking. The Condiment Queen was not that happy with her mutltigrain pancakes. I'd eat at this place if I lived in Lockport, but other than that...

About an hour of so later, we stopped for ice cream at Cool Creations. With its stove, flavorings and machines quite visible, it is clear that Cool Creations makes their own ice cream--actually they make some of their own ice cream, they buy some also from Shermans. Like Old Stone Cafe, one can appreciate the effort but realize it is just not that special. Again, I would go here if I lived nearby, but not really run to.

Our last food stop in Lockport was at a farmstand on the way out of town on State, Glascott's I believe. They had plenty of corn, squashes, end of year cucumbers (it showed), and some very nice tomatoes. I'm glad it was there because we could not make our farmer's market on Saturday.

We timed all our eating to be ready for lupper, although the rest of the family did not know exactly what I had in mind. White Fence Farm IS a destination place. I can remember a time when White Fence Farm seemed like a trip to the country. Today, it is almost another suburban restaurant. Almost. One of the Chowhound posts that always sticks in my mind is Seth Zurer asking if White Fence Farm was a hot-sauce, white bread, bad fries kinda place. No. This is highly genteel fried chicken. Country fried chicken. Great fried chicken. Stiff, brittle, ideal crust protecting moist meat, pre-popeyes fried chicken. WFF came into being when good country fried chicken was not enough. As they say on Broadway, one needs a gimmick. WFF has them up the wazoo. Dinner comes with five relishes: pickled beets with soft onions, really rich cottage cheese, kidney beans in a thin mayo, a slaw of extra-fine mince in a clear dressing, and corn fritters that are a marvel of textures and flavors including a sugary crust and bits of kernals that stick to your teeth. For dessert at WFF, most of the players get the brandy ice, proof that cheap liquor and average vanilla ice cream tastes terrific together. Other gimmicks at WFF include a collection of vintage cars, a petting zoo, and those fun house mirrors I love. A lot of these gimmicks were put in place when the wait for chicken dinners seemed endless. I do not know if yesterday was typical, but it was not quite the madhouse I remember. One other point on White Fence Farm, skip the mashed potatoes, get the baked.

Old Stone Cafe
1100 South State Street
Lockport IL 60441

Cool Creations Deli & Ice Cream
937 South Hamilton Street
Lockport IL 60441

White Fence Farm
11700 Joliet Road
Lemont, IL 60439
630-739-1720 or 815-838-1500

Friday, September 17, 2004

I Love Salad

David "Hat" Hammond once famously declared, "I hate soup." It was a sentiment he later told me, borne out of frustration with the post Thanksgiving turkey carcass broth forced on him yearly. Yet, soup-phobia was a sentiment I found easy to accept. I was never a big soup fan. To me, soup meant something to fill you up in lieu of more meat. Moreover, I resented soup lovers. It was always easier to get a bowl of soup with your meal than say a plate of herring. Most Local Greek diners offer soup more readily than say, salad. So, I supported soup hating. Now, did I say salad. Salad was supposed to be the other side. Soup was red state, salad blue state (or something like that). I thought Hammond and I were the salad team. Then, he comes out and says, he hates salad too. He called salad stupid. Stupid for its oily mess, stupid for its faux calorie saving, and stupid because it was hard to digest. Hell, he even accused salad of harboring bacteria. I adore salad.

Of course, who really loves salad, that base of lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables (except my daughter Hannah who willingly eats plain lettuce). What I and most other salad lovers really adore is salad dressing. Is there any kitchen product better than salad dressing? I should ask, is there any kitchen product so accessible, yet so wonderful as salad dressing. I mean I love hollandaise sauce too, but I have nary the patience to make it. And I love mayonnaise but only feel confident in making it when we have pasturized eggs. I can make a great vinaigrette always. Not just always because it is a rather idiot proof recipe, but always because the ingredients are nearly always around. Something acid, something base, like kids with a bunch of litmus strips to play with. Each end contributes to good taste. Acid excites the tongue and all our senses. Oil makes us feel sated. It is lush on the palate. Together, they balance each other so that the shock of one is not too great, and the richness of the other is not to full. Besides, and here's where it gets truly scary. A lot, nay most, bottled salad dressings taste good too because they also have that magic combination. Day glo "French" even has its odd moments of glory. I have mentioned before how the simple combination of catsup and mayo makes a product infinitely better than its component parts. In fact the only salad dressings that I feel are lesser, are when sugars push into the party too hard and interfere with that equilibrium.

Still, do we eat salad dressing alone? Salad dressing is like an orchestra conductor. Without him or her, the musicians cannot function, but without facing an orchestra, a conductor's just a person waving arms. Salad dressing must have salad to be relevant. I noted above that absent a certain 10 year old girl living in Oak Park, people hardly enjoy the taste of lettuce. Salad dressing not only tames the bitterness of greens, it affects an alchemy. It may be messy and laden with calories, but boy does it taste good when combined with vegetables. It does the ideal thing to lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots or any of a bunch of other vegetable that could possibly be considered "salad."

I like all salads. All forms of goods under dressing, but I love best the composed salad, the chopped salad, the julienne salad, the antipasto salad, whatever you want to call it. Add a bit of heft from chopped chicken breast, some pugency of blue cheese, crunchy-salt of bacon, fat of salami or whatever, and the salad is just that much better. In the middle of Oak Park is an odd restaurant called Thyme and Honey run by a dapper Greek with an affection for loud pocket squares. His restaurant produces some surprisingly good things, including one of the best chopped steaks around. I, however, can barely budge from their composed salad. Today, like nearly every time I go to Thyme and Honey, I got the julienne salad. None of the produce or other ingredients is especially, special but it is the sheer amount of them, working off of each other that makes this salad so great. It is lettuce and tomato and hard cooked eggs and celery and green onion (and red onion which I skip) and green peppers and rice stuffed grape leaves and greek broad beans and ham and turkey and two kinds of cheese and cucumber. And it is lots of dressing, made in house, featuring bits of lemons and onions--the former a bit of a pain as I was having this salad today at a business lunch and I kept on finding pieces of lemon peel in my mouth.

