Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

Divine Davanti: Little Italy can always use more Italian joints like this

Italian, Little Italy 2 Comments »

Roasted chicken

By Michael Nagrant

Anyone who’s seen “The Godfather” or watched an episode or two of “The Sopranos” knows that people like to send messages at Italian restaurants. So what’s a food writer to think when a food runner at the new Davanti Enoteca in Little Italy “accidentally” tips a full glass of Chianti into his lap and all over his brand new white Puma tennis shoes?

I mean I wasn’t worried I was gonna get whacked. This is Taylor Street, Chicago. The worst thing that happens around here is that Oscar DeAngelo, the unofficial mayor of Little Italy, will yell at you at a community policing meeting.

I was concerned however, that maybe I’d been made, that the affable owner, Scott Harris (Mia Francesca, Purple Pig), holding court at the bar made from 180-year-old refurbished barn wood and lit by the glint from a medieval-looking metal-cart-wheel-like lantern, was on to me and wanted to let me know that maybe he didn’t like my pan of his Neapolitan pizza joint, Nella, a few months ago.

The truth is, though I had to eat the rest of my meal with a soggy crotch emanating a bouquet of blackberry and tobacco, I was kinda happy, for this meant my anonymity was probably intact. Even as insignificant as my critical voice is in the age of Yelp, I know even the most vengeful owners probably wouldn’t go so far as to attack me during the first few weeks after opening a new restaurant. Read the rest of this entry »

Staxed : A new Little Italy breakfast spot puts out the hits

Breakfast/Brunch, Little Italy 2 Comments »

Peach French toast

By Michael Nagrant

On December 8, 1967 at the Memphis recording studios of Stax Records, Otis Redding didn’t have a lyric written for the last verse of his newest song, so he improvised and whistled a few bars, planning to return to the studio again to finish. Two days later he died in a plane crash outside of Madison, Wisconsin, his body recovered from Lake Monona. Redding’s partner and lyricist, Steve Cropper, went to the studio right after the crash, finished up the recording, preserved the whistling as an outro and launched Redding’s biggest hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” on Stax record’s Volt label.

In 1965, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where three years later Dr. Martin Luther King would be shot, Wilson Pickett and Cropper wrote a little ditty called “In the Midnight Hour.” They also recorded it at the Memphis studios of Stax, releasing the album on Atlantic Records.

Just as suburban kids found Chess Records’ Chuck Berry through the Beatles in the sixties or Muddy Waters in the seventies via the idolatry of the Rolling Stones and thievery of Led Zeppelin, I’d discovered Stax greatest soul men growing up in the eighties through white culture. 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 »

Resto 100: Chicago’s essential restaurants of 2010

African, Albany Park, American, Andersonville, Argentinian, Auburn Gresham, Avondale, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bistro, Brazilian, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Burbank, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Caribbean, Chatham, Chinatown, Chinese, Cicero, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Czech, Deli, East Garfield Park, Edgewater, Elmwood Park, Ethiopian, Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, German, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hermosa, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Indian, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Japanese, Kenwood, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lithuanian, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near North, Near South Side, Nepalese, New American, Oak Park, Pakistani, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Puerto Rican, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Roscoe Village, Sandwiches, Seafood, Soul Food, South Loop, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).

Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.

Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.

That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.

Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.

The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.

—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s Essential Restaurants 2009

African, Albany Park, Andersonville, Auburn Gresham, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Bistro, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Chinatown, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Deli, East Garfield Park, Events, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near South Side, New American, Organics, Pakistani, Palestinian, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Seafood, Senegalese, Soul Food, South Loop, South Shore, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, Wicker Park 4 Comments »
In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end.  That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way.  More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have. Read the rest of this entry »

Bowling for Eats: A few tips for catering your Super Bowl party

Cuisine, etc., Hermosa, Lincoln Square, Lower West Side, Pilsen, Roseland No Comments »
cemita-009

Cemita

By Michael Nagrant

Unless you want to be branded a Detroit-Lions-like Super-Bowl-party-throwing loser, you better stay away from the powdered French-onion soup-mix dip this year. Sure, all your friends suggest that the real reason they come over is for your drunken bonhomie and so they don’t have to talk to their cat when they make fun of bad commercials that cost so much that you could bail out a small auto-maker or a mortgage bank with their budgets. But, watch your guests closely and you’ll likely spot a grimace when they spy an appetizer table flowing with cream-cheese-and-veggie-slathered Pillsbury-dough veggie pizza or a crusty tomato-topped jar of Pace picante. But don’t despair, beleaguered ball-lovin’ brethren, in these tough economic times, there are still plenty of affordable tasty party-eat alternatives.

