Eating Through CHICAGO
Article & Photos by Virginia Miller
Last issue we journeyed through six newer cocktail destinations in Chicago – with a little food. This time, its food highlights from my recent Chi-town travels – sometimes with cocktails. Listing stand-out places or dishes, first I recap coffee, tamales and deep dish explorations.
Though Intelligentsia Coffee was launched here in 1995 by San Francisco transplants Doug Zell and Emily Mange, Chicago remains behind major cities in the coffee realm (even NYC, which was quite late to the third wave/quality coffee game, though latching onto it with a vengeance in recent years). I found myself having to drive 2-3 miles out of my way for a decent cup at spots like Edgewater’s neighborhood favorite, Metropolis Coffee, which roasts their own beans, or returning to a go-to of three years ago, Andersonville’s Coffee Studio (serving Intelligentsia) because I couldn’t find better. Chicago has many neighborhoods and downtown hubs needing to grow beyond the Starbucks phase.
While I still haven’t dug as deeply as I’d like into Chicago’s oft-lauded Mexican food, whether hole-in-the-wall or upscale (I’m sorry, but much as I appreciate him as a TV/cookbook chef, I’ve been less-than-enthused with Rick Bayless’ restaurants in visits past), down the street from my brother-in-law’s place in Irving Park, I enjoyed hefty tamales at Tamales Garibay. Whether cheese with jalapeno or chicken mole, Alicia Romero’s tamales aren’t the best I’ve had, but they make a gratifying, cheap meal at under $2 each.
As with any regional cuisine – one of my favorite subjects – when it comes to Chicago’s ubiquitous deep dish pizza, each time I’m here I visit a couple more raved about haunts, hunting for deep dish in the same league as Zachary’s or Little Star back home. Chicago is the source of this dreamy, cheesy interpretation of pizza, after all, but oddly enough I’ve yet to find a pie here remotely comparable to my top two Bay Area haunts, though it must exist.
This visit I took in a classic, the original Lou Malnati’s, an atrocious mix of rubbery, cheap-tasting cheese and bland crust, and what had been recommended as a local’s favorite, the better-but-still-fast-food-quality (reheated slices and all) Art of Pizza. I’ve yet to find “my” Chicago deep dish but I will not give up.
SPINZER, West Rogers Park
The most exciting taste this trip was a Pakistani hunter beef sandwich from Spinzer on the dense Pakistani blocks of Devon Avenue. Part of the excitement was never having it before – in fact, it’s a rarity in the US, but West Rogers Park boasts a few sources for the sandwich.
Intrigued by this review in the Chicago Reader, I entered the dingy, humble shop. It was heartwarming witnessing Pakistani families sharing platters of food and kids downing Middle Eastern falooda (or faluda), which I couldn’t resist ordering since I’d never had it, an odd mix of cold vermicelli noodles, basil seeds, jello, tapioca pearls, ice cream and rose syrup.
Hunter beef is the Pakistani version of corned beef, essentially a masala-cured brisket. If that doesn’t already make your mouth water, subtle notes of chile, jalapeno, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and garlic infuse the tender meat with complexity. Shredded amidst a crusty baguette, the sandwich is laden with onions, jalapeños, and a generous smear of mayo. Under $5, it’s a generous, garlicky, laden with heat and flavor. I’ve been craving it ever since. San Francisco has a concentrated Pakistani/Indian community, particularly in the Tenderloin. If only a few knowledgeable souls would start serving Hunter beef sandwiches, I’d be oh, so grateful.
RUXBIN, West Town
Ruxbin stands out as the most ambitious of my recent Chicago meals. The tiny space exudes personality, a mish-mash of styles: old theater chairs made into lamps, an artistic cookbook showcase lining the wall. Chef Edward Kim’s mix of Asian cuisine and French technique is an East-meets-West ethos that reminds me of home, typical of restaurants in SF and LA. Though a Chicago native, Kim attended NYU, Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, and worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, exhibiting influences from the coasts and his Korean roots – a style that is of-the-moment, even comforting, though portions are delicate.
