Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chicago Mini-Food Tour #3

With Mrs. Hackknife and the kids up north for a weekend with girlfriends, the time had arrived for my annual food-tour-within-my-own-city. As always, I meticulously researched my options and came up with a proposed plan for the day (Saturday) taking into account both the places I hoped to try and other non-food activities that were on the agenda (namely a 12:05 tilt between the Cards-Cubs at Wrigley and a visit to St. Boniface Cemetery on the North Side to look for the gravestones of my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents). After taking leave of the family on Friday afternoon, I decided to start my chowfest early by getting some Chicago barbecue for dinner. On many occasions, I've passed a small bbq joint on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of 159th Street between I-57 and the Tri-State (technically, I think the suburb there is Markham) called Exsenator's (3349 W. 159th St. - no word on if the proprietor is actually a former politician). I'd always wondered if their product was worth a visit until I recently read some positive press on it, which finally spurred me to action. I arrived around 5:30p to find the modest parking lot next to the low-slung building nearly full and I deeply inhaled the hickory smoke wafting outside as I entered. Expecting to find a dining room, I instead wandered into a small lobby with three benches and a single server behind a plexiglass partition. Two of the benches supported patrons waiting for food, while a gentleman who appeared to be running a bootleg DVD business occupied the third, with his large case of unlabeled movies taking up a decent chunk of the real estate in front of the take-out counter. When the time came for me to place my order, I stepped around the case and chose the mini size combo of rib tips and hot link, plus an order of 3 chicken wings. After about 10 minutes (during which I witnessed a few DVD transactions occurring - I believe I overheard the man's price at $3 per movie or 3 for $5), my bags of smoked meat were delivered from behind the partition (using sort of a lazy susan) and I giddily hurried home to eat (too messy for the car).

I unwrapped the packaging to see two trays, one filled with wings, sauce, and fries, the other with tips, hot link, sauce, and fries (see photo above). Each order also came with two slices of plain white bread (one of which I used as a bun for the hot link). Digging in, I was immediately blown away by pretty much the whole lot of it. The chicken wings were only lightly sauced, not dripping in the spicy glaze that's common to the wings you find most places these days (I found it pleasant that my lips didn't feel like they were melting off while I was eating them). Even though the fries had gotten a little soggy from being wrapped up on the 15-minute ride back to the Commissary, they were surprisingly good and well accented by the sweet wing sauce. The rib tips were just as good, a nice balance of lean and fat smothered (a bit too heavily, in my opinion) in a sauce that was a little less sweet and a little smokier than the version used with the chicken wings. The hot link was perfect, nicely smoked on the outside and seasoned inside such that notes of sage hit my taste buds first, followed by the moderate bite of red chili pepper. Other than the slight abundance of rib sauce, I guiltily enjoyed this sloppy feast from start to finish - I eventually had to stop myself from eating both sets of fries so as not to completely ruin my grand designs for tomorrow. Now that I know I can get top-shelf Chicago bbq mere minutes from the house, I'm kicking myself for not doing this sooner.

Saturday dawned to a cool, windy, and damp morning, with brief intervals of sunshine peeking out from behind the dark clouds (very Irish weather, I thought). I bundled up in a couple of layers and headed north into the city, arriving at my first destination in Andersonville (which quaintly smelled of toast as I walked its streets) just before the doors opened at 8. I'd just a few weeks ago read an article in Serious Eats Chicago about their picks for the best pancakes in town, with the top choice coming from a breakfast and lunch cafe called M. Henry (5707 N. Clark). The article contained a heavenly picture of M. Henry's blackberry blisscakes, a ridiculous tower of pancakes resting in a pool of dark red blackberry juice, studded with blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, crunchy oatmeal, and brown sugar, then stuffed in-between with a dollop of vanilla marscapone. One look of the photo and I immediately knew what I was having for breakfast to kick off my food tour.

