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...

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