Thursday, July 14, 2016

Chicago Eats - Summer 2016

Even though we're in the process of packing up to leave Florida for good, the family has still managed to find time to travel a little this summer (I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't mention that these trips had been scheduled quite some time prior to our decision to relocate). Trip #1 (a 10-day junket to Chicago for my nephew's first birthday party) just concluded this week and included some of my favorite tastes in Chicagoland, as well as a few new ones worth mentioning. Exhibit A is hereby submitted for your perusal:

Deep Dish Pizza, Gino's East, various locations

We missed this on our last trip to town in December, an oversight that shall not be committed twice. Having recently shacked up in the old Mill Rose Brewery complex in South Barrington, the pies here are a wee bit less good than the ones churned out downtown on Superior Street (maybe the pans aren't as well-seasoned), but nonetheless satisfied my craving. If you order sausage, get the patty covering the whole pizza or don't bother :).

Dim Sum, Triple Crown, 2217 S. Wentworth

A hearty shout-out goes to Chicago Food Planet and our guide, Philip, for putting together a stellar tour of tasty dining spots in the city's modest Chinatown.  The origin point for the tour was the raucous Triple Crown, serving what I found to be among the better dim sum offerings I've had.  This photo includes from left to right a steamed bbq pork bun, a pork and shrimp siu mai (dumpling), and a deep fried taro puff (my personal favorite), along with a trio of dipping sauces - sriracha, hoisin, and a spicy shrimp paste that seared my fillings oh-so-good.

Spicy Chili Eggplant and Dry Chili Chicken, Lao Sze Chuan, 2172 S. Archer

Local Chinese food impresario Tony Hu may be headed upriver soon for tax evasion, but his restaurant empire lives on. As long as his crew can continue to churn out his famous dry chili chicken, spicy cabbage, and spicy chili eggplant, everything will be just fine until his parole.

Smoked Tea Duck, Lao Beijing, 2138 S. Archer

Chef Tony's place a few doors down the shopping complex from LSC tilts less towards spice and more towards the heartier cuisine found in the cooler environs of China, such as this luscious tea-smoked duck, carved with the crispy skin on and served family-style with a pile of shredded scallions/cucumbers and wraps so you can create your own duck burrito.

Macanese Egg Custard Tart, Saint Anna Bakery, 2158 S. Archer

No food tour would be complete without dessert and the above is an exemplary example of Eurasian fusion, a sweet egg custard tart from the Chinese island of Macau, which was administered by the Portuguese for 450-odd years.  I'll definitely be on the lookout for these rich (and messy) treats among the Portuguese bakeries scattered throughout New York and Connecticut.

Dusek's Restaurant, 1227 W. 18th Street

Before Pilsen became a haven for immigrants from Latin America, the neighborhood was predominantly Czech and Bohemian. Back in 1892, local businessman John Dusek constructed the striking Thalia Hall at the corner of 18th and Allport as a community center of sorts for Central European expats. This complex was recently renovated and reopened as a restaurant (Dusek's), tavern (Punch House), and concert venue honoring the center's history. Our good foodie friends Phil and Karen recommended Dusek's and were kind enough to join Mrs. Hackknife and me for dinner there during our trip. Chef Jared Wentworth (who also spearheaded the terrific Longman & Eagle, owned by the same dining group) has succeeded again in creating a casual-yet-elevated menu of dishes that just work in almost every instance, including an unusual duck-based choucroute (pork is usually featured) and a mind-blowing multi-component version of a Lebanese sweet cheese roll.

