Thursday, January 31, 2013
Chicago Mini-Food Tour #4
With our moving date fast approaching (less than a month now), the missus and her girlfriends decided to get all their respective kids together for one last sleepover in the city on a recent Saturday. Fortunately, this gave me an opportunity to throw together a last-minute Chicago food tour (albeit a truncated one as I had only a few hours in the afternoon to work with) in the hopes of visiting some high-priority eateries that have been languishing on my list for a while. I decided to go the sweet route first and stopped in at a very unusual bakery located in Edgewater called Chimney Cake Island (CCI) (1445 W. Devon). I first got wind of this place when it was featured on the Serious Eats Chicago website last August (they posted a great, step-by-step writeup of the cakemaking process here). Normally, when one sees a Devon address, you expect Indian or Pakistani cuisine; however, in this case, the "chimney cake" is actually a Romanian specialty whose recipe has been imported and painstakingly duplicated by the bakery's owners, Mara and Alex (themselves natives of the Transylvania region of Romania - insert your vampire jokes here).
The store isn't a large place, but has a snappy, colorful decor (see photo above). When I arrived around 3, the only persons present were me, two other customers, and Mara (the owner). After getting the low-down on my cake options, I chose the traditional variety (coated with granulated sugar that caramelizes during baking) and one covered with walnuts. The finished cakes are actually long, continuous strips of dough that have been wrapped around a spindle - when you slide them off, they are hollow in the middle, resembling a chimney (see photo below).
I sampled about 1/4 of each cake before heading out and found them to be both delicious and surprisingly light, almost like a sweeter, less dense hot pretzel. Mara recommended that they be eaten while still fresh (within 24 hours), but I was told by Mrs. Hackknife that her friends and the kids had no problem consuming the leftovers as part of breakfast the next morning (I dropped the remaining cakes off at the sleepover house before continuing on my tour). If you're a pastry lover, please check CCI out - having diverse food options (like Romanian cakes, for example) at our disposal is one of the things that makes Chicago great and can't be taken for granted (Mara mentioned that her advertising budget is razor-thin, so you locals need to help an artisanal sister out and spread the word).
Next up was the main event of the tour, a revered snack shop called Big & Little's (860 N. Orleans) that is the darling of foodies nationwide and Food Network executives (Guy Fieri's face is prominently plastered on both the website and in the restaurant). Amazingly, I'd never had the chance to stop by before, a clear oversight that needed to be immediately rectified. If you're not sure where to find the place, just start at the Hancock Building and start walking west until you run into it (see photo above).
B&L's was started by two local high school friends (one portly, one tiny, hence the name) as a venture to create low-brow fast food cuisine (think burgers, tacos, and sandwiches) using high-minded ingredients. For example, the pair's most celebrated creation is hand-cut fries topped with unctuous grilled lobes of foie gras (not a bargain at $16, but worth every penny in my estimation). Other mainstays include fish tacos (both fried and sashimi), po' boys (including a pork belly version that's on my list for next time), and truffle fries (ditto). With only so much stomach capacity available (and more stops planned), I limited myself to the foie gras fries and a sashimi salmon taco (see photo below).
Saving the outrageous for last, I started with the taco, which consisted of a hard shell stuffed to overflowing with beautiful, pink salmon meat that was flecked with black and white sesame seeds. The salmon had been marinated in some type of teriyaki glaze and I'm pretty sure I detected aioli (or a reasonable facsimile) hidden somewhere inside the shell. As with many successful dishes, this one featured equal parts crunch, fat, brine, and sweet, a winning combo if there ever was one. Feeling pretty stellar about my selections, I dug into the foie gras fries and, yes, they were as unholy decadent as you might imagine. I found that the best way to attack the pile was to chop up the liver into tiny bits, then mix it (and all the rich juices that ooze out) together with the fries, a truly sublime and indulgent experience. Now that I've had it, I can safely say that I'd be pleased to simply split an order of these next time through. Bottom line: although calorie and cholesterol restrictions might prevent folks from being regular customers, B&L's is a must-try for tourists and townies alike.
The afternoon sun started creeping towards the horizon at this point, signaling that the dinner hour was almost at hand. I headed back in the general direction of the Commissary, detouring a bit west and south over to Pilsen for a second helping of sweets. Since my virgin encounter with raspado (the Mexican version of a snow cone) in LA last August, I'd been keeping an eye out for a similar treat back home and read not long after about a new place called the Jam House (1854 W. 18th St., no website) that specializes in raspado. Unable to get over there during the warmer months, I was pleasantly surprised to find them open and empty (save for the owner and his female friend) on this chilly winter Saturday. Like CCI, the store is small and geared for a younger demographic, located on a quiet stretch of 18th across the street from Harrison Park. The owner Rene was kind enough to detail all of his flavor offerings for me, recommending his favorite (strawberry jam with sweetened condensed milk, or lechera), and also suffered through my LA raspado story (even showed him a picture for comparison - his version wasn't as wedge-shaped as the Cali one). Letting him get back to his gal pal, I sat in the car to enjoy my treat (see photo above), not giving a second thought to the fact that this sort of activity must look odd to the average passerby in the middle of January in Chicago. I was able to consume my fill and then some, leaving almost half of it to slowly thaw into strawberry slush on the long ride home (almost 3 hours later, its remnants were still quite good).
I hadn't quite reached maximum capacity yet, but not wanting to overdo it (see last mini-food tour in October), I decided to make one last stop before jumping on the southbound Dan Ryan. Our foodie friends Phil and Karen raved about an after-Sox game dinner they had earlier this year at Pleasant House Bakery (PHB) (964 W. 31st St.) in Bridgeport, a place entirely focused on churning out the best meat pies this side of Cornwall. The typical English meat pie, or pasty (rhymes with nasty), is usually the butt of jokes, a greasy, fried dough sack of mystery protein slung hash-style during intermission at soccer games; however, when given the highfalutin, farm-to-table treatment that the proprietors (Art and Chelsea Jackson) of PHB conceived, it becomes something quite refined. Many of the ingredients put into the pies and sold as sides are grown locally on the Jacksons's very own farm and this quality shines through in the finished product.
I opted for the chicken balti pie (chicken with curry spices, tomato sauce, and Nigella seeds, a bitter tasting seed sometimes used in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking), plus a scoop of homemade mashed potatoes with some zippy coriander chutney. Still experiencing the effects of my earlier indiscretions, I asked for my order to-go, brought it home, and popped open a nice Samuel Smith oatmeal stout (conveniently found in the garage refrigerator) to wash it down (see photo above). Even when only lukewarm (yes, I suppose I could have heated everything up again in the microwave, but it's waaaay over there at the far end of the kitchen), the pie, potatoes, and chutney were spot-on. Is this Tinley Park or Westminster?