Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beef & Blue Cheese Pie

Back in October of last year, Saveur published an article featuring traditional British roast dinners, in which a recipe for steak and Stilton pies caught my attention. Both Mrs. Hackknife and I are fans of beef and blue cheese (she perhaps more so than I), so the thought of having those items together inside of a pie crust had a lot of appeal. The recipe, however, calls for dividing the filling into individual 6" pies and you'd be surprised how difficult it is to find small pie tins out there (even the vaunted Williams & Sonoma came up empty). Due to the lack of proper equipment, I shelved the recipe until such time as I could develop a work-around procedure. Then three months later in Grand Cayman, we watched English chef April Bloomfield make her own version of steak and Stilton pie in a single, large oval dish (you may recall I was suffering some overindulgence problems at the time, but the one bite I was able to swallow down was delicious), spurring me to revisit the dish back at the Commissary.

With a $10 2-quart oval dish procured from Target, I thus bravely forged ahead into the gorse and heather. As always, I made a few modifications from the listed recipe. As you might suspect, mushrooms were out (I'm the creator of this pie, so I get to decide. Sue me.), plus the 1 Tbsp. of butter that would have been needed to brown them in a skillet. Since no fromagerie exists within a 20-mile radius (and I couldn't summon the energy to drive up to Trader Joe's in Orland Park), I settled for the basic crumbled blue cheese found at my local ethnic grocery in lieu of Stilton. Digging through the garage refrigerator, I was able to find a large-format bottle of Zywiec Porter (a somewhat-skunky Polish brew that had been aging in there for a while) to stand in for stout. Lastly, in what may be a first, I actually went above and beyond the instructions to make homemade crust (using Crisco, not suet like Mme. Bloomfield) instead of using packaged puff pastry. All told, the dish takes a little while to prepare (about 2.5 hr), but isn't particularly hard, even if you make the crust (there were a few instances where I came up short on dough coverage in the baking dish; however, I managed to patch it up in the places needed without incident).

You can see the finished product in the photo above. Flavorwise, the missus and I both agreed that it was a touch on the bland side (probably the fault of the cheap blue cheese), but nothing that a little salt couldn't spruce up. The crust turned out wonderfully, browned and crispy and rich, clearly the best part of the melange. The leftovers kept great and improved after a couple of days aging. Maybe next time, I'll try using more of Chef Bloomfield's recipe (which includes beef short rib meat instead of chuck, garlic, red wine, and, of course, the suet in the dough) and possibly go to greater pains to get real Stilton, even if it requires a trip to England for the real thing....

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Baconfest 2012

The time has arrived for my writeup on everyone's favorite local food gathering devoted to a single, glorious ingredient - yes, Baconfest has again swept through Chicago like a pork-scented squall line raining smoky, fatty goodness all over its life-shortened (yet exuberant) enthusiasts. I was privileged to be attending my second Baconfest (not a foregone conclusion, by the way, as tickets sold out in a mere 15 minutes upon release) and was accompanied this year by Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Bob, who was more than happy to take her place while she enjoyed a Wisconsin spa weekend with the girls. Just like last time, the UIC Forum played host to the event; however, unlike before, the fest was expanded into two separate 3-hour sessions so as to maximize ticket sales without letting too many attendees spoil the vibe. Unfortunately, two sessions meant two sets of exhibitors, so I had to choose in advance which session I felt had the best bacon goodies to offer (of course, there was nothing preventing us from going to BOTH, other than an additional $75 ticket and the potential of a long-term hospital stay). After much deliberation and analysis, I decided that while the evening session had greater star power (Top Chef alumnae such as Stephanie Izard, Sarah Grueneberg, and Heather Terhune), the restaurants featured in the afternoon were a bit better. The table was set: we would be engorging ourselves on pork products and beer from 12:30 to 3:30 (and as I told Bob, it lasts 3 hours, but it doesn't need to).