Using locally-sourced produce when possible, some dishes work better than others but those that did made an impression. Dainty bits of raw tuna ($14) are punctuated with horseradish, zucchini and smoky bonito flakes drizzled in miso-carrot puree and citrus vinaigrette – a beautiful range of flavor. Grilled octopus ($12) alongside fried chickpeas almost surpassed the tuna, earthy with black soybeans, radishes, roasted grapes, and ginger scallion vinaigrette. Roasted, pickled and shaved beets ($12), housemade ricotta and greens, though a common presentation in today’s dining world, was perked up by crispy pistachio praline, pumpernickel, white anchovies, and orange segments.
Buttermilk fried quail ($13) with miniscule cubes of watermelon and tomato “salad”, watermelon pickles, basil and mint felt like a pale shadow of other quail dishes I’ve had this year at SF’s incomparable State Bird Provisions, for one, or of other watermelon tomato salads, like the one at Tavernita below. Garlic fries ($5) with chipotle aioli were near perfect and needed filler after small portions, while an entrée of duck breast ($28) was appropriately rare and juicy accompanied by baby greens, shaved fennel, snow peas and orange in a mustard vinaigrette, the crowning glory of the dish being a dessert-like zucchini bread, dissolving dreamily in the mouth.
I’m not used to nicer restaurants being BYOB (surprisingly common in Chicago), so we sadly ate intricate dishes without any wine pairings. House dry lavender and passion fruit sodas ($4) at least assuaged the summer heat outside. A pretzel and beer dessert ($9) took the form of doughnut holes oozing chocolate with a scoop of beer-milk sorbet topped with a pretzel. A pleasing end to an ambitious dinner.
Note: no reservations taken – the space is tiny and waits are long. We arrived 20 minutes before opening at 5:30pm, immediately seated, noticing those right behind us weren’t seated until we left. Also, don’t miss the bathroom. That’s all I will say on that.
ARAMI SUSHI, Ukrainian Village
Arami, a retreat-like sushi haven in hip Ukrainian Village, is to date, the best sushi meal I’ve had in Chicago. Prices add up, as at most worthwhile sushi restaurants, but under sloped, blonde wood ceilings punctuated by skylights, with seamless service, silky fish and a solid sake selection, it’s a memorable Chicago meal.
Though there’s donburi and noodle sections, I stuck mostly to fish, enjoying uni shooters ($5), ebi (shrimp) chawanmushi ($8), live hotate (scallop) sashimi ($8) brightened by a spritz of yuzu and Japanese sea salt, a chef’s choice sashimi platter ($35), and one of just a handful of rolls available, like hirame (fluke) and spicy tako (octopus) maki ($13), rolled with ginger in a Fuji apple dressing. Robata (skewered bites from the grill) pleased, such as corn grilled in miso butter with togarashi mayo, or tender tsukune (chicken meatballs – $4) contrasted by pickled pearl onion.
KUMA’S CORNER, Avondale
In a few short years, Kuma’s Corner is already a Chi-town institution – self-proclaimed as “harshing our mellow since 2005” (misspelled as “melow” on their website). This big hair, 1980’s-spirited rock bar is a dive serving what many claim to be Chicago’s best burgers (naturally) named after old school metal bands from Megadeth (topped with chorizo, red potato hash, pico de gallo, cayenne avocado cream, tortilla strips) to Black Sabbath (cooked in blackening spice, topped with chili, pepper jack, red onion).
I’m told waits can be long for a burger, but late one night, ‘80’s rock blaring (naturally) while the cooks complimented my retro sundress (necessary on sticky-humid September nights), my medium-rare Iron Maiden burger ($13) arrived quickly. The 10 oz. patty was properly pink and juicy, topped with what felt like over half an avocado, cherry peppers, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. At midnight after a delicate gourmet meal at Ruxbin, it tasted like a hunk of heaven. There’s also a heaping $12 pile of bacon bleu cheese fries.