The plate that arrived at my table wasn't quite as heavily stylized as the photo in the article (see above), but it was close enough. I can't conjure enough adjectives to describe the mouthfeel I encountered upon taking my first bite - fluffy, warm, sweet, rich, tangy, and crunchy all at once. I plowed through the pile of cakes as best as I could, making sure to leave just a little behind to avoid overstuffing myself early in the day (it's a marathon, not a sprint).

After hopping on the Clark bus to Howard Street and spending some time researching grave sites at nearby Calvary Cemetery, the Purple Line deposited me in downtown Evanston just in time for the 10:30a door opening at Edzo's Burger Shop (1571 Sherman), a small-yet-celebrated greasy spoon that is to the hamburger as Hot Doug's is to the hot dog; that is, elevating a humble fast food item to more of a gourmet experience. Eddie Lakin (the owner) works the register much like Doug Sohn does at Hot Doug's, talking with every patron and answering any questions to ensure the customers are making well-informed decisions about their lunch (or late 2nd breakfast, in my case). Notorious for being overcrowded at peak times, the restaurant was pleasantly empty as Eddie and I discussed the merits of adding Speculoos (a Nutella-like spread fashioned from grinding up gingersnap cookies that are normally served as an airline snack) to vanilla milkshakes for an unusual treat. Along with my Speculoos milkshake (which is off-menu, by the way - you need to ask for it), I opted for the special Lollapalooza burger (yes, Edzo's had a stand serving this very burger at the namesake Grant Park music fest in August), a 4 oz. griddled thin patty made from Slagel Farm grass-fed Angus beef, plus a schmear of Merkt's cheddar-bacon spread, spicy banana peppers, and a dollop of something called ketchapeno (a spicy mixture of ketchup and jalapenos). To keep the burger and shake company, I snagged an order of garlic fries to round things out.

I did enjoy the Lolla burger, but I don't know that I'd get it again. First off, I wasn't crazy about the bun that was used - it seemed, well, pedestrian given the higher-end ingredients in the rest of the sandwich. I also discovered that I wasn't a fan of the cheese spread, which came off as being a little gritty. In spite of these minor issues, the remainder of the burger went down pretty smoothly. My garlic fries were terrific, fresh-cut, double-fried beauties dosed with just the right amount of garlic butter and minced garlic (a vast improvement over the sludge I was served at Johnsen's not long ago). The shake was good (and abundant - the cook left me the metal mix cup containing a second helping), although I was a little underwhelmed by the Speculoos and would consider a different flavor (spicy Mexican chocolate?) on my return visit. Eddie is soon opening another Edzo's location, this time in Lincoln Park; however, that's sadly not close enough to make me a regular.

Full for the moment, I made my way to Wrigley to watch the Cubs fall behind, then take the lead against the Cardinals, shrewdly left the ballpark before they eventually lost the lead, and took the Clark bus up to St. Boniface Cemetery at Clark & Lawrence. St. Boniface is one of 2 historic Catholic cemeteries in the metro area (Calvary in Evanston being the other) and it happens to be the final resting place for a number of German ancestors on my maternal grandfather's side. My mom told me that she would occasionally visit the grave sites with family as a child, but to her knowledge, no one had been back there for around 50 years. Luckily, the information I collected that morning led me right to the marker of my great-great-grandparents, which was surprisingly large (apparently, they had some dough at their disposal....I did not know this). Flush with the feeling of success that only cemetery wandering can give, I walked a few blocks down Argyle to get a light snack at Furama (4936 N. Broadway), a Chinese restaurant also serving dim sum.

I had dumplings and steamed buns on the brain (see photo above), so I ordered a dim sum container of each, the dumplings stuffed with a mixture of shrimp/scallop and the steamed buns filled with bbq shredded pork. Both the dumpling wrapper and the seafood stuffing were a little bland (Furama isn't exactly known as a paragon of Chinese cuisine in Chicago), but I thought the pork buns were very good, if not overshadowed by the real star of the show, the red chili dipping oil that accompanied my order. If they bottled the stuff, I would be happy to bring it home and put it on just about everything.

