Saturday, March 26, 2005

Czeck Please

The bandwagon certainly seems to have eluded Operetta. I would be highly surprised if this place ever made it on to the Check Please TV show. As I have noted before, there are two versions of Bohemian food in the Chicago area, the old "Bohunk" staples, mostly these days in Brookfield and Westmont, although Klas hangs on in Cicero. Then, there is the new school. Operetta is filled with young, strikingly thin for all the dumplings they eat, no-smoking ignoring, beer drinking, Czech speaking clientele. You think there would be no place finer for Hungry Rabbi, but he seems to be missing.

I am not sure if Operetta has gone through a recent change of ownership. They've spruced the place up slightly with black faux teak chairs and better flooring. The menu is also different. Yet, it stays the same. The grand thing about Bohemian cooking is from the oldest to the newest place, from immigrant to been here, the menu seems unchanged. We're talking firstly tons of food, almost all buried within some form of gravy, and if not gravey-laden, then fried. Secondly, we are talking ultra-Atkins repellent food. If you are not getting ten or so slices of light yet substantial bread dumplings, you are getting about five potatoes boiled and casually smashed on your plate. Of course, it all tastes good. There are three classic Czech beers on tap, a few types of slivowitz for variety, garlic soup to ward off the un-dead and pancakes for dessert. I cannot fathom why this place is not more popular.

Needless to say, my meal last night both tasted great and left me with tons of leftovers. On our table was a goulash, and two kinds of pork dishes. Each gravy was unique if not overly complex. One daughter got chicken in blue cheese and the other cheese sticks on steroids. When we were leaving, we noted that a woman at another table was eating these huge blocks of fried cheese, so they are not just for meat eschewing chowhounditas.

(773) 622-2613
5653 W Fullerton Ave
Chicago, IL 60639

In googling the address for Operetta, I found this link from the Czech embassy for food places in Chicago and around the USA.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


I get exasperated with certain posts on the "old" food sites, and e-Gullet, but mostly by the time I get the blog opened to say my say, my ire has dissippated. Yet this little nugget tipped to me by today's lunch companion, who shall go nameless but has a sandwich named after himself, sums up certain thoughts that never make it to the Internet.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Who are these people

A week or so ago, I was talking with a woman from Great Britain. We were talking about Private Eye Magazine, an interesting magazine that combined satire, politics and a bit or muckracking, but written in a fashion and code that was difficult to decipher. I never knew at what point I would "get it", but I never did. Still, it's inspired me to write first on Chowhounnd and now here (and on LTH) in my own code. But I am willing to explain at least some of the stuff, and since I've recently been lucky enough to get some included in some great food blog sites, I thought I'd link to this post for a little backstory.
Big Fatty, Smokey Chickens
Pico Rico

Once upon a time, Cathy2 and I discussed a possible talk for the Culinary Historians on "How to Chowhound." Perhaps one day. But I have a secret weapon that cannot necessarily be taught. The eagle eye of the Condiment Queen. We planned on going to Trader Joe's today (for their preternaturally good decaf coffee--I actually think that TJ's decaf is better than their caf, explain dat). Our lunch plan was to have no lunch plan. Drive east, probably to somewhere in Wicker Park or perhaps a cemita. Then, she spotted it. It's not really easy, the signage is small, a pollo a carbon place called Pico Rico. One deep breath when we entered, and we knew we where in the right spot.

Pico Rico cooks their chicken with a roitissere over smoldering piles on hardwood charcoal, the sweet smell of wood wafting around the room. We ordered the whole chicken plus three sides for $14.99. It is not the cheapest roast chicken deal in town, but these were huge, fatty birds. Birds that really stood up to the coals. For sides, we got white rice, red beans, yuca con mojo de ajo (and an extra order of patacones or fried green plaintains).

I've complained before that their is at times a reliance of photographs over words in the foodie world, but I SO wished I had my own digital camera when the food arrived. Two plates, one with chicken, one with rice/plaintains/yucca, plus the bowl of brick red beans, a narrow palate range, would have seen highly impressionist. The succulent fat would still glisten in the digital picture. We truly feasted with our eyes for a few minutes. Of course, the sensory experience was helped by aromas that would be hard to capture. The mojo from the yucca fought with the citrus-anniotte marinade for our olfactory attention. Believe me, it tasted just as good. Not just the chicken either. All of the sides, even the white rice tasted great.

Also, there were no secrets at Pico Rico. Salsa de aji, at least their salsa de aji, was described to us as chimichurri with jalepeno. He gave us the ingredients: parsley, cilantro, jalepeno, and olive oil. He said it was better when made my hand, but he needed to use a blender. The chicken marinade: orange juice, anchiotte, garlic and salt. The charcoal, Royal Oak, well that I learned because there were lots of bags laying around. Still, you can watch the chickens cook very easily. Go for the chicken and the lessons.