Wood-Roasted, Cheese-Stuffed Pretzel with Beer Mustard

"Beet-Stained Burrata" - Chevre, Marscapone, Pickled Beets, Arugula, Black Walnut Pesto

"Choucroute" - Aged Seared Duck Breast, Duck Sausage, Confit Duck Leg, 18-Hour Sauerkraut, Caraway Pickled Apples, Confit Potatoes, Duck Jus

"Halawat El Jibn" - Cardamom Ice Cream, Blood Orange Curd, Honey Gel, Golden Raisin Puree, Honey Bubbles, Olive Oil/Honey Toffee Powder

Craft Beers, Hailstorm Brewing Company, 8060 186th St., Tinley Park

Just a mile or two from the old Commissary sits Hailstorm Brewing, a newer craft brewing operation tucked away in an otherwise nondescript industrial park north of I-80.  Mrs. H, my brother-in-law Dan, and I popped in for a couple of samples in celebration of his recent milestone birthday.  In addition to some really intriguing beer creations (including a German sour with prickly pear and an Imperial stout made from 11 different malts/6 different hops), my personal favorite was the Shenanigans with Shillelaghs, a dry Irish stout with a smoother finish than Guinness.  If we still lived in the neighborhood, I reckon I'd be a regular visitor here (with a lighter wallet and a swollen liver).

Allgauer Schnitzel, Chef Klaus Bier Stube, 20827 S. Lagrange Rd., Frankfort

Mere hours later, the wife's family held my brother-in-law's actual birthday event at another old 'hood institution, Chef Klaus' Bier Stube, a celebration of all things German.  Sure, old Chef K is no longer with us and his breakfast restaurant on 191st serves better grub for the most part, but there's something vaguely comforting about a gigantic plate of veggie and Jarlsberg-covered schnitzel (straight from the world-famous schnitzel bank, according to the menu, which left me puzzled - is there a vault full of pounded pork in the back?), washed down with a Hofbrau maibock and a side of uptempo accordion music.

Wrigley Field Hot Dogs, 1060 W. Addison St.

These are happy times to be a Cubs fan, not just because the team is actually fun to watch now (something I couldn't say for the majority of my 12 years as a season ticket holder), but you no longer have to fight the crowds in the main concourse downstairs to get the best ballpark dogs in America.  Simply pop your head out onto the upper deck patio behind home plate to find a Vienna Beef stand selling charred dogs with grilled onions (believe me when I tell you that the onions are key).  This particular dog bit the dust almost immediately after I took this photo (it landed on the ground, not in my stomach); fortunately, the vendor took pity on me and gave me a replacement without having to get back in line.

What you see here are among the more difficult ballpark dogs to secure in all of baseball.  Our now-retired friend Doug Sohn (of Hot Doug's fame) caused a foodie frenzy in Chicago when he announced in 2015 that he was opening a stand in the Wrigley Field bleachers to serve a rotating selection of his coveted sausage creations.  The catch is you need a bleacher ticker in order to access this stand - no exceptions.  My feeble attempts at sweet-talking an usher to let me past the checkpoint failed miserably; however, Mrs. Hackknife's good friend Melanie (who is a bleacher fixture at Cubs games) was kind enough to bring us over a couple of Hot Doug dogs, namely a Carmen Fanzone (a spicy Vienna Beef polish sausage with incendiary brown mustard and caramelized onions) and a Turk Wendell (gyro sausage with feta cheese, chopped tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce).  I must admit they were well worth the added hassle (thanks again, Melanie!).

Original Superdawg, Superdawg Drive-In, 333 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling

Staying on the theme of encased meats, this one needs no further explanation.  Superdawg remains the all-time hot dog champion in my book, down to the crinkle-cut fries and green tomato wedge.  If you visit the satellite location in Wheeling, you can actually clearly review the other menu offerings (such as the Whoopercheese and Superfish), most of which I'm told are quite good, not that I'd know (future blog post idea - consume and write about all non-hot dog Superdawg menu items).

Smoked Pork Mollette, Tortas Frontera, O'Hare Airport

Celebrated Mexican chef Rick Bayless continues to expand his restaurant kingdom (Lena Brava just opened in the crazy-crowded Randolph Street corridor to rave reviews recently); however, his fast casual sandwich bar at O'Hare is still the best airport food by a country mile. I suspect this smoked pork mollette (open-faced sandwich of smoked pork loin, red onion, Jack cheese, chipotle-fig spread, Cotija cheese, and cilantro) had been sitting around in the warming oven for a little while; no matter - it made a fine lunch nonetheless...

