Dining and food culture in Chicago

Ramen Wars: Chicago Chefs Go Bowl-to-Bowl

Japanese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

By Monica Kass Rogers

With thousands of variations worldwide, ramen has always been a hot mess of flavor and texture that invites playful experimentation. And that’s what Chicago ramen battles are all about. Invited by host restaurants, chefs have jumped into the ramen-battle ring with characteristic Chicago swagger. Most of their ramen bowls have been great, some not so, but there’s no denying the exhibitionist fun of the throw-downs.

Chef leaders of the Chicago ramen-battle pack are Bill Kim (BellyQ, UrbanBelly, Belly Shack) and Matthias Merges (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday), and both have been hosting two different styles of ramen-offs. Read the rest of this entry »

Better Than Fresh: The Super-Frozen Fish of Wixter Market

Seafood, Wicker Park No Comments »
Photo: Rebecca Holland

Photo: Rebecca Holland

By Rebecca Holland

“The whole goal is to get people to eat more seafood,” says Matt Mixter, the Chicago native whose seafood shop Wixter Market opened in Wicker Park on June 2. “I want to make it delicious, convenient, affordable and sustainable.”

Wixter Market (2110 West Division) is the only seafood market in the country promoting one-hundred-percent frozen fish and the only place in Chicago where consumers can purchase super-frozen fish products.

Mixter spent ten years traveling the world, processing the catch, distributing seafood for large retailers, and learning about different freezing technologies. Super-freezing, or freezing fish within twenty-four-to-seventy-two hours at minus-seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit, stops all decomposition in fish, increasing shelf life and preserving flavor. “These technologies were developed to cater to large companies, and I realized nobody was offering it in the small format, so I took the opportunity to do just that,” says Mixter. Read the rest of this entry »

The Taste of Yellow: Finding the Food of the Dominican Republic in Chicago

Dominican, Humboldt Park, Logan Square 1 Comment »
Punta Cana Goat, photo Rob Gardner

Punta Cana Goat/Photo: Robert Gardner

By Robert Gardner

I have become fond of the food of the Dominican Republic. Rather, I shall say, I have grown fond of eating in some places that serve as conduits for food of the Dominican Republic. Both Tropical Taste and Punta Cana exist as clubhouses, daily meeting places, connections to home, where you’d expect to finish your meal with a Fuente.  Put it this way, the signed pictures of baseball players on the wall are not those you’d likely recognize; I imagine, instead, they are the ones known mostly to the diners at these places. If this seems cliquey, imposing, do not fear. On my Dominican food runs, I have always faced language barriers, but the good kinds: the ones that make me feel I’m on vacation.  Invariably, someone—a server, another diner—steps in, orders for me. Also, I should add, invariably, someone steps in offering me a taste of theirs. The crowd loves this food in all its simplicity, starchiness and mute impact on the palate. The imaginary cigar smoke wafting through the air, mingling with a hint of spice and the succor of fat, puts us all in a good mood. What they feed us, we all like. Read the rest of this entry »

Turning the Tables: When Patrons Serve the Restaurant

Thai 1 Comment »
Pramote Rukprueksachart and Wanpen Phosawang/Photo Matt Zatkoff

Pramote Rukprueksachart and Wanpen Phosawang/Photo: Matt Zatkoff

 By David Hammond

“Why is my lawyer sweeping the floor?”

That’s the question gasped by Pramote Rukprueksachart of Rainbow Thai Cuisine (4825 North Western) when he saw attorney Teresa Becvar cleaning up his currently-under-construction new dining room.

To answer Pramote’s question, let’s flashback to May, 2013, when Matt Zatkoff, Becvar’s husband, posted on LTHForum.com, the Chicago culinary chat site, that “I was walking down Western north of Lawrence and passed the nondescript location where Snow Spice used to be. I kept walking but something about the place caught my attention, so I decided to back up and grab a menu. I can’t believe I almost missed this place, which is called Rainbow Thai Cuisine. Later at home, looking at the menu I noticed a few things that got my interest, one of them being the house-made I-san style sausage. That was all it took.” Read the rest of this entry »

Huckabee’s Bubble, Eastwood’s BBQ and Eating Otherness: A Taste of Goat, Brains and Brazil

African, Brazilian, Pakistani No Comments »
Feijoada at Taste of Brasil/Photo: David Hammond

Feijoada at Taste of Brasil/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

In “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” the most recent book by presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee, the pundit-author posits a country of opposing camps: Bubba-villes and Bubble-villes. The Bubba-villes are where you’ll find the author’s favorite things—like God, guns, grits and gravy—and the Bubble-villes are big cities—specifically NYC, DC and Hollywood—populated by left-leaning pointy-headed intellectual power-brokers. Chicago might likely qualify. As the name implies, dwellers in bubbles are disconnected from “reality” as defined by Comrade Huckabee.

It’s in the cities, of course, that people are most likely to be yanked out of their bubbles, confronted by otherness, compelled to deal with those people who don’t share their own inevitably limited perspectives. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Schaller’s Pump

American, Bridgeport, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

During Prohibition, beer was allegedly pumped in from a brewery next door to Schaller’s Pump (3714 South Halsted), enabling barkeeps to reduce on-hand inventory (or “evidence,” as it would have been called by law enforcement) and earn its name (“Pump”).

At the back of Schaller’s, there’s a peephole once used for vetting thirsty patriots engaged in heroic acts of civil disobedience against the tyrannical Volstead Act.

The bar, which opened in 1881, is across the street from 11th Ward Democratic Party headquarters. 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

Cuisine, etc. No Comments »
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 »