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