The big day arrived gray and drizzly as we stood in line outside the forum with about 500 of our closest bacon-loving friends, many of whom sported clever t-shirts much like last year. When the doors opened, Bob and I headed to the first table on my list, Lillie's Q (a fine barbecue joint on North Avenue in Bucktown), featuring what they dubbed "Bacon on Bourbon Street" - a bacon custard-filled bacon beignet with a Cafe du Monde coffee and chicory bacon syrup (sort of like a crazed, feverish New Orleans food dream). Although it was a bit small, this was my idea of a fine breakfast and a great way to start the proceedings. Next to Lillie's was Pleasant House Bakery, Chicago's answer to a British pie shop, whose lads were serving decent-sized portions of a bacon and pork pie with a bacon fat crust - delicious, if not a bit heavy.

I should mention at this point my strategy to help avoid the overindulgence I suffered at last year's fest. Instead of getting samples of everything in sight (certain suicide, although I suppose one could argue that just being here was already that), I advised Bob to skip any table offering burger sliders or pizza, not because they wouldn't be good, but to cut down on the overall consumption mass, freeing up valuable digestive tract space to focus on the best of the best. This, in conjunction with drinking lots of water, is what I believe allowed me to actually feel halfway normal later that evening instead of assuming the fetal position in an Atkins-induced haze. Anyway, the strategy served us well when taking on such unholy creations as the bacon grenades (sausage wrapped in bacon and deep-fried, a Simpsons episode come to life) offered by Paddy Long's and the amazing bacon fat biscuit with crispy bacon, pea gravy, and piccalilli prepared by Southern cuisine wizard Paul Fehribach at Big Jones (a place I absolutely cannot wait to visit). Some creations were a bit out there, such as the bacon rice crispies from Hearty (the addition of peanut butter Captain Crunch-infused milk did little to improve the dish) or the pork belly taco on a chocolate tortilla from Mexique (not one of my favorites). Some of the plates were upscale, such as the Signature Room's bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with asparagus/morel ragu (very good), Pure Kitchen's Arabica coffee-cured bacon with black olive puree, scotch/coffee crunch, and peppermint (not so much), and Inovasi's quick-cured pork belly with Anson Mills farro verde, Argyle St. spice, peanuts, and wild ramp salsa (delicious). And some, such as the thick-cut bacon coated with brown sugar and honey from Uncle Bub's BBQ, were just classic and let the ingredient of honor stand out without gimmick.

My favorite bites of the day both had a Japanese flair to them. The top dish IMHO belonged to Chizakaya, a Japanese bar food joint in Lincoln Park, whose chef (Harold Jurado) was passing out what he called "baconmiyaki". This was described as a Japanese-style stuffed pizza (more like a little pancake) with Nueske's bacon, Napa cabbage, pickled ginger, scallion, shrimp, nori (seaweed), and bonito flakes (which make everything better), a combination of several tastes and textures that combined into an incredible, cross-cultural whole (I pray this is on the menu when we visit his restaurant). Second best was the panko-coated bacon with baby arugula salad served with a bacon reduction and house tonkatsu sauce prepared by Union Sushi and BBQ. Special mention goes out to highly-anticipated restaurant Moderno, whose doors won't even open until April 30 (indeed, the head chef told me that this was their first official event), yet here they were passing out homemade bacon cannoli with shaved Reggiano and crushed pea powder (delicious, but far too large) to the masses.

Other than the aforementioned water, we were pleased to be able to wash down all this bacon with great beer, specifically newcomer Greenbush Brewing Co. from nearby Sawyer, Michigan (beer-connoisseur Bob had been talking up their beers while we had been waiting in line outside). They came to Chicago with 4 beers on tap, 3 of which I was able to try: the Divine Rabbits (a Berlinerweis served with a shot of Jo Snow woodruff syrup), a Doomslayer (maple brown), and a Rage (Imperial Black IPA), all of which were hearty and terrific (I suspect we may have a new brewery to add to our list of upcoming tours). Artisanal rye whiskey maker Templeton Rye from Iowa was also passing out its wares, but sadly, I had to pass since I was the driver (another day, my friends). Regardless, both Bob and I were greatly impressed with all aspects of the event, from the food to the service (all of the volunteers did a great job). I'm already looking ahead to Baconfest 2013, chewing on celery in anticipation....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Noodles by Takashi/Ramova Grill

