Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

The Eat Beat: Things get explosive when cops talk food

Food writing, Hot Dogs/Sausages 3 Comments »

Chris Garlington and David Haynes

It’s Friday night at Cigar King in Skokie, and that means CPD Sergeant David Haynes and Chris Garlington are there, hosting their online radio show. At the back of the shop, sitting amidst a crazy tangle of cords, Haynes and Garlington suck their cigars and adjust the levels on the mixer board. The pair have hosted their talk radio show, “The Dave and Chris Show!” every week since 2007, and their “Beat Cop’s Guide to Chicago Eats,” a compendium of cheap and usually greasy cop favorites, came out in January. They hold court at Cigar King, bantering for two hours about pretty much anything from family life to politics.

Hang out with them for a little bit, and it’s easy to see how their chemistry translates into talk radio. Garlington is an irascible guy with a motor mouth, and coincidentally a liberal. Haynes is conciliatory, bluff and a conservative. The conversation inevitably turns to food—Costco hot dogs, to be precise. “They actually are good drunk food,” Haynes ventures. Garlington pounces. “And the show comes to a screeching halt. They’re terrible.” Haynes just chuckles.

After the show, Haynes and Garlington, plus longtime contributor Ken Parr head out to Jimmy’s Red Hots for a late dinner. The Humboldt Park joint, which earned an entry in their guide, makes perhaps their favorite hot dog in the city. That partly explains why, even on this unseasonably cold March night, they’re willing to stand at the counter, their breath smoking in the apparently unheated stand, and wolf down tamales, red hots and fries. It’s nearly ten, but neighborhood kids are still trickling in. After a few gruesome stories about crime in the area—Haynes worked this district, 025, last summer—the conversation turns to hot dogs once again. Read the rest of this entry »

Confessions of a Foochebag: Del Seoul’s Korean tacos charm a cranky stomach

Fast Food/Street Food, Korean, Lakeview 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Five years ago, I was just a hungry kid with a dream. As I became a professional food writer, I’ve tried mightily to stay close to those roots. Somehow, though, I’ve found that lately I’ve become a bit of a grumpy critic. In the zeitgeist culinary parlance, I’ve been a bit of a foochebag, aka foodie douchebag.

I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I found myself watching a new episode of “Check, Please!” and yelling at the TV screen because a young woman recommended a Mexican restaurant that had a huge wall mural of a cheesy dude in a sombrero.

I mean I was crankier than the crotchety Sun-Times critic Pat Bruno after being forced to review a non-Italian restaurant with hearing-aid-threatening noise levels. There had been all kinds of signs of my decline. One of the most poignant came earlier this year when Roy Choi got named a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef.

For those who don’t know, Choi is responsible for one of the biggest Twitter food sensations, aka the California-based Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck. With a wink and a jar of kimchi, Choi tapped into an unquenched, but previously unknown desire for Asian-spiced and marinated meat-filled tacos.

But, disgusted that once again Curtis Duffy, the naturalistic molecular gastronomer over at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel had again been overlooked by Food & Wine, I twittered something like “Dude I’m sure your (Choi’s) food is good, but you make tacos.”

For years I’d been calling for big-time chefs to bring their talents to the masses in an affordable way. And yet, when someone did, I discounted his efforts because he wasn’t serving thirty-seven-course tasting menus. I now realize I owe Mr. Choi an apology.

I came to this realization over tacos one afternoon at Del Seoul, the new Korean “street” bbq taco stand in Lakeview. As much as I love to laud Chicago chefs’ originality, Del Seoul probably doesn’t exist without Choi. Read the rest of this entry »

My Favorite Things: Vegas Edition

Burgers, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Little Italy, Near North, New American, Pastry, River North, Steakhouse, West Loop No Comments »

Girl and the Goat

By Michael Nagrant

If he weren’t dead, I’d sure like to have a few words with Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable about the weather in Chicago this past July. I mean I’m sure in 1779, Lake Michigan’s unbesmirched shores were breathtaking and all that. But, as the area’s first non-indigenous settler (usually this means Native American-exploiting white dude—but, refreshingly du Sable was a black Haitian who married a Potawatomi woman and became a high-ranking member of the tribe) Du Sable must have known (he set up a fur-trading post on the north bank of the Chicago River) that, when the pelt business dropped off in July because it was hot and swampy and no one wanted to drape their sweaty bodies in beaver, well, the sticky heat might also be a minor annoyance for future generations. Of course, Du Sable was no Al Gore, and thus couldn’t be expected to anticipate global warming, let alone invent the internet, and so I guess the jungle climes we’ve endured most of this past month aren’t entirely his fault.