Happy about still not feeling engorged, I decided to head back to my vehicle and drive down to Ukrainian Village, home to another much-lauded burger and dog joint, Phil's Last Stand (2258 W. Chicago). Even smaller than Edzo's, Phil's consists of a counter area, charcoal grill, bar with about 8 stools, and 2 small tables near the front. The folks at Phil's are known for their char dogs, char burgers, fried shrimp, and homemade mac & cheese, but I was there in search of a different and unique quarry - a char salami sandwich (first brought to my attention by Serious Eats Chicago) the likes of which are rarely seen in these parts.

The char salami is served on a grilled sausage bun and topped with tomato, mustard, onions, and cheddar cheese (see photo above). It's a little difficult to see from the picture, but the salami is actually sliced rather thickly (about 1/4" wide) before grilling, not the thin deli-style meat I was expecting. As a result, the charring is only a veneer on the outer surface, giving me the impression of eating just a warm salami sandwich. Still, this creation was good enough that I'm eager to return to Phil's so I can sample some of the other house goodies (like the hand-cut fries that I opted to pass on this time).

As the sun began dropping low in the western sky, I attempted to push the digestive envelope just a bit further, driving in the general direction of home so I could stop in at La Lagartija Taqueria (132 S. Ashland), conveniently located near the Mexican Consulate in the West Loop. The Serious Eats people had yet again clued me in to a potentially-significant menu item, this time a fried shrimp taco that allegedly is among the best of its ilk in the city. I ordered said taco with a single al pastor taco to go with it (just for sake of comparison to the al pastor I'd sampled in LA recently), washed down with a tamarind agua fresca (which tasted a lot like iced tea - I hope they weren't pulling a fast one on this gringo).

The shrimp that arrived at my table was HUGE and heavily sauced (see photo above, on left), intimidating enough to my swelling innards that I ate the al pastor taco first, which was pretty tasty (although I think I had better at the taco fest in LA). Finally gathering up the fortitude to attack the shrimp taco, I tried it and was....well, not too enamored. The shrimp seemed to have too much breading for my liking and there clearly was too much sauce, making a bit of a sloppy mess. In fact, the combination of fried food and rich topping was what finally put me over the proverbial edge. The weekend's grease and calorie quotas now significantly exceeded, I'm pretty sure I suddenly turned an alarming shade of green, so much so that my waitress didn't hesitate when I kindly asked her to remove my plate with the unfinished shrimp taco still looming large (she shot me a concerned look as she brought the bill). It was a somewhat uncomfortable drive back to the Commissary from there, with the rumblings in my stomach soothed only by the calming thoughts of the rice cakes, grape nuts, and oatmeal on tomorrow's limited menu....

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In

Earlier this year, Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader compiled a handy listing of best suburban Chicago eateries that was organized by region. Of course, I was surprised to see many places I'd never even heard of on his list for the South/Southwest Suburbs (as much daily time as I waste reading local foodie media, I'm never as gastro-literate as I think I am). Among the more intriguing entries in the article was about a true old-school drive-in (Johnsen's Blue Top) open since 1936 quietly flying below the radar in northwest Indiana. Perhaps even more amazing was the mention of a second old-fashioned burger joint (called Miner Dunn, nearly as ancient as Johnsen's) located on the same busy stretch of U.S. 41 in Highland. As I read this, images of Radiator Springs from the Disney Cars movie immediately popped up in my head. Could there be some sort of long-lost, magical segment of pre-interstate nostalgia hiding just on the other side of the state line where the cars all have tail fins, the women wear poodle skirts, and the fries are cooked in rendered beef fat? This I needed to check out. My original plan was to try visiting both restaurants in one trip (I actually did something like this once in downtown Detroit with American Coney Dog and its neighbor, Lafayette Coney Dog, and lived to tell about it), but with the progeny in tow one Thursday night and only a 25-minute drive to get there, I opted to just stop at Johnsen's this time.