I'm in the process of training to become a volunteer Chicago greeter. I won't bore everyone right now with the comprehensive details of what this means exactly, but suffice it to say that in addition to giving me the opportunity to preach the gospel of how great a city Chicago is to out-of-town visitors, I will also hopefully be able to expand my foodie scouting reach into neighborhoods that I might not have otherwise explored. As part of my greeter training, I've been shadowing seasoned volunteers as they wander through the Loop sharing their knowledge of the local landmarks to small groups of tourists. Often, these tours are occurring around the noontime hour, leaving me with a rumbly stomach and wild thoughts of places to scamper to for lunch when my session has ended. It just so happens that the Chicago Cultural Center (where the tours originate) is only a block or so away from Macy's State Street location, which has a not-your-run-of-the-mill food court on the 7th floor featuring (among more standard offerings) Frontera Fresco (Rick Bayless), M Burger (Marcus Samuelsson), and Noodles by Takashi.

This past Friday, I decided to made my way up to the Macy's food court hungry for lunch following one of my training trips. But which stand to choose? Frontera resembled all of Chef Bayless's other properties in town; that is, a long line of diners waiting to indulge. M Burger (the only one of the three biggies that I'd previously tried) was also crowded and I wasn't really in a burger mood. This left Noodles by Takashi, a ramen noodle stand operated by local chef Takashi Yagihasi, whose other two restaurants in Chicago (Takashi in Wicker Park and Slurping Turtle in River North) are well-regarded. At this point, a bowl of sloppy noodles sounded pretty good to me, so I sauntered over to check it out. There weren't a lot of ramen options (about 4); however, I liked what I saw in the description of the miso ramen and decided to order one up. Miso ramen is more of a northern Japanese dish, invented in Sapporo in the 1950s when a customer at a famous noodle house (Aji no Sanpei) asked for noodles to be added to his miso/pork soup (all of this information is provided courtesy of Lucky Peach's inaugural issue last fall, which had about 60 pages of ramen coverage). Takashi's bowl of miso ramen contained the traditional ingredients of roast pork, slices of pink/white fish cake, scallions, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, ginger, garlic, butter, and corn (an ingredient closely associated with Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese islands, since that's the only place in the country that has enough farmland to grow it), along with an ample fistful of thin, wavy noodles. All of this arrived on my tray in a gigantic bowl and was only about $10. Using a soup spoon for the tasty broth and chopsticks for everything else, I managed to polish off most of the contents and was really delighted with the way the various flavors mingled. My only regret is that they didn't include more pork pieces or fish cake (there were two of each - that's all), both of which were very tasty.

Obviously, a large bowl of ramen would suffice for a proper meal most of the time, but (as sometimes happens) I had other ideas on this day. Trying to make the most of my waning freedom before returning home to the progeny, I made a slight detour southwest of the downtown area towards Bridgeport to visit Ramova Grill (3510 S. Halsted, just down the street from its namesake historic theater, now shuttered). For those of you out-of-towners, Bridgeport is a working-class, traditionally Irish neighborhood that became the city's political stronghold in the early 20th Century with the election of Mayor Edward Kelly in 1933 and continuing for 78 years through 2011 when Richard M. Daley stepped down. Ramova Grill opened just before this period (in 1929), making it one of the oldest diners in the city, gaining a reputation over the years for serving Chicago's best chili (granted, this is a dish that we're not particularly well-known for). Just a few weeks ago, word got out that the owners were planning to permanently close shop and, given that I happened to be passing by on the day before the purported demise, I opted to stop in to grab me one of the last bowls of this famous chili.