Little Hotties, Take Me Out, 1502 West 18th, (312)929-2509
Though Buffalo wings are a perennial favorite, we believe that chowing down on the tired Buffalo wing gives tacit approval to the Buffalo Bills’ Super-Bowl-losing ways. And trust us, giving up the treasured neon-orange-hued treat invented at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar won’t disappoint the city anymore than Scott Norwood’s Super Bowl XXV wide-right missed field goal with eight seconds left. Better to back a true champion and Super Bowl XL MVP like the Korean-American receiver Hines Ward, who despite a nagging knee sprain is expected to play in Sunday’s big game. The only proper way to salute his courage is raise one of these spicy, garlic-soy hot wings originally invented on a mostly Korean stretch of Lawrence Avenue by Chinese immigrant Nai Tiao at Great Seas restaurant. Best of all, owner Karen Lim and her cooks remove one of the wing joints and push all the meat up to the top—lolli-pop style—so you can keep one hand free for that sloshing suds-filled Solo cup while you dine.

Lumpia and Tocino, Isla Pilipina, 2501 West Lawrence, (773)271-2988
Speaking of Lawrence Avenue, this storefront puts out a Thrilla’ in Manilla-quality egg roll, aka lumpia, or succulent deep-fried fingers filled with oozy garlic-slathered pork, along with a citrusy dipping sauce. A party tray of 100 ($25) might sound like a lot, but no one’s counting calories on game day and rest assured these crispy golden batons will disappear like McDonald’s French fries. Of course, nothing follows a serving of pork better than more pork, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t also walk out of here with a heaping portion of Tocino, deep-fried pork nuggets glazed in a sweet smoky sauce touched with a hint of what tastes like (though they assure me the goose liver gets nowhere near the glaze) foie gras fat.

Sheet pizza from Italian Superior Bakery, 933 South Western, (312)733-5092
Sure Domino’s will be there in thirty minutes, but after one bite of their cardboard crust and substandard sauce, you’ll be regretting your decision for thirty days. Avoid the Noid and hit Superior Italian Bakery instead. Founded in Ozone Park in New York City back in the 1930s and relocated to Chicago’s Little Italy in the 1940s, SIB is more traditional than the Arizona Cardinals’ losing history and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ winning ways. These days, only the second family to ever own the place, the Saccamenos, are making touchdown-worthy bakery-style sheet-tray pizzas. While we got no beef if you top yours with onion and sah-sidge, we implore you to check out the basil, tomato and fresh ricotta (made by a local neighbor lady).

Cemita Atomica from Cemita’s Puebla, 3619 West North, (773)772-8435
Everyone needs a sammie at their Super Bowl party, but not just any sinking submarine will do. Try the cemita atomica, a porcine dream of breaded, thinly pounded, deep-fried pork cutlet, a slice of lean ham, spicy chipotle-drizzled enchilada and fresh mozzarella-style string cheese from Oaxaca piled on a freshly baked sesame-studded roll. Despite the fact that pork fat runs in equal flow with the blood in my circulatory system, know that I laud the sandwich not for its piggy way, but because it is truly one of Chicago’s best.

Dessert Donuts from Old Fashioned Donuts, 11248 South Michigan, (773)995-7420 and Glazed Donuts Catering, glazedchicago@gmail.com
For those of us who grew up on crullers culled from commercial bakeries like Dunkin Donuts, the deep-fried apple fritters at Roseland’s Old Fashioned donuts dripping in tooth-enamel-threatening glaze will make your heart sing or give out, whichever comes first. The fritters are so big, just cut them like apple-pie wedges and enjoy. If your crew is looking for more of a one-stop drinking and eating option, Kirsten Anderson of the underground handmade donut factory, Glazed Donut Catering, recently cooked up some Irish Car Bomb and Champagne Chambord (raspberry liqueur) donuts for New Years. While her flavors change each week (Maple Bacon and Chinese Five Spice chocolate last week), maybe if you ask really nice, she’ll whip up a Miller-Lite-malted version for you.

My Favorite Things: The Three-peat, another quick list of food-faves

Edgewater, Greektown, Italian, Lower West Side, Sandwiches, Thai, Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I was concerned that Pat Riley, the former NBA Coach and the only man who used more Brill Cream than my grandfather, was going to come after me with a dream team of lawyers over the title of this column. It turns out though he only owns a commercial trademark on the term “three-peat,” and this column is most decidedly a journalistic one, written for the public good. Yes, it’s true, I’m back with my Oprah-inspired “favorite things” list of food finds I haven’t been able to work into a regular column, but are most definitely worthy of your gullet. Enjoy.

Superior Italian Bakery, 933 South Western, (312)733-5092
I’d known about this bakery for a few years thanks to the great sleuthing of LTHforum.com poster/historian Antonius. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to trying it, the place, which had been open for more than seventy-plus years, had closed up shop. Then earlier this year, Angelo Saccameno, a former customer who used to visit regularly with his dad growing up, bought the place, apprenticed with the original owners, the Masi family, and re-opened the spot. The selection is focused on crusty loaves of bread, generous slices off sheet-pan pizza (try anything with the fresh ricotta) and a great vanilla lemon cookie called Taralle.