I douse the salad with the dressing, add generous amounts of salt and fresh ground pepper, spend five or more minutes obliterating it all into as fine a mix as possible, then find myself with about 25 minutes of sheer bliss. I love salad.

Thyme & Honey
100 S Oak Park
Oak Park
In English, Mandarin Kitchen

There is a restaurant on Archer about where it leaves Chinatown. It is perhaps one of those cursed restaurant locations. For a while a place called Mandarin Kitchen served very good "real" Szechuan food (as compared with suburban Szechuan food) including a crispy chicken dish known by Chowhounds as gribenes chicken. Alas this restaurant is gone. A new restraurant is in its spot, and in English it is still know as Mandarin Kitchen. According to ReneG who has excellent resources, the place in Chinese is now called Da Jiang Nan Bei, meaning all over the county. It, however, specializes in the food of one part of the Chinese country, Shanghai. I've been twice and enjoyed nearly everything I've had except for the whole blue crabs. SethZ writes extensively about the fried fish with seaweed, which I did not know, but to him was an exemplar of Shanghainese cooking here.

The VI family celebrated the start of a new year last night, like good Jews, with Chinese food. And boy was it good Chinese food. Too much Chinese food at Mandarin Kitchen. There are three things I love about this place. First, it is entirely easy and simple to get the house speciality, Shanghai style Chinese food. There is no hidden menu, the specials on the board are translated (look on the board inside not by the door) and the staff appreciates your appreciation for eating the Shanghai food. Second, it is entirely easy to end up with way too much food. There are about 20 appetizers, mixed between hot and cold, and on one hand these dishes, alone are not that expensive, on the other hand, I want to order nearly everyone. Then, there is a page of family style dinners where you order 3 dishes for $23 (with soup), and most of the key items on the menu are availalbe on this page including eel. Yet, you cannot stop on this page because you also have to eat something from the page of noodles and rice cakes. Third, it is entirely easy to eat so well here as the cooking is superb in nearly every dish I've tried here.

Last night we had the following:

Salty vegegable with tofu (or salty tofu with vegetable, I cannot find my menu) - This is a favorite of the chowhounditas, an impossible to eat with chopsticks fine dice of tofu and seaweed (or something else green and vegetal).

Shanghai style fried tofu - This was not what I expected, well at lest not cubes of fried tofu I thought we pass off to the kids for some protein. It was a need RST to fully explain medly of tofu, some kind of strand, mushrooms and other fungi marinated in something red, I think similar to the Fukinese stuff that comes after making rice wine but without too much of the hard to handle "barnyard" aroma.

Soup - If you need another reason to order from the family choices, this soup was it, a light brown broth with soft tiles of tofu, seaweed and earthy mushrooms.

Pondfish in spicy bean sauce - I believe pond fish is carp, but the fish came out in thin slices, unusual for this kind of fish. BIG warning for small hidden bones, but if you appreciate the taste of freshwater fish, you will enjoy this fish greatly. The bean sauce is not that spicy.

Homemade sesame pancakes stuffed with bits of something yellow and fluffy - Very good

Soup dumplings with crab and pork - Very soupy. Strong crab roe flavor so you have to like that.

Homemade noodles with chicken and vegetables - This was the primo dish of the night, and if Mandarin Kitchen had nothing else good on the menu, I would adore this restaurant just for this dish. Chewy, toothsome noodles inflused with its sauce, garnished with lots of fresh vegetables and just a bit of diced chicken.

Chinese cabbage (baby bok choy) with bean curd sheets - Lots of vitamins and contrasting textures.

Salt and pepper shrimps - A very crisp version, the salt making more of a crust. They were good but not as good as Happy Chef, and the only dish I would not order again.

Mandarin Kitchen / Da Jiang Nan Bei
2143 S Archer Av

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

My Big Fat Hyderbadi Wedding

Since I saw the revamped restaurant in the space at 2501 W. Devon, I've been anxious to try. Three things intrigued me. First, it proclaimed itself a branch of a restaurant with locations in California, Canada, etc. Although chains have their own issues, the notion that this place was good enough (or at least financed well enough) to expand made me want to try. Second, the buffet offered 20 items, and I am firmly in the more is better school of chow. Finally, the restaurant advertised an assortment of items typically not found on other buffets on Da'Bomb, South-Asian Muslim specialties like nehari and paya. With one last free Sunday before the chowhounditas religious school re-starts, we satisfied my wish this weekend.

Shahnawaz made me think I crashed some party. Not a posh, high caste affair, but a well intentioned, do our best party. There was a whole tandoor cooked leg of lamb, but you piled your slices on plastic plates. See what I mean. Likewise, this buffet included drinks, a sweet milk with pistachios, another milk flavored with strawberries (like you also see on Maxwell St.), salty lassi, and chai, but you drank them in styrofoam cups. And like a wedding, some of the stuff was very well done and some was just there. The salad plate featured fresher and more varied vegetables, including a relish of fine minced jalepenos. Very fresh vegetables also highlighted an oily, very spicy curry. I especially liked how the chunks of vegetables differed from the frozen peas and carrots seen on a lot of other buffets. There was lots of fresh made naan bread with puddles of melted ghee just the way my heat likes it. Then, there was a yellow dal tasting almost of glue (yet with really good carmelized onions). Both desserts, semolina halwa and kheer (rice pudding) sucked. Those drinks, however, made for great finishers.

