Thursday, January 22, 2004

Rapini Run
(Paying for the blog)

Last week I mentioned Bertucci's, the barely discussed Italian restaurant in Chinatown. The post got Seth's mouth watering. Now, everything right in this blog (surely the things not prone to argument) are the handiwork of Seth. He's cleaned up a lot of bad HTML on my part and even gave me permalinks (waiting patiently for someone to use). Lunch at Bertucci's seemed the only way to express my gratitude.

And I guess I am pretty darn happy with this whole system. I loved Bertucci's. We benefited greatly from some name dropping by Seth. Much to my chagrin, my highly touted recommendation of veal with rapini was not on the lunch menu. But Seth threw out the word Mayor, and given the high population of city workers there, is it our fault that Mayor's were confused? When, I did agree to pay the dinner price for the veal, they agreed to make it.

This may be my favorite plate of food in Chicago. No one else combines the things I like so expertly like this. Divide the plate into thirds. One third gets a flat, crisp circle of breaded veal, much better than your local greek, not quite provimi; another third gets thick discs of fresh made cottage fried potatoes, a little greasy and a little crunch less than ideal; the last third gets the memory inducing rapini. All thirds get drenched in garlic. I suppose it is not on the lunch menu to protect those on their way to meetings. The magic of this trilogy is that each of these flavors and textures blends into the one next to it, similar but different, complimentary yet distinct.

Bertucci may be wholly cool, but it is not perfect. Baked clams were too soggy, and some of the clams chewy. Too much dressing drowned the salad (even if I smiled at the non-canned olive). Still, do you really expect or need a place like this to be perfect? With a couple of waitresses asking youz guys what you want, a variety of entertainment machines to occupy you if you got bored and this much garlic, who needs perfect.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Bohemia Returns to Berwyn

Chicago experts know that the only thing Bohemian about Pilsen is the name. Further West in Little Village, one might, every once in a while, see a stalwart who never moved. But they almost all moved. West to Cicero-Berwyn. Yet today, these two suburbs are bleeding Bohemians [ed. I changed that from Bohunks, not sure if your choice of words is PC] as well. Places like Klas, Jim's Market, and Vesecky Bakery remain out there, but these suburbs are mostly Mexican these days. The dribbling of recent Czech immigrants seems more centered on Northwest side of Chicago, with places like Operetta and the Czech Bakery. I was not expecting a more "modern" Czech place in Berwyn, but it's there, the relatively new, Bohemia Deli.

If you are aware of the inventory of Czech Bakery in Chicago, you will mostly know Bohemia Deli. In fact, as I later noticed from their business card, the two places are related. There is a range of serve-yourself baked goods, kolachy, stuffed crescents, different kinds of rolls. You put what you want on small styrofoam plates, and they wrap it in plastic. There are also larger loafs of bread including a two ton rye. Like Mexican bakeries, the stuff is so cheap, you can afford to be generous in your purchases. There is a small deli case with slab bacon, ham, and other Czech sausages. There were skinny Bohemian wieners that they will steam for you for an absolute bargain at 99 cents. Finally, there are a bunch of pre-made Czech dinners. At first I thought these were no great shake, about $7, but then I realized each package contained a LOT of food, I realized what a deal they were. We picked the Czech version of the pan-Slavic, cevacipi over mashed potatoes (and appealing to me because it had pickles too) and noodles with farmer's cheese.

This is not overwhelming food. It tasted like maybe good cafeteria food, for instance the mashed potatoes were quite thin (with enough imperfections to convince me that they were real). Yet, since it was Bohemian cafeteria food, it did have some appeal. The cevacipi were much moister than the versions found further south in Europe, they were more like meatballs instead of sausage. The noodles were very sweet, hard to eat them for dinner.

I do not have the exact address of Bohemia Deli, as their business card only gave the location of their Chicago store, 3113 N. Central. The Berwyn branch is on Cermak near East Av., Berwyn.
Yum Thai data

When I reported on Yum Thai last week, I mentioned a delicious yellow curry, but I could not find my annotated Thai menu for its name. Well, I have been cleaning my office in anticipation of a couple of things, and I found the Yum Thai menu.