Monday, June 27, 2016

Roasted Acorn Squash (The Refinery - Tampa)

The Canteen has officially been purchased and we need to vacate in a few short weeks, so Mrs. Hackknife and I are starting to make the rounds to our favorite Tampa Bay Area restaurants before heading up to New York in early August (at which point this blog will be rechristened "Hackknife Northeast"). The photo displayed above was taken this past Friday evening at one of said restaurants, Chef Greg Baker's flagship The Refinery, still one of the few places in town serving a new roster of fresh, inventive dishes almost every week (although I have to admit that the local culinary scene has definitely closed the gap on M. Baker in our 3 years here).  This particular plate, a wonderful combination of roasted acorn squash, quinoa, cilantro, aji peppers, grape tomatoes, and a couple daubs of sherry sabayon, was good to eat and even better to behold.  We wish Chef Greg continued success in all of his endeavors and hope his culinary empire someday expands beyond the environs of west-central Florida...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Pete and Shorty's

Summer's here and I'm now continually on the lookout for ways to occupy the kids during these humid Florida days. We've almost survived Week 1 completely without Mrs. Hackknife (who's toiling away at her new position in NYC) using a combination of swimming pool, Disney movies, our usual extracurricular activities, and strategically selected meals, including today's visit to Pete and Shorty's for lunch.  P&S's is conveniently located down the street from Costco (our ultimate destination) at 2820 Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater (next door to the original Hooter's for those of you who care about these things) and has been a reliable dining choice for the family by virtue of its Midwestern vibe (my visiting in-laws enjoy the fried fish during Lent, for example).

Self-styled as a small-town tavern and "Iowa bistro", the owners have recently changed their marketing approach to emphasize their corn-fed roots (see the idyllic farm field on the front page of the website).  Heartland references aside, my favorite decor touch in all of Florida has to be the restaurant's tabletops, which appear to have been crafted from the 1950's floor tile in my grandparents' basement.

While not all that different from most bar menus, the bill of fare does lean a bit towards Iowa-specific cuisine, including such regional gems as the loosemeat sandwich (which they describe as containing ground chuck and not the, um, leftover cow parts you'll find in a traditional loosemeat recipe in, say, Mason City) and the fried pork tenderloin sandwich, my lunch choice below.

Topped with mustard, pickles, and chopped onions and served with a side of Cole slaw (that was extra), the tenderloin sandwich wasn't as massive as others I've seen around the Midwest and probably wouldn't satisfy a discerning pork tenderloin connoisseur from either Iowa or Indiana, but it'll do in a pinch.

Monday, May 30, 2016

New Era Cafe (Akron, OH) and Kitchen Post (Struthers, OH)

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently found ourselves in Northeast Ohio again for the second of 3 family weddings (all three grooms are brothers and my first cousins) in an 18-month period. In addition to getting to see distant relatives, we always enjoy the opportunity to sample whatever outstanding local eats we encounter there. For example, we missed out on Central European grub when we passed through Akron last October (there is a sizable population of Serbians and Hungarians nearby), so we were sure not to pass on it this trip. Fortunately, one of the better Central European restaurants anywhere is located a mere 20 minutes from Akron-Canton Airport; namely, New Era Restaurant, next to Interstate 76 at 10 Massillon Road.

At first glance, the operation (which appears to be relatively new or at least newly-renovated) doesn't differ much from any of thousands of blue-collar restaurants across America, a tavern on one end and a dining room on the other with a take-out counter in the middle.  Even the menu doesn't exactly scream "ethnic food" upon review, that is, until you zero in on a few key dishes, most of which we had to try.

What looks like Brown-N-Serve breakfast sausages above is actually the national dish of Serbia called cevapi, which are skinless links of minced beef, lamb, and/or pork (not sure which meats ended up in ours).  The cevapi at New Era are served with fries and raw chopped onions, making for a tasty, garlicky treat.