As advertised, the buffet featured a bunch of Hyderbadi classics: nehari, haleem, sauteed lamb livers. The last was quite tasty even if a few pieces were tough. The haleem appeared to have no meat but was quite tasty and accented nicely by help yourself shreds of fresh ginger. The nehari, beef in a clove scented gravy suffered a bit from steam-table-itis. For one thing, you just could not pour it on your plastic plate in the right consistency. For another, it seemed a bit watery. On the other hand, I liked both tandoor cooked items. Much different than the typical buffet. Where others are food dye red, these are spice dominated. Even if you do not like well done lamb, this leg with sharp knife and tongs to assist you, make for great eating.

A lot of other families came to this party. We piled our plastic plates all over the place as we worked the lamb to its barest bone. Our music was more suitable for the prayer part of the festivities than the dancing party, but we still all enjoyed ourselves.

2501 W. Devon
Chicago, IL

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Maxwell Street Report - Sunday, 8/29/04

There have been some that wonder about array of mostly Mexican food served each week at the new "Maxwell Street Market (located on Canal Street). Is it a fetish for eating eyeballs or is it a source for really good, really special food. Yea, enough. How can anyone who takes time to eat at Maxwell call it anything less than delicious. Our walking feast the other day showed that. Here's a quick report:

- MIA - Two of the biggest, most talked about vendors were not there on Sunday. I am talking about the rico huarache people (or is that Rico's huaraches) and the "Come on in, come on in, masa specialists, El Colonial.

- Any ever realize there are not one but two purveyors of steamed beef head (which may include the ocular)? A while back, it was reported that the eyeball taco guys had opened a brick and mortar shop in Berwyn, El Chimbombo. I always assumed this was the place featured in the Gorilla Gourmet video. No. And on Sunday, that place and El Chimbombo stood across from each other, offering to give head. El Chimbombo made much more clear the offerings. If you knew Spanish, the words cheeks, lips and eyes were in big letters. The other guys kinda hide what's there. I skipped both.

- The Salvadoran place remains one of my favorite places to eat. Typically, we get there when long full, but on Sunday we went there first. So instead of being full before pupusas, we filled ourselves with pupusas of beans and chicharron with plenty of the free slaw and the hot sauce was very.

- A churro made fresh for you remains a churro really worth eating.

- Fresh zucchini flowers, day-glo bright, were so vivid they caught my eye from 10 feet away. It made a very healthy filling inside a fresh made quesadilla at the stand at the intersection of Maxwell and Canal.

- The pambaso at the stand further south, almost to the end of the market looks scary with its blood red chile sauce drenched bread but really gets its flavor from the fry that bread gets.

- I cannot resist the homemade flour empanadas with sweet filings, this time apple pie, sold amongst the cowboy clothes.

Maxwell Street offers the kind of street food you might find in various parts of Mexico. It's interesting because there are things not so much on offer at the neighborhood burrito stand including steamed beef head, birria and its consume, and huitalachoche. There are many places that still work from fresh masa, converting it into pupusas, huaraches, gorditas, empanadas, quesadillas and plain old tacos. You can get meat right off a charcoal fired grill and you can get meat from the nether regions of the cow. How can this not be good eating.

Monday, August 30, 2004


The other day on Chowhound a few people (maybe as with their software you never really know) attacked the quality of service at the bakery-cafe, Bittersweet. Having just been there for a nice lunch with the family, I objected, having had fine service. Still, as I knew we were going back as part of the birthday celebration for the Condiment Queen, I promised to report back. And, the service was fine.

Using a team approach, the waiters took fine care of us. Giving us a few minutes from sit-down to decide but not so long as how much is there to decide on a five item menu. Drinks and soup came quickly, and when the soup came tepid, they were around enough to fix the problem. When we stayed at our table just a moment past when we should have arisen, they realized we wanted dessert. All of the time, they smiled and seemed happy to be surrounded by a store this close to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Now ask me about the food? Fine service, not so fine food. Never had food this mediocre at Bittersweet. The cesar salad lacked any power, the dressing tasting like mayonnaise. The sliced chicken on top got to be both bland and rubbery. The gazpacho was a nearly smooth version of tomato soup, not the can't taste the specific chunks of summer vegetables that the CQ herself makes. The ice cream was uncharacteristically heavy and one note-ish in its flavor (like frozen peanut-butter). Only the quiche and the best of show pecan roll met the usual high standards. Good thing I liked the service.

1114 W. Belmont Ave.,
(773) 929-1100
Thus Goeth Popeye's?

I have never believed in the original or the sole. I've long believed that a restaurant can be copied, reproduced or otherwise extended beyond the ability of one person to cook on a regular basis. Exhibit 1 was always Popeye's Fried Chicken. Popeye's chicken did not taste good for a fast food restaurant. It was good tasting fried chicken. It had its gimmick, the undercoating of red pepper, but that was hardly the point. It was what you wanted in fried chicken, not stale and soggy, not greasy, not bland. Along side, you got awful but in a good way or was that good in an awful way, faux biscuits. The rest of the menu sucked, but did you care?

The Popeye's branch near the Brickyard Mall, on Grand near Narragansett, is awful, dreadful, awful. The chicken there tastes far from fresh, like it was purchased by a food broker haggling away merchandise just before their drop-dead dates (some pun intended). And it is small, dry and fried to a papery crisp that seems so unlike the Popeye's that made me believe. Is it this Popeye's or all Popeye's.

Oddly enough, I find myself needing to go to the Brickyard Popeye's because the Oak Park Popeye's is even worse, but the Oak Park Popeye's is so readily poor in a you can see we are not trying that I can see that this branch is a real exception to any franchise rules. The Brickyard branch has visible management, and I see this management a lot. I know they are trying for something. What I am not so sure about, are they trying to be Popeye's on the cheap, or are all Popeye's trying for the cheap?