The dish in question was "gaeng som pladyyk tawd" translated as "orange curry w/fried catfish, sour from tamarind, not too thick". Well, not too thick was quite the understatement as this is more of a soup than a curry. Also, when I had it, the catfish was shrimps--no big deal for me to be fooled. If it matters, I suppose ask first. Note, this dish is listed under the section of the menu called "Gaeng (Curry). As always, ask for this secret menu to fully enjoy Yum Thai.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Taking a Pole
Halina's is that Good

We used to eat Polish food about twice a year, but lately, we have found ourself returning quite often to a small cafe on the far West side of Chicago called Halina. We never much set out to find Halina. Rather, Halina found us. Most people associate the process of eating Polish food in Chicago to be all about all-you-can-eat CHEAP buffets. Halina taught us otherwise. Few people at Halina, especially the staff, speak English well, but they all try to make your dinner enjoyable, and they food coming out of the kitchen helps too.

While I do not go wildly exploring the menu at Halina, like I have never attempted anything not translated, I have never found a poor choice. Mostly, I make my choices with the soup. I am not sure anyone has polled a top ten soup listing, but Halina surely laddles out some of the best soups in Chicago. Some soups are thin yet flavorful, the chicken noodle the kids always get, and the peppery red borsht, but others are wildly thick and murky. The latter soups all seem to balance expertly vinegar sour with creamy richness, ideal soups. I find myself at Halina ordering soups I would never touch in a million years. Would you ever try a hot cucumber soup. Delicious. Tripe, from the fattier gooier part of the guts, delicious. The only thing that sometimes clouds up my decision making process, the chance to get the "eggroll" that comes with the red borsht. This is a meat filled pancake noodle, breaded and fried looking, well like an eggroll. So, yes, occasionally I pick my soup based on side.

I like to center my ordering at Halina by side too, side order. Some but not all dishes come with the "side order", a plate of cold, sour salads. You pick from beets spiked with horseradish, yellow sauerkraut and white cole slaw. I always go for mix, a bit of all three. Some of the things that I like that come with the sides include Chicken Kiev with rock solid crust, rainbow trout with head but without bones, and ground pork patties. If I can stand to skip the sides, I focus on the large potato pancake encassing beef gulash (a/k/a Hungarian Pancake). Pierogi are not the most ideal, truly perfect pierogi would get a final saute in butter, crisping up one side, but these just boiled dumplings with assorted stuffing do just fine for the kids or as a side dish. Desserts are not worth ordering but the appetizer heerings are, if you can find a bit of spare gullet space.

Halina is BYOB, but I rarely see people drinking hard stuff there. Instead, most of the customers (and nearly all the customers are Poles), drink a pink fruit drink called Kompot. The ultra sweetness does cut the rich food, but a liquor store across the street will supply you with Polish beer that cuts the food even better.

5914 W Lawrence Ave
Chicago, Il 60630
Trading tips with the Reader
El Chimbombo

I am pretty sure that a long ago Chowhound poster, HLing first discovered eyeball tacos at the Maxwell Street Sunday market--and you know what I mean about discovering them. Since the first postings on Chicago Chowhound, they have been a bit of a myth and a bit of an insider reference to the eyeballs. It is one of the least found foodstuffs in Chicago. At various houndly tours of Maxwell Street, there came a time when some would take up the eyeball challenge. Ultimately, no one could keep their eye off of G Wiv when he took his turn swallowing the ocular for the camera's in the Gorilla Gourmet Maxwell Street production. You would think when the Reader chose to write about the eyeball taco vendor, they would acknowledge this mania. Still, I would suggest reading the article on El Chimbombo in this week's Reader.

Me, I freely thank the Reader for sending me to the eyeball ball guys' brick and mortar stand in Berwyn (sin ojo) for some very delicious tacos. Smugly, I might suggest that I had this place, not too far from me, on my to-eat list. A much nicer than the rest of the street, painted terra-cotta facade, and signs advertising flor de calabaza (zucchini blossoms) and tortillas heco a mano (handmade tortillas), already caught my eye. With extra inspiration from the Reader, I have made two visits to El Chimbombo.