The house touts their 75-year old chicken paprikash recipe, so, of course, we had to have it.  The dish (which consists of assorted bone-in chicken pieces browned in butter, then stewed with onions/paprika) is served here on a bed of dumplings swimming in the reddish paprika-laced stewing liquid.  A slice of delicious homemade strudel (we chose cheese over apple) accompanied the chicken.

Mrs. H. couldn't pass on one more offering, a thick-cut goose liver sausage sandwich, served on toast with onions and mustard.  This beauty was rich and earthy and ensured that no one would come within 50 yards of us for several hours.

After our sizable dinner in Akron, we rolled into my aunt and uncle's house in suburban Youngstown (our destination for the weekend), who promptly informed us that they have a new restaurant nearby that was a can't-miss experience.  Unable to further defile our innards that evening, we waited until lunch the next day to pop in to The Kitchen Post, a self-described "supper club" in a small strip mall space on a ragged stretch of Youngstown-Poland Road, an area of town still visibly reeling from the local steel industry's departure and about the last place one would expect to discover elevated cuisine.

Dressed for a wedding (I in my suit and my lovely bride in a formal dress), we clearly stood out amongst the youthful, hipster crowd, but settled in for a fine lunch nonetheless.  The chalkboard above the counter stated that the menu changes frequently and included a collection of casual, accessible dishes like toasts, tacos, and fried chicken.

What you see above is one of the aforementioned toasts, in this case smoked salmon with mashed avocado, red onion, jalapenos, and "everything bagel" seasoning.  This was my first experience with the ultra-trendy avocado toast and I now get the allure: KP's toast was fantastic, a real pro combo of flavors and textures that was perfectly balanced and just a tad sloppy for good measure.

If you see something called "Elvis spoonbread" on a menu, I believe it should be your moral obligation to get some. Chef Ross Fowler at KP created this decadent wonder of peanut butter bread pudding, bruleed bananas, bacon, and honey, all the best parts of Sunday brunch in a single bowl. I had to share it with Mrs. Hackknife. I wasn't happy about that.  At the rate he's going, Chef Fowler (who's only around 25 and apparently going places) should be expecting a call from the producers at Top Chef any day now...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tampa Scachatta

A few months ago, I stumbled across an interesting article that was posted on Saveur's website. A Philadelphia-based writer and illustrator named Hawk Krall submitted a feature about something called "scachatta" (at least, that's one of several possible spellings), a tomato bread with Sicilian roots that's not quite exactly pizza, but an egg dough sheet bread topped with a meat-based tomato sauce and occasionally sprinkled with grated cheese. The kicker is that, unbeknownst to me (and not only me - most of the local foodie cognoscenti also pleaded ignorance), Tampa is the home of said specialty; in fact, Mr. Krall visited a number of prominent local bakeries as part of his research. Not wanting to miss out on such a unique item, I decided to retrace his steps and get an idea of what scachatta is all about (as well as experience a sampling of other baked goodies).

My first stop was perhaps Tampa's most well-known bakery, La Segunda Central, maker of fine Cuban bread (you can't make an authentic Cuban sandwich without it) and other delectable treats on the fringes of Ybor City (2512 N. 15th St.) since 1915.  You might wonder why one would seek out an Italian dish in a Cuban establishment - one of Tampa's intriguing qualities is the intermingling of the Cuban, Italian, and Spanish communities (all employed by the formerly-massive cigar industry), which includes their respective cuisines.

Despite its age, the retail portion of the bakery is shiny and modern, clearly renovated sometime during the past few years to help serve the large volume of customers passing through its doors.

I was here of course for scachatta, but I had a difficult time controlling myself and had to pick up a few extras, namely a devil crab and a guava turnover, both of which were quite tasty.

La Segunda's was my first-ever scachatta slice and I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was savory and rich, reminding me somewhat of the sheet pizza I'd had a few years ago at Chicago's now-departed Italian Superior Bakery on Western Ave.  Still, I found the concept a bit lacking and was curious to see how the versions at other bakeries stacked up.

