Saturday, August 5, 2017

Milwaukee Eats

Even though I spent the bulk of my childhood a mere 90 minutes away in suburban Chicago, I never really found the opportunity (apart from the odd visit to the Wisconsin State Fair) to sample many of the gastronomic treasures that make the Milwaukee region of southeast Wisconsin unique. On our latest trip back to the Midwest, however, I had an extra solo day with which I could tick off a number of the items on my hit list, so I headed up I-94 and had a long day of pleasurable (if not excessive) consumption.

Kringle - Racine, WI

My first stop was prior to 9 am, so it made sense to begin my jour de gluttony with a breakfast item. Racine is home to the kringle, a glazed pastry with roots in Denmark not unlike coffee cake. These flaky wonders are common enough in these parts to be found in grocery stores, but the best are made by traditional Danish bakeries like Bendtsen's, which has been cranking out sweet ovals of doughy love since 1934.

I didn't actually eat a whole kringle like you see above (this was the "French toast" version, filled with nuts and maple that made it back to my mom's house and, when we could consume no more, ended up at my in-laws), but just a single glorious slice of pecan at the counter in the store - after all, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

Hoppel Poppel - Milwaukee, WI

Although I'm told it can be found at diners throughout the Midwest, the kitchen sink dish hoppel poppel seems to be concentrated in and around Milwaukee, probably due to the presence of a large German population (the dish allegedly originated in Germany as a way of using up leftovers).  Benji's kosher deli on the north side of town (near the UW-Milwaukee campus) serves a great version with cheddar cheese, green peppers, and onions in their "super" version (I had them hold the mushrooms) to go with the hash browns, scrambled eggs, and fried cubed salami that is the base.  Thank goodness the menu listed a half order, which was still amply sized (you can see it below).

Butterburgers - Milwaukee, WI

In my opinion, Culver's is the best fast food burger chain out there largely because they make a great butterburger, which is simply a standard burger served on a bun that's been toasted and spread with butter.  If you're a butterburger fan, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to one of the originators of this burger style: Solly's Grille, which has been serving them up since 1936 and is also conveniently located on the north side of Milwaukee just a couple of miles from Benji's.

Yes, there will be butter

I highly recommend the deluxe burger, sporting lettuce, tomato, and mayo to go with the grilled onions, american cheese, and ground sirloin that come standard on the glorious buttered bun.  If the thought of all this butter makes your cardiologist recoil in agony, you can request it without (or light, which is what I did).

German Cuisine - Milwaukee, WI

Of course, German food is not unique to Milwaukee, but this is the place where you can still find the most old-school German restaurants.  One of them (Karl Ratzsch) recently gave up the ghost after over a century in operation, so I figured I'd better high-tail it over to a German establishment as part of my sojourn.  Mader's originally opened in 1902 and has occupied the same spot on Old Third World Street since 1910.

Usually these historic ethnic restaurants will have kitschy decor (check, two floor's worth, to be precise) and mediocre food, however, Mader's grub was quite good, including the pretzel bread that first arrives at your table, the liver dumpling soup, the schnitzel sandwich (a terrific combo of wiener schnitzel, tomato jam, Boursin cheese, and fried pickles), and the warm potato salad studded with bacon fat.

Frozen Custard - Milwaukee, WI

By this point, I wasn't broken, but was starting to bow a little, so I thought it best to pause the savory delights for a bit and switch over to sweet.  Milwaukee has a number of legendary frozen custard establishments, one of which is Leon's on the city's southwest side.

Leon's has been around since 1942 and I can see why - its basic chocolate and vanilla combo custard is smooth and refreshing, especially on a hot July afternoon.

Wisconsin Tavern Pizza - Milwaukee, WI

I had one last savory stop in me before starting to make the long drive back towards Chicago.  I'm not sure how many would consider Milwaukee to have its own pizza style, but First We Feast does, highlighting a particular saloon that's been making great thin crust since 1954.  Zaffiro's original location is a small tavern and restaurant just north of downtown.  My sources tell me they parbake their dough before adding toppings and baking it a second time, yielding a crust that's almost cracker-thin.  I'd never heard of this style, but have had many similar thin crust pizzas at casual joints throughout Lake County, Illinois (which borders Wisconsin) and even a few in Wisconsin proper, so I wanted to give it a go.

I had to take a whole small sausage pie to go since Zaffiro's doesn't sell by the slice (poor me).  The pizza sitting in my passenger seat smelled delicious, but I could only bring myself to nibble on a single corner slice (alarm bells were going off in my tummy) before transporting the rest of it home to my grateful family, who had no qualms about devouring the rest.

