Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Google Images is My Friend

Here's a quick selection of shots that have been knocking around my blog folder for a while. I don't have anywhere in particular to use them, so I'm just going to post them all up. They're too good to waste.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Bacon List--Gusto Brand Bulk Bacon

With the weather starting to break, and the first smoke of the season already in the bag, I decided it was time to get serious and head down into the city to buy some whole briskets at Peoria Packing for future consideration.

So Henry and I woke up early on Saturday morning, skipped breakfast, threw a few of those cool-pak things in the cooler, and got down there nice and early.

When I started this far-reaching project of epic proportions that I'm calling The Bacon List, I figured that whenever I found myself in new or different stores where they sold bacon, I'd always pick some up, and that way I'd constantly have new products to try.

This was the case at Peoria Packing on Saturday (I'll do a full run-down of the butcher shop itself sometime in the near future), as I walked up and down between the tables piled high with meat and encountered a few large cases of sliced bacon just kind of loose in a big pile inside the cardboard box. The sign said "Gusto smoked bacon" and the price was right so I grabbed a plastic bag off the roll and threw in a few handfuls of bacon slices.

Packaging, as we've seen in the past, isn't always indicative of what's inside. I figured this bulk bacon was probably about as good as many of the grocery store bacons I'd been trying.

But, boy was I wrong. This stuff is NOT good.

I looked up Gusto and it appears that they're a packing house out of Montgomery, Illinois that carries bacon, ham, breakfast sausage, and a few other smoked items. They also have a great logo:

I'm considering putting this on a T-shirt

Yup. Great logo, alright. Their bacon, on the other hand, sucked. Let's go straight to the rundown.

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Not sure. I would venture a guess that this is grocery store-quality, but it was fairly dry. That could, however, be explained that it wasn't vacuum sealed in plastic, allowing for some air-drying. I may have to create a new designation for this one--Cheap.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $1.59/lb. sold in bulk at Peoria Packing.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... Very thick slices, fairly dry, large, broad slices. Decent looking streaking and texture.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Lots of shrinkage and curling. Due to my cooking method, most bacons I review don't curl up much. This one was an exception. It shrank a lot (perhaps almost 50%) and it curled up like crazy while cooking on a sheet pan in the oven. This indicates that this bacon carries a lot of water weight in the form of saline injections, phosphates, and other liquid (read; quick, industrial, short-cut) cure ingredients. Not generally indicative of a good quality bacon.

Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Lots of curling. It rendered quite a bit of grease into the pan as well. Lean parts are a nice-looking dark red, fat browned up well. It looks pretty good other than the shrinkage and excessive curl.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Extremely disappointing. The first thing that I noticed when I ate this bacon was the freakish crunch. This was due, I later determined, to the rind being left on. With a rind-on bacon (which I don't think I've ever experienced before), the thin strip of skin essentially becomes like a cracklin' as the bacon cooks. And that's exactly what I tasted when I ate this bacon--that pork rind flavor you get from eating a cracklin'. Not bad, exactly, but not what I'm looking for from bacon, and the drastic contrast in textures was somewhat of a distraction.

I could've dealt with the rind-on thing if the bacon tasted good. But it didn't. It basically delivered nothing. It had almost no salt. No sweetness. And despite searching deep down into my palate for a whiff of smoke flavor, I could find none. This bacon tastes only of plain, bland pork. Like a poorly-seasoned pork jerky or something. I ate a second slice to make sure it was as bad as I thought, and it was. It's pretty rare that bacon goes begging in our house, but this batch did. We ended up putting five uneaten slices off to the side. That's just sad.

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. 2.0. This is by far the lowest rating I've ever given, and I'm honestly not sure how anything, short of being rotten or inedible, could rank lower. I'm actually giving this stuff a free point just based on the fact that it was so cheap, although I wouldn't bother eating it again at any price. Not even cooked into recipes or crumbled into a salad. It's just a waste of calories.

In fairness to Gusto, it appears from their website that they do carry a number of different types of bacon and that this one is probably the cheapest of the bunch. Their other products might be quite good, who knows?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

March Madness

This week's Thursday night out was all about watching NCAA basketball. My friend Mitch got some good news this week, so he picked the venue and we ended up at Finn McCool's in Schaumburg for a night of beer, bar food, and basketball on big TV's. Not my native habitat, but it ended up being pretty good.

Unlike some of the other sports bar-type places that we considered, McCool's is not a national chain. It's local. They have three locations, and from the look of their menu and the food, they're doing some scratch cooking in the kitchen. Or, at least, about as scratch as you're going to get from a place that offers diners the option of buying something called a "beer tower".

From where I sit, expectations are pretty low for places like this. McCool's served up fairly fresh-tasting pints of Guinness, the bartenders were friendly, efficient, and competent, no matter which way I turned my head, there was a huge TV showing basketball, and my burger (their Hickory Burger with bacon, cheddar, BBQ sauce, and fried onion strings) was really quite good.

That's it to the right. I ordered it medium and, as you can see, that's a pretty damn-near perfect medium. Pretty good for a bar where, for most patrons, sports, alcohol, and bartender cleavage are probably much higher on the priority list than food.

A couple more interesting notes; they have something on their menu they're calling a "phatty melt", which is a burger that's served between two grilled cheese sandwiches in lieu of the bun. This seems like a nod to this new trend where people are wrapping everything in bacon, batter dipping and deep-frying things that aren't normally deep-fried, stuffing meat with meat and then wrapping it with bacon, and just generally trying to jam so much fatty decadence into things that they border on (or cross over to) being totally disgusting.

The more original novelty item on McCool's menu is the "inside out grilled cheese". I love the sound of this, and although I didn't order it or even see it, I am already figuring out how I'm going to go about reverse engineering my version of this. If I figure something out, I'll blog about it.

All in all, it was a very fun night out with old friends, we watched some good games, my final four is still intact (go Villanova!) and I have a (slightly) less negative attitude about sports bars, thanks, in no small part, to the smoking ban.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TTOWA Korean Dumpling House

Dempster Street cuts east/west from the lake out to where it splits into Rand and Miner just past the tollway. If you drive that straight shot east on Dempster, you'll whiz right by one of the most incredibly diverse selections of restaurants in the Chicago area as you make your way through Evanston, Skokie, Morton Grove, and Niles.

Seriously. It's one of the best food streets in Chicagoland. Here's a quick list of just *good* places I can personally vouch for:

American, Hot Dog Stands--Poochies, Wiener and Still Champion, Hub's (you like'a da juice?), Herm's Hot Dog Palace, Kappy's Pancake House, and Hot Dog Island.

Middle Eastern--Kabul House (Afghan), Pita Inn, Larsa's (Lebansese/Assyrian style pizza), and Bread 'n' Bowl (Georgian bakery and dumplings).

