Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Chicago Mini-Food Tour #2
I was granted a rare weekend off recently as Mrs. Hackknife headed north with the progeny for the annual girls' trip to Appleton. Any sane husband/father would probably spend such a free Saturday watching sports, doing handyman tasks, or catching up on late sleep - of course, in my twisted world, any free time of an extended nature usually turns into much-anticipated me-food time and this was no exception. In fact, I didn't even bother to wait for Saturday to begin before making my first culinary stop, which occurred on the way home from dropping the kids off Friday afternoon. My initial target: Fattoush, a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant located in Worth (10700 S. Harlem Ave.) where Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky (who has quickly become one of my touchstones for all things gastronomical) recently recommended the house vegetable appetizer plate (perfect for a mid-afternoon snack). As I pulled into the small parking lot, I realized that the family and I had been here before, just last year when it used to be a not-half-bad Greek diner called Dionysus, I think. Anyway, the decor had been spiffed up and serving stations were situated on one side of the restaurant for the once-weekly buffet, offered only on Friday afternoons (presumably for Muslims stopping by after Friday religious services). Tempting as it was, I passed on the buffet and stuck with my original quarry, ordering the vegetable platter and a fresh mango juice. The restaurant manager (who couldn't have been more hospitable, by the way - he checked on me several times to make sure everything was good, thoroughly explained the various dishes I received, etc.) brought my food and I dug in. For $6.95, I got a veritable feast of goodies - 3 big pieces of falafel, hummus, baba ghanooj (similar to hummus, just with eggplant instead of chickpeas), tabbouleh salad (bulgur wheat, parsley, tomato, cucumber, mint, onion, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt), another dip that was garlic and yogurt-based, and pita bread for dipping. All of it was delicious - I was barely able to finish half of the platter and happily wrapped up the remainder to bring home for Mrs. Hackknife to try. Chalk another one up in the win column for the Hungry Hound.
After my snack and a little long-overdue yardwork, I headed over to Ambrosino's, a nearby Italian market for some takeout. I had shopped at Ambrosino's for recipe ingredients many times, but had never purchased any of their food to-go from the deli in the back before. On a recent visit there to pick up some pancetta, I noticed that the folks from Chicago's Best (a local interest TV program) had come by and proclaimed good things about the house meatball sandwich and Godfather sub. For my dinner, I decided to give the meatball sandwich a test drive. What I ended up bringing home (only $4.95, mind you, cheese and peppers extra) could have probably fed a family of 4 (or, at a minimum, two people who are used to first world-sized portions). It consisted of a half-loaf of fresh Italian bread, sliced and stuffed with 4 large meatballs (they were a mixture of beef and pork, if my palate was correct) slathered with tomato sauce. Pretty good stuff, in my estimation, and again I had to stop halfway lest I feel like a glutton (the leftovers made a fine lunch on Sunday afternoon).
My full belly allowed me to doze off relatively early so I could start on a fresh crop of food adventures the next morning. Instead of sleeping in, I was up and out of the house by 7:30 to hit Stop #1 on the day's mini-food tour. A family friend noted on Facebook not too long ago that a small bakery in her neighborhood (Tuzik's, 4955 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn) had started selling their famous pumpkin doughnuts for the season, which tended to sell out early. I was hoping that 8 am wasn't too late to arrive to score some; however, when I walked in, the best bunch (the pumpkin glazed) was already gone (apparently, you do have to get up pretty early - they open at 5). I did manage to snag the last two pumpkin cinnamon doughnuts, along with two of the decadent-looking Black Forest variety, and guiltily noshed on a few bites while sitting in the car. Tuzik's was a fine pre-breakfast before my main breakfast event of the morning - Xoco, Rick Bayless's casual/street food diner (449 N. Clark) that has been well-populated (read: lines) since its opening in 2009. Knowing that I was going to be on walkabout in the city for most of the day, I bit the bullet and ponied up a hefty sum ($26) to park in one of the River North garages down the street from the restaurant. As it turns out, my food from Xoco was cheaper (only $12) and infinitely more satisfying than an off-street parking spot. I was surprised to see hardly anyone ahead of me at the register (timing is everything - by the time I sat down and got my food 10 minutes later, the line was at least 10 deep) and had a nice conversation with the cashier, who was from Sitka, Alaska (she noticed my Holland America jacket from an Alaskan criuse) and was kind enough to explain to me the difference between a chorizo-egg torta and an open-face torta. I selected the chorizo-egg torta (scrambled egg, avocado, and chorizo served on a wonderful, crunchy bread, with tasty green chile salsa) and a cup of the famous house hot chocolate. The torta was terrific and even better with the green salsa, but the hot chocolate (how can I put this delicately?), this was simply heaven in a glass, rich and sweet, not the least bit bitter or cloying or chalky (and not even piping hot so you can't drink it for an hour), like a liquid chocolate bar. The reason (as I learned recently in Michael Ruhlman's blog) for the exquisite hot chocolate at Xoco is that they roast and grind the cacao beans in house, an unusual process for a restaurant to undertake. I will gladly return many, many times to this place just for a nip of this glorious elixir.
