Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Labor Day Weekend Noshing

Our good friends (and fixers from our Los Angeles trip last November) Jaime and Lydia decided to visit Chicago over the holiday weekend to get a dose of local culture and cuisine; of course, I was more than happy to use them as an excuse to do some shameless food exploration and they were more than happy to oblige. We wasted no time in getting started - they arrived in town around 2 pm and by 6 that evening we were seated (along with Mrs. Hackknife, who graciously left work early to secure us a spot in queue) at Frontera Grill, the flagship eatery of Rick Bayless's Mexican empire, a notoriously-difficult table to score even before he won Top Chef Masters last year (they don't take reservations). Our mustachioed waiter recommended the house ceviche sampler to start (consisting of two tuna and one shrimp-calamari ceviches - see Photo #1 above), which we enthusiastically gobbled along with an order of bad-ass guacamole, warm tortilla chips, and Topolo margaritas (probably the best I've had in a city bursting with mediocre versions) made with Sauza Commemorativo tequila. Ignoring the growing bulge in my mid-section, we proceeded to the entrees. I opted for the duck cooked in dark mole sauce (I'm a sucker for duck) with red chile corn fritters, grilled squash, and spicy guero chile escabeche (pickled fish), washed down with a Goose Island Marisol beer (made only for Frontera), while my bride chose the (available only 6 weeks yearly, according to our server) sour-orange marinated pork with a habanero salsa and black bean soup - both were outstanding. In lieu of sweets at the end of the meal, we decided to give our guests a little breather while we drove over to our favorite gelato joint, Black Dog Gelato, featured in this very blog earlier this Summer. Nothing shows out-of-towners how we roll here like cinnamon-brown sugar gelato and blood orange sorbet for dessert.

Day 2 of the visit was slated as double-decker bus tour day to see downtown's major tourist attractions. Jaime, Lydia, and I cruised around for a while nibbling on popcorn from local favorite Garrett's before breaking for lunch at one of Chicago's top Italian beef spots, Al's Beef on Ontario at Wells (although they have many other locations throughout town). For those of you unfamiliar with Italian beef sandwiches, they basically consist of thin slices of beef (think cheesesteak) cooked in hot gravy (juice), then liberally piled on a French roll, served with or without peppers (sweet or spicy). The key is the juice - you want as much of it as possible on the roll, preferably sopping, need-to-take-my-trousers-to-the-dry-cleaners-because-it-dripped-out-of-the-wrapper wet, so order the sandwich "dipped" if they ask (as in dipped in the juice). This was my recommendation to my guests and they were not disappointed. Forgoing afternoon snacks (I voted against that) allowed us to be good and hungry when we met up with Mrs. Hackknife and the progeny for dinner at Pequod's Pizza, a fixture at Webster and Clybourn in my family's ancestral neighborhood for about 20 years. Pequod's is one of the shrinking number of independent pizzerias in Chicago that specialize in deep-dish (we still have plenty of chains churning it out) and I'd never had the pleasure of trying it before. We were assured by our waitress that a single large deep-dish pie would feed all of us and she was correct. As far as deep dish pizza goes, this one had a much higher crust-to-topping ratio than I've experienced, with just a thin layer of sauce/cheese atop a thick, but surprisingly-light bottom crust, and a signature edge of burnt caramelized cheese on the rim. Sublime. We were happy to bring a leftover piece home for later consumption.

The culinary activities of Day 3 finally pushed me and our guests over the gastrointestinal distress cliff. We left the house extra early to get to Hot Doug's, the city's reigning encased meat champion, before heading over to the Cubs game. Amazingly, a 9:50 am arrival in advance of a 10:30 am opening was only good enough to get us a spot around 25th in line. With crossed fingers, we arrived at the counter to place our orders about an hour later, leaving us just enough time to nosh on gourmet sausages (or, in Lydia's case, a traditional Chicago-style dog) without missing the first pitch. I opted to skip the famous duck-fat fries (available only Fridays and Saturdays - they're good, but not so good that I need them each and every time) and go for two (count 'em), two dogs to maximize my dining pleasure (because who knows when I shall pass this way again): the Chardonnay/jalapeno rattlesnake sausage with citrus mojo mayo, espresso Bellavitano cheese, and crispy fried onions (when asked about the taste of rattlesnake, Doug himself told me it reminded him of "anaconda") AND a saucisse de Toulouse with Dijon goat butter, pate de campagne, and creme de brie cheese. The rattlesnake was surprisingly mild, not the least bit gamey, and made me ponder the existence of large rattlesnake farms somewhere to supply a burgeoning sausage market. The saucisse de Toulouse was much richer, all Champagne and caviar on a bun, washed down with my first-ever birch beer soda (like root beer, but a little minty). Feeling full and happy that we went to the trouble of stopping here, we sat through a rather-uneventful Cubs game that was punctuated by a long rain delay, giving us a convenient excuse to leave early for dinner at Cemitas Puebla. Cemitas (whose signature dish is a namesake sandwich of meat, avocado, adobo chipotle peppers, Oaxacan cheese, and papalo [like cilantro], served on a very-unique sesame seed bread) has been featured on both Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (of which Jaime and Lydia are fans) and our local foodie show Check, Please (coincidentally, we had just watched the Cemita episode a few weeks earlier). It's not located in the best neighborhood and parking is a bit challenging (they use the term "lot" loosely when directing you to the alley out back), but you certainly can't look down on the food. We started with a small plate of arabe chalupas, open-faced corn tortillas topped with spit-roasted marinated pork, red/green salsas, cheese, and onions (when they say the hot sauce is VERY spicy, they mean it, right Jaime?), followed by the famous sandwiches. I ordered two of the big buggers with the intention of eating half of each and bringing the remainder home to Mrs. Hackknife - one being the arabe (the same pork as the chalupas) and the other the Atomica, an unholy conglomeration of breaded pork chop, ham, and guajillo-marinated pork chop (yes, two pork chops) along with the aforementioned items. They were outstanding and I somehow managed to eat both halves, perhaps aided by the excellent horchata accompanying them gullet-side (see Photo #2 above).

It was about two hours later that my body began revolting and decided that I needed to lie prone for a little while. There would be no more overindulgence for 24 hours until we arrived at our Day 4 dinner destination, Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket, a local institution for fried chicken on old Route 66 since the early 1940s. It's another place that was featured on D,D,& D, one of those diners that everyone's familiar with (except us North siders - I'd never heard of the joint), but no one's actually been to. Happy to rectify this oversight, the family and I met our guests there after a long, final day of sightseeing and started out with tasty biscuits and an order of corn fritters (very donut-like). The salad bar leaves a little to be desired (hygiene doesn't appear to be a major concern here) and the house chicken dumpling soup is a keeper; however,the long wait is for the fried chicken and I now understand why. If you order the 4-piece dinner, you'll get a half-chicken cooked to order, unbelievably-juicy meat covered in a breading that's light as a feather. The sides are more-or-less forgettable (mashed potatoes and green beans), but the chicken is bar none tops in Chicagoland in my humble opinion, a sentiment more-or-less seconded by Mrs. Hackknife and our visitors, whom I think we sent home with full bellies, warm hearts, and higher cholesterol.

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