I tried to time my arrival so that I showed up after the first pitch of the White Sox's home opener, taking place a mere 8 blocks away at U.S. Cellular Field. Unlike Wrigleyville, Bridgeport is a lot more, well, subdued, even on the first gameday of the new season - the tiny diner was only about half full and there wasn't a Sox fan in sight. What I did see conjured images of the 1930s, from the 11th Ward calendar on the wall to the old-school iceboxes in the back to the ancient, chipped slate boards listing daily specials. The sole cooking surface in the place appeared to be a small metal griddle up at the front of the restaurant right next to the picture windows, which probably explained the relatively-short list of food offerings (breakfast, burgers, chili, and liver/onions) that I'm guessing hasn't changed much over the years. As far as charm, I would have expected that a diner with such a storied history would have framed pictures, etc. showing the good old days, but there was no such nostalgia on display, only a business-like vibe and a dull grime much in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. And the chili? I ordered a small bowl, topped with a pack of oyster crackers (held the cheese and noodles - $3.25). I'd say it was good, equal parts ground beef, onions, beans, tomatoes, and grease (perhaps the Chicago Irish version of ramen), but probably not life-changing enough to warrant special attention. Still, as I took in the whole tableau before departing for the last time, I felt a twinge of sadness for a time and a culture retreating away, knowing that diners like this are becoming increasingly scarce. It's too late for Ramova Grill, but if you've got a favorite greasy spoon in your town, make sure you stop in as often as you can...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Xni-Pec de Yucatan

Both Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette are on Spring Break from their respective educational institutions this week, so with Mrs. Hackknife also taking some time off to enjoy the kids, we loaded up the family truckster and headed to Brookfield Zoo yesterday. The zoo itself wasn't very crowded and the weather was really pleasant - as a result, we managed to fit in a full day of activities before they closed up shop at 5. Rather than immediately head home for dinner, I suggested we visit a local restaurant in downtown Brookfield that has gotten a reputation for good regional Mexican cuisine (something we don't see a lot of around here outside of the Rick Bayless empire) called Xni-Pec de Yucatan, which bills itself as the only Yucatecan (or Mayan) restaurant in the Midwest. Much like the zoo, we pretty much had the place to ourselves and settled in at a 4-top with some excellent chips and salsa to start (one salsa was mild and featured chopped tomatoes, with the second coming in a tiny bowl and described by our server as "very, very hot" - I tried a little of it and I can tell you that he wasn't just whistling Dixie). After much crunching and drinking of water, a complementary appetizer of two sopecitas (small round tortillas topped with beans, lettuce, and queso) arrived at the table courtesy of an online check-in (thanks, Yelp). The missus and I washed these down with some house margaritas served in tin mugs, potent concoctions flavored with blood orange, giving them a little bit of a bitter overtone (or I suppose it could have just been the tequila).

Simmering happily with tin cup in hand and trying to ignore the progeny agitating in their chairs, our server spent a minute explaining the differences between Mayan cuisine and the catch-all "Mexican" food that's ubiquitous in these parts. In Yucatan, the food is not spiced with hot chile peppers; rather, something called achiote paste or "recado rojo" is the staple used for flavoring most dishes; this paste contains ground achiote seeds (also referred to as annatto), cumin, cloves, Mexican oregano, salt, pepper, garlic, cinnamon, and allspice. This paste featured prominently in Mrs. Hackknife's entree, shredded pork marinated in achiote, topped with pickled Yucatan red onions (the very same kind that I made in the Commissary a few months back) and served with rice/black beans. I opted for the roast chicken smothered in mole rojo sauce (listed on the menu as containing 4 chiles, sesame seeds, almonds, cocoa, and herbs), also served with rice and a slice of grilled plantain (see photo above - after mulling over for a while if the picture was too unappetizing to include, I decided to show it anyway).

Both entrees were delicious and very filling, although not so much so that we could skip dessert (plus, the progeny felt they were due some recognition for the probable-house record 5 visits to the restroom while we were there). Mom and I enjoyed a bowl of rice pudding with pineapple, coconut, and rompope (a sort of Mexican eggnog) while the kids mostly turned noses up at a tasty bunuelo (a fried tortilla soaked in golden piloncillo molasses), which we then helped them eat. All told, we (at least the parents, that is) liked the food at Xni-Pec enough that we're already looking forward to stopping by again after our next zoo visit...