Feeling fortified and refreshed, I headed back out into the brisk morning (sunny, breezy, and 52F, maybe?) and proceeded on foot about 2 miles north on LaSalle Street, past the touristy environs of River North, through the Moody Bible Institute campus, along the condo canyons of Sandburg Village, up to the southern edge of the Lincoln Park Zoo to find Green City Market, the city's largest and most renowned farmers market. I'd been wanting to check this out for quite a while, having read that many local chefs come here to get fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, even flowers and herbs. There was a couple from Wisconsin selling grass-fed beef (I think we've bought their stuff before closer to home) and at least two different tables for fresh pasta. If you wanted hot doughnuts or apple cider, you came to the right place. Not only did I stumble across Mick Klug, a Michigan farmer who often provides the fruit that ends up in our weekly farmbox (we had just eaten some of his amazing pears, so I bought another box from him), I also finally met Vicki Westerhoff of Genesis Growers, our hardworking CSA provider who gives us the great veggies every week - she has a large plot of tables at the market every week (in fact, Picture #1 above is her pepper display, some of which I'm sure ended up in our refrigerator that week). I have to say that it's a unique experience to be able to shake the hands of the people that are growing your food (Michael Pollan would be proud). It's even better when you can get some goods from said people that you can't easily find in your neighborhood megagrocery stores, like a very nice Pecorino (sheep's milk) Romano cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, IL (aged for a year in a mixture of black clay, olive oil, and black currant paste, according to the website - don't worry, it didn't taste like clay, oil, or currant) or a pear/apple/cranberry mini-pie from Hoosier Mama Pie Co. (1618 1/2 W. Chicago Ave. - more on these folks later in the posting).
Cheese, mini-pie, and pears in tow, I mulled over ideas in my head to determine my next move. Goose Island brwepub (1800 N. Clybourn) was due to open for the day at 11, promising cold beer, college football, and a sedate place to read a newspaper. After about 1.5 miles of further jaunting, I arrived ready to take a load off of my angry feet for a bit. The bartender was able to find the Purdue-Penn St. game for me on one of the screens and I spent the next hour and a half glancing at the game, blissfully reading through the weekend Wall Street Journal, and sipping a Red Felt red ale (a little hoppy for my tastes - I would have been better off trying Goose's collaboration on a plum beer with Mick Klug, yes, the very same farmer who I just saw at the market). I decided to forgo further food and skipped out at halftime to head over to Goose Island Shrimp House (GISH) for lunch. GISH is located at 1013 W. Division, less than a mile from the brewpub, albeit in a slightly different environment than the snooty retail area I just came from. To get there, I headed southeast on Kingsbury St., which used to feature mostly dilapidated buildings, dive bars, a lone gentlemen's club, and vacant lots along the river. It's gentrified since my last visit about 6 years ago - now there's a Whole Foods and several new businesses in loft settings (even the strip club went upscale). Once you reach Division and cross the river, though, there are still plenty of lonely places to stash a body. GISH appears pretty much out of nowhere on an industrial stretch between the river and the Kennedy, about the most non-descript eatery you'll ever find. Inside are a couple of stand-up video games and a simple counter from where you can place your order for fried seafood, crackers, cocktail sauce, drinks, and slaw. That's pretty much it. No tables or anywhere to sit. I ordered a half-pound of fried shrimp and some fries to go, and started walking in the general direction of the nearest El stop (on the far side of the Kennedy, near Division and Milwaukee), stopping to rest on a log in an unpaved parking lot to eat my lunch. The food was, well, just ok. The shrimp were big, but overbreaded, and not really anything notable. Fries were nominal. I have to admit I had higher hopes for GISH, being a hole-in-the-wall and all. Next time I have a hankering for fried shrimp, I'll head over to Calumet Fisheries on 95th St. for better stuff that's closer to the Commissary.
I had one stop remaining on my walkabout, which was good since my feet were about ready to go on strike (hence my need for the subway). The last stop, Eleven City Diner, was recently cited by Hungry Hound as having one of the best chocolate milkshakes in the city. I figured this would be the perfect way to conclude the mini-food tour. The El shaved off about 2 miles additional wear on my legs and deposited me at Roosevelt and Michigan, only a block from my destination (1112 S. Wabash). When I arrived, I was shocked to see how crowded the place was for 2pm on a Saturday - lots of people waiting for tables. In order to get a milkshake to go, I was directed to the souvenir counter rather than the bar. It easily took 10 minutes to put my order in and another 10 for it to appear (good thing I wasn't there for lunch). While I waited, I had plenty of time to peruse the decor, which featured numerous quotes from famous Jewish personalities (even in the men's room), candy from Israel (see Photo #2 above), and a huge wall-mounted menu showing traditional deli fare liked corned beef sandwiches, brisket, and knishes. My milkshake appeared in a large plastic cup, lidded to hold the cookie wafer and crown of whipped cream ("hat" as they call it) perched on top, and it was the perfect accompaniment on my 1.7-mile walk back to the car.
One last thing - that mini-pie I bought? I busted it out for dessert at Mom's house later that evening and it was exquisite, possibly the best pie I'd ever eaten, and I'm not even a huge fan of fruit pies (I prefer cream pies). Clearly, the folks at Hoosier Mama have been touched by God in some way. When I bought it, I was ruing the $8 price tag and now found myself loaded with regret that I hadn't ponied up $22 for the full-size version. This oversight has been rectified, however, as two Hoosier Mama pies (pear/apple/cranberry and chocolate chess) will be joining the Hackknife extended family at the Thanksgiving table in Ohio later this month. My order has already been placed.....