Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Chef Edward Kim, Mott Street

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© 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

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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

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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

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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

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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 »

Comfort Me: Scott Walton of Howells & Hood

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By David Hammond

“Most people associate chicken soup with illness,” says Scott Walton of Howells & Hood (435 North Michigan). “I associate chicken soup with happiness.”

Most do think of comfort food as something you eat when you need comforting. But why can’t it be something you eat when you’re, you know, comfortable?

“The whole thing about having comfort food when you’re sick,” Walton argues, “is misconceived. I’ve been sick with the flu enough to know that a good bowl of soup is very easy on the stomach, not a lot of acidity, I get it. But for me, chicken soup is a hearty meal, and that’s very comforting—and you don’t have to be sick to be comforted.

“My mom made the best chicken soup, often from scratch, and never from a recipe. I know she had some cookbooks, but I never saw her use any of them. It was all in her head. And she didn’t make chicken soup for me because I was sick. She just made it because I liked it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Dining Destinations: Ann Arbor

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Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

At some point in the not-too-distant past, while many of us Chicagoans were not paying attention, Ann Arbor, Michigan, became a major Midwestern dining destination. Why is Ann Arbor now such a center for culinary goodness?

Well, for one, Michigan is a state of smaller farms—ninety-five percent of Michigan agriculture is produced on family farms—so there’s a lot of excellent produce for consumers and restaurants to put on their tables.

Moreover, Ann Arbor has become an attractive retirement location for many University of Michigan alumni who are returning to their college town, buying condos… and looking for good places to eat.

Another driving reason for Ann Arbor’s ascendance to culinary glory is, indisputably, Zingerman’s Deli, long regarded as THE place in Ann Arbor to shop for high-quality food and drink. Recently expanded to make room for a bigger kitchen, this legendary deli is, indeed, a rich resource for take-away foods as well as beautifully curated charcuterie, cheese, fresh bread and shelf-stable goods like honey and olive oil. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro

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Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

By David Hammond

For Chef Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro (2075 North Lincoln), comfort food “warms the heart. When you take that first bite, you’re instantly transported back to a time of good memories. When you’re done eating, you have that feeling of ‘Wow, that’s good for the soul (and now it’s time for a nap).’ Comfort food for me takes you home. It transports you to a different time and place. You close your eyes and just fall back.”

Comfort food is often high in carbohydrates, so it’s not surprising that Keeley’s favorite comfort food is “Pasta, pasta, pasta—any way you can put it in front of me.”

Keeley’s Gemini Bistro, which for the past three years has received Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition, serves from a big menu that includes several pasta-based dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar

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Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

By David Hammond

One of the most adventurous and memorable meals I’ve ever had was at Alinea, Chicago’s only Michelin three-star restaurant. Chef Grant Achatz is a culinary artist of major significance, challenging diners and pushing into new frontiers of food experimentation.

The food of Achatz is almost as much about the mind as it is about the stomach. One thing you would not say about his food, however, is that it “sticks to your ribs.” It doesn’t, and it wasn’t meant to.

For Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar (1132 West Grand), however, that’s what comfort food is all about.

“To me,” Van Lente says, “comfort food is rib-sticking good, with lots of fat and butter (that’s not a bad thing!). Comfort food has to be something that’s going to weigh you down—and keep you satiated—for hours afterwards.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q

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Lee Ann Whippen on the line

By David Hammond

I write about food, so I’m frequently asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

An impossible question to answer.

Owing to a number of factors that change daily or even hourly, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down a favorite restaurant. For instance, my favorite place for breakfast will almost certainly be different than my favorite place for lunch or dinner; one of my favorite places for lunch is Johnnie’s Italian Beef in Elmwood Park, but on a hot summer afternoon, no way I’m going to hunker into a mound of steaming beef.

A person’s comfort foods are also subject to change, and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one comfort food.

“I have a lot of comfort foods,” said Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q (1160 North Dearborn). “Each of these foods has their own quality that comforts me for whatever reason. Comfort food is not only for when you’re feeling bad. Sometimes you just want to feel good all over. You just want to feel… comfortable.” Read the rest of this entry »