Still, what to do when my curly blond fro is frizzin’ like one of those “just add water” sponges that turns in to a four-foot-wide dinosaur from the humidity? Head to Las Vegas in August. Crazy, right? Well, as the joke goes, it’s a dry heat.

Actually, while I’ll relish swimming next to Elvis-jumpsuited dudes in huge football-field-sized pools while sipping on suntan-lotion-scented pina coladas in the shade of fake plastic architecture, my real intent, as it always is, is to discover the real side of Vegas food. While I’ll check out French masters Joel Robuchon’s and Guy Savoy’s places and local boy Shawn McClain’s new Vegas spot Sage, I’ll also be out searching for what some consider the best Northern Thai food in America at Lotus of Siam and the Japanese charcoal-grilled fare at Raku. However, while I’m baking in that arid desert, I couldn’t leave you without a few of my new favorite things. Every single one of these tasty treats is as sure a bet as a pair of panties gracing a Tom Jones concert stage. See you in a few weeks. Viva Chicago, baby! Read the rest of this entry »

Jazz Hands: Hooping it up at the po-boy emporium, Mac and Min’s

Cajun/Creole, Sandwiches, West Loop 2 Comments »

Roast Beef Po-boy

By Michael Nagrant

Ever wonder how Utah, that bastion of alcohol-eschewing, modesty-pursuing, piety-peddling Mormons ended up naming their basketball team after the devil’s music, Jazz? Well, to quote Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei’s character in “My Cousin Vinny”) when questioned about the correct ignition timing on a 1955 Chevy Bel Air with a 327-cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor: That’s a bullshit question.

The Jazz originated in New Orleans in 1974 and the Mormons had no hand in the moniker. Fortunately for Utah there was also a voodoo curse over those early Nola teams. In 1979, though they would have been the first team to draft and thus eligible to score the pride of Michigan State, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the New Orleans Jazz traded away that draft pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for the mediocre late-career services of Gail Goodrich. Read the rest of this entry »

A Fish Story: Chicago’s seafood history lives on in its shrimp houses

Fast Food/Street Food, Seafood, Wicker Park 2 Comments »

Joey's Shrimp House

By Michael Nagrant

Though it wasn’t exactly Cape Cod, Chicago did alright in the fresh-catch business. Prior to World War II, it was one of the largest seafood shipping points in the country with twenty-two large wholesalers operating on the banks of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers. In the thirties and forties, Lake Michigan trout used to be more abundant than long lines at Apple stores on iPhone launch day. On April 6, 1951, a fishing tug named the Iva T hauled in 2,000 pounds of perch and dropped them off at the Lawrence Schweig’s Fish Company located at 2120 South Canal. Restaurant barges and, during prohibition, speakeasies served thirsty fisherman and lumber and ore haulers on Lake Michigan.

During that heyday, the fish house or shrimp shack also sprung up, serving deep-fried, smoked and fresh seafood. Troha’s flourished in Little Village in the 1920s. In 1948, brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll launched Calumet Fisheries, the now-legendary fish house sitting over the 95th Street Bridge where Jake and Elwood Blues eventually jumped their Bluesmobile in the “Blues Brothers” movie. Before Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. preyed on tourists, locals used to swing over to Rocky’s Bait Shop just south of Navy Pier for fried smelt and oysters. Read the rest of this entry »

Two for Takeout: The neverending quest to be the next Chipotle

Chinese, Fast Food/Street Food, Indian, Rogers Park, West Loop 1 Comment »

Shabuka's Chana beef masala

By Michael Nagrant

It seems everyone wants to be the next Chipotle. For every upscale chef who opens a new hotdog stand or sandwich shop these days, there are two entrepreneurs trying to ape the success of the McDonald’s of Mexican, and become the next big ethnic franchise.