The owners are Ecuadorian, and there a a few other Ecuadorian items on the menu, goat stew, seco de chivo; some pork dishes, but we only had the chicken, and in fact may be hard pressed to ever NOT have the chicken.

Pico Rico
4107 W. North
Chicago, IL
773-252-Rico (7426)


We never made it to Trader Joe's. A few doors down from Pico Rico is a thrift shop. As great as lunch was, it pales next to what I found at that thrift shop. Two sport coats once belonging to Kup--no joke! One cashmere (purchased for $2!), the other made by legendary Michigan Ave. tailor, Pucci (with a lining as nice as the jacket itself.). Hopefully, it was not the same Pucci suit Kup was buried in.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

More Adultery on the Internet

Foodies love to cheat.
L'Affair Continues

[Note, I misreported the name of the restaurant below. It is called Zasciankek.]

The other night myself and several other chowhounds and chowhounditas went to Zasciankek for a little dinner and floor show [had to be there to see the kidz do some kinda Supreme's type of dance routine.] We tried more soups, chicken noodle, tripe, mushroom, dishes done with potato pancakes and regular pancakes, two variations of chicken breast and other fried things. It was all good and satisfying, although I've had better goulash (too much sour cream muted the flavors). Still, as foreshadowed the other day, come to see the dumplings.

We were all very keen on trying the Silensian dumplings. And these turn about to be about the lightest potato based product you will ever taste. They look like big globs of stiff mashed potatoes, but when you bite in, it take a few seconds for your teeth to hit anything. After that pause through light goo, where you take in the earthy mushroom gravy, you hit a firmer layer. This mantle yields gently to the mouth, leaving a wonderful contrast of chew and air. It is possible to get other gravies besides the mushroom. Essentially, think of these as giant, better than gnocchi, gnocchi.

And as good as the dumpling were, the pierogies were better. They did not come out until late in the meal, and I am not sure if they make the entire package to order or it was just slowly cooked. The wrappers were so clearly homemade, so exquisitely, perfectly flawed. Dough wrapped just to the point of breaking, and you could taste where the hand had fixed any over exuberance. The pierogies were equally light and substantial. A sauce of clarified butter with just enough long cooked onions for sweet-bitter contrast set things off right. If the filling was junk, these pierogies would have still tasted great, but needless to say, the fillings were good too.

There are certain small, apparently unpublicized (yet hardly unknown) places, La Quebrada, Spoon Thai, this place, that it just takes one or two visits to know the place is special. I will always adore Halina's for simple and delicious Polish food, but I will continue cheating on her for sure at Zasciankek.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Think Global Eat Local* (cont.)

Beware the mango in Baltimore sez Chez Pim. Now if I can only wean the Condiment Queen of her year-round berry habit.

*Think yiddish, dress British - As told to me by Evil Ronnie
The Italian Beef

Many years ago, I went to school in Washington DC. In one of those initial dorm sessions where you get to know everybody, I asked the seemingly innocuous question, where could I get a good Italian beef sammy. After all, what does a kid from the Chicago area want when he's hungrier for more than a hot dog. Believe me, that moment of derision followed by the revelation that no one really knew what was an Italian beef has stuck with me the rest of my life. People around the USA eat things like the Italian beef: french dip, beef-on-weck, even cheesesteaks, but no one else eats the Italian beef.

The distinguishing feature of Chicago's beef sandwich is the lack of substantial condiment to the beef. LA dips get slathered with a spicy mustard. 'Weck's get nose clearing horseradish and the ample salt crusted bun. Philly beef is thoroughly hidden in extras. Roast beef satisfies, but it needs something. Chicago beef adds its succor from a jus or gravy that houses the meat for a substantial period before service. This gravy gets highly influenced by those dreaded dried spices, especially garlic powder and oregano. Beef users adjust the amount of gravy per sandwich by asking for their sandwiches dry, wet, juicy, dipped, whatever. But no matter how much gravy is added to the Italian beef sandwich, the meat will already carry the spiced flavor through out. Although the Italian beef needs no frill, it does often get two compliments.

First, many eaters add peppers to their beef. The peppers can either be sweet, some kind of cooked green bell pepper, or hot, a/k/a giardinara, a mix of chopped things in oil. (See here for additional information on giardinara). The peppers do not so much as dress the meat but add another flavor dimension. The second way to adjust the beef sandwich is to throw an Italian sausage onto the bun too. Known around town as a combo, the sausage leavens the meat mass with pork fat, char and a contrasting texture.

