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.
La Chaparrita (2500 South Whipple) is a Little Village bodega where your food is cooked on a traditional Mexican grill called a “charola.” Radish slices (not the standard tortilla chips) are the vehicle for their numerous distinctive salsas. The crispy tripe taco ($2.25) is one of my favorite bites in the city, mildly funky with a crunchy texture that yields gently when slathered in their spectacular salsa verde. Longaniza ($1.75), sharp and piquant sausage, is made in-house; Huarache de Hongos ($5.99), sandal-shaped Mexican flatbread made of fried masa covered with sauteed mushrooms, is fantastically delicious. Get a side of grilled spring onions ($1.50) to nibble on between bites; a little salt and you’re good to go. On weekends through the winter they’re featuring Migas ($6.99), one of the most satisfying bowls of soup I’ve ever encountered: a guajillo slicked beef shank with chopped onion, dry oregano and lime served with some fried bread for dunking. While the numerous aguas frescas are excellent, my fickle heart belongs to the tepache (fermented pineapple drink, $4) in the summer and the champurrado (hot chocolate with a corn meal base, $2.50) in the winter. With three tacos, a side and a drink, it’s hard to spend $15.
Boston Fish Market (1225 East Forest, Des Plaines) processes around 400,000 pounds of seafood a week. One of the owners was the ex-chef of long-shuttered Chicago restaurants Melrose and Medinah. Located out by the airport, Chef Louie has access to some of the freshest seafood you’ll find locally. Perfectly fried lake perch ($15.99/pound) is textbook, as is the accompanying tartar sauce. Octopus ($16.99) is grilled by an adept hand, filled with lemon, parsley and oregano; it couldn’t be simpler or more satisfying. There’s also whole roasted branzino ($20.99), dandelion greens ($5.99), and Zuppa di Pesci ($26.99), a bowl of fish soup that’s enough for two-to-four people. Their Greek Salad ($10.99) puts similar dishes to shame. Simple and straightforward, consider Boston Fish Market your “Pier One” for a large variety of quality seafood at competitive prices.
There’s great dining to be had at every price point. I’ve had superb meals for $10 and fiascos for $200. You just have to pick your spots, so don’t be fooled into thinking big price means big deliciousness. Listen to your Culinary Sherpa.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org