Jewish--Kaufman's, New York Bagel & Bialy.

Asian--Oh Bok Jung (Korean), Dempster Fish Market (Japanese. Check out their strangely minimalist website).

What's really interesting is that thousands of foodie-types like me have probably driven by these places dozens of times without even noticing them. Ok, the hot dog stands, everyone knows about (especially the ones known for their char salami sandwich), but most of the smaller, ethnic places occupy small, nondescript spots in strip malls that make it really easy to miss them as you whiz by (or sit in traffic).

This is certainly the case for TTOWA, a Korean Dumpling house located at 5844 Dempster in Morton Grove (just east of Austin). It's tucked away in a little strip mall along the north side of the street, and I probably drove by it a couple hundred times before I finally noticed it and decided to give it a try.

My first impression was to be impressed with just how nice the place is. The bar is set fairly low for small, independently-owned ethnic places, but TTOWA is a really roomy, well put-together, nicely designed, comfortable space. It's got a decidedly low-key Zen design aesthetic, with rice paper screens, lots of natural wood tones, and a very clean, sparse look, and as I walked in, it felt calm and welcoming. I don't usually mention the decor of restaurants, but I thought this one deserved a paragraph.

My friend Tom and I were seated promptly at a large four-top, and the energetic and upbeat server immediately plunked glasses of ice water and mugs of hot tea in front of us. I'm not a tea drinker, but I'm always game. I tried it, but this stuff was weird. It tasted like a malty, yeasty, hot, uncarbonated cola. Very strange.

Whatever. We were here for dumplings. We ordered the mandu combination, which would allow us to try an assortment of the delicate little dough packages--kimchee, chicken, and pork. The dish is pictured above, and it was really good. Really thin, tender wrappers around excellent fillings. I love dumplings.

Before they arrived, though, we received small green salads that were really quite tasty despite looking like what you'd get at a wedding at the Ramada Inn out by the airport. Plain iceberg lettuce with a beige dressing. I almost didn't even try it, but once I did, the lettuce was really fresh, cool, and crunchy, and the dressing packed a really nice ginger-sesame kick.

We were then showered with panchan. This is one of the really fun parts about Korean dining. Panchan are small side dishes that are traditionally served with Korean meals. The most famous is kimchee, the super-spicy, pickled and fermented cabbage dish that serves as a filling, side dish, condiment, and probably (somewhere) even appears in a dessert. Korean restaurants seek to distinguish themselves with their arrays of panchan, and so most places will hit you with five, seven, or nine little plates of interesting pickles, spicy veggies, mini pancakes, and all manner of other cool little things. It's a sweet deal because they don't charge for it, and it's a great way to try all sorts of weird stuff you'd never order.

We asked our server to tell us what all the various dishes were, and despite her very limited English, she did a darn good job. There was kimchee, spicy dandelion greens, some kind of potato salad thing, a pickled gourd or radish of some sort, and something with noodles that was pretty tasty.

What she lacked in language, she made up for with effort and energy. I think we opened a door by asking her some questions, because once she sensed we were interested in learning more, she really opened up. I'm thinking it was probably the same woman Mike Sula referred to as "hyperkinetic" in his recent Reader piece about TTOWA. She was, indeed, a trip.

Ordering our entrees was kind of an adventure. I knew I wanted some kind of hot pot, but wasn't sure what. I was kind of hoping they'd do the whole production of bringing a burner to the table, with that big earthenware crock type thing they use, but the lady wouldn't let me order that. Instead, she guided me towards a different dish, still a sizzling hotpot, but without the propane-fired porta-burner, because, she said, it was served with "wonderful black sticky rice". Ok, sure.

So we ordered that--it was, I believe, a jeongol--and I was quite happy that we did because she really put on a show putting it together. It came out boiling rapidly in its little earthenware crock, and Tom and I enjoyed watching her put together a plate for each of us--tossing the noodles with the broth, mixing everything up just so, placing some rice, some broth, some veggies, some meat, and some noodles in just the right amount in each of our bowls. It was like having a Jewish grandmother doting over us. Chattered the whole time, too, she did, although we barely understood a word of it. No matter--we felt cared for.

Our other entree choice was kind of a combo fried chicken deal. Pretty tasty little pieces of chicken, some still with bones in them, with a light batter, half of them tossed in a very spicy red sauce. The chicken was tasty--piping hot, lightly fried, not overly greasy, and nicely tender--but it wasn't memorable and I wouldn't order it again. To her credit, our server attempted to steer me away from this dish and into ordering some kind of pork stir-fry, but I didn't listen. Next time....

Still more freebies arrived after the plates cleared, as Ms. Perky suddenly materialized with a couple of sweet red bean paste buns--one steamed, the other baked--steaming hot from the oven. She appeared to take great pleasure in announcing them and explaining what they were as she placed them in front of me with a flourish (Tom was in the bathroom). The baked one was great.

So do go check this place out. It's a great bargain, the dumplings are enough of a draw all on their own, but you get tons of free add-ons with your meal, and the waitress is a bubblingly fun laugh riot who really knows a thing or two about the true meaning of hospitality. Places like this are why it's so great to live in major metropolitian areas that have such a wide variety of immigrants and ethnicities, and Dempster Street is really a microcosm of that; the delis and hot dog stands illustrate the food traditions of immigrants from a generation or two back, and the ever-increasing concentration of Middle Eastern and Asian (especially Korean) restaurants give a pretty clear picture of which immigrant groups have been settling in this area in more recent years.

And, hey, if you don't like your bibimbop, you can always go grab a char cheddar burger at Poochie's afterwards.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Maple Syrup Festival at North Park Nature Center

I've lived in "Greater Chicagoland" for my entire life, save for the two years I lived in Europe. And I lived in Chicago, within the city limits, for close to 15 years until a recent move put me just a bit outside the city limits. But I never heard of the North Park Nature Center until a few years ago when my wife (who is an unrelenting recycler) nagged me into going over there for an electronics recycling event that they were having, where you could drop off old computers, cellphones, etc, to be disposed of properly.

I was amazed to find this fairly large complex hidden in plain sight just off Pulaski, between Foster and Peterson. The place is huge. It's hard to believe that such a big chunk of the north side has somehow managed to survive without developers moving in, but there it is. Go see for yourself.

It's really quite an amazing and wonderful place. I'll quote from their website:

North Park Village Nature Center is located on the northwest side of Chicago and includes a forty-six acre nature preserve and also an educational facility. The Nature Center and preserve are situated within the North Park Village complex, a cluster of buildings located on approximately 155 acres of land.