Several hounds led by by Dickson and George R have been exploring various Italian beef stands around town. It has been a great process. At first, it seemed that they were all great, but over time, we've found some awful beef too. Below is my general summary based on tastings so far.

Unique and fab in taste and garnish

Al's - 1079 W. Taylor, Chicago - Al's differs from all other Italian beefs, firstly by a different spice mix, mysterious but with strong hits of fennel seed; secondly by the consistency of the meat, more shredded than smoothly sliced; third by its giardinara, thin slices of celery heated up with red pepper flakes instead of the typical chopped sport pepper. Great charcoal grilled sausage.

Best of the "typical beefs"

Johnnies - 7500 W. North, Elmwood Park - On one of the beefathons, we visited Carm's in Hillside (see below). Really good. Then we went to Johnnie's. Taste is always subjective, and it is hard to explain why one thing just tastes better. Johnnies just tastes better. Nothing stands out, the gravy, the cut of beef, the giardinara. Just balance and the best of the beef's that is like all the other beefs, just better. Also grills their sausage over real hardwood charcoal. This is one of the best smelling restaurants in Chicagoland.

2nd best, slightly unconventional beef

Freddy's in Cicero - 1600 S. 61st Ave, Cicero - Distinguished by a tomatoey gravy (it's subtle), it is a stellar beef.

Third best, slightly unconventional beef

J&C Bombacigno's - 558 W. Van Burean, Chicago - Uses a different roll than most beef stands, Dakota Pride. Unlike the standard Gonella bread, J&C's bread is lighter but also crisper. Yet, because of its nature, the sammy dissolves somewhere between the third and fifth bite. The way you are scooping bread, meat and gravy after a while, with a couple of fingers, reminds you of eating Moroccan or Ethiopian food. The gravy is a bit oily, in a delicious way, and the only one that ever so slightly mimics Al's.

Next best beef's, all normal style

Carm's Hillside - 1801 S. Wolf, Hillside - See Johnnies above. Well balanced, tastes great, and only against Johnnies doe it seem less.

Chickies - 2839 S. Pulaski - Enhanced from a giardinara that is thin sliced jalepenos instead, although the oil tempers what looks to be too spicy.

Patio - 1503 W. Taylor - A much lesser known stand than its neighbor on Taylor, Al's, but gives the visitor to "Little Italy" a chance to have the regular Chicago beef, done very, very well. Gets their beef cooked from Serrielli's (which deserves a post).

Reaching for greatness but not quite

Mr. Beef - 666 N. Orleans, Chicago - I have a thing against Mr. Beef. It started when they started wrapping the sammy's ahead of time. But I also take out my distaste for Jay Leno on Mr. Beef (he loves it). Lastly, for ages, the folks on e-Gullet would proclaim Mr. Beef the best in Chicago with NO sense of other places. I had to hate it. Yet, on the first beefathon, I was surprised to find that, when served fresh, it is not bad at all. The giardinara is dominated by raw celery.

Dino and Nick's - 2035 N. Pulaski - With Al's, the most aggressively seasoned beef, but there is no mystery to this mix. Lots of garlic and lots of oregano. Some find it too, I like it.

Max's - 5754 Western - Another beef place most interesting for its giardinara. The giardiara oil is tinted red, and there is much speculation about its secret ingredients. I taste something quite Asian in the sauce, wondering if it's chile oil.

Boston BBQ - 2932 W Chicago - I admit, the coolest thing about this ancient beef stand was the its old fashioned sign with the neon and lotsa light-bulbs. With that sign gone, it is just a respectable beef.

Buena Beef - Various locations - Uses the lighter Turano bread, has a gravy dominated by black pepper, and offers a giardinara heavy with chunks of celery and whole olives. Lots of bells and whistles, but it does not taste quite as good as, say Johnnies.

Finely Average

Frannies - 4304 River Road, Schiller Park - Advertises "virgin" beef. Which is nothing special.

Carm's on Polk - 1057 W. Polk, Chicago - Another choice in the old neighborhood, but this one is not nearly as good. Too fatty.

Tores - 2804 N. Western Avenue Chicago - Edible, I have no problem here, as compared to the places below, but I would not run out of my way for it.

Below Average

Jay's - A few locations - Incredibly tough beef, who thought that was possible.

Roma's - 4237 N. Cicero, Chicago - Ronny takes huge pride in his product, and perhaps I caught them on an atypical day.

Satchell's - 4700 W Cermak, Cicero - Once considered among the giants, now seems to be phoning it in.


Quick Bite - 5155 N. Western, Chicago - Really awful, odd, chemical taste.

Too afraid to try

Beefee - Multiple locations - On TV, I saw they add some spice mix to the beef after finishing it on the grill. Two things that confirm my worst fears.