The Reader article should have done a better job of warning the eater. Not to eating there, but getting to eat there. El Chimbombo presents no English on their menu, and some of their items are going to be unfamiliar to most of the Reader's readers, and the servers also spoke limited English. The menu basically offers two types of food. First, they offer a huge series of fillings including beef cheeks, tongue, brains, rajas con queso (peppers with cheese), tripas, etc., (but no eyeballs). These fillings go in any number of containers including as tacos, quesadillas, huaraches, sopes and gorditas, The second kind of thing to get at Chimbombo is the alambre. I am not sure of the history or tradition of the this dish, but I know from other places in this part of town, that the alambre appears to be a favorite of Cicero-Berwyn. Chimbombo makes an alambre by chopping up your choice of meat(s) with cheese and pepper, and perhaps onions and bacon if you are going for the more deluxe version. The menu notes a version for hungry diners ("para muy ambrientos") where you can get three heapings of meat. The alambres come with a rich broth filled with beans and bacon, essentially the juice or jugo of carne en su jugo. On the visits, the alambres were as good as they sound.

I have also worked my way through six of the taco versions: al pastor, barbacoa de borrego (steamed lamb), cesina, cochinita pibil (a dish of baby pork steamed in banana leaf, but I highly doubt they do that here), lengua (tongue) and chuleta adobada (marinated pork). All have been far better than average with a few really standing out. The cochinita pibil lacks the traditional pickled onions, but it made up for it in other ways. The stewed meat gets re-heated on the griddle (a la plancha). It crisps up the sides while leaving the inside feathery and light. I liked this more for the texture than the out front flavors. They cut their pastor from the vertical spit, like a donor kebab or shwarma. This form of cooking leaves the meat moist from dripping fat, yet not actually that fatty. What really made the pastor, however, were its onions, onions cooked beyond carmelization but just before carbonization. Finally, I loved the meaty, soft lengua.

Besides the tacos and alambres, I have tried a few other things. There is the gooey, yummy, bring out the kid in you melted cheese dish, queso fundido, with a choice of three toppings. There is the intense, meaty broth from the making of barbacoa, consome de Canero--great but needed a couple of doses of lime to cut the fat, and there is flan. I asked if the flan was made in house. No, I was told, the owner makes it at HIS house. Like everything else at El Chimbombo, it comes more than one way. The other day, three, corn, coconut, and pecan. The one we tried, corn, tasted like someone made it in their home, a high compliment indeed. I should warn that sign or not, the tortillas are commercial. The other soft gripe, some really awful tomatoes marring a few things. On the other hand, El Chimbombo cooks up four different and distinctive table salsas. It is near impossible to settle on one.

So far, I am quite glad the Reader reminded me that what catches my eye is often worth writing about.

El Chimbombo
6725 W. Cermak
Berwyn, IL

(And Sundays selling eyeballs and other goods at Maxwell Street.)

Monday, January 19, 2004

Always Happy at Happy Chef

Cantonese food too often gets dismissed, associated unfortunately with all that crappy stuff long unpopular: chop suey, chow mein, moo goo gai pan, etc., etc. Yet, the real thing, the real Cantonese, presents one of the most delicious brands of Chinese food. Few spices play a role in Cantonese food. Instead, Cantonese style Chinese food emphasizes clean preparations, where you can see the underlying food. Seafood, popular in all aspects of Chinese food, is especially important in Cantonese food. It is expected that Cantonese food is all stir fried, but great Cantonese food uses a bunch of preparations including steaming, baking and cooking in casseroles. I fully expect a good Cantonese meal to wow me from all sides of the kitchen, and one kitchen that always wows me is Happy Chef.

I had the good fortune of dining with a very large group at Happy Chef the other night. As always, it was a great meal. Too much food, so I have to run through the list pretty quickly, what we ate. All meals at Happy Chef start with complimentary soup. Perhaps my sucker-ness for freebies influences my love of Happy Chef, but the soup always puts me right for more to come. Since the soup contains a few spare chicken feet and other odds and ends, I always jokingly call it leftover dim sum soup. Actually, the dominant feature of the soup is big chewy, whole pieces of conch, looking very much of the shell. Not a pretty soup, but a nice soup.

Did I say quick run? I'll try again. Crabs AND lobster stir fried in ginger and green onion and impossible to eat with chop sticks; green beans dry cooked with sliced pork, straying to the mainstream; pea shoots with more conch, getting back to the more authentic; tofu stuffed with shrimp paste in hot pot, the blander course; clams in a tiny wok of broth; beef in sizzling platter with too much black pepper and thin pork chops in a honeyed brown sauce, both dishes belying the notion that Cantonese dishes are all plain; soft boiled chicken with a dressing of ginger and green onion; and finally, Peking duck served in 2 courses. The meal ends with a second soup, red bean with sweet balls. A soup I like better for its complimentary nature than its succor.