What do you say?
Le Coq, Oak Park, Almost Perfect

I have a post almost done on a few recent meals at perfect restaurants. Until I reveal what I makes a restaurant perfect, I shall say of Oak Park's Le Coq, it is not. Still a place I enjoy greatly. The tight room looks about as picture perfect as possible, exact without the hyper-realism of say Lettuce Entertain You or Vegas. The changing menu always offers more more than one dish that sounds exactly what I want, and the choices are always so good that I have never gone for the bistro fall-back, the steak-frites. The service tries very hard and there is a sense of professionalism and savior faire that approaches continental. Finally, everything I have eaten there tastes very good.

On the other hand, I would prefer not to see asparagus on a menu in late August. I would like to see a couple of dishes, well at least one be a little risky. Not foam-food risky but bistro classic risky, kidneys in mustard sauce or pig's feet risky. My dish the other night came with french fries, really great, fresh cut french fries, but you know what they fries tasted most of? Parky's nearby. The same thin, brown, salty wonders sold at Parky's (ah if Parky's could have other food as good). Great fries, but I like my Parky's fries at Parky's and at a French place, I would like exceedingly classic, double-fried in suet, blonde French fries. And because of the very nature of Le Coq, it occasionally stumbles in its execution. The staff tries but occasional blunders, and can also get a bit testy. Sometimes a dish comes out too cold, something that has happened the last two times we visited Le Coq.

Luckily, I do not seek perfect restaurants. I seek meals like we had the other night at Le Coq. I have honestly never had a better Lyonaise salad than I had that night. A salad to convert Hat Hammond, the way Halina's soup converted him to soup. Garlic chicken with preserved lemons equaled the intensity of the salad, and buttery-crust apple tart made it a bistro ending. I like this place a lot.

Le Coq
734 Lake Street
Oak Park, IL
(708) 848-2233

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Silver Seafood

I have a tendency to pick my favorite restaurants by the amount of stuff served as well as the quality of stuff served. I do not mean big portions, although that helps. I mean stuff. For instance, I prefer Steve's Shish Kebab House for Middle-Eastern Food as much for the hand-chopped kefta and fresh made falafal as I do for the relish tray with Arabian giardianara, blop of vegetables over rice, and other things that come with the dinners. For Cantonese, Happy Chef makes the best head-on salt and pepper shrimps, but that is not why it is my favorite. It is my favorite for the always tasty left-over dim sum soup served before each dinner (no really conch slices and chicken feet make good soup) and the really not that tasty sweet and gritty bean soup served for dessert. I favor the places with the extras, but sometimes I favor a place without a bunch of extras. Just one thing special. Not even a dish. Just a sauce.

That was Silver Seafood at lunch today. We ordered steam clams. With this came the most wondrous of sauces. Any idiot could make this sauce: soy, sesame oil, jalepenos, ginger, scallion, a touch of black vinegar, but only an expert could make it as good as Silver Seafood did. Spicy, salty and oily, it stood as the perfect foil to the sea-ness of the clams. Only a few stray bits of shell and a touch of grit possibly halted the pleasure. When I finished the clams, I drank some sauce plain.

The rest was all done well too. We had "hollow vegetable" in garlic, not a light version. The vegetable sat in a pool of liquid similar in color and heft to pot likker from Southern greens. Softshell crabs in spicy-salt benefited from a huge amount of jalepenos and some very crabby soft-shells. The irony of lunch today is that I passed on the always delicious Thai Avenue for Silver Seafood because I had a bit of a gyppy tummy, and we ended up eating some spicy stuff--not Thai Avenue spicy--but spicy at Silver Seafood.

I am not an expert of the gradations of quality at Silver Seafood, but both times I have went, today included, it was about as good as I want (absent the dim sum soup).

Silver Seafood
4829 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

India by London in Chicago

Of all the great treats on Da'Bomb, one of the most impressive is the chicken chagra at Sabri Nehari. Quite unconventional, but surely a tribute to its hometown, Chicago. Like many an urban chicken shack, Sabri fries a chicken and then fresh from the fryer, doses it with Louisiana hot sauce. Now, at Harold's you will always find your chicken cut into parts unlike the whole fried chicken at Sabri, and at Harold's there is never a heavy hand of sub-continental spices to add a finishing touch to the chicken. Still, Sabri must have conceived their dish as a homage to their home town. I know and love the Chicago style South-Asian food.

What about London style right here in Chicago? While my thoughts of Ambla have been percolating in my mind for over a week, Lill on Chowhound scooped me. What she sez, especially the part about generous sampling. The halwa that we purchased had about the most ideal texture I seek in food. The way you chewed it yet did not crunch it. Unlike the other chat shops on Da'Bomb, Ambla is strictly take-out. To keep our afternoon thematically consistent, we followed up a visit to Ambla with a visit to Kabbabish of London.

While I am not going to look up or cite past Kabbabish reports, my memory is that it did not get raving reviews. And the store was empty near five, giving us even less incentive to enter. Really, if only because I organize my chowing as fodder for the blog, did we decided to try Kabbabish of London. And it turns out that fodder worked. We liked all this London style South Asian food. Now, while I can easily see how Sabri's Harold's influenced chicken chagra IS Chicago, I can less see how this was London style. Sure, the dishes had names like London Gosht and Birmingham chicken, but in execution, they did not seem that different. The individual dishes are pretty cheap, allowing us to order a fair amount. We liked everything we ordered, especially the seek kebabs that had a nice hacked meat texture instead of being finely ground. We also really liked the wet dishes, although you have to have a strong stomach for ghee, clarified butter. The nan and parantha were much better than the so called specialist loved by some a few blocks away. Like my friends at the Bangladeshi restaurant, the owners of Kabbabish of London eagerly engaged us.