When we first pulled into the parking lot on this gloomy evening, I wasn't even sure if the place was open (it was completely empty). The exterior of the building was all decked out in blue and pink neon, but the faded carhop menu signs and the lack of customers gave the impression of a drive-in abruptly abandoned during some apocalyptic exodus. My initial fear subsided when the one and only server popped her head outside and directed us to the side door to access the dining room. Once inside, I suddenly felt as if I'd wandered onto a set from some 1950s tv show (see photo below), right down to the funky chandeliers, striped wallpaper, garage sale landscape paintings, and vinyl booths.

On the surface, the dining room certainly looked the part, but it was pretty obvious that the whole complex could use some TLC (indeed, the owner is looking to sell the property). The stained ceiling tiles, broken toy prize machine, and Access Hollywood blaring on the tv (why not Elvis on a jukebox instead?) sent a clear message that this was a restaurant currently trying to coast by on its outdated rep (I'm pretty sure I never saw the manager look up from his crossword puzzle the entire time we were there). My hope was that the lackluster attitude didn't extend to the food.

Per Sula's recommendation, I ordered the house specialty, a Big Ben (double cheeseburger) with everything, garlic fries, and the famous Johnsen's black cow (root beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream). My kids also got black cows (an incentive I had dangled earlier to secure their buy-in for this little junket) and hot dogs instead of burgers.

Much like the restaurant itself, my Big Ben appeared enticing (see photo above), but was lacking The patties were thicker than I expected (not the thin, crispy-edged style that is allegedly indigenous to northwest Indiana), with a nice char from the grill on which they were flame-cooked. The meat might have been a tad overdone and its flavor seemed somewhat bland (cheap product? no seasonings?), just not connecting with my taste buds. I really wanted to like this burger better. No such conflict occurred with the garlic fries, which were insipid, soggy potatoes sitting in a pool of grease. Although my kids (especially Hackknife Jr., who was ecstatic about getting to try out a Star Wars pinball game) were fine with their dinners, I had to conclude that my favorite parts of the journey were the black cow (good, but not terrific) and the $3.99/gallon gas I was able to refill my tank with on the way back home (a full quarter cheaper than in Illinois - stupid gas taxes). After about 40 minutes, we left with not a single other diner having walked through the door.

To summarize - I fear for the immediate future of Johnsen's. A great throwback to an earlier era just shouldn't be allowed to fade into oblivion like they are (a fate the current management seems resigned to). At the same time, I sense opportunity here. A savvy restauranteur willing to put some cash into updating the place a little and hire a cook that knows how to make a good burger could surely draw carloads of city foodies down here (no, I'm not that buyer, but I would be happy to patronize such a theoretical establishment). Here's hoping that the neon doesn't go permanently dark soon...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Taste of Melrose Park 2012

This year was the year that I finally managed to drag the Hackknife family up to Chicagoland's premier annual foodie festival, the Taste of Melrose Park, which takes place every Labor Day weekend. What distinguishes this fest from the legions of others happening throughout the area all summer long? Besides the fact that there are over 75 different food vendors, each selling dishes priced at $3 (or even less, in some cases), the majority of those operating the booths are not affiliated with the restaurant industry; that is, much of the food being served is homemade Italian-American (with a smattering of Mexican mixed in to reflect the suburb's changing demographic) from traditional family recipes. This means, instead of the ever-present carnival corn dog and blooming onion, hungry attendees can gorge themselves on the much less-common zucchini cheese puffs and panzerotti, a very enticing prospect for local foodies like myself.

After unloading the wagon and the in-laws from the family truckster, we first wandered into the kiddie section of the festival so the progeny could partake in some games and rides. With child demands abated and fortunate to find a shaded table close to the midway of food booths, Mrs. Hackknife and I thus began our sorties to the various vendors looking for nosh. First up was a pair of tasty baked clams from Vinnie Laraia, served open-face and warm with a Rockefeller-like topping of grated Parmesan and spinach. This was followed by the fried bologna sandwich you now see below.