The next stop (Alessi Bakery and Deli, 2909 W. Cypress St.) matches up head-to-head on the local history front with La Segunda very well - it's been around since 1912 and offers many of the same goods, although with a heavier emphasis on Italian sweets (its founder, Nicolo Alessi, was Italian, not Cuban). As you enter the store, you encounter a large display of boxed scachatta ready for purchase.

The back of the box states that scachatta means "smash the bread" in the Sicilian dialect of Italian and I'm in no position to debate this.  What I can say is that I wasn't particularly enamored with this scachatta, either - it had a sweeter, milder profile than La Segunda's, but had more of a mass-production air to it, I suspect since it'd been made not onsite, but in Alessi's 100,000 sq. ft. manufacturing plant in northwest Tampa.

Feeling a bit discouraged, I pressed onward to Housewife Bake Shop, owned and operated by the same Italian family on Armenia Ave. (6821 N. Armenia, to be exact) since 1959 (the bakery's interior appeared to be frozen in time back to the 1960s with faux wood paneling and old drink coolers). Here I again encountered a mix of Italian and Cuban treats, including a sizable guava and cream cheese coffee cake that I had to bring home to the missus and kids.

They spell it "scacciata" at Housewife and turn out a tomato pie that's thinner and more savory than the others.  If there was meat in the sauce, it was very subtle.

Last, but not least, came Angelito's La Caridad Bakery (4425 W. Hillsborough Ave.), a place I've written about on this blog before for its decadent Cuban specialties.  Spanish is the main language spoken here, and I was able to muddle my way into ordering a devil crab (if you call it a "croqueta de cangrejo", they'll probably figure out what you're asking for) along with a slab of their escachata, which was kept in a refrigerator behind the counter.

The devil crab was terrific; however, the scachatta was even better, by far the best of the bunch that I sampled.  The tomato sauce (which was loaded with Cuban spices and sweet caramelized onions) popped with flavor and texture, plus the crust was nicely browned and not overly-doughy.  Just like most everything else churned out by La Caridad, they seem to know what they're doing.  I'm not sure exactly how much of this tomato bread concoction I'll encounter once we relocate to the Northeast (more on that in an upcoming post - Hawk Krall specifically mentions Utica, NY, Rhode Island, and northeast Pennsylvania to name a few), but if I ever have a hankering for scachatta, I'll be heading to La Caridad....

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Singleton's Seafood Shack/Pie Heaven - Jacksonville, FL

Hackknife Jr. and I recently made a brief 24-hour trip up to Jacksonville (about a 3.5-hour drive from the Canteen) so that he could participate in a state-wide junior piano convention. In between his sessions, we had a significant amount of downtime that allowed us to explore the greater Jacksonville area a bit, including the local science and history museum (handily referred to as "MOSH") and, of course, some eating landmarks of note. I let the boy pick our dinner venue in return for dibs on lunch - both Guy Fieri and the good folks from Roadfood wrote highly about a seafood shack out by the mouth of the St. John's River, so that's where we headed after a couple of hours at MOSH.

Singleton's Seafood Shack is located in the tiny historic fishing village of Mayport (founded circa 1565, not long after St. Augustine), home to a large naval base. You can find the restaurant right next to the St. John's River car ferry that transports passengers traveling on A1A between Fanning Island and Mayport. Although not much to look at from the outside (shack, indeed), patrons are greeted at the front door by a large display of the day's catch (much of it no doubt recently extracted from the local waters) on ice, including shrimp, crab, oysters, and various fishes.

Singleton's has a large outdoor patio where you can watch the seabirds and giant ocean-going ships navigate the wide river while waiting for your order. We started outside before slinking back into the shade of the covered breezeway.

Wanting both fresh oysters and shrimp, I settled on a cup of steaming hot oyster stew (featuring much cream/butter along with some tasty small oyster meat, some of it chewier than others) before the main course arrived, a basket of peel and eat Florida brown shrimp, cole slaw, and a terrific hush puppy (Hackknife Jr. was kind enough to also let me eat his).

