Dining and food culture in Chicago

Dying for a Meal: Making a Hyde Park Outing of the Oriental Institute’s Exhibition

Events, Hyde Park No Comments »
Stele of Katumuwa/Photo: Anna Ressman

Stele of Katumuwa/Photo: Anna Ressman

When people say they’re going to Hyde Park, they usually mean they’re headed somewhere within a few blocks of the University of Chicago. My reason for recently going to Hyde Park was, of course, a UChicago-related event, an exhibit at the Oriental Institute (1155 East 58th) entitled “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East.”

This exhibit brings together two of our favorite things—food and mortuary rituals—and it focuses on the use of food and drink to care for the dearly departed. At this ancient Turkish ritual, there would have been a stone representation of the deceased, along with directions regarding foods to be set before him. The stone representation, a stele recently discovered in Eastern Turkey, is for a man named Katumuwa. The inscription indicates that Katumuwa expected it to be rather dreary in the afterlife; he thought an annual banquet around his image would make things slightly more tolerable. As part of this exhibit, there are almost sixty artifacts related to comestibles of the ancient Near East.

This exhibit ends January 4, and Christmas break is the perfect time to make the trek to Hyde Park for some culture and some chow at one of the neighborhood’s classic bar/restos.

The Nile (1162 East 55th) complements the “In Remembrance of Me” exhibit. Having been featured on “Check, Please!” The Nile stands apart from just about every other nearby restaurant. Now in a new building, The Nile has served the community for years, with Middle Eastern standards including a much-praised chicken shawarma. The owner is Palestinian, born in the little town of Bethlehem. The food is value-priced: around $15/person. Read the rest of this entry »

Dining Destinations: The Alabama Coast

Road Trips No Comments »
Royal Reds/Photo: David Hammond

Royal Reds/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Alabama is probably not the first place Chicagoans would consider for a winter getaway. With its Gulf of Mexico shoreline, Alabama is warm as Florida, yes, but it seems a slightly off-center vacation destination…which makes it just right for us.

Gulf Shores and nearby Orange Beach on the Alabama coast have lots of white-sand beaches and a load of excellent seafood. After the BP oil spill, there was understandable concern about seafood safety; now, with strong food-safety regulations in place, there’s incredible seafood coming out of Alabamian waters that’s simply unavailable in Chicago.

Royal Reds. Long considered by-catch, Royal Reds were once a largely unwanted crustacean that just happened to get mixed in with the shrimp that fisherman were actually fishing for. Now, these once-unwanted shrimp are rare and treasured. More tender and perhaps just a little sweeter than other types of Gulf shrimp, Royal Reds are not always easy to find even at Gulf restaurants. We’d heard about Royal Reds at King Neptune’s (1137 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores), and it’s there we had them boiled and sprinkled with Old Bay’s: delicate, flavorful and very red. Read the rest of this entry »

Passion’s Fruits: Local Holiday Gifts for Food Lovers

Guides & Lists, News etc. No Comments »

CH Distillery Artist BottleBy Amber Gibson

Food lovers will enjoy these delicious treats, all made locally by passionate culinary artisans.

CH Distillery and West Loop Salumi join forces to offer a holiday booze box ($85 and up) with your choice of a locally distilled CH Spirit, customized stainless steel CH flask and West Loop Salumi’s finnochionna salami. Beverage director Krissy Schutte recommends CH’s peppercorn vodka as her preferred pairing. “The Tellicherry peppercorns that we use pair beautifully with the Berkshire pork and fennel pollen,” she says. After the one-hundred-percent Heritage Berkshire pork salami is cured and seasoned with fresh fennel pollen, it’s slowly fermented and dried for at least a month. CH is also offering 210 limited-edition bottles of CH Center 100 Vodka ($150), a premium version of their signature spirit. Each bottle is decorated by one of ten local Chicago artists and a portion of the proceeds goes toward Un86’d, a local charity for restaurant professionals in need. chdistillery.com, 564 West Randolph, (312)707-8780. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Talking Turkey: Shake Up Thanksgiving with Unconventional Proteins

Cuisine, etc. 3 Comments »
Goat belly/Photo: David Hammond

Goat belly/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Years ago, back from a college foreign study experience in France, which included a cooking class, I felt worldly. For Thanksgiving, I announced to my parents that I’d take care of everything. Instead of turkey, I made a wine-poached trout. My father, sniffing at such pretension, rose after the holiday dinner and intoned, “Never again.”