Apple Pie in a Bag - Mukwonago, WI

I had one last stop to make prior to ending my day of dining excess - I had promised my sister that I'd bring back some of the planet's best apple pies (at least that's how they're advertised) for my soon-to-be 2-year old nephew's birthday party that weekend.  The pies in question are made by a place called Elegant Farmer, located in the cornfields about 30 minutes southwest of Milwaukee.

The Elegant Farmer people have a whole market of country goodies available in their retail barn, from jams to cheese curds (which I had to bring home) to produce, plus the famous pies, which are baked in a paper bag to help contain all those tasty fruit juices that ooze out during cooking.  I was a little skeptical, but purchased two pies (one regular apple, one caramel apple) and transported them back south with me.

While they're no Hoosier Mama, I have to admit that the paper bag thing really works, as the Elegant Farmer pies (especially the caramel apple one) were a hit at the party even after a couple days of refrigerator aging.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Oriole - Chicago, IL

While on a recent family trip to Chicago, Mrs. Hackknife and I had what was our best meal of 2017 so far at two Michelin-starred Oriole, a newer establishment (opened in 2016) that's an exciting addition to the national fine dining scene. Chef Noah Sandoval and his tight crew are turning out incredible cuisine in a spare and elegant space on a scruffy backstreet in the city's River North neighborhood (661 W. Walnut Street). Patrons have to pass through a freight elevator (which is transformed every evening into a tiny hostess lounge before resuming its day job after closing) to enter the restaurant, giving it something of a speakeasy feel.

Both food and service were exemplary, so much so that I'm bending my recent rule of avoiding blow-by-blow tasting menu descriptions just for this posting. Sommelier Aaron McManus presented wonderful drink pairings for the Japanese-inflected meal that included not only French and Italian wines, but also sake and even a sweet Norman cider.  I'm lacking photos of two courses that I liked just as much as the others: an ethereal bone broth (normally I scoff at that description as most broths are bone-based; however, I wasn't scoffing when I tasted it) studded with Vietnamese coriander, cinnamon, and lemongrass and a petite croissant stuffed with a powerhouse combo of Spring Brook Farm Ashbrook cheese and rosemary apple butter (I didn't think it was possible to amp the flavor of an already-rich croissant, but here we are).  If you're considering a visit to Oriole for dinner, I urge you to book now before reservation backlogs reach Alinea-type levels...

Puffed Beef Tendon with Wagyu Beef Tartare and XO Sauce

Beausoleil Oyster with Mangalica Consomme, Finger Lime, and Borage +
Almond Crisp Topped with Mangalica Ham, Black Walnut, Egg Yolk, and Quince

Oba King Salmon with Smoked Roe, Spring Onion, and Fresh Herbs

Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Hudson Canyon Scallop with Dried Wild Blueberry and Oxalis

Capellini with Australian Winter Truffle, Rye Berry, and Yeast

Japanese A5 Wagyu Beef and Bearnaise Sauce with Charred Little Gem Lettuce, Furikake Seasoning, and Sesame Leaf

Gianduja Chocolate Gelato with Marscapone, Preserved Cherries, and Sakura Tea

Mignardises of Strawberry, Milk & Cookies, and Fernet Branca

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Bonchon Chicken

Now that I'm residing in an area with a substantial amount of Revolutionary War history, I'm doing my best to make the rounds and visit all of the local historical sites, including Federal Hall, which is down on Wall Street in the old part of Manhattan. Fortunately, Eater's Robert Sietsma was kind enough to point out that good fried chicken is nearby, so I popped in after my Federal Hall tour for a bit of lunch.

Bonchon Chicken is a South Korean-chain that specializes in Korean fried chicken wings. The lower Manhattan restaurant (at 104 John Street) is a small food counter that's literally in the back of a bar (of course, there's a strong bond between alcohol and chicken wings).

I made the mistake of ordering tenders, which were a little dry; however, the fried coating was terrific. If you're not a fan of spice, stick with the soy garlic in lieu of spicy - I ordered half of each and found the spicy tenders to be close to incendiary. The kimchi coleslaw I picked for my side was just as hot, but was strangely appealing in a way that the bird wasn't (probably due to the cooling effect of the dairy in the dish). I'll remember the chicken, but it's the coleslaw that I'm still craving...

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Rawley's Drive-In - Fairfield, CT

If you read a lot of foodie press like I do, you come to realize fairly quickly that Connecticut is a serious hot dog state (along with pizza and steamed cheeseburgers, however, those are areas to be addressed another day). The regional style typically involves either grilling a wiener that's been split down the middle lengthwise (a la Walter's or Hubba, both in my neck of the woods) or deep frying it intact prior to finishing on the grill. Rawley's Drive-In (1886 Post Road in Fairfield, CT, no website) subscribes to the latter methodology and has been well-known for its take on the humble tube steak since sometime in the 1940s - they show up on many of the national best-of lists and are adored by our friends at Roadfood, but it was their appearance as the Connecticut representative on First We Feast's Best Hot Dog from Every State in April 2017 that finally spurred me to make the 35-minute drive from the Chuck Wagon for a sampling.