IKEA Meatballs

I have a confession to make - I've always wondered if those ballyhooed meatballs in the restaurant at the behemoth IKEA furniture stores around here are any good. I know my in-laws have sampled them and enjoyed them, but they remained a fixture on my foodie to-do list for quite some time (even though IKEA has been in Chicagoland for more than 10 years, I can count the number of times I've been there on the fingers of one hand - I'm not much of a shopper, and frankly, all those goofy Swedish names they use for the merchandise frighten me). Anyway, with Mrs. Hackknife and the progeny away on a daylong outlet mall excursion not so long ago, I decided to satisfy my meatball curiosity and drove up to the nearest IKEA (in Romeoville, about 30 minutes away) for lunch. The restaurant is a fairly nice and tranquil place (at least it is at 12:30 on a Monday afternoon) on the second level with large windows overlooking the parking lot. Everything is served cafeteria-style; that is, you walk along the food line with your tray and grab items (or order entrees with a cook) at each station. I was expecting menu offerings that slanted more towards Swedish cuisine; sadly, most everything was standard American fare (chicken wrap, anyone?) except for the meatballs, which were served 15 to a plate with gravy, mashed potatoes, and a dollop of lingonberry sauce on the side (see photo above).

Once I sat down to nosh, my initial impressions were that the meatballs and gravy were not all that different from the Lean Cuisine frozen meatball and egg noodle dinners I used to occasionally nuke for lunch at the office (in other words, not as tasty as I'd hoped). As I got further into the plate, I discovered that mixing the meatballs/gravy with the potatoes and the lingonberries improved the experience somewhat. Still, unless I had future plans to buy an Emmie Parla (cushion cover) or a Mammut (children's dresser), I wouldn't be making any more half-hour trips to IKEA just for the meatballs. There is a small market on the way out of the building selling imported Scandinavian food products, some of which got my attention (for example, jars of herring in sour cream and tubes of fish roe paste); alas, I had no way to keep such delicacies refrigerated while I was out running errands, so I had to pass until next time...

Monday, April 9, 2012


As of this past Thursday, another Cubs season has begun, starting off much like it ended last year; that is, with a loss. Of course, team management has made no secret of the fact that they expect many more losses to follow before October mercifully comes around as the latest rebuilding project progresses. Unfortunately, that reality doesn't render it easier to watch, made painfully evident while Mrs. Hackknife and I shivered in the upper deck on Opening Day during the Cubbies' late-inning collapse. Still, our numb fingers and toes were a small price to pay for the opportunity to stop by a new place for dinner on the way home. Vera (1023 W. Lake St.) is a wine bar that also happens to feature unbelievably-good Spanish cuisine in the form of tapas (small plates). For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking that tapas is a trend that passed by around 5 years ago, you probably haven't tried what's on the menu here. Chef Mark Mendez and his wife Elizabeth have assembled a fairly simple but formidable offering of Spanish dishes that stand up against any other tapas bar in town.

The chef has stated that his philosophy is to basically let the top-quality ingredients he uses shine through with minimal intervention on his part. We saw this firsthand with our initial set of plates - plump anchovies topped with pickled garlic and celery leaves, warm crusty bread with three kinds of butter (garlic, chicken skin, and lemon/salt/pepper) plus Spanish olive oil, and a wonderful cheese plate (see photo above) with manchego, Bayley Hazen Blue, and pata cabra. Accompanying each cheese was a special garnish carefully orchestrated to enhance its respective flavor, namely almonds and honey for the manchego, pickled olives for the blue, and candied blood orange for the pata cabra. It was these small details that really seemed to make the food sing.

While waiting for our meat course to arrive (more on that a little later), the missus and I decided we'd need a bit more nosh to ensure that we didn't go home hungry, so we order another seafood plate and a vegetable. We chose a fish (not sure exactly what kind) prepared "escabeche"-style, which is apparently a common preparation of proteins in Spain where the outside is seared crispy, then the fish is marinated with vinegar, herbs, and spices and served either cold or at room temperature. Our delicious fish came topped with pickled celery pieces (if you're detecting a pattern here, you're right - Chef Mendez really likes to use pickled items in his dishes), with the bright acidity of the vinegar in the celery and the marinade cutting the richness of the fatty fish. For our vegetable selection, we opted for the fried artichoke pieces dressed in a mixture of Idiazabal cheese and beer garlic vinaigrette. This plate was also amazing and was quickly devoured.

