Chicago in June, Part I - Ethnic Eats
Wooooo, buddy. I got back almost a week ago but am only just barely resurfacing tonight. Need to get some of this stuff down before I start forgetting it!
We just did two weeks in Chicago, and man, I barely scratched the surface of my list. Partly because i can only drag the family around to little divey places so much, and partly because I spent most nights working. But good eats were had, and I managed to hit a few I've been trying to hit for a long time.
I was trying to think of some logical way to group these since there's far too much for one post, so I figure I'll start with some daytime ethnic eats -- the kind of stuff that (IMHO) is the heart and soul of Chicago's culinary scene, that the whole family was into, and that didn't involve trucking them out to the far reaches of the city. Except those far reaches close to my folks' place
I think I've already mentioned it twice upthread, so I'll try not to repeat myself, but we had another killer meal at Smak-Tak
. I'm just so blown away by this place every single time. We mostly hit the usuals (most of which I think I mentioned upthread -- hot beet borscht, outstanding pierogi, smoky hunter's stew, the beautiful gut bomb that is the Hungarian pancake -- but I think this was actually the first time I've had their stuffed cabbage rolls, which seems like a huge oversight. And they're predictably awesome, surprisingly delicate, meaty without being heavy and drenched in a light tomato sauce... so, so good. The pierogi and the Hungarian pancake are the things I just can't pass on, but man... every single thing I've ever had here is excellent. Can't recommend it enough.
Also beyond the northwest edge of the city is one of my old haunts that I don't think I've mentioned before. Mitsuwa Marketplace
is a huge Mekong Plaza-like complex (not that big), except that it's dedicated exclusively to things Japanese. There's a large grocery, a number of boutique stores, a bakery, and a food court with five or six stands. The grocery is where you can get your Pocky and Pocari Sweat fix, get some Japanese kitchen implements, gape at the selection of fish, and otherwise wish you had access to this much awesome Japanese stuff.
Tucked into the back of the grocery is a Japanese bakery, and the case has to be filled with at least fifty different pastries, breads, sweets, and other baked goods done in a completely Japanese style. It's always fun to pick up a treat. On this pass I couldn't resist this little number, a slightly sweet egg bread (the stem is a pretzel stick) filled with a chunky apple puree. Really delicious and so much fun -- light and moist and sweet and delicious.
My real target was this place, though. Santouka
is actually one of a few US outlets of a large Japanese chain, but as with many things in Japan that's not the near automatic indication of poor quality that it is here. Quite the contrary, they do a helluva bowl of ramen. I haven't gotten to the shrines in LA and NYC yet, but Santouka is the best bowl of ramen I've had in the States by a wide margin. It's a Hokkaido-style tonkotsu base, with a little dried fish and kelp accenting the broth, and your choice of tare -- shoyu, shio, miso, or spicy miso. The shio is the one they've kind of built their name on, but I just couldn't resist the miso.
Seriously, this totally stands up to some of the best stuff in Japan. It's just soooo rich, so full-flavored, you get totally lost in it. They do a very thin noodle with just a little bit of a kink and a fairly solid bite. And though they usually top it behind the counter, if you order the special fatty pork -- toroniku -- the toppings come plated on the side, like this. It's some seriously luscious stuff -- kurobuta, I think, though I'm not certain -- and it comes along with the requisite fish cake, scallion, menma, and less typical, woodear mushroom. Oh, man... I really, really need this fix more often than once every couple of years. Somebody please
hurry up and get a regular killer ramen shop going here.
Another Japanese joint we hit one day for lunch, just north of the city, was Renga Tei
, which is just a really good, simple, homestyle Japanese place. This is the place I wish Sushi Ken were. It's a similar kind of menu -- noodles, donburi, sushi bar, etc. -- but not as absurdly huge of a menu and much better quality. The agedashi tofu was great -- molten, silky tofu in a crisp, lightly fried shell, sitting in a bowl of dashi with bonito and scallions. Japanese comfort food. Nothing fancy, just very well-made.
