Thursday, April 4, 2013

Red Hot Ranch/Little Goat

Although I've missed my April 1 target due to moving, unpacking, hosting various visitors, and recovering from assorted illnesses in the household, we have at last reached the 251st and final (for now) blog posting of Hackknife Version 1.0. When I started writing here over 3 years ago, I wasn't quite sure how long I'd continue or what direction it would wander, but I'm pleased that it's lasted this long and I'm looking forward to forging ahead in spite of a change in home venue. Reminiscing aside, here's the post:

With one week left before the move and one last happy hour being thrown for Mrs. Hackknife downtown, I took advantage of a little extra time in the city to cross off two more eateries from my to-do list. I'd often seen references to Red Hot Ranch (2072 N. Western, no website) as one of Chicago's best examples of the depression, or minimalist, hot dog in the city. Wait a minute, you say, I've heard of a Chicago dog, but what is this depression dog? Well, unlike the traditional Chicago-style dog (which is loaded with many toppings), a lesser-known local hot dog variety exists that allegedly has its roots in the Great Depression, when food was scarce. The so-called "depression" dog features only mustard, chopped onions, relish, and sport peppers, omitting the more-flamboyant toppings that you frequently encounter at other stands in town. Some of the more famous local hot dog joints (such as Gene & Jude's in River Forest) unabashedly serve their dogs only in this fashion, so I was curious to see what the fuss was about.

I arrived at RHR around 3 in the afternoon - as you can imagine, there wasn't much going on there at the time. The stand itself is small (a few stools to sit with a little counter; otherwise, take-out only) and so is the menu, featuring hot dogs, fried shrimp, fries, and not much else.

I went with the standard hot dog and an order of fries, retiring to my minivan with the quarry. As you can see in the photo above, RHR doesn't skimp on the fries (the hot dog is there, I promise, you just have to look a little). I found the hot dog to be pretty run-of-the-mill, but the fries (which appear to be fresh, hand-cut) were fantastic, hot and crispy and worth the trip alone. Now that I've had one depression dog, I'm anxious to try another (maybe Gene & Jude's?) on one of our return trips to Chi-town later this year.

Feeling full, but not defeated, I planned one more stop before reaching the happy hour. I'd recently been seeing a lot of buzz about the burger being served at Au Cheval, a new, upscale diner that popped up last year near the corner of Halsted and Randolph. Many folks (including no less an authority than Chef Sean Brock) have been describing the Au Cheval burger as one of the best in the country, so I took it upon myself to do the necessary research to either prove or refute this statement. I pulled up to the meter spot on Randolph at approximately 3:50pm, walked to the front door of the restaurant, and was promptly faced with the following sign:

"Kitchen closed between 3 and 5 pm daily"

Hmmmph. What kind of place calls itself a "diner" and closes in the middle of the afternoon, leaving those of us needing to satisfy a badass burger craving in a lurch? Luckily, having been to Girl and the Goat last week, I remembered that America's Culinary Sweetheart had just opened a second, more casual restaurant called Little Goat (820 W. Randolph) basically across the street from GNG and a few doors down from Au Cheval. Would I find a comparable, pedestal-worthy burger there? One way to find out.

Little Goat is more of a combination of two places, the first being the diner (which has a retro, yet hipster, vibe - think vintage booths and funky fixtures/wallpaper that could have been lifted from the "I Dream of Jeannie" set), with the second a bar/bakery/coffeshop all rolled up into a small, separate area. The diner menu had a boatload of delectable-sounding breakfast offerings (such as bull's eye french toast with crispy chicken, sweet onion brioche, and bbq maple syrup), but I was here for one reason and one reason only. Fortunately, there's a whole menu section devoted to burgers, and I excitedly made my selection, a massive Slagel Farm beef patty served Korean-style; that is, with kimchee, bacon, and spicy mayo, on something called a squish squash roll (perhaps that's the sound it makes when you bite into it - the burger was also supposed to have a fried egg on top, but I poignantly declined that item).

This is the monster that arrived at my seat and, yes, it was as amazing as it looks, accompanied by a knife and fork to better attack its ample girth. Even though I had previously primed my stomach with dog and fries a short while ago, I somehow managed to eat the whole thing, earning a couple of compliments from my server and a quick trip to the men's room shortly thereafter. If you ever get the opportunity to try kimchee on a burger, I highly recommend it, as the tang and crunch of the pickled veggies perfectly offset the rich, fatty beef. I should note that I stopped in the bakery on the way out to get a couple of sweets to bring home to the Commissary, namely some peanut butter cookies that were also pretty decadent. Chef Stef, whatever your magic formula might be, you need to keep using it - the Goat Empire has a fan in me...

(Stay tuned for the inaugural installment of Hackknife South in a few days - I've already got a good backlog of material featuring some notable food discoveries in the greater Tampa area. Here's hoping you'll stay with me on the new ride...)

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