Friday, February 20, 2004

Yum Thai "Secret Menu"

One of the first secret menu's exposed on Chowhound was Yum Thai, a seemingly typical Thai restaurant in Forest Park. While many of the items on the Thai menu seem the same as items on the American menu, in reality it is all different. Different and better. Pretty much everything ordered from the Thai menu tastes MUCH better. Try for yourself.

Translating the Thai menu at Yum Thai into English was not quite as easy as expected. Finally, our distant friend foodfirst did the trick. Just as important, Zim took her translation and matched against the Thai words on the menu.

You can get your own copy of the Yum Thai secret menu here. Thanks to GWiv for hosting another menu.
More Great Reporting from the Chicago Sun Times
(Corruption in Chicago, who knew?)

As noted on this page before, the Chicago Sun Times has been doing a fantastic job in identifying corruption and organized crime influence in the City of Chicago's "Hired Truck Program". Here's the latest. (Use a VERY good pop-up killer before going to the link.)
New Chocalte Kid Coming to Town

A friend of mine is friends with Todd Moore, owner of the Chicago Chocolate Company. My friend passes on the following on the company (which I apologize, I have yet to try).

There's an excellent potential supplier for you or your company I am writing to make you aware of.

The Chicago Chocolate Company (CCC) opened in the fall of 2003, but it draws from over 14 years of excellence.

Eric and Todd Moore, long-time friends of mine, own CCC with Mark Tarner, who founded South Bend Chocolate Co. in 1989 and now has 20 chocolate cafes in IN, MI and OH.

They will eventually be placing a store in Downtown Chicago, but actively do business today on their website,

The customer service is solid and all types of chocolate, which are made in South Bend are GREAT --I'm a toffee crack head.

Our company recently used CCC for all our client holiday gift giving. Pricing is very competitive, but what made it a home run for us is they uploaded our dist. List onto their secure server and now we can access it quickly for future gift giving. I hope CCC can be of benefit to you, especially with the closing of Fannie May. If you have questions or want to talk to them, call:

Todd Moore
The Chicago Chocolate Company
(773) 230 1602

Monday, February 16, 2004

Googling and the Limitations Thereof

Sunday's Washington Post had a good article on the ever-more omniscient Google. As the article notes, "to google" has entered the lexicon. "People keep finding new ways to use Google. It is now routine for the romantically savvy to Google a prospective date. "Google hackers" use the infiltrative powers of Google to pilfer bank records and Social Security numbers. The vain Google themselves." Still, the article points out some limitations to Google, and blogger Kevin Drum shows how searching remains an art as much as a science. Finding vital information requires more than googling.

There is no doubt that Google changed the way that people gathered information. The WaPo suggests that university library circulation dropped 20% since the advent of popular Internet search engines (how the heck anyone could really know that, I gotta wonder). Google did it three ways. First, it created a good algorithm, a way of getting more exact results from a search. This is usually the reason most ascribed for Google's success, but I think this reason is much less important than the other two reasons. So, second, Google's getting a LOT of stuff in their database. All search engines are only as good as the data obtained by their "spiders." The WaPo article states that, "Google initially searched about 20 million Web pages; the company's home page now boasts that it searches 3,307,998,701 pages." It is in those 3 billion+ (and growing) pages that Google finds what you want. Very often, within all those pages, only a couple of sites have your words. Thus, which page comes first hardly matters. Last, Google is good and people use Google. As Yogi Berra would put it, everyone uses Google because everyone uses Google. Once people realized they could easily search, well they did. The question stands, how good are their searches and should they be turning their backs on the library stacks.

Drum notes that the success of your search depends mostly on your ability to put in the right words. I believe I am a very good researcher, and two of the biggest skills I bring to each research project are knowing what words to put into any search and then knowing how to adjust my search based on the results. Whether it is Google or more quaint databases like Lexis-Nexis, it takes the right words to get the right results.

The WaPo article points out that googling can lead now where:

Hendler explains the problem this way: If you type into Google the words "how many cows in Texas," Google will rummage through sites with the words "cow" and "many" and "Texas," and so forth, but you may have trouble finding out how many cows there are in Texas. The typical Web page involving cows and Texas doesn't have anything to do with the larger concept of bovine demographics. (The first Google result that comes up is an article titled "Mineral Supplementation of Beef Cows in Texas" by the unbelievably named Dennis Herd.)

