Monday, January 26, 2004

The Best of the Best
Making subs at Riviera -- How do you?

Just below, I talk about the great sub at Riviera. After reading this, a Chowhound poster, Ponzu, mentioned he was anxious to try--thank Will not me. As I noted, there are no standard subs at Riviera. You just invent. So, I am interested to see what Ponzu invents, and I am curious how others get their subs made at Riviera.
Kalbi in the air
Garden Buffet

There has been much talk about Korean grilled meats on Chowhound of late. See here and here et seq. Totally independent, we've been planning a trip with some friends to the Korean buffet, Garden Buffet. We had a very nice dinner on Saturday.

I think, perhaps because Garden Buffet is, well a buffet, it might rate much higher on the hip-o-meter. I for, though, never sneer at all you can eat. Still, no sojutini's, just big bottles of OB beer that made a fantastic accord.

I really think a buffet format accentuates this form of eating. At non-buffet places I sometimes find myself begging for more lettuce, a mysterious hot sauce at another table or some other accoutrement. At Garden Buffet, you just help yourself. More lettuce, more scallions, more chunks of raw garlic, just grab. Which hot sauce, try 'em all. Mix and match the sesame oil, vinegar, soy, and salt-mixture to a 101 slurries. Want to try one piece of Korean chitlin', toss it on the grill. If the panchan or meats are not quite as elegant, these other features make up.

The other key features about Garden Buffet: excellent ventilation and tongs. The lump wood charcoals are ventilated down not up. Your table remains relatively smoke free, and the next day, aside from the garlic burps, you may not realize as much where you ate. I am reasonably adept with chopsticks, but I find it so much easier to work the grill with the tongs. So, good ventilation and easy handling of the food make Garden Buffet a great place.

I never touched any of the sushi at Garden Buffet the other night, but the selection was more than usual. I tried one fried wing, but it tasted too much like a McNugget. Mandoo (dumplings) did look good, but I was too full by the time I got to them. I do very much like the traditional close to Korean BBQ, the cold soba noodles with the do-it-yourself saucing.

I'll give Garden Buffet, because of all user-friendly features, a 5.4 on the hip-o-meter.

Garden Buffet Restaurant
5347 N Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625-2307
(773) 728-1249
More OC Books

My friend Art Bilek who knows a LOT about organized crime in Chicago, recently published a book on the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. While those interested in more current affairs of the Outfit may think the events in this book too ancient, it is amazing how much this criminal action affected the entire history of Chicago criminal enterprises. Much of the current Outfit holds its ties to the old Capone gang, and knowing this history lets you understand a bit better, what is happening today. You should really give this book a shot.
The Best?
Riviera Italian Foods

I and a lot of people have been intrigued over the last several months about the idea of the "best." I cannot speak to other's motivations or inspirations, but I clearly got thinking about the idea after being confronted with about 12 breads any time I shopped at Caputo's in Elmwood Park. Which of the breads was truly the best? Eventually, this question morphed into the bread tasting party. The bread tasting failed on a couple of levels. Mostly, it failed because only a few breads came even close to the consensus winner, Melissa's home baked/ancient starter country loaves. It also failed because, confronted with too many things including such non-bread things as excellent Wiv-cured gravlax, we kinda lost our tasting rigor.

Dickson coordinated the next search for the best, a survey of several Italian beef stands. Dickson imposed some structure to the process, and it produced, if nothing else, a more scientific outcome, even if I felt that the scientific approach ever so slightly caused us to value the parts over the whole. I mean try it. See how different a beef sandwich can taste when you eat each part separate. Finally, the tightly focused crowd have done a huge and exhaustive survey of Chicago BBQ. See here and here for the results to date. Taking an opposite approach from the beef tasting, the rib tasters have generally provided singular opinions of places tried. Perhaps it is easier with BBQ to settle in one opinion vs. Italian beefs, where people seemed to have assorted ideas. All in all, I enjoy all these quests whether participating in the process or not.

Still, the best is a problematic issue. My biggest problem with the quest, is that I am too often happy with what I know to be great, compared to the effort to be comprehensive. Every so often, you hit a place so, so far better, so special, so great, you know it is the best. The question of best Italian sub comes up fairly often on Chowhound, and I have been highly unfamiliar with some of the sub contenders in Chicago. I have been wanting then, to visit Riviera ASAP. Best?

I did. On Friday. Can we cancel the contest? I find it hard to imagine a greater sub than Riviera. The Riviera sub gets so great possibly, because when you enter the store, there is NO indication of subs offered. But this means a purely custom sub. First, you pick exactly which roll you want. One of the choices is Mazza's, pointed at both ends, wide in the middle, thing, my favorite of this kind locally. Only great bread can produce the best sandwich. Second, you pick whatever else in the display case you want inside your sandwich. It is a not exactly easy process. How do you know which of the fresh and tasty looking meats and cheeses will work best together. OurPalWill suggests this combo. I, almost randomly, picked an intense looking capicolla, one of those 12 inch diameter mortadella, silky prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. Luckily, it worked. For garnish, I took both the house's home-made eggplant salad and the house's home-made hot giardinara. Since it would be a while until I ate, they packed both accessories separately for me. The house giardinara is surely one of the ways that makes this the best. On the deli counter, always stand several jars of what they have canned, including the made with jalepeno's, hot giardiana. It looks so raw, so pure, so real, I know these are the best, and any sandwich with them, is the best. All of this, less than $3.50.

Before picking up my sub, I grabbed an espresso at Bar Nazionale next door. The coffee was OK, say slightly behind a decent pull at Starbucks. I found it excessively winey with no heady coffee aroma necessary for a great cup.

On the other hand, stopped for a cup yesterday at Caffee Italia, also on Harlem, but more south, and this remains, by far, the benchmark espresso in Chicago. Rich, dense, and as Steingarden expresses so well, actually achieving a taste close to that of the gorgeous coffee aroma. This place, with its intense haze of smoke, its groups of men gathered around various tables speaking in a 100 languages and its most real espresso around, is like a worm-hole to Europe.

Imported & Domestic Italian Foods
3220 North Harlem Ave.
Chicago, IL 60634
Tapeheads go legit

I ran across an interesting item in yesterday's Sun Times(note, the Sun Times Web site is rife with pop-ups, do not execute this web site without a very good pop-up killer). A company called Pirate Entertainment is doing real time recordings of Buddy Guy concerts while he does an extended stay at his namesake club. You can walk away from each show with a souvenir. In addition, on the Pirate Web site, you can view set lists of past Buddy Guy shows, and I believe over time, other artists.

I have seen Buddy Guy several times, but have not visited any blues club, probably since the birth of the chowhounditas. Just hard to have the baby sitter stick around to 2 or so in the morning. I am intrigued by this product as much for the set lists as for the actual recordings. Buddy Guy is widely known for his eclectic tastes and over-the-top showmanship. His mimicking of other's style and techniques, especially rockers and his extensive shtick--I mean, I bet, having not seen him in 7 plus years, he's still stopping his show at some point to have someone bring him a glass of cognac--keeps Buddy low in the eyes of purists. Yet, he is exactly what people want when they want to be entertained. Just seeing the set lists give me enough vicarious thrill I need.