The business was purchased in 2002 by the owner of the neighboring Dairy Queen, but apparently little has changed (regarding both the building's appearance and the food) during its lifespan.  Fearful of a large Friday lunchtime crowd, I was pleasantly surprised to enter an empty parking lot at 11:30 and pretty much had the place to myself.

The ambiance is casual to the extreme, exactly the type of place that's known to produce terrific cuisine.  I went with the one Works Dog (topped with mustard, sauerkraut, relish, and bacon bits, which used to look like lardons in other photos - maybe they've been scaling back) and one Hot Chihuahua Dog (topped with mustard, onions, and hot relish), along with an order of hand-cut fries.

This grub certainly looked the part and was, in fact, very good, but I was just a wee bit underwhelmed. Maybe I'm just too conditioned to see the garden-in-a-bun Chicago style dog as the Platonic ideal - I can't see making Rawley's a target destination; however, should the family and I be passing through town at some point, I'd happily return for another wiener or two...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sandwiches of Westchester County - Roast Turkey/Cheddar/Bacon Flatbread

One thing I've discovered while nosing through Westchester County's various delicatessens and eateries over the past year is that there are a plethora of shops here with encyclopedic sandwich menus, offering combinations of meats, toppings, and breads that would require eons for the casual diner (that would be me) to try them all (sigh).  Melt Sandwich Shop in White Plains (277 Mamaroneck Avenue) is such a place.

Fortunately, I have my trusty Westchester Magazine to help guide me; otherwise, my head would be constantly spinning with the embarrassment of choices available.  In this case, my guide told me to order fresh roasted turkey off the meat board, then combine it with the bacon/cheddar topping option (featuring tomatoes, chipotle remoulade, smoked bacon, and cheddar cheese) and serve it all on a flatbread.

I had arrived during the lunch rush, so approximately 10 minutes passed before my sandwich creation arrived on my table, but it was worth the wait.  This combo of ingredients was clearly a winner, warm and zesty and just a bit sloppy (not egregiously so).  My next visit might see me order the slow-roasted lamb BBQ style on a hoagie roll or maybe grilled salmon mango style on a kaiser roll or possibly top round aged beef....

Friday, May 26, 2017

Brier Hill Pizza - Youngstown, OH

The Hackknife clan recently traveled back to my dad's hometown near Youngstown, OH for yet another cousin wedding (this one likely to be the last for quite some time - they're all hitched now).  I always enjoy having the opportunity to visit with my extended Italian family and, of course, sample Italian-American goodies I don't always encounter elsewhere.  On this trip, much to my astonishment, I came across a pizza style I hadn't seen explicitly defined before (that's not entirely true - First We Feast mentions it in an August 2016 article on American pizza taxonomy, but the picture associated with it isn't correct) called Brier Hill, named after an historic enclave of Youngstown where many Italian families settled to work in the now-shuttered coal mines and steel mills.  According to my sources, this pizza style has roots in the Basilicata region of southern Italy and includes a thick layer of tomato sauce (similar, if not identical to, the sauce or "gravy" used on pasta) atop an olive oil pan crust, along with green peppers and grated romano cheese (usually Pecorino romano) in place of shredded mozzarella.  The concept appears to have been born from the ingenuity of thrifty immigrants, who had ready access to tomatoes and peppers from their backyard gardens and, needing a break from frequent spaghetti dinners, leftover pasta sauce.

Conveniently enough for me, one of the prominent local purveyors of this pizza style (Wedgewood Pizza) happened to have a location just down the street from our hotel in Howland, so I was able to pop in to grab a 12" Brier Hill for lunch before the wedding.

My first impression of this dish is that it's not all that dissimilar from some of the pizzas that my grandmother and great-grandmother used to make for us when we were visiting from Chicago.  Although the ancestors on my dad's side came from a different region of Italy and (likely as a result) settled in another Italian neighborhood of Youngstown apart from Brier Hill, they no doubt had similar customs and sensibilities when it came to food (and probably interacted with a lot of Basilicatans as well), so it's no surprise that all of the Mahoning Valley Italian nanas made pizza pie like this.  The Wedgewood version doesn't skimp on the sauce (it's pretty robust with oregano and other spices), which is applied in a thick layer, sprinkled with chopped green peppers and grated cheese, and then baked in a large gas oven (they had 6 ovens at the Howland location - apparently, the locals love pizza).  I can't say that Brier Hill style is my favorite (I missed my mozzarella), but the nostalgia value alone is enough to bring me back someday.

