Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

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. Continue reading

Culinary Adventure: Four Things to Know About Dishcrawl

Prasino

For foodies who can’t decide where to dine, Dishcrawl makes eating out easy by skipping the selection process altogether. Like a pub crawl for food, Dishcrawl organizes a walking tour of four different restaurants for a $39 edible adventure you don’t have to plan. The Wicker Park crawl kicks off at sustainable eatery Prasino on November 7, and another crawl goes downtown to explore the Loop on November 13.

1. It’s a hit elsewhere. Already established in dozens of cities across the country and Canada, Dishcrawl is ready to give Chicago some love after a test run this past April. “In the Bay Area, where [Dishcrawls] are happening all the time, they’re getting mostly food lovers, but also twenty- and thirty-somethings who want to try something new,” says Tessa McLean, one of Dishcrawl’s two Chicago ambassadors. “Food has become so important in Chicago, it really is a food town.” Continue reading

The Big Heat #43: Billy Lawless

43
Billy Lawless
Owner, Henri and The Gage
Aside from Next, Henri is probably the only high-end restaurant to have launched in the last two years. While everyone else was out pimping jeans-preferred beer and pork emporiums, Lawless’ fearless investment in Louis Sullivan-inspired decorative plaster, glinting chandeliers, and sea-foam velvet chairs and impeccable service has paid off.

See details on the The Big Heat

Not the Usual: Thanksgiving at Bennigan’s

Note: The photos are not from the Bennigan's in this story, which is no longer in business./Photo: Kristine Sherred

By Jonas Simon

There’s an odd sort of camaraderie that develops in certain work environments, not unlike between soldiers during times of war. Born out of shared suffering and hardship; you don’t find it in every job, but I’ve definitely found it in waiting tables. Part of it comes from banding together against a common enemy (the customer). Another part is being separated from “normal” society by the nature and hours of the job. For most waiters, our living is made at night and on weekends, i.e., the times when the rest of the world is off. Our weekends are Mondays and Tuesdays; our after-work drinks don’t start until 1am. But the real separation is felt during the holidays, when everyone else is enjoying the heart and hearth of home and you’re sharing your season with your co-workers, not your loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some wonderful holidays with my various crews—Near Year’s Eve parties that, technically, didn’t start until a couple of hours into New Year’s Day, Christmas Day dinner in Chinatown followed by karaoke—but one that stands out was the Thanksgiving I spent at Bennigan’s in 2003.

Our staff was a diverse and somewhat motley assortment of individuals: musicians and college students, druggies and alcoholics, working moms and career servers. Chet was the lead singer of a not-half-bad power pop/emo group (I think they were called “The Effect”); Jennifer was a recent journalism grad from U of I writing part-time for a leftist internet zine; Viktor was a part-time drug dealer who may or may not have had ties to the Hungarian mafia (He would later be arrested—and deported—for scamming customers’ credit cards. He showed up to work one day and the FBI was waiting for him.); Tom had been behind the bar for more than half a decade with no plans beyond tomorrow night’s pub crawl; and Maria, our manager, was a single mom who made a three-hour round trip commute everyday from Rockford.

The good people at corporate, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that not only would we be open for Thanksgiving dinner that year, but that we would also be serving our very own “Bennigan’s Thanksgiving Platter.” For $12.95 you got a processed turkey breast (white meat only) with something resembling gravy, powdered mashed potatoes, stuffing (which had both the consistency and taste of a chopped-up cardboard mailer), frozen vegetables, and cranberry sauce straight from the can, which was pretty much the only thing about the meal that felt right. Continue reading

Like Jeannie in a Bottle? I Dream of Falafel seduces the Loop

Falafel

By Michael Nagrant

Barbara Eden was my first MILF. Well, maybe, more like my first MILK (mother I’d like to kiss), since I’d first spied her pink-tasseled loveliness in the mid-eighties on WGN when I was nine years old. I hardly knew of carnal pleasures, much less dropped the f-bomb in those days. Not only did I not know about sex, I didn’t understand syndication. I still remember being confused about how Larry Hagman was a dashing young astronaut one day and this gray-haired oil tycoon the next (my mom, like most moms of the day, had a serious addiction to aerobics, spandex tights and “Dallas”).

What I knew is that when Eden pursed her lips, pressed her palms together and did a pseudo-exotic sashay across my parents’ hulking Zenith and called J.R. Ewing ‘master’, I was smitten. While some of my peers hovered saucer-eyed in ramshackle clubhouses over torn abandoned Playboys, I relished a daily ration of “I Dream of Jeannie” from the black velvet love seat with the mirrored arms in my folks’ living room.

And so how could I not check out a Loop lunch spot named I Dream of Falafel. Well, actually pretty easily, as it took me a year, and the opening of a second location of the Mediterranean spot to finally get over there. Continue reading