My dear deceased grandmother from Ohio used to fry up bologna for us in my much younger days; unfortunately, I was a little disappointed that this version didn't quite measure up to hers. The bologna wasn't as crisp around the edges as I'd hoped, nor did it really have much flavor amongst the mustard and fried onions that more-or-less dominated the sandwich (which consisted simply of a single piece of folded-over white bread). And, yes, it was as sloppy as it looked. Much better were the garlic shrimp (prepared in garlic butter like shrimp scampi) and the artichoke casserole (a little heftier than your average spinach artichoke dip) that Mrs. Hackknife discovered.

At this point, we switched over to dessert mode for a bit. I went to get our group some of the celebrated sfingi (deep-fried dough balls dusted with sugar, also sometimes known as zeppole) from the local convent, the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles. The sisters have been frying up sfingi at every Taste of Melrose since its inception over 30 years ago (see photo below) and their booth is the only one at the fest with a consistently-long line.

After a modest 10-minute wait, I returned to our table with my quarry (see photo below). Still warm, the sfingi were denser than I expected, more of a cousin to crumb cake than doughnuts. They weren't quite as mind-blowing as the press I've read made them out to be, but still very tasty.

Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette got in on the act with some fried dough dusted in powdered sugar (the Italian version of an elephant ear). Hackknifette also quite enjoyed her chocolate eclair (as did I - she was kind enough to share a bit).

The homemade cannoli from the Cervones family was amazing, possibly the best I've ever had (see photo below). Sweetened ricotta (or marscapone, I couldn't really tell which) was stuffed into a perfect, crispy pastry shell and studded with chopped pistachios. I probably could have eaten a dozen of these and been quite proud of myself even after suffering the intestinal distress that would surely follow.

Nearly full, we had to make one more purchase before leaving for the night. One of the booths (D&D) was making arancini, a Sicilian dish consisting of a fried rice ball filled with meat sauce, mozzarella, and peas. You may recall that Mrs. Hackknife and I were introduced to a highfalutin version of arancini during the Sicily menu at Next (those were stuffed with saffron and lamb's tongue) - this one was larger and more rustic, clearly closer to the version more likely to be found in casual Sicilian cafes. The rice ball was topped with a little tomato sauce and was scarfed down before I could even get a picture. Just to ensure I was paying tribute to our Hispanic bretheren present at the fest, I was down my last bites with a nice horchata. As we departed into the darkening evening, I realized the beauty of having 75 food vendors - that is, plenty of new sampling to do next year...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ba Le/Artopolis

Up until about 2 years ago, I wasn't familiar with the term "banh mi". I had an inkling that it was some sort of exotic foodstuff from Southeast Asia, but wouldn't have recognized one if it fell out of the sky and crash landed onto my lapel. Since then, as I read more about these sorts of things, I came to realize that it's not so exotic after all. It's a sandwich. From Vietnam. Think Subway, just a whole lot more interesting. The words "banh mi" actually translate in Vietnamese to mean bread, but after the French introduced the baguette along with some of their finer cold cuts (such as pate) during the colonial occupation, someone got the bright idea to combine these Gallic treats with local ingredients (like pickled vegetables and cilantro) to create a wholly unique sandwich (which is now collectively called banh mi). In Chicago, we have a sizable Vietnamese diaspora (especially in Uptown), and those who are in the know direct fans of the banh mi to what many believe is our humble city's best version, at Ba Le (5014 N. Broadway). It was there that I found myself recently, looking to enjoy my very first banh mi in the company of some visitors from Kansas City.