This is the other big trick of research, not just knowing which words but where to put the words. Google as good as it is, is not the end-all. One must go to the right source that has the available data. Finding data still requires knowing which source to use and which document contains the right information. Google gets you close but not all the way.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Thoughts on Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

Someone from outside of Chicago asked me about a couple of LEYE places that were opening up near him. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) is the dominant restaurant group in Chicago. They are well known for creating more than just restaurants but restaurant concepts. Like Disney, LEYE attempts to assault your inner and outer mind in such a way that the experience is much more than it seems. In my e-mail on LEYE, I made a few comments about LEYE that I thought were worth blogging. I would be interested in comments.

First, do not count me AT ALL as a basher. Some of their places are too cutesy, too much concept over substance, but others work just right, both as concept and as food. Moreover, I do not buy the theory of some, like my friend GWiv, that the clone is always inferior. I think at times LEY has duplicated places quite well. It does not always happen, but it is not impossible.

My biggest complaint I guess with Rich Melman is that he fiddles too much. Obviously, he has reasons, both the keep places fresh, and because he has the data of what sells, but I rarely approve his adjustments. Quite contrary, I like the way he starts. Melman, like me, seems to have a huge fetish with old fashioned dining, especially kind of a 40's-50's era archtype--e.g., that is the decor and style of Shaw's. Often, he will pepper the opening menu's with odes to this era, but as the longer the places are open, the more he seems to replace the classics with dumb contemporary style dishes. Think salmon and pasta. I wish he would stick to his convictions. Also, I believe he has had a mixed record in his re-vampls. I like Mon Ami Gabi more than Un Grand Cafe and I suppose Tru is much better than Avanzare even if I have been to the latter not the former, but I much liked Hat Dance over National 27 and Bones over L.Woods.
Valententine's Day at Ixcapuzalco
Upscale Mexican in Chicago Lives On!

Valentine's Day is not supposed to produce such exquisite eating is it? Like New Year's Eve, it is a night for diners who do not necessarily go out, and a night for restaurants to most take advantage of its customers. When we arrived at Ixcapuzalco and saw the prix fixed menu, we braced for the worst.

We were already bracing. One chowhound warned us before going, to expect good food but poor service. A very sloppy and artless greeting seemed to confirm this view of the service. And our suspicions only deepened when our server explained the drink program this night: or two glasses of wine. What wine I asked (Ms. VI was fine with the night's special drink, passion fruit margarita). Our server fumbled, "Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Grigio..." Painful, as she raked her memory, and I held off asking for any details that were obviously not coming. But she then, almost offhand, mentioned a Rioja, even a producer (who gosh darn right now I cannot remember), and not only did it seem better, it seemed right for the night. A few minutes later when that very large pour of Rioja came, and my mouth filled with its pleasant fruit and earth flavors, I was quite ready to enjoy the night. As it turned out, the service hardly improved, but since they consistently delivered such outstanding food to us, we hardly minded.

The "Valentines [sic] Celebration Dinner, 2004" contained appetizer, soup, entree, dessert and a mug of hot chocolate. As mentioned above, the meal included 2 drinks, either wine or some form of margarita, including the cliche passion fruit. For $55, my wife and I found it a fine value. One problem with special occasion, set meals, is that you usually feel restricted by the choices. Hardly the case at Ixcapuzalco, the menu gave us enough to fight over. Neither of us though, had the guts to get the dish more appropriate to the night, "Laura Esquivel's infamous quail in exotic rose petal sauce." Besides, we quickly and easily zeroed in on key dishes.