As with chefs going casual, these attempts have often paid off handsomely for local eaters. Take Me Out, Let’s Eat Hotties launched a thousand spicy garlic-soy-glazed hot wings, while Crisp in Lakeview has blessed us with killer Korean fried chicken. Though for every one of those spots, there’s also a Chutney Joe’s, serving up mostly mediocre fare.

One of the newer Chicago restaurants on a “Look Outside the Bun” lark hoping to ameliorate the failures of a place like Chutney Joe’s is Shabuka Indian Grill, tucked into a Loyola-area strip mall next to, surprise, a Chipotle. Read the rest of this entry »

My Favorite Things: Street Food Edition

Fast Food/Street Food, News etc. 1 Comment »

Taco Koreano

By Michael Nagrant

On June 9, the Chicago City Council was expected to introduce an ordinance for the legalization of food trucks. The ordinance got delayed, because Alderman Scott Waguespack needed more time to create a comprehensive bill. No matter, thanks to the work of a few diligent local chefs, including Matt Maroni (chef/owner of the recently opened Gaztro-Wagon), and Phillip Foss of Lockwood, the time of legit roving eats is almost upon us.

I’ve generally been quiet on the subject, but make no mistake, I’m a big proponent. One of the things I’ve been concerned about over the years covering the food beat is the enormous cost and sacrifice it takes to run a restaurant. There are far more talented chefs in the city of Chicago than smart, patient investors willing to endure the ups and downs of a fickle business built on razor-thin margins.

I believe one of the primary reasons we’ve ascended as a food city over this last decade is due to the availability of reasonable rents (as opposed to NYC), thus allowing chefs to take chances, experiment and build a business without burning all their operating capital on lease agreements. Read the rest of this entry »

Hot Plates: My top ten tastes of summer

Fast Food/Street Food, Ice Cream No Comments »

Photo: Brent Hieggelke

By Michael Nagrant

1) Taylor Twosome: There’s nothing like a slushy cup of Mario’s watermelon- or cantaloupe-chunk-studded Italian Lemonade and a nutmeg-spiced combo Italian Beef from Al’s. Despite plenty of comers, they’re still both unparalleled originals. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t say visiting these institutions wasn’t an excuse to chill on a nearby Taylor Street stoop and watch the inevitable black-socked sandal-wearing old Italian dudes hunkered down in aluminum folding lawn chairs snoring under their rattan-weave porkpie hats. If those guys have turned in early, there’s always a beer-soaked 16” softball game down at Sheridan Park worth catching. Al’s  #1 Italian Beef, 1079 West Taylor; Mario’s Italian Lemonade, 1068 West Taylor

2) Beverly Bi: A freshly ground and griddled buttery patty sandwiched between a fresh pillowy bun from the Soulian family’s Top Notch Beefburger in Beverly just ain’t complete without a five-colored scoop of orange sherbet, pistachio, strawberry, chocolate and Palmer House (Venetian Vanilla with cherries and walnuts) ice creams at the orange adobe palace of The Original Rainbow Cone. Top Notch Beefburger, 2116 West 95th; The Original Rainbow Cone, 9233 South Western Read the rest of this entry »

North Side Dog Show: Franks ‘N’ Dawgs enters the gourmet sausage game

Hot Dogs/Sausages, Lincoln Park 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

“Oy think she’s a little maw, shall we say, enhanced thair.”

It may not be the jovial wise-cracking of Hot Doug’s owner Doug Sohn, but Franks ‘N’ Dawgs owner, the Australian-born Alexander Brunacci, cracking here about a photo of Kim Kardashian, is doing fine with his own brand of cash-register-side smart-assery.

I hate to even bring up the whole Hot Doug’s thing, because I know everyone else will too. But, frankly (so punny, I know), it’s impossible not to. Franks ‘N’ Dawgs with their “5-Star Dining on a Bun” tagline and by virtue of its similarities to Doug’s, has the encased-meats emporium in its cross hairs.

But Franks ‘N’ Dawgs, more often than not, is not like Hot Doug’s. It’s not a pop-culture-kitsch-laden dining room filled with mustard-and-ketchup-colored bric-a-brac or sexually charged mustard-covered Britney Spears’ photos. It doesn’t serve duck-fat fries, and the Buzzcocks aren’t snarling in your ears. Franks ‘N’ Dawgs also makes some of its own sausages. Read the rest of this entry »