Dining and food culture in Chicago

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.

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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 »

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 »

Instant Coffee: Crawling Through the Cafe Experience

Coffee & Tea No Comments »

Coffee CrawlBy Stefan Castellanos

I drank my first-ever cup of coffee eighteen months ago during a brief, impactful stint in the warehouse of an artisanal Los Angeles roaster and since then, my relationship with the coffee shop—as a concept and a sacred institution—has fully blossomed. Several times per week, we spend social yet deeply personal time together. And all the while, I have eyes for no one else.

We have a great thing going, but the bar-lover in me was curious: could I combine these passions? Could I treat coffee shop time like a night of determined drinking and still feel fulfilled? Achieving true spatial connection at several locales one after another seemed unlikely, a borderline offensive pursuit. Even so, I had faith that the right environments could produce moments of magic regardless of the circumstances. The coffee crawl was on. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

Comfort Me, Loop, Vietnamese No Comments »

PhoBy David Hammond

One of my earliest memories is being home from school, sick, slurping soup prepared by my Italian grandmother. As a kid, I thought this soup, pastina, was my grandmother’s invention, made especially for me. The recipe for pastina is simple: chicken broth with lots of garlic and, crucially, little pasta stars (tiny letters of the alphabet will not do!).

As I got older, I came to understand that pastina was a classic cold-flu remedy enjoyed by generations of the young and old…even non-Italians. That realization had no effect upon my belief that this soup was, beyond a doubt, magic.

As my cousin Karen used to say, “Pastina is to be eaten with Kleenex.” This soup is warm and salty, so it opens up the sinuses, relieving pressure and other cold symptoms.

My Aunt Rosemarie confirmed the power of pastina and told me she once “felt her fever break” while eating pastina. “It was very dramatic,” she added, convincingly.

Chicken broth and garlic are, of course, well-known folk cures for the common cold, but even if the pastina had no measurable curative effects, it did, at least comfort me in my illness. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

Barbecue, Comfort Me, Little Italy, Lower West Side No Comments »
Erick Williams, County Barbecue,  courtesy David Hammond

Erick Williams by David Hammond

By David Hammond

People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?

The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.

Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food? Read the rest of this entry »

Manila Moment? Why Filipino Food Still Flies Under Chicago’s Radar

Filipino, Lakeview, River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Pancit canton at Sunda

Pancit canton at Sunda/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

National food personalities like Andrew Zimmern have touted Filipino cuisine as an emerging  trend, but here in Chicago the scene still seems lacking. While there are several neighborhood Filipino eateries in Chicago, none have a particularly high profile. If Tanta has made Peruvian food mainstream, there’s no trendy River North equivalent for the Pacific island nation. Sunda arguably comes closest, albeit with a Pan-Asian label. However, there are more than a few chefs with Filipino heritage helming restaurants around town. Some of the creative dishes you’re chowing down on at restaurants like The Refinery, E+O, Sunda and Pecking Order have Filipino roots.

Rodelio Aglibot, one of the most prominent Filipino chefs in town, is known for his “new Asian” cuisine. He brought Filipino food into the spotlight when he opened Sunda in 2009. Now, he’s helming the kitchen at E+O in Mount Prospect, where the eclectic menu includes steak, sushi and pizza along with a few Filipino signatures.

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French Flour: An American (Pastry Chef) in Paris

French, Gold Coast, Pastry 1 Comment »
Leigh Omilinsky with Pierre Hermé

Leigh Omilinsky with Pierre Hermé

By Amber Gibson

Often the best opportunities in life come from a combination of hard work and luck. Executive pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky of the Sofitel Chicago and Café des Architectes visited Paris for the first time at the end of October to stage (working an unpaid internship) with Pierre Hermé and take a class with Valrhona. She certainly earned the trip, working her way up through top Chicago kitchens including Tru and L2O before landing at the Sofitel, where she is responsible for the hotel’s entire pastry program. Last year, she won a Jean Banchet Award for Rising Pastry Chef, and this year she is a finalist for Pastry Chef of the Year. That alone might not have been enough to get her in the door with “the Picasso of pastry” though.

Luckily for her, a few of the higher ups at Sofitel North America are buddies with Hermé’s business partner and CEO of his company, Charles Znaty, so they put in a good word for Omilinsky. Four months after sending in her resume, she discovered she would be flying to France to stage with one of her idols. Read the rest of this entry »

Stollen Memories: Dinkel’s Bakery Feeds the Christmas Spirit

Breakfast/Brunch, Coffee & Tea, German, Lakeview, Pastry, Sandwiches No Comments »

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset By Amber Gibson

My love affair with German bread began in 2007, when I spent a year studying abroad in Germany. Every little town seemed to have a baker on each corner, up before the sun kneading dough and baking bread. Countless frigid winter mornings, my only incentive to get out of bed in the morning was the smell of breakfast brötchen (bread rolls) wafting through my window from the bakery across the street.

The culture of fresh-baked bread and the multitude of hearty loaves studded with nuts and seeds, or a sharp pumpernickel or rye spoiled me terribly. Sliced bread from the grocery store? Oh, the horror! It was in Bickenbach, a small village outside Darmstadt, where I was first introduced to good German stollen—less cloying, more buttery and much tastier than fruitcake. Here in Chicago, many bakeries offer their take on the sweet bread, but none quite captures my taste buds and brings back my memories of the pleasantly plump surrogate oma baker in Bickenbach feeding me extra sweets to fatten me up like the stollen at Dinkel’s. Read the rest of this entry »