The nature preserve features trails that wind through woodlands, wetlands, praire and savannas. A discovery room, a hands-on table of natural objects and interactive displays are highlights of the Nature Center. Programs offered include public programs for pre-schoolers, school age children, families and adults; an eco-explorers summer camp and outreach programs.

Open 7 Days a Week, 362 Days a Year!
(closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day)
10:00 am - 4:00 pm

The mission of the North Park Village Nature Center is to provide urban citizens with an opportunity to interact with wildlife, plants and other natural resources through environmental education and access to improved natural landscapes.

There are plenty of opportunities to learn about and enjoy the riches of nature at the only Nature Center in Chicago - please come for a visit!

We walked the nature preserve when we were there last fall for their annual Harvest Festival, and were thrilled to find ourselves deep in the woods, watching frogs, hearing birds, dragonflies, and crickets, and--more than anything else--enjoying nature right in the middle of the city. The festival featured live music, a scarecrow-building contest, a storyteller, and a farmer's market, and it was really a great way to spend what was a gorgeous fall day.

So, met with an equally gorgeous pseudo-spring day (you take'em when you can get'em around here), we headed over to the Nature Center for their annual Tap the Sap Maple Syrup Festival that took place this past weekend.

Well, besides being just a nice excuse to get out of the house, commune with nature, and enjoy the weather, I am also pleased to say that I actually learned quite a bit about maple syrup (and tasted some as well).

I may be revealing my ignorance here, but did you know that the sap that is tapped from the Maple trees is clear when it comes out? I didn't. I thought it was brown, sticky, and thick, like syrup. But it's completely clear and resembles water, both in appearance and taste.

In order to transform it into the familiar breakfast stand-by, the Maple sap is then boiled down--reduced by a factor of 40--so that the natural sugars caramelize and the liquid thickens. At the festival, they do this over an open hardwood fire, so the syrup also takes on a good amount of smokiness. The resulting stuff, which they bottled and were selling, is a revelation; dark brown to the point of being almost black, yet thinner than you'd expect. The flavor is wonderfully sweet, mapley, but also woodsy and smoky, with lots of wonderful undertones and interesting notes.

We ran into a volunteer who explained the process to us while we were out in the woods checking out the scene. Most of the action happens in February, but "you guys are too big a bunch of sissies to brave the weather in February," he explained, so they wait until mid-to-late March to hold the festival. Most of the sap is already harvested by then, but there's still enough flowing for yokels like me to get the idea.

The trees are just tapped with little metal spigots, and when the sap moves back up through the root system up into the tree (after the winter), some of it flows out of the spigot and into plastic jugs that hang on the trees to catch the stuff. When the jugs get full, the staff dumps the sap into plastic buckets along the trail. I opened one up and checked it out, and it was full of bugs and all sorts of stuff. They do, of course, filter it before boiling it for a day or two. Who knows...maybe that's where all the "subtle undertones" and "interesting notes" come from.

The whole thing was eye-opening, to say the least. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on foodstuffs, how they're procured and subsequently transformed for the consumer. Yet I can't believe how clueless I was about Maple syrup, especially considering how close I live to major producer states like Wisconsin and Michigan. I am humbled. The world of food and food production is so vast; there's always more to learn.

So we romped around in the woods, the kids got to climb on stuff, see a few birds, and--most important of all--escape from the concrete and noise of the city and near 'burbs. We found the same storyteller that Henry liked so much last time and listened to him for awhile. Then we headed into the Nature Center building for a bathroom break, and ran smack into a pretty damn good bluegrass band playing to a room full of people. They were called The Giving Tree Band and they were just fabulous, with two guitars, an upright bass, a banjo and a fiddle. What a great, joyously raucous, jingly-jangly way to cap a day at the Nature Center.

The volunteer we talked to spoke glowingly about their Winter Solstice Festival, which is held at night, with great bonfires, candles everywhere in the woods, and some sort of live wolf show, or something, so we're planning on making it over there for that as well. And I was honestly so inspired by the place, how nicely it's run, and what a great resource this sort of thing is for city-dwellers, that I'm considering volunteering.

Their festivals are a great draw, and a good excuse to go check the place out, but I urge everyone reading to just get over there and walk around the next time you've got some time on a sunny day. You can, in a hour's walk, move through natural woodlands, savannahs, wetlands, and prairie. And, in a short amount of time, you can absorb enough nature to forget, for a while, that you're living amidst the noise, traffic, and pollution of the city. Oh, and it's free.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Friday, March 20, 2009


It's the first day of Spring and the sun is shining, so that's reason enough for me to bust out the smoker. I use a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker and generally do ribs, chicken, and pork shoulder at least a couple times a month when the weather is good.

It's easy and the results are delicious, but it's quite the process. There is a bit of a learning curve to get started. And mastering the process is a long journey. But there are resources available.

I used Gary Wiviott's excellent Master the WSM Smoker in Five Easy Dinners Course, which I stumbled onto via LTH Forum. Followed it to the letter, I did. And emerged with a good amount of working knowledge about how to handle the smoker. I highly recommend Prof. Wiviott's method for novices.

Reading GWiv's website will give anyone interested the fine details and methods, so I'm not going to cover all that. What I will do is gloss over the process, giving whoever's interested a bit of an intro into barbecue, generally, and the WSM, specifically. If you find yourself wanting more specifics after reading this, they're easy enough to find.

First, I'll define what we're talking about. "Barbecue" is a term that is often misused. It refers to a process of cooking meat (usually) for long periods of time over low, indirect heat, in near-constant contact with the smoke of hardwood. Low, smokey, and slow cooking. The trick is to keep the smoke moving across the meat while keeping the cooking temperature low; usually around 200°-250°F.

The WSM accomplishes this by having the fire burn at the bottom of the "bullet", and then placing a pan full of water between the fire and the the racks that hold the meat in the upper area of the unit. The water pan helps to moderate the temperature, as well as catch drippings from the cooking meat that could result in flare-ups if they landed in the fire.

This process allows the smoke to infuse and flavor the meat, and the long, low-temp cooking causes the collagen and connective tissue in certain tougher cuts of meat to break down, resulting in a transformation that anyone who loves good barbecue is familiar with. Cuts like beef brisket, pork shoulders, and ribs become meltingly tender and unctuous when given four, eight, or 12 hours of the barbecue treatment. It's a unique way of extracting the most flavor and enjoyment out of these particular pieces of meat.

One thing that really makes me bristle is hearing people referring to their grill (especially a gas grill) as a "barbecue" or saying that they're going to have a "barbecue" when they're planning on cooking some steaks, burgers, or dogs on the grill. THAT'S NOT BARBECUE!!! That's "grilling". There's an enormous difference.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against grilling. I own a gas grill and use it often. But I don't call the burgers, chicken, or portobellos I cook on my grill "barbecued" because they're not.