Bleu Mont Cheddar
Cheesemaker Willi Lehner is such a bad-ass, he sells power to the power company. He runs an artisanal cheese operation up in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin on solar power and juice from a wind-powered turbine. His cheeses, especially his bandaged cave-aged cheddars, are just as powerful. His Earth Schmier cheeses, featuring a rind-spritzed with a filtered slurry of water and fresh earth from his farmstead is the ultimate expression of terroir, or the flavor of the local earth. Those are tough to find, unless you make a weekend pilgrimage to the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison. Thankfully, you only need to go to Oak Park to get his bandaged cheddar at the Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 South Marion.

Blue Marble Dairy Milk
I’d always thought Oberweis was the bee’s knees, or the cow’s udder, or whatever, until I took a few cold swigs of the moo juice from this Wisconsin micro-dairy. The milk from Blue Marble is quick-heat pasteurized, but not homogenized, ensuring a nice thick cream line on the top of the milk. In fact, if you shake their chocolate milk hard enough, the cream line eventually churns into chocolate butter. Add a dash of salt and a touch of sugar, and you can spread it on toast. Available at some local Whole Foods and every Wednesday and Saturday at the Green City Market.

E-San Sausage at Ben’s Noodles and Rice, 1139 West Bryn Mawr, (773)907-8936
You might be able to find more authentic Thai spots in most neighborhood’s in Chicago, but Ben’s Issan-style (called E-San here) sausage, aka the Thai answer to Polish Kielbasa, is as real as it gets. The version here is a porky, seared, rustic link-style embedded with lots of lemongrass, garlic and a touch less fish sauce than versions at other spots.

Philly’s Best Cheesesteak, 769 West Jackson, (312)715-9800
I don’t usually go looking for good eats at places I wouldn’t be caught dead in unless I’d had at least four cocktails at the Violet Hour (read: Flash Taco). Philly’s Best, which has a bunch of locations around town and serves wings, baked mostaccoli, greek-pastry-like loukamades, pizza and cheesesteak sandwiches all on the same menu without a smirk, seemed to fit that bill. However, they just opened in my ‘hood and during a rare blood-sugar depression I ambled in and ordered up one of their cheesesteaks. I can’t speak about all those other things, but the freshly griddled thin beef cheesesteak on garlic bread topped with Cheese Whiz, grilled onion and mushrooms is the closest I’ve gotten to a real Philly yet. The meat was caramelized and the whole thing was properly seasoned with salt and pepper, a welcome rarity for quick-service drunk eats.

Q-Tonic
If someone tells you they got something for you filled with some hand-picked goodies from the Peruvian Andes, it’s usually time to break out the water bong. In this particular case, you’re going to want a cocktail shaker. At $2.50 a bottle, this stuff ain’t cheap and I was pretty skeptical, but I staged a blind gin-and-tonic tasting with some friends recently and this came out way on top. It’s made with hand-picked quinine from Peru and sweetened with organic agave nectar. Using Q is the easiest way to be a better mixologist without actually doing anything. Q is available locally only at the Cork at Riverside, 2720 South Harlem, or online at kegworks.com.

The Breakfast Issue Guide

Andersonville, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Little Italy, Loop, Lower West Side, Pilsen, River West, Roscoe Village, South Loop, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Bongo Room (South Loop)
1152 South Wabash, (312)291-0100
Breakfast is the redheaded stepchild of cuisine. No short-order Homaro Cantu or Grant Achatz has popped up to redefine breakfast. Bongo Room is one of the only restaurants re-inventing morning nosh. The cilantro-jalapeno tortilla filled with guacamole and fluffy eggs and topped with ancho chili cream is as fat as Popeye’s forearm. Haute Eggs Benedicts are replete with duck eggs, lump crab cakes and steak. The real stars though are the Butterfinger-like pancakes dripping with toffee butter, or the chocolate-tower French toast laced with mascarpone and covered with banana-flavored crème anglaise.

Bongo Room (Wicker Park)

1470 North Milwaukee, (773)489-0690
See Sidebar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tapped Out? Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap may be just tired

Italian, Little Italy No Comments »

tufanosspagclamBy Michael Nagrant

Saying that the 77-year-old red-sauce joint Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap has seen a lot is like saying Magellan took a short boat trip. When the tap opened in 1931, Halsted was paved with brick and Taylor Street was the port of entry for Italian immigrants. Italian beef may have been drenched in gravy and sandwiched between two pieces of Gonnella bread, but only in those immigrants’ kitchens, as Al’s Italian Beef didn’t open until 1938.

Farther down Taylor, Ferrara Pan was going strong, though founder Salvatore Ferrara wasn’t making his living off Atomic Fireballs (invented in 1954) but from candy-coated almonds.

In 1931, a 29-year-old Richard J. Daley hadn’t even earned his law degree from DePaul. Plans for a modern urban campus, aka, the UIC circle, and the Eisenhower freeway, which cut out the Eastern flank of the community in the 1960s, weren’t even a gleam in Richard M.’s old-man’s eye. Read the rest of this entry »