Last, but not least, came our selected meat course. Given the emphasis on Spanish cuisine, I assumed that the "Iberico secreto" was just another type of imported ham; however, when our server brought it to the table, she explained that this so-called secret cut of the famous Iberico pig (you know, the one that only eats acorns) is almost more like a skirt steak in flavor and texture (both of these are also sometimes referred to as the "butcher's cut" since in the past it was the piece of meat that the butchers took home for themselves, their customers unaware that it was so tasty). Reading up on this a bit more after the fact, I'm not even sure if anyone else in Chicago is offering this dish - apparently, it's rare due to the difficulty in correctly removing it from the pig (it's nestled between the shoulders, ribs, and fatback) to get the right balance of protein and fat. Our piece arrived sizzling and sliced against the grain like a platter of fajita meat, garnished with a nice spring blend of fava bean puree and pea shoots. Had I not known that it was pork, I might have been fooled into thinking it was beef. No matter what you call it, I can attest that it's actually quite good (keep the secret on the qt, though, will you please?).

Given that Vera's primarily a wine bar, they obviously have a great selection of Spanish wines to accompany the great food. We got to try a txakolina (a very dry and bracingly tart white wine from the Basque region of Spain) and a manzanilla sherry (pale and dry), both of which paired very well with our dishes. Our experience would have been 5-star across the board if not for some lapses in service - although our waitress was very knowledgeable about the food and drinks, she inexplicably disappeared from our table for long stretches, seeming to prefer extended conversation with other customers to helping us out when we needed it. Regardless, the food at Vera is outstanding enough that we'll be back again (hopefully soon), Cubs loss or no Cubs loss...

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pasta with Fried Peppers and Bread Crumbs

This recipe had been in my backlog folder for quite some time (since last March, to be exact). I finally got around to giving it a spin last week. Truth be told, the main reason I was excited was the opportunity to get rid of most of the dried guajillo peppers that have been hanging out in the pantry since I bought them for my Mexican pork dish (I think that one was cooked up last May). Anyway, there was a tiny bit of advanced prep involved, namely the use of a food processor to make bread crumbs from toasted country bread (I did this step the day before). All other aspects of the recipe came together quickly. When the time came to eat up, all of us here in the Commissary (Mrs. Hackknife, the progeny, and myself) were once again a little underwhelmed, which makes it the 3rd consecutive pasta dish that failed to hit the mark (apparently, I'm on something of a lousy streak at the moment). The toasted guajillos didn't really add much of anything to the final product, except a touch of heat and a touch of bitterness. I will say that the leftovers improved with a little age, especially when pouring some of the anchovy-infused oil from the tin on it for a flavor boost (i.e., see last pasta recipe). I think I may be taking a break from new pasta recipes for a little while...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Old Fashioned Donuts/Hienie's Shrimp House

We've had an unusually early and warm spring in the Midwest so far this year. When the weather gets like this following the doldrums of winter, I often get the urge to explore areas of the city that are normally away from my typical routes, especially if there are hidden food gems to discover. It was one of these urges and some unexpected free time on a sunny Thursday morning recently that led me to the Roseland neighborhood of the city to find some allegedly-superior donuts, vouched for by no less of an authority than Uberchef Grant Achatz, who last year declared the apple fritters at Old Fashioned Donuts (11248 S. Michigan Ave.) the best he'd ever eaten. Other than a stray Internet post here or there, OFD seems to be operating largely under the local foodie radar - I suspect this is mostly due to its location. Now, I was vaguely aware that Roseland had a reputation for being one of the more downtrodden areas of town, but, being a Northsider by birth, that was about the extent of my prior knowledge. Both my wife and my mother-in-law gave me the same reaction when I told them I had gone there to get donuts, which was "you did NOT go to Roseland, did you? That's the most dangerous neighborhood in the city!". As it turns out, they weren't entirely correct - according to relevant crime statistics, it's actually only the 2nd most dangerous neighborhood (behind Englewood). Had I known this ahead of time, I might have reconsidered my options, but it's probably for the best that I forged ahead in pure ignorance.