Grilling is a high heat method of cooking in which the food sits on a grate directly above, and in close proximity to, the heat source--usually open flames. The foods cook very quickly. Therefore, it's best suited to items that are leaner and inherently tender; steaks, chops, fish, burgers, etc. "Lesser" cuts like ribs and brisket would be a disaster on the grill, as the tougher fibers of these meats would not break down during the quick grilling process. Ribs are often finished on a grill, but try grilling them from their raw state and then eating them. Not good.

Even if you're using a charcoal grill, and loading it up with real hardwood charcoal (as opposed to those nasty, chemical-laden "briquettes"), you're still grilling. If the heat is high and direct, it's not barbecue.

Grilling is often considered (especially by marketing/advertising types) as the ultimate "guy thing". Take a look at the father's day gift ideas every year and all you see are these high-tech grilling gadgets and tools. But smoking is much more of a real guy thing than cooking a steak on one of those $4,000 gas grills with their infrared sear burners could ever hope to be.

I mean, think about it; anyone can turn a knob, wait a few minutes, plop a steak on a grill, poke it with their silly temperature sensing fork a few times, and then pull it off when the thing beeps. A friggin' monkey could do it.

Smoking, on the other hand, involves fire. Fire that you light with a flame. Fire that burns differently every time, depending on the air temperature, the wind, and the quality of the charcoal.

Like the primeval ancestors that came before him, a true barbecuer makes a fire and that fire is a living thing that must be controlled. It's much more of a "guy thing" to work with your fire, learn its idiosyncrasies, and figure out how to simultaneously tame and maintain it. There is much skill involved with this. Turning a knob and clicking the igniter on your big, shiny, culinary equivalent of a Hummer doesn't put you in touch with your inner caveman, no matter how much you grunt like the guy from Home Improvement when you do it.

I joked in my last entry about how I enjoy taking on projects with steep learning curves. Well, this one's no joke. All the senses are involved in the smoking process--watching the fire and meat, smelling what the fire's doing, listening to hear when the water pan needs refilling and when the charcoal has gone to ember, touching the meat to figure out if it's reached that falling-apart level of tenderness.

Not only that, but once you've got the basics down, there are an infinite number of variables to mess around with. You've got your various rubs and marinades to play with. Hardwood options include oak, hickory, mesquite, pecan, apple, alder, and more. The classic meats to use are brisket, pork shoulder, and chicken, but once you've got those nailed, you can start branching out with turkey, fish, smoking your own pork belly for homemade bacon, making your own smoked sausages, and on and on. It's also nice to smoke non-meat items while your main dish is going. I usually do a pot of baked beans that I set on the smoker for a few hours while the ribs or chicken is going, and I've also smoked onions, peppers, and even potatoes to use in side dishes.

It's one of those minute-to-learn, lifetime-to-master things. And those are often the best things.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ice Cream Personality Insights

The weather's been so amazing the last few days here in the Chicago area--highs up in the 70's yesterday--and when it's warm out, we start craving ice cream. We usually have a couple cartons in our freezer at home, but one of the joys of summer is taking a walk and going out for a cone or a cup.

We were talking about this the other day and kind of micro-analyzing our ice cream vehicle preferences. I'm a cone guy. My wife always gets hers in a cup.

The cup, says she, allows for greater control. She does not enjoy the anxiety-producing pressure of having to maintain the cone, so as to prevent the rapidly melting ice cream from dripping all down her hand.

For me, on the other hand, that's half the fun. I like the "challenge" of working the cone in just such a way that it prevents the ice cream from getting all over the place, and I've developed kind of a system that combines a steady lick-and-turn technique with the occasional large chomp off the top of the cone which I've found to be a rock-solid method of dealing with even the sloppiest of double-scoops.

What's interesting, though, is that these dueling mindsets are perfect insights into our respective personalities. I'm much more of a figure-it-out-as-you-go type of person, and this drives my wife crazy. She likes to be fully in control, to know what to expect and how she'll handle it. Conversely, her need to plan everything down to what seems to me to be the tiniest little inconsequential detail drives me nuts at times. So she finds the control and the ease of use of ice cream in a cup to be comforting and I find it to be boring, compared with the hands-on wrangling of random ice-cream drip patterns that typify summer cone-slurping.

There's even a product (of course) that attempts to solve this dilemma via a motorized rotating "cone". Ugh. How lame.

I will not be purchasing such a product, because I'm one who values attaining learned skills that take time to acquire. Cooking and playing guitar are both skills that took me a lot of time, effort, and dedication to become good at, but the learning process was enjoyable, and the skills, once attained, are useful and were worth the effort (in my opinion). It's really a basic philosophical difference about how one approaches life--do you want to do the work required to attain the ability to do things The Way They're Supposed To Be Done, or do you just want to take the easy way out and have your ice cream spoon-fed to you all your life?

Despite my clear opinion about which choice is superior, both are valid options. We're all entitled to order our ice cream in whatever form brings us the most enjoyment. Add kids to the equation, though, and things get interesting. Both of us engage in lighthearted "lobbying" to convince Henry that our preferred method of ice-cream delivery is superior, and the subsequent reasoning and explanation that derives from this is pretty hilarious.

I've opted out, to some extent, because in the rare cases that I've managed to sell Henry on the idea of getting a cone, I've found that the constant coaching that's required ("Ok...now turn it. No, turn the whole cone. And then lick. Keep going....good.") is somewhat exhausting and I tend to neglect my own cone. I also usually end up eating a good bit of his cone just to "help" him, which I really don't need to do.

He also seems to prefer the cup. Or maybe that's just my wife's doing.

But beyond the essential question of cup vs. cone, there are plenty of other choices involved with going out for ice cream that can also be viewed as a window through which to view one's personality; flavor choice, of course, is huge. Or the question of soft serve vs. scooped ice cream. Toppings as well. To jimmy or not to jimmy? That IS the question.

You may not have previously considered your ice cream choices as so completely elemental and indicative of your personality, but, really, think about it. Are you someone that always orders just vanilla, amidst thirty other nutty, chunky, rainbow-colored options? Do you (like me) always tend towards whatever flavor has the most "stuff" in it? Have you ever asked them to hold the cherry off your sundae? Or do you ask for extras? Does the instant gratification of soft serve do it for you, or do you prefer the denser, richer product that scooped hard ice cream offers? And how does Italian gelato even factor into the discussion?

I'm feeling like I've opened a can of worms here, and that this blog may not even be big enough to tackle the subject. Perhaps this is doctorate thesis material.

I lick, therefore I am. But what am I? And what does how I lick--and what I choose to lick--say about me?

Enjoy the weather.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Making REAL Mac and Cheese

It's tempting, when beginning a piece about mac and cheese, to go on a long-winded rant about all those nasty powder-cheese concoctions that line the shelves, trying to lure you with their supposed ease of preparation, their overly salty cheesiness, and strangely skinny noodles.