Still, traditions notwithstanding, turkey is one of the least interesting of all proteins, a notch or two below llama. Turkey has its place on a club sandwich with a good amount of bacon or in a burger with a lot of Widmer’s ten-year-aged cheddar melted on top. Otherwise, it’s challenging to render the fowl appealing.

Thanks, in part, to Norman Rockwell’s iconic family portrait, we expect to see the big brown bird, center-table, and anything other than turkey for Thanksgiving is anathema to many. Nonetheless, we’re going to suggest a relatively unconventional protein for at least part of the meal.

Big in Mexico and points south, as well as Africa, the Middle East and India, goat is just starting to make inroads in the United States.

Read the rest of this entry »

Culinary Sherpa: Eat Big, Spend Little

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Smoked pork roll at Homestyle Taste/Photo: Ron Kaplan, LTHForum.com

Smoked pork roll at Homestyle Taste/Photo: Ron Kaplan, LTHForum.com

By Alan Lake

Does food seem to taste better when it’s more expensive?

Yes, says Brian Wansink, professor of consumer behavior and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. Wansink authored a study that indicates that customers who pay more at a restaurant perceive the food to be tastier than the same food offered at a lower price.

The psychology here is understandable and unfortunate. People equate high price with high quality, yet there’s obviously no rational reason why the market price for food should affect its deliciousness. Fortunately, Chicago has many excellent restaurants where you can eat big tasty food while spending little dollars. Friends call me the Culinary Sherpa for guiding them toward new foods and for revealing how a meal can transport a diner… for a reasonable ticket price. Here are a few places that offer crave-worthy chow at terrific values.

Homestyle Taste (3205 South Halsted) serves food from the Dongbei region of Northeastern China. Start with Preserved Egg with Tofu ($5.95): this seemingly simple dish is a chilled harmony of smooth and savory; eat it throughout the meal as a palate cleanser. A must-order dish is rich and hearty Cumin Flavor Lamb with Bone ($14.95), which borders on stupendous. Spicy Hand-Tear Beef Jerk ($13.95) is an intriguing collection of textures and tastes, simultaneously chewy and crispy, tongue-slapping good. There’s a sweet Smoked Pork Roll ($6.95) that reminds me of what a Manchurian quesadilla might taste like, if there were such a thing. Deep Fried Sautéed Green Beans ($9.95) are also a good bet, and you can elevate them to even greater heights of gustatory glory by asking the kitchen to throw in some mushrooms ($2 upcharge.) Go with a group to enhance your “ordering power,” and you’re in and out for around $25 per, which wouldn’t buy you an entrée at most upscale venues. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Chef Edward Kim, Mott Street

Comfort Me, Contemporary Comfort, Wicker Park No Comments »

© 2014 Galdones Photography

By David Hammond

“When I was sick,” recalls Chef Edward Kim of Mott Street, “or when I came in from the cold after shoveling snow with my father, I might have a hot porridge of rice with a little soy sauce; chicken soup…or a Japanese curry pork over rice. To me, Japanese curry is synonymous with the colder days of fall and winter; it was a dish my parents would often make for me. Japanese curry evokes memories of the smell of stewed meat with curry in a kitchen comfortably humid in an otherwise brisk house. It reminds me of my childhood.

“From a strictly culinary perspective, Japanese curry is comforting because it’s thick, it sticks to your bones, yet it’s mild in seasoning and has a distinct sweetness to it. While the curry is indeed black pepper-forward, the spiciness is not aggressive. It pairs well with braised meats. To me, braised meats capture comfort because they’re simple to make, yet they take time—and time is important.” Read the rest of this entry »

Dining Destinations: Nashville

Road Trips No Comments »
Hot Chicken at Hattie B's/Photo: David Hammond

Hot Chicken at Hattie B’s/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Nashville, the Music City, is a high-value long-weekend destination for Chicagoans in search of good things to listen to, eat and drink. Nashville is about an eight-hour drive, a somewhat longer/way-less-expensive Megabus ride, or a direct flight from Chicago (about $120/round trip). The paradigmatic Nashville meal is “meat and threes”: meat with three sides, like mac ‘n’ cheese, mashed potatoes and beans. There are, however, three other native Nashvillian comestibles that have achieved national recognition.