As tempting as it was to try the house Key lime pie for dessert, I opted instead to drive us a short 10 minutes south into Atlantic Beach for some much-heralded pie at Pie Heaven Cafe. Congenial owner and baker Anita Hyde began her own baking business after being laid off from her corporate job with a personal mission to utilize as much of her profits as possible to reduce childhood hunger.

She managed to talk me into buying 2 slices of her wonderful pie, one of which (the Key lime, decadently-rich and custardy) I immediately consumed in the shop, the other (an equally-good chocolate bourbon pecan concoction) kept me company on the long, late-night return drive to Tampa later that evening (ed. note: it's not easy to eat pie when operating a motor vehicle in the dark - be safe, kids, and put the baked goods away until you get home or at least stop at a traffic light)...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Danny's All American Diner

While I like to goof on Guy Fieri sometimes, I have to admit that a lot of the dining recommendations from his Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives are on point. During the nearly 10 years that Triple D has been around, Guy has featured places in the Tampa Bay area on 7 separate occasions and I'm happy to report that, as of yesterday, I've now visited 6 of those 7 establishments; I'll even daresay that I think this latest one is my favorite of the bunch. The kinder and I first explored Danny's All American Diner (4406 N. Falkenburg Rd.) on State Fair Day in February (you know, the day in western Hillsborough County when all the kids are off from school and they each get a free ticket to the Florida State Fair - wait, what do you mean they don't do that where you live?). Instead of attempting to bodysurf the gap-toothed multitudes at the fairgrounds, we wandered around the quiet (and mostly empty) Henry Plant Museum in downtown Tampa before venturing out to Danny's for lunch, located about 2 miles east of the state fair site (about as close as I wanted to get that day). During this visit, I had to try the marquee item on the menu; that is, the Guy Fieri's Triple Play burger, which included a 2/5 lb. beef patty topped with pastrami, mojo pork (3 meats total, hence the "triple play" designation), Swiss and American cheeses, mustard, tomato, jalapenos, and fried onion rings, all on a sourdough bun. Yes, this monstrosity kept me close to a restroom for a couple of days, but yes, it was all worth it in the end.  On my more recent trip, I was in the mood for a Cuban sandwich and decided to put Danny's to the test again (allegedly, they offer one of the better Cubans in town).

If you're not careful when you're driving down Falkenburg Road, you'll zoom right past the small, relatively nondescript stand that houses Danny's operations.  All seating is outdoors (there are tables in front and around back) and parking is available in the scruffy, but shaded vacant lot across the street.

When you approach the ordering window, be sure to slide open the lid of the metal drink cooler and poke around a bit - inside is a terrific selection of some hard-to-find specialty sodas, including one of my favorites, Ale 8-1 from Kentucky (you can see some of the sodas above).  Also, try to resist the urge to order the Roberto Clemente burger that's being suggested to you via an enticing window painting (that's not actual size, by the way).

The staff is very friendly at Danny's, but the operation is pretty bare bones (and they seem to get a lot of call-in orders for takeout around lunchtime), so be prepared to wait a little while for your food. Pro tip - if it's warm out ('s Florida), the picnic tables situated behind the storage container in the back lot are cooled off by a large electric fan.

The house Cuban sandwich is large and very tasty, definitely landing on the list of my local Top 5 Cubans. All of the traditional toppings are there (Genoa salami if you're a Tampanian, lots of Virginia baked ham, pulled pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard), plus a couple of others (mayo and capicolla), and the bread (which may or may not be from La Segunda Bakery in Ybor City - I couldn't tell exactly) is pressed until crunchy, a crucial characteristic of a true Cuban.

It was the onion rings that held up my order, but they were definitely worth the wait: a white paper sack filled with large, golden rings, hot and crispy from the fryer. If you must get fries, be sure to select the mix (half of each) instead.

The menu is extensive enough at Danny's that multiple visits will be required to experience all of the best sandwiches they have to offer. Although it's not close to the Canteen (about 40 minutes away), I won't be waiting for the State Fair to roll around again before returning...