I'll go ahead and resist that particular temptation, as I'm sure it's been done to death. As a transition, though, I will share a funny anecdote--the story of what happened the first time I ever tried to make Kraft Mac and Cheese. I was probably a sophomore in high school, and wasn't much of a cook at the time. My range was limited to after-school microwaving and toaster-ovening and sporadic Sunday-morning pancake-flipping.

But, I was hungry after school and the usual stuff wasn't going to cut it this day, so I decided to make myself a batch of the ol' blue box. I was no cook, but I could follow instructions, I figured. So I did exactly what the box said; I cooked the pasta in boiling water, then added the contents of the packet, plus a little milk and butter. I stirred and stirred, but I was mystified about why it never thickened up. It was like soup.

What the heck did I do wrong? I called a friend and asked her and we went through it step by step. "Ok, so then you drained the pasta, and added the cheese powder, right?" she said.

"Uh...drained the pasta?"

Whoops. I guess that's where it went bad.

Seriously, though, this tells you about my level of cooking ability at the time. I didn't know to drain the pasta, and the instructions didn't even mention this crucial step! I blame Kraft's recipe writers. C'mon, people! Lowest common denominator! Plastic garbage bags have messages telling me not to wear them over my face, and my wife's hairdryer has a tag on the cord with a message that reads "DO NOT USE WHILE SLEEPING", but you can't tell me to drain the frickin' pasta?!

(As an aside, the cheese powder packet that comes with the Kraft Mac and Cheese is really good sprinkled over hot popcorn. For a real dorm-room classic, combine the cheese packet from Kraft dinner with the foil seasoning packet that comes with ramen noodles, sprinkle over popcorn. Consume while drinking cheap beer. Enjoy.)

Anyway, I've come a long way since those days and now I make what I (and my family) believe is the very best macaroni and cheese......ever! This is the very same recipe I used in my triumphant appearance at the first annual sMACkdown, at which I tied Stephanie (Top Chef) Izard.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to making my mac and cheese. Included in this presentation is a bonus step-by-step to making Bechamel sauce; one of the classic French "mother sauces" and, as such, a wonderful leaping-off point for literally hundreds of different sauces. Seriously, Google it. Stuff like knowing how to make Bechamel with your eyes closed is why chefs don't need to use recipes.

First, get a pot of water going for the pasta, and start making the Bechamel. I don't need to tell you to salt the pasta water, do I? It should taste like ocean water.

Bechamel sauce is simply milk thickened with a roux. A roux is simply butter (or oil) and flour cooked together in equal parts to make a paste. Put the butter in a saucepan over low, add the flour and let it melt. Whisk the flour and butter together as it melts. You want to let the roux cook a bit just to cook out the raw flour flavor, but for mac and cheese, we're using a light-colored, or "blonde" roux, so you shouldn't let it take on any color.

Once the roux is dry and kind of crumbly, and it's cooked for a few minutes, remove about half of it, so as to be better able to control how thick your sauce gets. You may end up using all of it, but it's better to be able to add it little by little than to have to keep adding more liquid to thin down your sauce.

Next, add the milk. Just a little at first. The roux begins thickening when it's boiled, so adding just a little milk will allow the mixture to boil almost immediately. It will quickly thicken up to the consistency of mashed potatoes (or wallpaper paste), which allows you to whisk out any lumps before adding the rest of the milk. Once it thickens up like you see in the pic to the left, go ahead and add the rest of the milk.

In the meantime, grate your cheese. I use cheddar (for flavor and color) and another cheese with better melting characteristics like Monterey Jack, fontina, or Swiss. My go-to is Gruyere, and then I add some Parmano cheese to bring up the sharpness.

Also in the meantime (the milk takes a while to come up to a boil), make the breadcrumb topping. I use panko, salt and pepper, more Parmano cheese, chopped parsley, and melted butter. Just melt the butter in the microwave, combine everything else in a bowl, and then pour in the butter and stir it all around with a fork so the melted butter coats everything else.

By now the Bechamel will be more or less ready. You want it pretty loose, since adding all the cheese will thicken it up. It should have started to thicken, and come to a gentle boil. Let it boil for a couple minutes to allow the roux to thicken it, and add more roux as necessary to adjust the consistency. It's better to over-thicken it, since you can always thin it out with a bit more milk. But once you add the cheese, you can't add more roux, since bringing it to a boil would cause the cheese to separate.

Once your Bechamel has thickened and you've allowed it to boil for a few minutes, remove it from the heat, let it cool a bit, and then add all the grated cheese to it, whisking to melt and incorporate the cheese. You'll also want to season it here. I use salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce--not for the heat, but for the acidity it adds. Make sure you taste and re-season enough times so that you get that kind of pinch in the back of your cheek that the sharpness of the cheddar provides.

The sauce should be creamy and you should see some stringy-ness from all the melting cheese when you pull your whisk out. If it's too thick, add some milk to thin it down. You want it kind of thin, since adding the pasta, allowing it to cool, and baking it will all thicken it.

When the pasta's cooked, drain it well, add the sauce to the large pasta-cooking pot, and then combine the pasta and sauce, tossing it well to coat it in the sauce.

CRUCIAL TIP: Try to make sure your pasta is hot when you toss it with the cheese sauce, since it'll absorb the sauce much better than it will if you let it cool down first. Also, once the pasta and the sauce are combined, let the mixture sit in the pot for a while before putting it in your baking dish. This lets the sauce thicken up and soak into the pasta, preventing the sauce from pooling up in the bottom of the baking dish.

At this point, taste it and adjust your seasonings again. Even if your sauce was perfectly seasoned, you may need to add more salt, pepper, or Tabasco to compensate for the addition of the bland pasta. You can also add more milk at this point if the mixture is too thick.

If you're adding stuff like peas, bacon, or ham, this is the point at which to do it.

Turn the whole mess out into a baking dish, top it with your crumb topping, and put it into a 350° oven, and bake it until you can see the cheese sauce bubbling up. Then crank up your oven's broiler and get the topping nice and brown.

That's it. The top should be all toasty, buttery, and burnt-cheese tasting from the grated cheese in the topping, the mac and cheese will be super-creamy and rich-tasting, and you'll get that great contrast of the creamy interior with the crunchy browned topping. It's awesome stuff.

Plus, once you've got the roux and Bechamel technique down, you can use it to make tons of other sauces. Country gravy and biscuits, chicken fried steak with sage cream gravy, and sauce Nantua (a cream-based Bechamel flavored with crawfish and other shellfish) are all examples of fairly well-known Bechamel-based sauces.