Anyway, this was my state of mind as I exited I-57 and headed eastbound on 111th Street towards the golden fried prizes of my destination. At first, everything appeared to be fine - there were lots of small, tidy houses, some a little rough around the edges, but nothing much of note. When I turned the corner to go south on Michigan, however, I had the sudden impression that I'd been transported to the Bronx. Although many of the historic old buildings on this strip (which was once the main commercial hub) have survived, most seemed like they had seen their heyday around 1950 (indeed, the neighborhood was at one point a vibrant part of the city). A number of shady-looking characters milled about on the sidewalks, hanging out in front of what were now discount clothing shops and mini-marts. It was in one of these worn historic buildings (possibly part of Gately's Peoples Store, an old department store that my mother-in-law told me they frequently visited when she was younger) that I found OFD, in a simple, undecorated, whitewashed room with a few tables, sharing space with a hamburger stand. As far as the patrons that were present, I was clearly in the racial minority, but no one seemed to pay much notice, and I got in line to place my order. I knew I had to get an apple fritter, which were only about $2.80 a piece, and I also opted for a half-dozen donuts: 3 glazed, 2 chocolate, and 1 orange-frosted. All told, I spent less than $10 and left with 2 large bags of goodies and enough spare change to pacify the panhandler that approached me as I returned outside.

I was still planning to have lunch (it was around 11:30), so I only sneaked a couple of bites in the car to see how everything tasted while they were still warm out of the fryer. First up was the glazed donut. Wow! All it took was one piece for me to recognize that this was not your average bakery item. The dough was yeasty, fresh, and sweet, with the perfect amount of glaze and a little bit of grease soaked in like a sponge. The chocolate donut wasn't bad (I still prefer Zettlmeier's in Tinley) and I'd definitely recommend the orange-frosted variety, but the apple fritter was pure, off-the-charts blisstonia.

You can see it in the photo above. For one thing, it's HUGE - almost the size of a dinner plate. In spite of its state fair size, all of the elements contained within combined to create an almost transcendental eating experience: the tart apple, the crunchy pecans, the rich glaze, the browned and crisped dough. There was no doubt in my mind that this fritter-to-end-all-fritters was worth not only the death-inducing calories, but also the drive to unsavory locales. Should word get out to the foodie population at large about OFD's offerings, there may well be an economic Renaissance yet in Roseland.

The second part of my voyage took me to a nearby neighborhood with a slightly better reputation, the more-industrial South Deering just a mile or two further east (see photo above). It was here that I'd find Hienie's Shrimp House (10359 S. Torrance Ave.), an old fried chicken, fried shrimp, and pizza joint recently chronicled in the Chicago Tribune by food writer Kevin Pang. The focus of the article was the well-known hot sauce that Hienie's serves with its fried food and chicken wings. Apparently, most people who frequent the place simply refer to it as "Hienie's hot sauce", even though they don't actually make it there (that distinction belongs to a bulk foods producer). The sauce comes in two varieties (hot and mild), has a sharp mustard flavor not commonly encountered with other hot sauces, and arrives with your order glowing an unnatural shade of reddish-orange that didn't carry over well to my photograph below.

I opted for the mild sauce to accompany my entrees, which were a fried chicken breast, fried shrimp, and fried perch. Fries came with both the chicken and the seafood (yes, I could have lived with one set of fries), plus a cup of not-bad cole slaw and a nearly inedible roll that I tossed aside after a desultory nibble. I spend the next 15 minutes enjoying the majority of my food while watching a parade of mostly blue-collar workers (garbage men, police officers, transit employees, construction workers in fluorescent vests, etc.) come in to get their fix. I have to say that I liked the shrimp best, much better than what I got last October at Goose Island Shrimp, for example - it was nicely breaded, not greasy, and went well with the mild sauce. I also would get the fried chicken again, although I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim it the best in town as some other people have. The perch and fries were both so-so, improved by the addition of the zingy sauce. Speaking of the sauce, I wouldn't mind having a little back at the Commissary; however, it's somewhat difficult to find. The manufacturer doesn't appear to sell it to retail outlets and Hienie's gets it by the industrial gallon jug (which I believe they'll let you buy in a pinch). At some point, I plan on visiting the other Hienie's location (it happens to be in nearby Orland Park) to see if I can purchase less than a jug; if so, come by and I'll share some with you...