If you've been to Youngstown lately, you'll note that much of it (including Brier Hill - we inadvertently passed through while driving around town) is significantly diminished from its heyday in the early/mid-20th Century, but one of the local Catholic parishes (St. Anthony) still churns out Brier Hill pizzas every Friday to help raise funds for the church.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Philadelphia Eats (Royal Farms/John's Roast Pork/Donkey's Place)

Between now living in an area where a significant chunk of American colonial history went down and my time volunteering at the nearby Jay Heritage Center, I am officially a history junkie (and also leaning towards archaeology as a hobby - anyone have a spare metal detector to lend?). So when I first got wind that a new museum (the Museum of the American Revolution) was opening in Philadelphia (a mere 2 hour and 15 minute drive from the Chuck Wagon), I had to check it out on behalf of the Jay Center. Sadly, our famous local Founding Father John Jay receives merely a scant mention in one museum exhibit that details the Federalist Papers, but I managed to console myself by sampling some of the more well-known local Philly grub (namely cheesesteaks).

Up first, though, was an appetizer of Southern fried chicken. What?!?, you say, Philadelphia is most definitely not part of the South, and you'd be 100% correct on that. If you'll indulge me momentarily, I'll explain. Back in March, Garden and Gun Magazine came out with its state-by-state list to bucket list fried chicken in the South, and I was so enthralled, I made a pledge to proceed directly to my nearest former Confederacy state (in this case, Maryland, which technically was a border state not affiliated with either side in the Civil War) as expeditiously as possible to get some G&G highlighted chicken. As it turns out, the convenience store franchise that is one representative of Maryland on the list (Royal Farms) has its northernmost location near Philadelphia just south of the airport among some industrial parks along the Delaware. The beautiful thing is that you can pull into this Royal Farms at nearly any time of day (10 am, for example) and obtain some bangin'-good fried chicken, the likes of which have no business coming from what's essentially a large gas station.

This gigantic breast (and I don't even normally gravitate towards white meat) was juicy, hot, perfectly breaded, and not a greasy mess - if you go, skip the potato wedges and roll (which were mediocre at best) that come with the combo meal and stick with the bird.

One can't come to Philadelphia and not get a cheesesteak, but my sources tell me that the famous local purveyors Pat's and Geno's (which are catty-corner from each other) are mainly for the tourists and there are other cheesesteak slingers worth seeking out instead; for example, John's Roast Pork in South Philly.

The good folks at John's have been in business since 1930 and, although they're most known for their roast pork sandwich (hence the name), they offer one of the better cheesesteaks in town.  The line moves fast and you'd be well advised to know what you want before getting up front (there's a touch of Soup Nazi going on here); however, you'll have a plus-size hoagie filled with beefy goodness in your paws in no time (what you see below is only half).

The cooks at John's chop up the beef slices and grilled onions into a pile of small bits before placing on the Italian roll with cheese - I went with the sharp provolone, which I found to be a tad skunky.  Still, this was a fine snack after a mid-morning breakfast of fried chicken and I'm intrigued enough to return sometime for the famous roast pork.

After a few hours at the museum, I had one more stop before heading back to New York.  Anthony Bourdain swears by the cheesesteaks coming out of a dive bar called Donkey's Place in the down-on-its-luck metropolis of Camden, New Jersey (across the river from Philly); in fact, M. Bourdain liked Donkey's so much that he featured them in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, giving the depressed neighborhood a much needed infusion of business and positive attention.

I can now tell you from my own experience that if you look up the definition of "dive bar" in a dictionary, you should see a picture of Donkey's on the page.  Packed with day drinkers at 3 pm on a Thursday, Donkey's (named after the original owner Leon Lucas and his boxing moniker) has been around since the 1940s and is a mecca for cheesesteak, eschewing the chopped beef and onion format like that at John's in lieu of grilled piles of sliced beef topped with white cheddar and a mound of caramelized onions cooked off somewhere in the back kitchen (I watched a server dump out a large white bucket of them on the grill).  They use a poppyseed-studded kaiser roll (baked at Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights, NJ) here that I decided I much prefer to the usual hoagie roll.

Donkey's cheesesteak pretty much put to shame just about every other version I'd ever had (granted, I've not had many), with the mythical whole being clearly greater than the sum of its parts. There are little bottles and pots of homemade pepper oil at every table to drizzle on your sandwich for some added kick and the fries aren't bad, either (were they dusted with Old Bay seasoning?), but you need to get your ass (er, donkey) over here pronto for the cheesesteak and a cold draft...