When you first walk in, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish the joint from any Quizno's in Everytown, USA. The first clue that this is not an average sub shop can be gleaned from glancing through the coolers to the left of the counter, which are filled with all manner of to-go Vietnamese meats, drinks, soup, salads, and some unidentifiable gelatinous substances in clear containers (I'm pretty sure they weren't Jell-o). The other tipoff is the menu above the counter listing the many varieties of sandwich fillings available, including, but not limited to, beef rib eye, sardines, meatball, bbq pork, lemongrass pork, and sauteed shrimp. I opted for something called pork shrimp cake and was not the least bit disappointed. Texturally speaking, there is no question in my mind that the Ba Le banh mi is the undisputed champion of all sandwiches. The housemade rolls were crunchy on the outside (take a bite and crumbs cascade everywhere like confetti) and ethereal (almost hollow) on the inside, better than any Paris baguette I can recall having. The meat was tender and rich, perfectly offset by the pickled daikon radish, carrots, onions, cilantro, jalapenos, soy sauce, and mayo. If one complaint was to be had, it would be that the jalapenos were a tad too ever-present and potent, but, by and large, this was a most satisfying lunch experience, one I could see myself repeating daily if I happened to work or live nearby (an incredible value at $4.50 to boot).

Switching civilizations, my guests and I made our way down Halsted Street all the way to Greektown, stopping at a place recommended by Serious Eats Chicago (my latest and greatest foodie muse) for dessert. Artopolis (306 S. Halsted) is a dapper cafe and bakery selling traditional Greek kitchen items, liquor, fancy cakes, wood-burning oven pizza, and other goodies, one of which (the galactoboureko, sort of a Greek version of bread pudding) was singled out for positive press on Serious Eats. As we sat down in the bakery and ordered our desserts, I realized that I'd been here many years before, probably for lunch with co-workers (back in 2000, I briefly worked in this part of the West Loop). My slice of galacto-whatever arrived at the table looking and tasting unctuous (see photo above), sweet lemon custard sandwiched between layers of phyllo dough and topped with a sticky orange blossom syrup. It's rare for me to crave non-chocolate sweets, but this is a dish I could get used to finding in a pan at the back of the fridge at 3 am (not that that could actually happen here as there are no Greeks in the vicinity of the Commissary)...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nuevo Leon Panaderia/Publican Quality Meats

A recent Friday morning found me in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen with a group of tourists visiting from Georgia (the state, not the country). Originally founded by Czech, German, and Irish immigrants (many of whom provided cheap labor for the nearby stockyards), Pilsen became a thriving Hispanic community in the 1960s, which it remains today despite the beginnings of gentrification. Not having previously explored this area of the city on foot, I was surprised to discover a quirky mix of cultures, with art galleries right next door to restored apartment buildings, old brick churches, and small tortilla factories. If you proceed far enough westward down 18th Street past the handful of sidewalk vendors and Ashland Ave., you'll encounter the Nuevo Leon Panaderia ("bakery" in Spanish), a neighborhood fixture since 1973. One of the more well-known traditional Mexican restaurants in the city, also named Nuevo Leon, sits only a few blocks away from here, and it's not clear to me what relationship (if any) the two businesses share. In any case, my guests and I were happy to wander inside the panaderia to satisfy our snack cravings.

The bakery is full of glass cases holding a multitude of Mexican breads/rolls (such as the round, spiral-topped conchas, a sort of sweet roll), empanadas, churros, cookies, and other pastries (see photo above). Customers simply grab a self-service tray and a set of tongs to pick up whatever yeasty goodies might be around on a given day. In one of the cases, I spied a decadent-looking churro overflowing with yellow custard - I can tell you that it was well worth the $1.50.

With bags of cookies in tow, our group hopped on the Pink Line train to head to the West Loop for lunch. Per my recommendation, we stopped in at Publican Quality Meats (825 W. Fulton Market), the new butcher and sandwich shop annex to Publican, the highly-regarded beer, pork, and shellfish temple across the street. Head chef Paul Kahan is closely adhering to the same house-made, locally-sourced ingredient mantra at PQM that works so well at Publican - this is evidenced by the astounding selection of meats, cheeses, and specialty food items found for sale within (including the hard-to-find guanciale, or cured Italian pork jowl, my personal yardstick to measure any butcher shop's worth).