So that's it. My (nearly) award-winning mac and cheese recipe, complete with step-by-step photos and commentary. You now officially have no excuse for ever again buying any blue box, lecithin-laden, Velveeta Whiz-based product.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

So, We May Be Opening a Restaurant...

As those who have been reading this blog know, I'm unemployed. And have been for a while now. The prospects look very bleak. Every interview I go on, the hiring authority tells me how flooded with quality applicants they are, and I keep hearing the figures on how many jobs are lost each month. It's hard not to think I'm fighting a losing battle by looking for a job.

My friend Jason, who's in the process of opening a restaurant in Pilsen, told me that a recent ad seeking a sous chef generated one response per minute for a full day. He said he had lots of executive chefs who said they'd be willing to work as line cooks, just to get in the door. Whoa.

Besides fantasizing about making my living as a writer, and then laughing at this pipe dream when I check my Google AdSense balance, I've been kicking around the idea of opening a place for a while now. All the trade publications I read talk about how down economies offer the silver lining of a buyer's market, lots of available spaces with favorable terms, and almost-daily restaurant auctions. So I've been surfing Craigslist and other business listing sites and taking a look at what's out there. There's a lot.

About six weeks ago, I happened upon a listing that piqued my interest, primarily because the location was really good. I called the number, set up an appointment, and went and took a look.

It's a restaurant that was only open for about 9 months, and the space has been home to three different concepts in the last four years. It's a small storefront--about 1500 square feet, and it's in a busy, fairly affluent area with lots of foot traffic. It's very near a theater as well as a couple other venues that draw people into the area. I've since been back twice with various partners and consultants in tow and we are currently in negotiations to purchase the space, the lease, and the contents of the restaurant.

The concept that we're envisioning was inspired by the location. We approached it by trying to figure out what the area needs, and what would be well-received and profitable there, rather than starting with "what kind of restaurant have I always dreamed of running?"

I'm not going to get into too much detail at this point, because I'm worried that I'll somehow jinx the whole thing, but the plan is that we will change the layout of the existing table service restaurant and re-launch it as a more easily-approachable and affordable quick-serve place. The area has quite a few well-known full-service restaurants, but little in the way of decent quick options. More than once, I've found myself in this neighborhood, not wanting to take the time for a sit-down meal, casting about for a place to grab a quick burger or a hot dog, and come up empty.

I haven't been blogging much lately because I'm neck-deep in due diligence. I've run kitchens and restaurants for years, but never owned one, never started a company or purchased an existing one, and so I'm dealing with lawyers, wading through "so you want to start a business" pamphlets I got at the local SBA office, and making checklists of all the various permits, licenses, and filings we'll need to do, should this thing take shape the way I believe it's going to.

It's exciting, but nerve-wracking. I have, of course, written a menu, sketched out a kitchen layout and floor plan, and started re-connecting with purveyors I've worked with in the past. That's the easy and enjoyable stuff for me. But I'm doing my best to restrain myself from getting to deeply involved in the fun stuff, since the whole thing might fall through and all the work (and emotional investment) I put into it could be rendered fruitless overnight.

So, for the time being, I'm focusing on aspects that I need to put into my business plan to pitch this idea to potential investors and banks. Projected cash flow statements, income statements, and working budgets. Pay-back and pay-out schedules, whether to form an LLP, LLC, or corporation, and other really fun stuff like that. I'm out of my element, so I'm trying to use all the resources available to me via family, friends, and past work associations, and learn all I can from the internet. I've been spending a few hours on the phone every day, as I still also juggle naps, meals, and stories for the kids, diaper changes for Nora, and playdates for Henry.

Watch this space for future developments. If the purchase actually goes through, I'll feel more comfortable blogging about the details, and we're hoping that's going to get done within the next couple of weeks or so.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Bacon List--Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked

When I spotted a pack of Niman Ranch Dry Cured, Applewood Smoked Bacon on the shelf at my local Trader Joe's, I knew that I'd have to buy it and do a review for my ongoing sweeping epic series, The Bacon List. Niman is an interesting company that's gone through some recent shakeups, so it makes sense to dig a bit deeper into the back story before reviewing the bacon.

Niman Ranch was the first "boutique" farm name to garner national recognition by appearing on high-end restaurant menus as a descriptor for the center-of-the-plate item. When chefs such as Zuni Cafe's Judi Rogers and the iconic Alice Waters started name-checking Niman on their menus back in the late '80's, a trend was born. A foodstuff's provenance suddenly became important. Chefs and savvy diners around the country took notice.

Back then, Niman-Schell Ranch (as they were known at the time) was doing something quite extraordinary; raising beef and pork naturally, without hormones or antibiotics, and with all natural vegetarian feed. Further, these animals weren't being sent to finishing lots, as the overwhelming majority of commercially-raised animals are. They were finished and slaughtered within Niman's system, which valued humane treatment, sustainability, and sought to ensure that the products were good for those who ate them and for the planet as a whole.

This sort of thing was appealing to some chefs, who, like Waters, took a dim view of the commercial meat industry for a number of very valid environmental and political reasons, but most chefs using Niman's products were interested almost exclusively in the end result product itself; bottom line, the meat just tasted better.

As more and more foodservice operators and chefs jumped on to the farm-to-table bandwagon, Niman's growth was exponential, and by the late '90's, as McDonald's corporation's Chipotle Grill contracted to purchase all their pork from Niman, the operation grew so big so quickly that the folks at Niman Ranch had little choice but to purchase much of its pork from a network of like-minded farmers rather than raising it all on their own.

They were, however, still committed to finishing and slaughtering their animals in their own facilities, and so were forced to truck thousands of hogs across the country, from the farms in the midwest where they were raised, to the Niman finishing/slaughter facilities in Northern California. They refused to outsource beef, however, and were simply unable to keep pace with demand for their naturally-raised, pastured, grass-fed product. The beef cattle--fed on the less calorie-dense grass, and without the growth hormones that sped up the process--took twice as long to reach market weight and cost about twice as much to get to market. Chefs raved about the superior marbling and flavor and demand was very high, so prices could be set accordingly.

(Yes, this post is about bacon. Be patient. This is important stuff.)

Despite the fact that the methods employed by this company influenced a major movement in the world of gourmet food, and built an incredibly strong brand identity, the company was never profitable. Bill Niman, the company's founder and ideological leader, explained that he was "consciously deferring profitability to expand the brand." In other words, he was less interested in building a profitable company than he was in changing the way that people look at meat, and food in general. The money was less important to him than the message.

But, as commendable an ideology as that might be, it's not a formula for running a successful business. Despite the fact that Bill Niman had built his modest cattle ranching hobby into a business with $65 million in annual sales, the company was losing an average of $3 million per year and began veering dangerously close to bankruptcy.