Of the group of appetizers, we both wanted the seviche, but foodies in good standing that we are, we need to try something else too, so the other got the enchilada de champandongo. How fortuitous! This turned out to be the best dish of the night, AND the filling came way too cold. Ixcapuzalco takes two of their fresh made tortillas and stuffs them with a mixture of shredded pork and beef. It then bathes the folded tortillas in a savory red mole. My first bite contained jarringly cold meat, so cold, I had to hunt down the server to see if they erred. But here's a bit of a secret, as I waited, I continued to nibble. I tried to do it in such a way to disguise my efforts, you know who can return a mostly eaten dish, but my intention was partially to just get more tortilla and mole. Granted, it was not all chicanery, the inside did seem wrong. The waitress, however, explained that the filling was supposed to be room temperature and I did not want at all another dish. I just kept the taken out of the refrigerator too late dish. Anyway, this was a dish all about the sauce. It should not have even had a filling, just tortilla and sauce. Maybe the best thing I can say about the mole is, even now, thinking about the dish many hours later, I cannot really name the ingredients. I mean I know the ingredients of a red mole, but a list of ingredients would be meaningless to this mole. A sauce blended into one homogenous, balanced, vivid (and quite spicy) whole that no ingredient stood out. The seviche, by the way, was pretty darn good too and featured a fresh tasting, fruity green salsa.

After so many flavors in the first course, you would think the soup would notch things down, give the palate a breather. Hah! Unlike the appetizers, we more easily divided on the two soup choices. The Condiment Queen moved towards the sopa azteca, long a favorite of hers, I the oxtail. I much preferred my choice. The sopa azteca tasted good, but I found it too thick, almost a liquid mole. I find such soups excessively filling (and this soup with all its garnishes of chicken breast, avocado, and tortilla strips was nearly a meal). My soup, the oxtail was an amazing bowl of flavors and textures. On the surface it was a bright consommé, typically Mexican, very reminiscent of the goat soup at Maxwell Street. Underneath, an array of items that spoke well to its chefly origins. For instance, swimming at the bottom of the bowl were perfectly cooked multidimensional onions and other ingredients, a masterful sofrito. The small piece of oxtail was likewise masterful, soft, beefy and tight on the tooth without being stringy.

Within ten seconds of menu glancing, my wife knew her entree, chiles en nogada. A classic Mexican celebration dish, one requiring true kitchen skills and either a lot of time or several sous chefs. Mixing so many elements, fresh poblano chile, rich pork stuffing, intense spiced-cream sauce, bursting pomegranate seed, it was the kind of dish expected at a restaurant like this. The outcome met and exceed all expectations. My grilled duck breast could not come close in terms of history or complexity, but it sure tasted delicious. They left the duck just red enough to truly mimic red meat and the sauce described on the menu as a "swarthy guajillo" had fine bitter tones that complemented the richness.

While I chickened out of the rose-petal quail--partially because I am not much of a quail guy either--I wanted the sides for that dish, wild greens and baby potatoes. I asked for a substitution. They would not comply. I was no worse the wear though as the mashed potatoes with my duck could accurately be described as butter, bound together with a bit of potatoes. I should add that the chiles en nogada came with a small (well can I keep on using the word perfect in this overly long report?) perfect dressed salad of exotic greens.

It is hard to wrap things up quickly. Tres leches cake, one of the few common denominators of Hispanic cooking, is a favorite of mine. While I am gonna like nearly any such cake, Ixcapuzalco's was nothing particularly special. On the other hand, after so much artistry above, the simple cake made lots of sense. Besides we ended the night with more flavors. We had to remind our waitress to serve us our hot chocolate, but again, it was worth the nudge. Made, I am almost positive, traditionally, with water instead of milk, the mug of spiced accented liquid chocolate was the PERFECT close to a gorgeous meal.

One final, final note, getting back to the wine. A certain amount of conventional wisdom says that only a few white wines stand up to spicy foods, but this was patently not the case last night. The Rioja, not very sweet, but very fruity and with tons of body, stood up to and well accentuated the food. I have, historically, been very skeptical of the "wine+food=sum greater than the parts" notion, but of the few times where I know the wine made the food even better, two of them have been with a Rioja. And speaking of conventional wisdom, it would suggest that a Valentine's dinner should be less good than typical. I do not have enough experience with Ixcapuzalco to say how this meal compared with others, but if this their version of banquet food, I am quite eager to return for the normal menu.

2919 N. Milwaukee
Chicago, IL