I would offer that, from one afternoon on Da'Bomb, London is well represented in Chicago.

Sabri Nehari
2511 W. Devon Ave

Ambla Sweets
2741 W. Devon

Kabbabish of London
2437 W Devon
Chicago, IL

Harold's Fried Chicken
Multuple locations

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Mysore Woodlands vs. Udupi Palace

Da'Bomb hosts two South Indian restaurants of almost exact menu, the way dim sum places vary by only a bun or two.  I've tended to favor Udupi on the south side of the street instead of Mysore on the north, but Mysore has many fans.  We decided to give Mysore a shot last night.  Right now, I'd say that I like the cooking a bit better at Udupi, but the portions are larger at Mysore and that might give it an advantage.

We ordered across the menu, in a way that probably no South Indian would, but there is too much good food to try at Mysore (or Udupi) and we just do not make it to these places enough to sample everything.  So, we got an order of samosas, essentially for the chowhounditas, who have settled in pretty comfortably to the samosa as their single favorite food to eat.  We got the thicker pancake, utthapam, loaded with soft cooked onions and topped with frozen peas and carrots, because that was what they were eating a lot in the Condiment Queen's book.  We got the thinner, crisper pancake, dosai, with the standard yellow potato inside, because that is probably the dish of the house.  Chicago Magazine once ran a picture of a boa constrictor sized dosai offered at Mysore.  We got the channa (chick pea curry) battura because Dad loves the deflated basketball (as food God Jonathan Gold expertly describes them) puffy baturas.  We got a non-regional bread, parantha stuffed with potatoes just because, and we got curd rice 'cause it sounded so good and well, what's a doggy bag for?  Everything was good enough, although the batura was not quite as special as Udupi.  Lighter, drier, it did not have that dual skin as much, of crisp and chew, that makes batura such a special bread.  The samosas were thick and tasty, very tasty inside, but they seemed on their 3rd fry of the day.  Still, as I say, the portions were generous and these are minor quibbles.

With this Atkin's nightmare come an assortment of sauces, dips and condiments: mint chutney, bracing and sneaking hot; coconut chutney, cool, grainy but also heavily spiced; a raita or yoghurt that had, we swear, pickles in it, not Indian pickles, but regular pickles; there was sambar, the soupy stuff with all sorts of things swimming inside, here a woody vegetable/herb that I mistakenly bit and then spent five minutes extracting stems from my mouth, and actual Indian pickle, a mixed breed with peppers and wonderful pieces of garlic that were whole but softened up by the process.  You mix and match all these flavors with all scoopers.  

The curd rice came out last, nearly after we had finished everything else.  I guess it takes longest to prepare.  I like that it came out last for a couple of reasons.  First, this dish of rice, hidden bits of ginger and intense, probably home made curd, nails your tongue.  Eat this and you are not really ready to eat another five courses.  It finished the meal off well, dessert like in appearance, so creamy, but not sweet at all.  Finally, it was, I am sure, the easiest dish to bring home, so of all the things to have a bit extra of, this was it.  I would say, however, that it is the best dish in the house--and waiting for Zim to tell me where the best curd rice is on Da'bomb as I have not made a survey. 

Mysore Woodlands
2548 W. Devon Ave.
Chicago, IL

Udupi Palace (the batura is much better)
2543 W Devon Av
Chicago, IL

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Bombacigno's J & C Restaurant - One for Another Beefathon (fer sure)

I had to meet someone for lunch yesterday in the West Loop.  You know you are not with Chowhounds when they suggest eating in Union Station.  I countered with J&C's Bombacigno's.  Actually, this was my counter to his counter.  I originally suggested Lou Mitchell's, which had been countered with Union Station.  Maybe it was clever subconscious negotiating on my part, because once I thought of J&C, I knew that was where I really wanted to go. 

And boy was it worth it.  J&C's beef is one of the few that is a variation on a theme, the way Al's is.  That is, there is the standard version of Chicago beef, which is epitomized by Johnnies, and then there is the distinctly different beef that is Al's.  J&C's while not exactly like Al's, tastes a lot closer to Al's than any other beef I've had in Chicago.  They also use a different bun, from Dakota Pride.  It is a crisper, lighter roll, almost like a New Orleans po' boy roll.  The effect of this roll is that it both falls apart at the seams yet stays very crusty on top.  In fact the J&C sammy is a big mess, and the best way to eat it is with scoops of bread, the way, say you would eat Moroccan or Ethiopian food.

The other outstanding thing about J&C's is the cottage fries.  Made to order, they also remind me slightly of Al's, with the same sweet flavor achieved from nearly burning the potatoes.  The gilding of the lily here, thought, is that the gravy from the beef seeps all over your basket, rendering a lot of the fries limp, but infused with essence of beef.

Finally, like Al's, J&C's aint cheap.  My beef, hot, fries, and bottomless cup of pop ran to nearly $10.  Still, one of the best lunches in a while.

Bombacigno's J & C Restaurant
558 W. Van Buren Ave. 
Chicago, IL

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Movie Critics, Restaurant Critics or Jimmy Johns and Tasty Dog

There are two essential differences between movie critics and restaurant critics, or maybe better put, movie criticism and restaurant criticism. Movie critics, at least the mainstream ones like Roger Ebert (my trusted source), see pretty much every movie coming out. And while a good critic like Ebert has some subjectivity to his ratings (a good dumb comedy), he rates every movie against a golden mean. So, we know, which are good, which dreck. Food critics of equal stature, say a Phil Vettel, take an opposite approach. Of all the new places opened, they pick and choose which to report on, and many food writers state they just do not report on the bad places. These, we are left to find our own. Now, the other difference, obviously, is, as I have discussed in the past, foodie experiences vary so much. Did you get the "real" food, the VIP treatment. One person's damn favorite restaurant can be viewed by another as hardly worth the calories. That does not mean your opinion does not count, and we need to get them.