LONGMAN & EAGLE, Logan Square
Longman & Eagle is one of those all day hipster gastropubs with a solid cocktail menu (all $8), fine selection of American whiskey (bourbon, rye, corn, wheated – with $12-20 flights of 3), craft beers (12 on draft, including Midwest favorites like Bell’s Oberon and Three Floyds Pride & Joy), and all-around gourmet comfort food from chef Jared Wentworth. Though open all day, they won’t seat you between the lunch and dinner switchover due to staff changes (?), so be prepared to wait at the bar if arriving early.
The hipster gastropub, farm-to-table, whole animal/nose-to-tail approach is old news in cities like my own, so though Longman & Eagle is not unusual, it does what the best gastropubs worldwide do: offers something for everyone, from casual-gourmet food to quality in every drink category. Cocktails ($8) are artisan and straightforward, like The Cut of Jib, a Zaya rum and Noval ruby port base, layered with the fall-spiced notes of Snap liqueur, bright with lime and Tiki bitters, or The Chicagoan, a sweet, boozy, bitter mix of Punt E Mes sweet vermouth and Wild Turkey Rye whiskey with Cynar, Malort, salt, and angostura bitters. A Rye Tai sounds like a great idea with Jim Beam rye, Curacao orange liqueur, Gosling’s Black Seal rum, orgeat (almond liqueur), lime, Angostura bitters and mint with an absinthe rinse, but lacked the hoped-for layers of a perfect Mai Tai (which are hard to come by).
Despite sometimes miniscule portions, pasta dishes are delicately layered, both a chanterelle agnolotti ($12) with corn, pea tendrils, shaved Grana Padano cheese and truffle on top, or ricotta gnudi ($9) accented by cider gel, baby fennel, sweet Cicely (an herbaceous plant in the anise, caraway family) and toasted hazelnuts in a braised cippolini onion vinaigrette with celery froth. Both showcased layers of tastes and textures, despite a fussy number of ingredients. One of the more satisfying, generous entrees was a vegetarian dish of slow roasted cauliflower ($17) over beluga lentils, savory with caramelized onion, sweet with golden raisins and mango, creamy-fresh in cucumber raita. The most memorable bite goes to warm cheese gougeres ($7) oozing Gruyere Mornay, a creamy Béchamel cheese sauce.
Desserts ($9 each) were consistently interesting. Though wishing I could taste more menthol-laden Fernet in the Fernet Float (made with a house Fernet soda phosphate and chocolate sorbet), a sweet corn churro with vanilla sweet corn pudding exhibited the appropriate contrast from saffron air, dulce de leche and shaved cinnamon. 1987 is a dessert of white chocolate lime “biscuit”, passion fruit mousse and raspberry, the highlight being a dollop of curry frozen yogurt, cool and blissfully intense with curry.
BLACK DOG GELATO, Roscoe Village
My number one ice cream recommend in Chicago to date is Black Dog Gelato in laid back Roscoe Village. After working on the pastry side at the now defunct Scylla under Top Chef’s Stephanie Izard, Jessica Oloroso sold her gelato and sorbets through restaurants before recently opening her charming shop. Fresh flavors of the day are handwritten on cards attached by clothespins to a line behind the counter, with pleasures such as sesame fig chocolate chip, coffee basil, rosemary Irish cream, Oreo mint, salted peanut, and blueberry French toast. There’s also whiskey gelato bars on a stick, dunked in milk chocolate, rolled in bacon. Sample as many flavors as you can before deciding. It will be a tough decision.
PLEASANT HOUSE BAKERY, Bridgeport
On Chicago’s crime-ridden South Side, the neighborhood of Bridgeport is a burgeoning mix of artists and hipsters: where gentrifying often seems to begin. On one block, there’s Bridgeport Coffee Company, Maria’s Packaged Goods, a fantastic beer/spirits shop with a back dive bar serving craft cocktails and beer, and quirky Pleasant House Bakery, like a ‘70’s-looking British pie shop meets locally sourced, hipster eatery. You can eat in, take out or bring home pies with cooking instructions (I did all of the above).