Enter Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings, LLC, a division of massive equity company Hilco. The company owned Sioux-Preme Packing, which processed all of Niman's pork, and in 2006, purchased a 56% stake and took over four of the seven spots on Niman Ranch's board of directors. The company immediately began to make changes in an effort to "streamline the operation" and become profitable.

But "profitable" in food production almost always means cutting back in ways that impact the quality of what's on the plate. Niman fought the new owners' plans for shutting down their finishing lot and slaughterhouse and outsourcing these tasks to larger, more efficient companies (that might not continue the humane and environmentally-friendly practices so integral to Niman's vision). The Niman feedlot was sold in 2008.

The new owners began using "antimicrobials", which technically aren't antibiotics, but yield the same end result while still allowing the company to proudly proclaim their products to be free of antibiotics. Niman only gave the animals medicine when they were sick, but the new owners were using it as a matter of course, the same way commercially-raised animals are treated.

The new owners also locked horns with Niman over the distance that animals were being transported, the conditions of their transport, and the changes in the cattle operations. In 2007, Bill Niman left the company and in January of this year, the changeover became complete. Natural Food Holdings and Niman Ranch merged, giving Natural complete ownership of the company, all its holdings, and exclusive rights to the brand name. Bill Niman is no longer legally permitted to use his own last name in any commercial endeavor.

Niman has moved on. He's into heritage turkeys now, and is raising them commercially on the 1,000 acre Northern California ranch that he managed to keep separate from the company that he now has no share in. He made news recently by announcing that he is boycotting his namesake company, due to questionable practices that he claims compromise their natural, environmentally-friendly, humane ideals, and that he can no longer consume their products in good conscience.

The whole thing's really a sad story. It leads one to wonder whether quality-driven, humane, ethical food production can ever possibly be economically viable.

Anyway, that's the back story. Let's get to the bacon. Since I've already gone on so long about the company's history, let's go straight to the rundown:

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Fancy. But take everything you read above, and the sheer size of this supposedly artisanal company into account and judge for yourself. The package says 'dry cured', and, to be honest, it tastes like it's made the old fashioned way.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $8.65/lb. I purchased a 12 oz. package at Trader Joe's for $6.49.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... Great looking. Nice bright red on the lean meat, perfect fat-to-lean ratio with nice streaking, all slices are center-cut and thick. Texture is very firm and dry, indicative of a true dry cure.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Very little shrinkage. Typical of artisanally-produced bacon that is dry-cured and smoked over a longer period of time, it hardly shrank at all. This is due to the fact that the meat isn't injected with any saline, sugar, or phosphate solutions like the factory-produced stuff, and the long hot smoking pulls all the moisture out during the production process. The end result is more meat on the plate after it's cooked.

Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Wonderful, deep red-brown color, almost no curling, a bit of darkness on the outer edge indicating a true hardwood smoke. Texture is perfect--nice crispness when cooked well, but strips cooked a bit short of totally crisp are nicely yielding with awesome melting fat.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Among the best I've tasted. Great real smoke flavor, which you can smell strongly while it's cooking. Great balance of flavors. This is a perfectly balanced bacon, with equal parts smoke, salt, sweetness from sugar, and pork flavor. The fat is wonderful, giving that great melting quality you get from bacon of this caliber, and the texture is very good; crispy yet with a nice chew. This is a really well thought-out, well put-together product. You can really tell that this product has evolved over time. Many, many tweaks have been done to the curing/smoking process that have brought this product to where it is today. Really excellent.

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. 8.5. This bacon lacks the character of a Broadbent, but it's really not far off. I have to wonder whether knowing what I do about the company has influenced my opinion, and if it might have scored higher if it came from some small farm in Virginia wrapped in brown paper and burlap with the name hand-stenciled on. What can I say? I do my best to remain objective and to taste purely on the basis of taste, but I am only human.

Bottom line, this is a very, very good bacon. Right up there in the upper echelon of real small-batch, old school producers. It's worth purchasing, especially since it's widely available at Trader Joe's, but the price makes it fairly cost prohibitive, so it's more of a special occaision/splurge bacon. Certainly worth the money every now and then, though.

Chicago "Tavern Style" Pizza at Bill's Pub in Mundelein

Bill's Pub in Mundelein is a classic old joint that's been around since 1954. I grew up not too far from here and went to this place probably hundreds of times as a kid, loving their great, cracker-thin crust pizza, playing pinball and Zaxxon in their game room, and thinking that throwing my peanut shells on the floor while we waited for our pizza to come was the coolest thing ever.

I also remember being a bit spooked by their dark, "northwoods style" dining room and the dozens of taxidermy animals that populate it. Nothing like chowing down on some really good, crispy thin-crust pizza while some raccoon that was killed in 1961 stares you down.

Little did I know then that Bill's was such an exemplary example of Chicago's absolute best type of pizza--tavern style thin crust. Yep, that's right. Chicago pan, or deep dish gets all the play and is most well known nationally, but, in my opinion, the real Chicago-style pizza is the cracker-flat thin crust creations turned out by ledgendary places like Pat's in Lakeview, Marie's in Albany Park, Candlelite on Western Ave. near Howard, and Vito and Nick's on the 8400 block of South Pulaski.

"Tavern style" pizza is characterized by being ultra-thin. It's the anti-Malnati's. The crust is paper-thin and crackery-crispy. Most tavern style pizza places also do not create an outer "lip" of crust, so the sauce often goes all the way out to the edge, which can sometimes make it kind of difficult to eat, since there's nothing to grab onto. Tavern style thin crust is always cut into squares, rather than pie slices, and is sometimes referred to as "party-style" pizza or "cracker crust". It's fabulous stuff and goes great with cold beer.

The integral element of a good thin-crust pizza--the crust--can be assessed by employing a move I call the "end crust grab", which tests the structural integrity of the crust. The key to a really good thin crust pizza is that the crust, despite being super-thin, stays crisp and rigid enough to support the ingredients. Thus, part of the responsibility lies with you, the diner. If you want a good thin-crust pizza, you can't overload it by ordering tons of toppings or loading on extra cheese. I generally order a one or two-topping pizza, give it a minute or two to cool down after it arrives at the table, and then employ the "end crust grab" to assess. Good pizza places, besides making a quality crust, will know not to pile on too many toppings. As you can see by the picture to the right, Bill's passes the "end crust grab" test with flying colors. My fingers are holding just the extreme outer edge of the piece, and the crust easily supports the weight of the toppings. Not even a hint of flex or give there. Kudos, Bill's!