I love Happy Chef so much that I can safely say that a couple of things were not perfect. I really dug the clam preparation. It left the clams soft but with integrity, but the clams themselves were overly gritty. Great dish that could have been greater. The pancakes for the duck were not the usual rubbery moo shu things. Rather, smaller discs, studded with seeds, breadier, but also dry and flour-y in parts. Because it was such a large group, service was a non-factor. In past visits, I have always felt comfortable at Happy Chef. It is easy to order here without any language skills.

Happy Chef fits into all the stereotypes of no nonsense Chinese eating. Decor would be the tanks with live seafood. Lighting makes no woman look pretty. Best (worse?), the tables are covered in a mille feuille of plastic. When one table finishes, the staff rolls up everything not worth keeping, ties it into a knot, and prepares for new eaters.

Happy Chef
2164 S. Archer Ave (Chinatown Mall)
Chicago, IL

More Upscale
Smith and Wollensky

Below, I discuss the nature of upscale ethnic eateries, the difficulty in labeling and the difficulty in achieving. What about the question of upscale non-ethnic. Not so much fine dining, but upscale comfort food, or more as I would think of it, upscale "American" food. Smith and Wollensky is pretty much categorized as a steakhouse, but I always think of it as an American restaurant, as upscale comfort food (comforting in the sense that it is my food).

First, I always slightly hate myself for liking S&W so much. It is both a New York import and a very corporate place (in several meanings). If half the point of its appeal is that it is my food, well should not my food come from Chicago and in a much more cool setting ? Yet, they do it so well, so much as I like it, that I must ignore its invader status or its chain nature. Second, I confess to a slight bit of non-objectivity. I have been provided an insider tour of the place, spending so much time in the dry aging-meat locker that I got a cold. Knowing all the effort they put into their food, and such secrets as how the meat gets a dip in melted suet, does make me that much more inclined to like the place.

And I love it. Not for the steaks. I almost never get one of those steaks, one of the few (perhaps only) dry aged steaks in Chicago. Instead, I love the rest of the menu. It speaks tradition to me. I feel like I am eating roughly the same meals as Diamond Jim Brady, and while I know Diamond Jim never tasted "Angry Lobster," I believe he would have loved it if given the opportunity. I also love their casino service. You know where there are several layers of management all on the floor, each with responsibilities and each making sure someone else follows theirs.

More than 2/3rds of the time at S&W, I order and eat the roast beef hash. A cast iron skillet holding a bunch crisped bits of trimmings from the dry aged meat mixed with potatoes. The white hot pan crisps the potatoes for extra. The whole thing gets lubricated with the fat of an egg yolk AND hollandaise. Plus, the bite of chive. I am not a chive/raw onion person at all, but in this dish it works so well. Surely not an everyday dish but an always enjoyable dish.

The other day, I strayed from the hash to another standard, the burger. Yes, a better burger with delicious blue cheese, and even at $8.75, a bargain. We also got the Friday fish fry, and here more than the burger, S&W showed how they are just a better diner. Nothing exotic about this dish, no tempura batter or panko breading or anything at all modern. Just fried fish as could be found in any supper club, but with pristine fillets, nary a bit of extra grease and with a perfect homemade tartar sauce. The tartar sauce tasted both light on the tongue but heavy in flavor. Siding both dishes (and for me just another reason to avoid the plain steak) are some of the best fries around (again better than any diner). Slightly limp instead of brazenly crisp, the way I prefer, what really set these fries apart was their salting. I am not sure if the salt was something really upscale, a Breton sea salt, but it was something a bit special, a grain larger than table salt but flatter than typical kitchen salt (i.e., Kosher salt). I should also add that the Condiment Queen loved a lobster cocktail with a smooth and herby green sauce, priced way too reasonably at $7.75 (partially offset by the fish special at the not that cheap at $18).

All around at S&W, I saw more American food. Whole roast chickens sliced tableside. A meatloaf that put the loaf in meat loaf, no modern embellishments either, really looked good. I have in the past, gone gaga over their mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, fried onions and fried zucchini. I always like their salads. The Caesar the other day was just as expected. As with soups at Halina's, I am fairly confident ordering anything on the menu here. S&W comes about as close to an ideal restaurant for me, one I could, if I had the budget and office location, eat at daily.