I wish I'd noticed the curry special before
I ordered, but I'm okay with having made this selection. Huge slab of eel, glazed and broiled, served atop rice and next to some killer tsukemono. Seriously, you can see the pickles in fuzzy fashion out of focus in the corner of the shot, but I would have gotten a better picture of them if I'd known they were going to be the star of the show. I don't remember all of them, but there were a couple of salty ones, vinegared daikon and other vegetables, thin slices of sweet marinated kombu -- just a couple bites of each. It was a very small dish. But man, with perfectly broiled eel and good white rice, that's all you need -- a little salty, vinegary counterpunch to the sweet, meaty eel. Anyway, this is not edgy cuisine. It's straight up traditional stuff, and it's very homey. But it's really well done.
After a museum morning one day, we carried out one of my old favorites for lunch. D'Amato's Bakery
is such an awesome place. It's a seriously old-school Italian bakery -- the cash register is push button, half the size of a dorm fridge, looks like it weighs about 150 pounds -- supplying a small army of the city's sandwich shops with bread for Italian subs, all kinds of little Italian cookies, and the items for which they're arguably most famous, the pizza and the cannoli. They have big sheet pans full of the stuff in the case, and when you order they pull out a slice, pop it in a small oven to warm it, and wrap it in paper that's soaked through with olive oil by the time they hand it to you. Once upon a time, they only did cheese, or cheese and sausage. For decades. I remember it was a huge shock the day they added pepperoni to the offerings. But now there are others as well -- artichoke, mixed vegetable, "deluxe" -- it's a little weird to see. But the basics are still there.
I know this doesn't look like much. But oh, do looks deceive. I'm never sure how to describe it. It isn't pizza rustica. It isn't foccaccia (either foccaccia or "foccaccia"), it isn't really Sicilian... I don't know what to call it. It's fairly soft, very moist and yeasty, with crisp, caramelized edges. It's almost more of a tomato bread, saturated with olive oil, to which they add a topping if you like. But man, it's sooooo good. Yet another example of how you don't have to do anything fancy if you do it really really really well
. Embarrassingly, I forgot to get a shot of the cannoli. But they're killer.
The little fella's kind of a dim sum junkie these days, and I'm a little behind on which of the smaller joints in Chinatown happens to be serving up the best dim sum at the moment (why is dim sum quality always such a fleeting thing?), so we went with the safe route. Phoenix Restaurant
is the one that will never be amazing, but will always be very, very good.
Sadly, I goofed. They don't do cart service on weekdays (that didn't go over well). But, y'know... it's kind of nice when something hasn't been walking around on the cart for 20 minutes before it gets to your table
Anyway, it's not the cheapest, it's not the best, but it's always extremely good, very carefully prepared, very much straight-up dim sum.
This is what Isaan sausage looks like
. Are you listening, Pete's Thai? I had to get my fix one night. I got my fix. I'd been to all of the LTH Thai favorites except for Sticky Rice
, and as hard as it was to tear myself away from Aroy, I decided to try a new place. Sticky Rice was... not as wonderful as Aroy. But it was still really, really good, and it's so nice to see a place openly specializing in Northern and Northeastern Thai. I went with a bunch of LTHers, and we tried a lot of stuff. The sausages were definitely one of the highlights, the rice-stuffed, fermented, sour Sai Krok Isaan (on the menu as Eastern Thai Sausage), and the chile-spiked Sai Ua (on the menu as Northern Thai Sausage). Fried poultry was great... we had both chicken and quail, and I think I preferred the latter here, deeply lacquered and crisp, but plenty juicy inside. We had a salad of some nature (I don't recall), and some mighty tasty chive dumplings, with a thick, fried wrapper and chives that practically melted when you bit into them.