While waiting for pies, I enjoyed perusing garden and farming books highlighting Midwest farmers I’m not as familiar with, some of them sources for Pleasant House ingredients. Most importantly, they perfect flaky, buttery pie crust at $7.95 per individual pie, filling enough for one. You can’t go wrong with a classic British steak and ale pie of all-natural beef, ale, carrots, and herbs, or curry chicken Balti pie, but I enjoyed the fresh, green warmth of mushroom kale pie, laden with kale, scallions, white wine, herbs, and Parmesan cheese. Cold pork pie ($10) is an interesting, classic direction to go, gelatinous but not unappealing with cold pork pate and aspic.
Pleasant House also serves Cornish pasties (stuffed with steak and potatoes), fresh salads, buttery mint peas, a Scotch egg, daily changing specials (like bangers, burgers, fish & chips), mashed potatoes, British chips (fries) topped with skirt steak, gravy and aged cheddar. Amen.
TAVERNITA, River North
Tavernita was not quite what I anticipated when exploring the website menu. Partly chosen because of its late weeknight hours and cocktail menu, ideal for flying late into Chicago, it was an oddly clubby, loud dining room, its cool design bordering on slick.
It wasn’t quite the food and cocktail haven I’d hoped for though there were a few highlights. Kegged sangria ($10) disappointed, both in red (Tempranillo, Hennessy VS Cognac, orange, grapefruit, Mallorca melon tea syrup) and white (Albarino, Orujo, peach, orange oil, tarragon). Both felt muddled, more like juicy, indistinct mash-ups. Though I had a similar experience with their barrel aged cocktails, individually made cocktails fared better, particularly a vibrant One-Thumbed Gypsy ($11), a mix of Leblon cachaca, red pepper and saffron syrup, lemon and Moroccan bitters.
While I was disappointed in a weak Coca de Setas ($14.50), flatbread topped with mushrooms, caramelized onions, chevre, herb salad (SF’s Gitane historically has served among the best coca I’ve had), and with overly doused crudo, like Faroe Island salmon ($12.50) in piquillo peppers, olives, charred onions, sherry vinaigrette and marcona almonds, I found Greg’s meatballs ($15), rounds of Wagyu beef and pork in hazelnut romesco sauce, heartwarming.
Tomato y Sandia salad ($11) is an all-too-common gourmet presentation of heirloom tomatoes and compressed watermelon, but I appreciated Tavernita’s presentation. Instead of artfully dotted around the plate as I’ve seen a dozen times before, big chunks of tomatoes and watermelon are cubed and tossed together in a bowl with grilled Gulf shrimp and pickled jalapeno in lemon vinaigrette. Their version was a breezy salad, reinvigorating the combo, evoking late days of Summer.
The most interesting and ambitious dish was a paella special ($20 for a fairly small portion), which changes daily. A twist on the Spanish favorite, the rice was black with squid ink, dotted with cuttlefish, enlivened by lime crema and Fresno chilies. A surprising paella, if perfected it could be superb.
FABULOUS FREDDIE’S ITALIAN EATERY, Bridgeport
Thanks to a tip from Charles Joly at The Aviary, who grew up eating here, I found Fabulous Freddie’s. And Fabulous Freddie’s is fabulous. Locavores and those of us concerned about where our meat comes from will balk at huge portions of meat all under $8 – some items, like a slab of gravy bread filled with shredded roast beef is a mere $1.35. This can’t be good news since it (should) cost far more than that for ingredients.