But Bill's Pub is about more than just pizza, even though I don't think I've ever eaten anything else there. It's got this great frozen-in-time feel to it. It's way out in the sticks in Mundelein (or at least, it used to be the sticks, before the subdivisions and strip malls started creeping in), and even if you walk in at 8:30, as Mitch and I did following an aborted attempt to try a different restaurant in Long Grove, the place seems really dark, compared to outside. The dining room/bar area is a crazy-quilt muddle of taxidermy, beer signs, plasma tv's tuned to sports, and northwoods pine paneling. It's the perfect setting for what this place is--a halfway to Wisconsin, no-frills place to stop and grab a beer, have a pizza, snack on some peanuts, and shoot the shit with your pals.

(Left: Mitch looks on while I execute the "end crust grab". He thinks I'm nuts, but he hangs out with me because I find the best places to eat.)

Mitch and I walked in and motioned to the only server we saw, who indicated that we should just grab whichever table we wanted. He was busy, but showed up promptly with water and a basket of peanuts, and we ordered a pitcher of Leinenkugel's, which was delivered with nice, cold, frosty mugs. Our server was exactly what you'd imagine from a joint like this as well; a mullet-headed twenty-something guy with some acne who you could just tell was looking forward to getting off work so he could fire up a doobie and crank the AC/DC in his Firebird while driving home.

Which is fine. He was an easygoing guy and was nothing if not friendly, welcoming, and competent. We ordered our pizza and a basket of jalapeno poppers to start, and got settled in.

The apps are just your standard out-of-the-freezer-into-the-fryer stuff, but the pizza is just out-of-this-world good. The sauce is great, with a nice sweetness, but still a good amount of tang, and it's not too loose or juicy. The toppings are high-quality. Like any good pizza place, they use fresh sausage that is pinched off onto the pizza, so the grease from the sausage renders out and permeates the finished product. Mushrooms are raw, but sliced thinly enough to cook through and get browned and crisp. Their cheese, too, is good quality, and, as with all good tavern-style pizzas, browns up nicely, yielding a great, flavorful amount of crunchy, browned cheese around the edge.

And, of course, there's the crust. While I'm on record as stating that my all-time favorite pizza can be found at Barnaby's Family Inn in Niles (which is basically a tavern-style, but with a couple idiosyncratic twists), Bill's runs a very close second. I've had the thin-crust pies from all of the Chicago icons mentioned above, and while they're all very, very good, Bill's is better. The difference is the crust. Bill's crust is so thin, so crispy, and is really just a perfect example of what the Chicago tavern-style pizza is supposed to be.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Authentic Cuban at Habana Libre

As part of a run into the city on an errand the other day, the family and I decided to try much-lauded Cuban spot Habana Libre for a quick lunch.

It was good, but not great.

We liked the appetizers that we ordered; a couple types of empanadas, croquettas, and platanos maduros (deep fried slices of ripe plantain). While tasty, we thought the portions were a bit small for the price and when we asked for sour cream with the fried plantains, they said they don't offer it. Now, I'm no expert on Cuban food, but I've always thought that sour cream is the traditional accompaniment to fried ripe plantains. When I was cooking at Nacional 27, we got plenty of Cuban regulars, who would often order this dish as a special off-menu request, and it was a given that we served it with sour cream. Hm. No matter, since the garlicky oil that they served with everything sufficed.

The sandwiches, however, are the real draw here. Huge, stuffed with great-tasting authentic fillings (read; pork), and served on really fresh, crackly french bread. Although I did want to try it, we passed on the jibarito, and went with a pan con lechon and a cubano.

Both were completely great, enormous, and a total bargain at six bucks apiece. If I worked anywhere near this place, I'd be there everyday.

The pan con lechon (bread with whole roast suckling pig) is a reasonable facsimile of its namesake. It didn't appear to be filled with real pulled suckling pig, but what I believe was shoulder meat was flavorful and moist, although it got even better when I drizzled some of the aforementioned garlic oil over the whole works.

The cubano, was, I thought, the real star. This thing was just stuffed with great-tasting, moist roast pork loin, ham, cheese, mustard, and pickles. The fillings were good and plentiful, with the pickles and mustard doing a great job of cutting through the richness of the pork and cheese, but what made this sandwich great was the bread. I don't know where they're getting their bread, and I'm not well-versed enough to parse the differences between real, authentic Cuban bread (made with lard) and a good quality French baguette, but, honestly, with the bread situation as bad as it is in Chicago, I'm not really going to split hairs. This was really good fresh bread. Crackly crispy on the outside, and very tender, soft, and great fresh bread flavor inside. A good sandwich served on really great bread is not an easy thing to find. Even harder to find one that fills you up for six bucks. This is the appeal, in my opinion, of Habana Libre.

Even better, they take this good bread, stuffed full of good pork products, and do the traditional cubano press on it. It arrives glistening with oil (I assume it's more of that garlic oil), nicely flattened and toasted crispy on both sides thanks to the pressing. It doesn't appear that they used a panini press, since there were no lines on the bread, so I'm guessing that they're toasting these things on a flat top griddle under a hot saute pan or a grill press.

Seriously--take a look at that thing. It's a work of art.

There was one very unpleasant part of this lunch, although it had nothing to do with the restaurant itself. My wife decided that it was my turn to change the baby and that she needed to be changed right now. Why this was so urgent, I have no idea, but sometimes it's better to just nod, smile, and do what your wife is telling you to do. I sensed this was one of those times, although I was fairly daunted at the prospect of changing a baby in the bathroom. I was guessing they didn't have one of those nice roomy "family restrooms" or even a changing station. I was correct.

The men's bathroom was, as is expected in a small, independently owned restaurant, very small. It was clean enough, but there was just a sink and a toilet, so me and the car seat were a tight squeeze, so I had no real other choice but to change the baby on the floor, jamming myself into a tiny space between the door and the base of the toilet. It was going ok until my leg cramped up in the middle of the whole operation, plus the kid kept trying to roll over and grab the door-stopper spring thing. Shades of the airplane bathroom scene from Tommy Boy. Wow. Not good. I slapped a new diaper on the kid as fast as I could and pried myself out of there.

My wife promptly split the scene to go feed the baby in the car and Henry and I stayed behind and took care of the bill while enjoying a Cuban coffee and a coconut flan. It was kind of a pricy lunch for the three of us (around fifty bucks, after tip), but we ordered quite a bit in order to try a lot of different things. They did charge us two bucks each (if I recall correctly--can't find a copy of the menu online) for cans of Diet Coke, which seemed a bit over the top, but now that we've been and know the deal, we could easily get out of there with a really excellent lunch for eight bucks a person.

All in all, I give this place high marks. I love the small independent vibe of the place, the service was attentive and competent, and the food--particularly the sandwiches--was really quite good and an excellent deal.

I'd certainly go back, or, more likely, stop in for a few sandwiches to take home. If you're nearby, or want to check out some Cuban food, I recommend giving this place a try.