Restaurant critics should be a bit more like movie critics. Let's get the good with the dreck. Maybe then I would have never thought, well let's give Jimmy Johns a try. We had just left a pleasant few hours at family swim in Oak Park. We needed a quick meal and connoisseurship was not a priority. We planned on the nearby Tasty Dog, not a great hot dog stand, but edible enough. Then, we noticed the newer Oak Park Jimmy Johns, and given the hold that Tasty Dog has on us, we said, how 'bout Jimmy Johns.

I could tell from first glances that this was a stupid choice, I could see the turkey and roast beef had an unnatural pink glow, and the bread just looked squishy, but the chowhounditas were already cooing over the place (for some odd reason). It only got worse. As I told the kidz later on, it's no Subway. I mean at least Subway has a bunch of things to put on the sub to kill the taste. Jimmy Johns had only lettuce, tomato and some useless banana peppers to kill the cheap, over-processed meat. Not only that, the lettuce and tomatoes were so cold, it was almost as if eating the famous frozen salad at Trio.

Desperate to please our suffering palate, we crossed the street to Tasty Dog, victims to sign advertising: "We now serve softserve". Well, it was cold like the lettuce was cold. The lettuce had crunch though. I could have put an ice cube on an ice cream cone and got about the same experience as the Tasty Dog softserve.

VI eats AND writes about it, so you do not have to.

If you really need to mimic these experiences, both Tasty Dog and Jimmy Johns are on Lake Street in Oak Park just east of Oak Park Avenue.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Make that 8 Courses of Beef

The Condiment Queen is a varied, voracious and especially multi-culti reader. And luckily for me, her reading habits dovetail nicely with my eating habits (which are varied, voracious and multi-culti). When she reads an Indian book, well, its off to da'bomb for us. When it's like now, reading a Vietnamese book, well it was not soon before we made it too Argyle.

Not only did she have a hankering for Vietnamese, moments after we sat down at Nhu Hoa, our favorite combo Vietnamese-Laotian spot on Argyle, than she surprised me by stating she also had a hankering for the seven course of beef. Am I lucky or what. I'm no expert on 7 course of beef, having only had it once before on Argyle, but of the two, this was my favorite, if nothing else, the portions were bigger. Plus, I was spoiled, by the 8th course of beef.

I have helped widely disseminate (I think [ed. you hope]) the notion that Nhu Hoa makes the best papaya salad in Chicago. Yesterday's 8th course, papaya salad and beef jerky, exceedingly hot, confirmed my belief. Irregularly hacked papaya, some not fully loose so that they were papaya shards not papaya shreds, way too much fish sauce, way, way too much hot peppers (but Julie of Nhu Hoa loves to reward those who ask for their papaya salad hot) and really way too much food as we had seven more courses to follow.

Here they are, quickly, in the order they appeared: beef papaya salad, much different from the other papaya salad, tasting maybe a bit too much of perfume from a lavender like herb, the meat as soft as the jerky was hard; ground beef in la lot leaves, thin steak wrapped around pineapple. Both of these dishes are meant to be eaten with tons of accessories, lettuce, daikon, carrots, mint, basil, cilantro, you mix and match so much, no two bites taste quite the same; small meatballs presented in dishes about the size and shape as the condiment bowls at dim sum. Like all Vietnamese meatballs, these were a rubbery, but this delicious broth that bathed them well overcame that. Our favorite course, cubes of tenderloin, grilled (very well, it really picked up the grill flavor) on a bed of lettuce, cucumber and much better than usual tomatoes. Beef fondue, a plate of raw beef, flavored with ginger and a hot pot of onion scented broth. Finally, rice-beef soup, very Iron-Chefy, the way that it was both simple and artistic, the best congee, and actually, perhaps the 2nd best dish of the 7 (but they were all good).

It's $14.95 and its one of the best deals in town, even if you skip the 8th course.

Nhu Hoa
1020 W. Argyle
Chicago, IL

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Tasting Taste of Chicago

OK, I am gonna say, flat out, I love Taste of Chicago. I've been going for years, hell I've been going since I was getting into tussles at the Willie Dixon show when it was the (better) Chicagofest. So, I get to gripe a bit, which I will, but first let me report on what we had, and nearly all of it was good.

For those of you looking for the VI on where to eat, this post obviously does you no good. Sorry. I did 25 background investigations over the last ten days, hardly enough time to get all my postings done. Maybe some of this will help next year.

What we ate:

Samosa - Arya Bhavan - This is THE ethnic dish for the chowhounditas (except when Dad makes them get Samosa chaat at Sukhadia), and they pronounced this version as good as it gets. They ate it before I could even nibble.

Roti canai - Penang - The roti or pancake seemed a bit different than what you get in the shop. This was thick and flaky, like a really good scallion pancake instead of the airy and thin pancakes that I remember, but the portion of pancake also seemed bigger (at Penang, we always seemed to run out of pancake before the chicken curry). The curry here was deep and intense, reminding me of the stuff I love at the food court at Mitsuwa, that is to say probably from a box, but god I love that boxed curry.

Mustard Fried Catfish with 2 dipping sauces (hot and sweet mustard) - BJ's Market - Well, duh!

Toasted Ravioli - Tuscany - I know my peeves come in a sec., but toasted ravioli is a St. Lois thing. Do the Cardinals play at Wrigley. On the other hand, they tasted good, and the sauce was quite nice.

Cheese Pizza (thin) - Lou Malnati's - Hannah marveled at the fact that the cheese and tomato sauce were transposed.

