Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

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 »