Hot Chicken: Perhaps Nashville’s most renowned menu item, among both locals and tourists, is the Hot Chicken. This sandwich of the fried fowl and hot sauce is enhanced (as are so many Nashville celebrities) by a hard-to-disprove legend. Hot Chicken’s origin story goes a little something like this: a wife, weary of her husband’s philandering ways, prepares vindictive vittles for him after he drifts home from god-knows-where. For this punitive repast, she fries up chicken and serves it, dripping with incendiary cayenne-based sauce, on white bread. Thing is, the s.o.b. enjoys it! He loves it so much, in fact, that he and his brothers start a restaurant to serve it. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Won Kow

Chinatown No Comments »
Won Kow, courtesy Curt Teich Postcard Archives Lake County (IL) Discovery Museum

Won Kow/Curt Teich Postcard Archives Lake County (IL) Discovery Museum

By David Hammond

In Chicago’s Chinatown—long before any of us had our first taste of Szechuan, Hunanese or Yunnanese cuisine—there was Won Kow. Since 1928, Won Kow has served what was once known simply as “Chinese food” but is now more likely to be termed “American-Chinese.”

Won Kow, Chinatown’s oldest Chinese restaurant, is on the second floor of an old building designed, general manager David Hoy told us, by “the same Norwegian architects behind the old Leong Chinese Merchants Association almost directly across the street.” The two big brick buildings with covered balconies and Asian ornamentation are Chinatown’s twin anchors.

Walking into the Won Kow building, you’re confronted by a long flight of stairs ascending to the second floor restaurant. There’s a printout, taped to the wall at the bottom of the stairs, assuring potential customers that takeout orders can be brought down to them. Such notice would have been unnecessary when Won Kow opened, shortly after the first electric elevator was patented, long before we acquired a fear of walking up a flight of stairs.

The stairs open onto a big wood-paneled dining room. Al Capone’s table was once in the northwest corner, and two of his boys would usually be stationed at the doorway to stand guard over Chicago’s OG. The menu has changed some since those days: Big Al surely never sampled Won Kow’s tempura or sushi…which, of course, are Japanese. And that’s the thing about American-Chinese places today: they frequently serve a pan-Asian variety of chow rather than “authentic” Szechuan or even Cantonese cuisine. Read the rest of this entry »

Things to Do with Your Tongue: Speaking and Eating Chinese with Professor James McCawley

Chinatown, Chinese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When I studied literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, I knew of James McCawley but never had him as a prof. He worked in generative semantics, and his work, focusing upon how meaning and logic affect syntax, created a well-known rift with followers of Chomskyan generative grammar.

I’d read a paper or two of McCawley’s in Joe Williams’ linguistics classes, but later in life the work of his I found most useful was “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters,” a still-in-print handbook (University of Chicago Press) for deciphering Chinese restaurant menus. About this guide, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker:

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate… .McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us… . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.” Read the rest of this entry »

Dining Destinations: Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Produce, Road Trips No Comments »
Gary Henschel of Henschel's Indian Museum and Trout Farm/Photo: David Hammond

Gary Henschel of Henschel’s Indian Museum and Trout Farm/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Elkhart Lake’s spring-fed water, held sacred for centuries by indigenous peoples, is so clean that when it’s tested every year, inspectors dramatize its purity by ceremoniously sipping a cup of untreated lake water.

We didn’t take that taste test, but we ate at three worthy restos in Elkhart Lake (a two-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago), all a short stroll from the three main lakefront hotels: The Osthoff (osthoff.com), Victorian Village (vicvill.com) and Siebkens Resort (siebkens.com). Read the rest of this entry »