Fried Chicken Wings - Harold's - There is no Harold's nearby, and when it has been ages since you had that dirty tasting bird, here really well fried too, well it really, really tastes good.

Jerk Chicken and rice and peas - VeeVee's - Not so hot. The jerk was dry and not so jerky, and the rice was dry and well not jerky either (and no dough bread, which is worth half the price anyways).

Cheesecake - Eli's Cheesecake - See Harold's above - When its ages between slices, it tastes really good.

Frozen banana - Aunt Diana's - I have a thing against frozen bananas, just do not like the flavor. In fact, as I told the chowhounditas, fresh bananas, banana flavor or banana flavored things (like banana cake) and frozen bananas all taste different. I'm really only keen on the middle. The Condiment Queen ate it.

Corn - one of the corn roasters - No elote

Curry fries - Abbey Pub - Really diligent readers of Vital Information will know that I carry around only a few great taste memories of my year in Cardiff, Wales. One of them is curry fries. Thick, double cooked, fresh potatoes with that slightly off taste that anyone who's been in a chip shop knows, covered with a sauce of commercial curry (see Penang above), and usually eaten with a tiny wooden fork. And, of course, these were so far from that, it made me rue every nostalgic thought in my body.

Cheezeburger - Billy Goat Tavern - Count me generally as a lover of these things, but it would have been better if it was hotter.

Bread steak sammy - Ricobene's - The best deal of the show. The taste portion of pretty darn fresh breaded steak was about as big as a regular portion. And you think that was a good deal, well they comped one of the kidz a portion of fries for helping them shanghai a runaway ketchup bottle. These were awesome fries too.

Pretty good score, huh? Here's the thing. I know I could have had nearly all of the stuff in better versions if I shopped around town. Hell, if I hung around the bar long enough at the Berghoff, ReneG would pop in with jerk 11 times better. But this was all in one day, one night actually. It was all over the world. Maybe a lot of fried stuff and too much curry, but I like fried stuff. I love curry. I'm back next year.

Now, my annual gripe. It can so easily be better, no? All the city needs to do is grab 1/2 the vendors at Maxwell Street. Something like the fresh made churros, well people would be thronging for that. It was cool that Penang was there, as Singapore has maybe the number one street food culture in the world. Why cannot Taste of Chicago borrow from all these street foods. Why cannot the Thai places make papaya salad or any of the other things commonly found on every street there. For RST, why could not Tuscany sell tripe sammy's? And a real eloterio, that would be cool...

Monday, July 05, 2004

Cold Stone Creamery

Damn if I wanted to like this place. It is so corporate. Seems so much like the product of numerous market tests. On top of that, if has been blessed with several shots of publicity on TV Food Network. And did I mention, the staff had that Starbucks like zombie efficiency and nice-ness? Wait, it gets even worse, the location I tried was on Halsted in the heart of the destroyed Maxwell Street neighborhood, nearly on the spot where Jim's Hot Dog existed, talking about haunted, but, take all that dark-side stuff away, and you'll find some pretty damn good ice cream.

For those who have not been caught by the Cold Stone lure, the main shtick is mix-ins done on the cold stone. The cold stone is super-cooled so that the staff can play with your ice cream, mixing in things, without ever loosing too much. There are about 20 mix-ins including fudge and caramel sauces. Everyone gets one free mix-in. Still, in some ways, the mix-ins detract from the goodness of the ice cream. I found the ice cream expertly straddled typical fatty American ice cream with softer, more intense Euro or gelato style ice cream.

I've updated the ice cream list to include my thoughts on Stone Cold Creamery.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Morning Toast

I had forsaken morning toast for a few weeks, not so much because of fealty to Dr. Atkins (perchance, never!), but for lack of good bread in the house. Mostly I was using our bread for the field special sandwiches, and Welsh rabbits and such discussed below. Well, this week got back to normal, with some very good morning toast.

Bread: Whole Foods round white loaf. It's not my favorite Whole Foods' bread. This bread after day one is really only good for toast, as the crust all but evaporates, but it does toast up fine, with a dense texture and light crumb.

Butter and Jelly: At the same time, I unwrapped a new butter and a new jelly. The former was Kerrygold Irish imported butter, the latter was Ararat Amermenian sour cherry jelly, which like the Condiment Queen's signature clafouti, contains pits. Now, what a mix, just absolute pure chemical combination, producing utter satisfaction. Yet, I was somewhat stumped. Was it the butter base or the jelly topping. Which was driving the joy. I am sure a lot has to do with the ideal mix of ingredients--I hear Armenians and Irish are great friends, but eventual the CQ sussed out some secrets. I buy, often, my jelly based on the ingredients, and I ascribe to the rule, the fewer the better (and an odd side note, it is often the cheaper, less yuppie jellies, especially the imported ones, that will be free of citric acid, pectin and such; I adore the label, like this Ararat: sour cherry, sugar.) Still, it turns out there was a mystery ingredient. Like the bracing green nam prik dip sold at Thai Grocery on Broadway, the Ararat jelly label was not purely true to what was inside. Turns out there is a hint of cinnamon and maybe some nutmeg or other spice too. It is this spice, floating ably in this soupy jelly, that combines with pools of butter (for the Kerrygold seems to always melt into pools) that I now realize produces in the palate.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Really Good Average Mexican Food

Or is it really average good Mexican food? You know things are really crankin' in Chicago's Mexican food scene when you can walk away from a place with hand-made huraches, hand-made tortillas for tacos en canasta and, well not the advertised 10 salsas to try, but 4 very nice ones, and you walk away saying, pretty good. You think about the deliciousness of fresh masa, but you also wonder, were the walls of the gordita just a bit too thick. The hurache is broad and flat and filled with beans that taste better than they look, but the huarache also tastes a bit thin in the mouth. It is not the robust pleasure of chew that is the rico huarache at Maxwell Street. Those crated up tacos have semi-exotic fillings like chicharron in a surprising spicy sauce, whipped potatoes and chorizo blended into one modern contraption and a mixed dice, that included, I believe, hot dogs, but the homemade tortillas were also dunked just a few seconds too long in the grease before hitting the griddle.