Nonetheless, this family owned eatery, since 1990, is everything you hope for from this style of food, appropriately capturing the spirit of Chicago’s South Side. Maybe it’s my Jersey past and the number of close friends I’ve had over the years from the South Side, but the senior, Tony Soprano-type guys hanging out here with giant meatball subs and Styrofoam cups full with watermelon and lemon Italian ice, transported me straight to Brooklyn, Hoboken, and other East Coast haunts.
But this being Chicago, Italian beef is the name of the game, shredded thin and unadorned on a loaf of ciabatta bread. Even a small Italian beef sandwich ($4.85) is big. My heart belonged to their breaded steak sandwich (baby breaded was plenty big enough at $6.25): beef tenderloin breaded and served on loaves doused in sweet-savory marinara sauce. With a storm passing through on an early September afternoon, I sat outside blissfully filling up, then cooling off with Italian ice, breathing in the humid air, transported straight back to my teen years East.
BIG JONES, Andersonville
Reading Big Jones’ menu online, a relaxed Southern restaurant in the cozy Andersonville neighborhood, I felt as if I’d found my dream restaurant. Detailed descriptions of Low Country dishes, a Southern-specific house charcuterie selection listing spicy tasso ham and Acadian andouille sausage smoked over pecan wood, and a 1933 Boarding House Lunch ($16 per person for multi-courses including biscuits, red beans and rice, and fried chicken cooked according to the great Edna Lewis’s recipe in fresh leaf lard with butter and a ham hock), reminiscent of Mrs. Wilkes‘ in Savannah, made this a must-visit from a long list of possibilities. Clearly, Big Jones has more than a passing interest in and knowledge of Southern food.
Granted, I was only able to visit at lunch but my anticipation made it all the more disappointing to find most dishes distant from my Southern favorites. House ginger beer was delightfully ginger-heavy, and they deserve kudos for only serving sustainable seafood and using whole animal butchery, not letting any part of the animal go to waste. But the charcuterie ($5-6 each), even typically flavor-packed boudin rouge, was surprisingly bland, as were limp fried green tomatoes ($8), one-note despite accents of creamy egg salad and pickled shrimp. Gumbo Ya-Ya ($7), failed to gratify despite a dark roux, chicken and sausage.
Smothered pork shoulder ($12) fared better, tender and smoky in South Carolina mustard sauce (my favorite BBQ meat and top two for sauce styles). A Beaufort, South Carolina, shrimp burger recipe ($12) with typically vibrant chow-chow, was a dry, while their classic chicken and dumplings recipe from 1920 ($14) was banal in terms of flavor, with minimal dumplings, far from the doughy, hefty beauties my mother used to make from scratch. The menu is a loving, respectful ode to the South and service is heartfelt, making me still want to respect Big Jones.
The biggest let down of my recent Chicago meals came at Nightwood in the hipster Pilsen neighborhood on the city’s gritty South Side. Hipster definitely describes this place, renowned for its brunches with typical long waits. I made reservations well in advance, yet that didn’t save us from a cold, blasé host at the door and a table in the back corner by a noisy kitchen. Likewise, popular house doughnuts ($5 each) were not as gratifying as they sounded, whether bacon butterscotch or a Michigan raspberry glazed, white chocolate custard-filled donut topped with cacao nibs – oh, for more nibs to provide earthy contrast to the too-sweet doughnut.
A side of Butcher & Larder maple bourbon sausage ($4.50) was juicy and comforting, while a meager portion of Ligurian ravioli ($14) filled with butternut squash, dotted with bacon, amaretti crumbles, pinenuts, Parmesan, in a runny egg and maple butter, though an Italian classic (which I can’t get enough of when in Italy), felt oddly out of place with the rest of the brunch menu. It was “spit-roasted animals” (all locally sourced) – shredded chicken, rabbit and duck – served Philly cheesesteak-style ($14) in a hoagie bun filled with Vickie’s peppers and onions and 8 year cheddar that it made it worth trekking here for. Every element was perfect, from soft-yet-crusty bread to tender meat laden with earthy cheese. I’d order one again in a heartbeat.