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....