Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chicago Mini-Food Tour

This past weekend, Mrs. Hackknife took the progeny up north to a girlfriend's house in Wisconsin (Hackknife Jr. returned home with a raging case of Star Wars-itis and has now watched the original movie almost 3 times in the last 4 days). As a result, I had a full 48 hours of alone time at the commissary to ponder my existence and take care of some outstanding chores, namely finding places amongst the landscaping for a ton of lava rock (Friday) and sorting through about 70 years of accumulated tools, nuts/bolts, etc. in my late grandfather's garage (Saturday). Of course, alone time also means some me-food time, kicked off Friday evening with the assemblage of a zucchini cheddar bread that was so unremarkable as to almost completely avoid mention in this blog and a trip to the South Suburbs best gyro outlet, Perros Bros. Gyros in Olympia Fields, for dinner. The food press around here lately has been spouting off about how hardly any gyro outlet in the greater metropolitan area uses a non-frozen meat cone (i.e., the slab from which the gyro meat is roasted and carved) anymore; however, I can't find a single fault with whatever Freres Perros are doing with their cone before cooking. All I know is that the gyro is outstanding and the fries are pretty top shelf as well. Saturday night found me stopping at Las Asadas in downtown Des Plaines, a tiny, highly-recommended taqueria for some lengua tacos (if anyone out there has a complex about eating beef tongue, it might help to consider that this is one of many unattractive, yet intensely flavorful cuts of meat that most likely ends up in your finer hot dogs).

Then came Sunday. I had about 8 hours of nothing to do except enjoy the beautiful late-summer weather. What better way to spend it than walking around my city and stuffing my face (Hackknife's new motto: "We eat ourselves sick so you don't have to")? About 2 weeks ago, in anticipation of my free weekend, I mapped out a route of about 7 miles that would take me through various parts of the North side, stopping at dining establishments that I've wanted to try, but hadn't yet gotten around to. So, having consumed nothing except a bottled water, I left the commissary and proceeded straight to my first destination: Macondo, near Lincoln and Barry (2965 N. Lincoln). I had read about the empanadas here, a casual Colombian coffee-and-pastry joint that's the little sister of Las Tablas, a South American steakhouse chain that we used to frequent when we still lived in the city. When I walked in around 8:45, the place was empty save for the clerk and the cook working in the back. I ordered an egg-and-cheese empanada, which was accompanied by two little containers of chimmichuri sauce and a green salsa, plus a homemade hot chocolate that was hotter than the surface of the sun (the clerk told me that the cook "makes it on the stove by hand"). The empanada was fantastic - light, yet crispy and oh-so-good with the chimmichurri. Even the hot chocolate was good, that is, after 10 minutes of feverish stirring with a coffee stick to try to cool it down. The whole experience set me back less than $6.

With most of my taste buds unscalded, I proceeded south and a bit east to the maternal Hackknife ancestral neighborhood to visit Floriole (1220 W. Webster), which turned out to be a high-falutin Lincoln Park bakery heavily populated by yuppies getting their Sunday morning fix. The bakery case was crammed with awesome-looking goodies, such as a milk chocolate hazelnut tart ($5.95) and several exotic flavors of macarons ($1.50 each!). I had to get the tart and loaded up on extra macarons (6 total - 2 chocolate/earl grey, 2 passionfruit, and 2 lemon/lavender) to bring home to the family. As it turns out, I ended up eating 5 of the 6 macarons as I discovered the next day that they don't keep for very long (too chewy for the kids, but not for me).

Backtracking a bit west and some more south, Franks N' Dawgs was up next (1863 N. Clybourn). This new hot dog stand has garnered much press in the past few months and is taking our other local gourmet hot dog outlet, Hot Doug's (much beloved by this blogger, I might add), head-on. After my experience, I have to reluctantly admit that there may be a new sheriff in town. As their first diner of they day (doors open at 11 on Sundays), the girl behind the counter convinced me to get a Pig Latin (one of their daily specials), consisting of a Catalan smoked sausage, topped by a slab of braised pork belly, apple slaw, mustard creme fraiche, and chopped sweet red pepper. This heavenly creation was accompanied by a side order of waffle truffle fries, available only on weekends (a clear imitation of Hot Doug's duck fat fries, which you can only get on Fridays and Saturdays). You can see the top picture above (the dog is half-eaten by this point) to get a better idea of what I'm describing and, yes, it did taste as good as it looked, as did the fries, which beat just about all others I've had hands-down. Only downside - it was all on the pricey side (about $18 for a dog, fries, and bottled water), but I will definitely be returning, and with reinforcements next time.

Starting to get a little full, I walked the longest portion of my journey to Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (2423 N. Clark), recently listed among the top 25 pizza joints by Chicago Magazine. I was hoping to be able to get just a single slice; however, this was not possible as they cook their pizzas one-by-one in a wood-burning oven, just like Stop 50 (see recent posting). As a result, I order just the simplest, cheapest ($8.95) pizza on the menu, a marinara with a little sauce, basil, and garlic. It was good, but certainly not among my favorites, and I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about the restaurant's vibe, which was much clubbier and upscale than I was expecting (no Italian grandma cooking in the kitchen back here). More than half the pizza was boxed up to bring home and I actually enjoyed it more upon re-heating the next day for lunch.

Now significantly dragging both feet and intestines, I plodded north up towards my final stop, Cloud 9 (604 W. Belmont), one of a recently-popped up crop of new gelato establishments, but in a class of its own as they are the only place in town serving snow ice. For the uninitiated, snow ice is a cross between ice cream and shaved ice (known as "xue-hua-bing" in Taiwan, where it originated) and is supposed to be very refreshing and light. Hoping for just a tidbit, I ordered the "snack" size portion of mango snow ice w/a blueberry drizzle, at which point the server presented me with the behemoth that you see in Picture #2 above. It was light and it was very tasty, but of course, there was no way I could polish the whole thing off. Regardless, this was a good place to end the mini-food tour and I made a mental note to bring the kids back sometime next summer (we can all share a snack size)....

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