The "Mussel Fritter" was another one of my favorites, a pan-fried egg and rice flour pancake with vegetables, mussels, and a sweet and sour dipping sauce that we immediately set aside in favor of a little Phrik Nam Pla (seasoned fish sauce) that we requested. Really nice texture, chock full of big, plump mussels, mostly sweet and moist with with lightly crisped edges. Like Aroy, Sticky Rice does a mighty fine Northern larb with offal, though I think I prefer Aroy's version.
We had a really nice green curry with fish balls, a couple other dishes I'm forgetting, and another one of my favorites, also off the Northern section of the menu, the Nam Prik Ong. The best way I can describe this for those who haven't had it is that it's kind of like Thai Bolognese -- ground pork with tomato and onion, spiked with curry and some Thai aromatics. It's served as a kind of dip with a plate of crudite. So, so good... mellow and spicy at the same time. Anyway, it was a very nice meal. But I'd still say that if you're getting one Thai meal in Chicago, do Aroy. And as Dapuma has pointed out above, I've no doubt Andy's still killing it over at Andy's Thai Kitchen.
I made a huge mistake the last time I was in Chicago in the fall of 2011. I didn't immediately go where a couple of LTH friends told me to go -- La Chaparrita
, a small corner store and taqueria in the middle of a largely Mexican residential neighborhood on the south side. "Dom, you need to get down there," they said. "Seriously, don't miss it," they said. And for the second trip in a row, the place blew up within weeks after I left. Thankfully, La Chaparrita is a little easier to get into than Great Lake (the one about which I didn't listen to them three trips back). In fact, it was pretty dead on a weekday evening. It really is a little grocery and taqueria, with maybe six or eight tables, and one man running the kitchen.
I got some tepache, which is a (lightly, in this case) fermented pineapple juice. Think hard cider, but pineapple-based. And apparently without enough alcohol to require regulation. Or maybe I'm totally outing them. But they're not shy about promoting it. And man, it's so good, barrel-fermented in house.
Tacos. Lots of DF-style tacos. With some really fun, less common stuff. The three on the top right are the suadero, beef brisket, that was so beautifully seasoned and managed to be both succulent and crisp at the same time. Seriously, a textural marvel. In the middle is the slick and somewhat funky cabeza, on the bottom the also slightly funky tripe (soft or crispy, your choice), on the top left the house-made longaniza, and on the far left, mollejas -- tender sweetbreads. And dear god, were these good. This is really, really simple stuff, but the devil's in the details, you know? The fellow who runs the kitchen, Cesar, does everything on a big charola, and I don't know how he pulls all of these flavors and textures out of one big cooking plate, but man, everything was done so carefully
, seasoned so perfectly, fabulous textures... just so carefully made right down to the precise fine dice on the onion -- I mean, even the cilantro
is finely shredded into feathery wisps rather than haphazardly chopped, for cryin' out loud.
All of them were fabulous, but I think the suadero and the longaniza were my favorites, the latter broken up and lightly crisped, not too heavy on the vinegar, and as much a textural as a flavor delight. And oh cripes, the salsas. There's a red that's tomatillo with chile de arbol and ground peanuts, and a green that's tomatillo with avocado and jalapenos, and they're so intensely flavored and almost creamy, which makes sense with the green, but how the heck does he do it with the red? He also does huaraches (with slightly different green and red salsas tailored to the huaraches
) and a few other things, but I really wanted to focus on the tacos.
And bonus, they're such sweet people, Cesar in the kitchen and his wife (I think), Angelina, minding the tables.
Oops. Caught her blinking
Parts II and III forthcoming...
5961 N. Elston Avenie
Chicago, IL 60646
100 E. Algonquin Road
Arlington Heights, IL 60005
Inside Mitsuwa Marketplace, above
3956 W. Touhy Avenue
Lincolnwood, IL 60712
1124 W. Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
2131 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago, IL 60616
4018 N. Western Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
2500 S. Whipple Street
Chicago, IL 60623