I wonder now if I'd be as picky about say, Dona Lois, the very first Mexican place I touted on Chowhound. It's a slightly similar store that also combines folded fresh masa with a bit of grease, but the fact that I can be so picky is a pretty nice thing.

La Chilangueada
5131 W. Fullerton
Chicago, IL
Eat Local!

Let us count the ways...

Via The Chicago Tribune (registration required):

The Guide to Eating Organic In and Around Chicago," recently issued by the Organic Food Network, offers a resource for diners and cooks on the prowl for organic foodstuffs. The listing includes farms, farmers markets, restaurants and supermarkets. Also included is the "Summer 2004 Guide to Local Organic Produce." (Some information is online at organicfoodnetwork.net.) For a copy send a check or money order for $6 payable to Organic Food Network, P.O. Box 4086, Wheaton, IL 60189. You will see that organic/local produce, meat, etc. is out there and not just at the Green City Market or Evanston. According to the Organic Food Network, local organic farm stuff can be found at farmer's markets in Naperville, Orland Park, Kankakee, Woodstock, Crystal Lake, Wilmette, Park Forest, and Wheaton (and more).

This is an amazing resource of things available in Illinois, I bet you had no idea so much was out there.

Terra Brockman can often be found selling the wares from her brother Henry's farm at the Evanston Farmer's Market. Her organization, Land Connection, is a great resource.

Seven Generations Ahead works on environmental issues as well as sustainable food issues, but just for us foodies helps bring local produce such as organic meat to Oak Park. I am in the process of joining. You should too!

How local is London? Still, Fergus Henderson is my idol and role model. I look at his menu daily to see how I should eat.

Monday, June 28, 2004

There's Always Room for Salt n' Pepper Shrimps!

My dearly departed grandmother was in no way the inspiration for my obsession with food. One could say I am a foodie in spite of my grandmother instead of because of my grandmother. I have strong memories of her particular way of cooking skirt steak in the toaster oven, particularly bad that is, and I also have strong memories of dishes I really did not partake, but learned about through my dad, especially her vile cornflake chicken and her viler brisket. To this day, with just a bit of egging, my dad will describe in loving detail the three day process of over-cooking, soaking with whole onion, and leaving in grease that produced the treat that was my grandmother's brisket. Ask him. Yet, yet, as I say, everyone has a dish, their cole slaw, their source of redemption. My grandmother's was jello, preferably en mold. Her motto was, you always have room for jello. Well, yesterday, as we were wrapping up an ample sampling of the dim sum at Happy Chef, they came around with plates of whole, head-on, salt and pepper shrimps. And of course, who does not have room for Happy Chef's salt and pepper shrimps, head-on.

I've always known, of the places I have tried in Chicago, that Happy Chef's were the best salt and pepper shrimps. These are shrimps to make you crave shrimp head. Fresh, crisp, slightly spicy, not marred by grease. You eat everything but the last bits of tail. I've not know about the dim sum at Happy Chef until yesterday. I would say that not everything rose to the satisfaction of the whole shrimps, but it was a very well done dim sum nonetheless. Solid. It is a hybrid dim sum. There is a sheet to fill, with choices, like most of these sheets, that do not make full sense. There is shrimp dumpling and steamed shrimp dumpling (both in the steamed category); baked egg tart and baked custard egg tart, pan fried pork bun and pan fried pork dumpling. And you think that's confusing, there is also a 2 page listing of mysterious noodles with offerings like hong tol e-fu noodle and ha-moon rice stick noodle. We got the hong tol e-fu noodle just to see what it was (not big deal at $3.88) Still, there are a few things in plates, off menu, that get paraded around the room.

We had filled up pretty well. From the sheet we got some really good shrimp with pea pod green dumpling in a yellow wrapper and ultra hot steamed shrimp dumpling puffing with shrimp air. I liked the eggplant slices with black bean more than the Condiment Queen that came from the pass-arounds. Sesame balls, also off-menu, were chewy and big. We passed on the Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce because, based on sight and aroma, we mimicked a nearby table and got a big plate of Chinese broccoli showered with garlic. Those hong tol-e-fu noodles were a big old bowl of thick chewy noodles underneath a layer of egg white. It turned out to be a good way to get some protein into the chowhoundita who was with us (the other on a birthday jaunt to Navy Pier). We were past full when they started passing the salt and pepper shrimps around the room. Who, however, does not have room for Happy Chef's salt and pepper shrimps. The great news, especially for the chowhoundita, was the extra ten minutes needed to eat the shrimps also kept us there for some very hot, very fresh, very delicious custard filled, sweet top buns.

Happy Chef may be a great, probably the best, Cantonese style place in Chinatown, but do not go there for creature comforts or atmosphere. Ms. VI complained all morning about the plastic tablecloths sticking to her knees. A small price, alas for making room for salt and pepper shrimps.

Happy Chef
2164-2166A S. Archer (in the Chinatown Mall)
Chicago, IL

It has been sadly reported that the delicious Mandarin Kitchen recently closed. Well, a restaurant has recently opened in its place. It is called, well in English, it is still called Mandarin Kitchen, yet in place of the former Szechuan style place, is a Shanghai style place. There is the full range of typical Shanghai stuff on the English menu including two kinds of soup dumplings, various cold dishes, pork leg, lion's head meatballs and eel. There is also a nice sounding deal of 3 dishes for $22.95. The women I chatted up were very nice. I'll give it a scout and if its good, maybe arrange a group meal.