Although we arrived at the peak of the lunch rush, the hostess managed to seat us at a patio table within about 5 minutes. I was pleased to try the PB&L sandwich, a delicious grilled pork belly and lamb sausage stuffed into a buttery, toasted lobster roll bun from Franks & Dawgs (a local gourmet hot dog stand) and topped with cilantro, feta cheese, and a spicy red piperade sauce (see photo above). Unbeknownst to me, the sausage came with a bag of tasty artisanal potato chips, a variety called Tim's from the Pacific Northwest (no Pringles here). Two of my three guests ate light (sticking with the house cheese plate), but the third seized the moment and ordered the beef tongue sandwich (served with farmer's cheese and marinated eggplant on rye), which she told us reminded her of her childhood growing up on a Minnesota farm back in the 1950s (a place and time where beef tongue was likely to show up on the dinner table). With such great stuff available, my newest fantasy has become splurging on a huge lunch at PQM, laying out in the middle of Green Street for a nap, then crawling over to Publican for a dozen oysters and a giant glass of Duvel...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pecking Order/Scooter's

With the current Cubs season reaching dismal new lows (now down to 30 games below .500 and counting, although I fret not as I am firmly planted on the Jed/Theo rebuilding bandwagon), every game on our schedule becomes another opportunity for me to sample Lakeview's finest and newest dining ventures. This time around, I parked the family truckster just east of the intersection at Clark and Montrose, making a short walk over to Pecking Order (4416 N. Clark) for my pre-game dinner. PO is a new restaurant opened by Chef Kristine Subido (and her mom, probably there for quality assurance) to showcase her family's traditional Filipino cuisine; specifically, a knockout marinated chicken that can be roasted, grilled, or fried depending on the patron's preference. According to the website, the chickens are completely natural (hormone and antibiotic-free courtesy of FreeBird Farms in Pennsylvania) and marinated in mom's own blend of tamari (a variety of soy sauce), sugar, garlic, and bay leaves, resulting in a succulent and delicious bird. I opted for the "roasted" chicken (which is stuffed with lemongrass and ginger, then basted with a compound butter featuring Philippine citrus) and two sides, an addictive fried rice with toasted garlic and a bowl of mom's pickled vegetables (including jicama, carrot, green papaya, daikon radish, and ginger). All 3 components of this meal were amazingly good (see photo above), with the juicy, rich bird perfectly melding with the mouth-puckering veggies and the umami-packed rice. Time and stomach constraints prevented me from ordering the traditional Filipino shaved ice dessert called halo halo (sounding similar to the raspado I'd had in Los Angeles), so I scurried off on foot past the many cemeteries down Clark Street on towards Wrigley Field (not to be confused with a cemetery, although lately it's been hard to tell at times).

After watching the opposing (and last place, I might add) Astros hit a second 3-run homer off the roof of the party room in the center field bleachers (a poke of no less than 420 feet), I decided to ditch the Cubs and their now 8-0 deficit in the 5th inning in favor of another dessert I'd been waiting to try. Scooter's (1658 W. Belmont) is a much-discussed neighborhood favorite featuring the smooth ice cream confection known as frozen custard (I can't profess to be an expert in these things, but apparently, frozen custard differs from ice cream in that it contains some egg yolk, which makes a silkier product). In the Midwest (especially Wisconsin), frozen custard is very popular (I fondly remember a stand in my college town of Lafayette, IN - Original Frozen Custard - that always seemed to have long waits), although not so much in Chicago, despite the fact that a frozen custard stand at the 1933 World's Fair here allegedly introduced the concept to a wider audience. Given the dearth of local availability, Scooter's is typically packed on summer nights and this was no exception, with the crowd spilling out onto the patio and sidewalk to enjoy their treats. After much deliberation, I chose the Chocolate Yum Yum (fun to say, funner to eat), a blend of chocolate and fabulous fudge nut brownie chip custards, topped with a shot of hot fudge. Fortunately for me, this creation is only offered in a small size, ideal for those already stuffed with garlic rice and roasted chicken. Scooter's menu had several additional offerings that sounded quite decadent; I'll gladly hope for more bad Cubs baseball in September so I can continue to satisfy my frozen custard fix.