Another Christmas Break (and another round-trip to Chicago) has come and gone for the Hackknife family. Because the end of the year was made for, well, end-of-the-year lists, I'm happy to contribute my own to this canon, one that's hopefully a bit more appetizing than the "10 Looniest Statements Donald Trump Made in 2015" list. In no particular order and since 10 just won't do it justice, here are the 11 tastiest things I ate on break.
Nasi Lemak, Fat Rice, 2957 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago
Chicago is home to Fat Rice, which has to be one of the few Macanese restaurants in the country. What is "Macanese", you ask? It's cuisine that's associated with the island of Macau, the former island colony of Portugal that's now a Chinese gambling mecca. This great mashup of Eastern and Western cultures results in a curious menu, one that can give equal billing to both bacalhau (salt cod) and pork dumplings. Although difficult to get a seat during the dinner hours (the eatery is small), Mrs. Hackknife and I were able to amble 2 blocks over from our rental condo at lunchtime to snag a quick bite of nasi lemak (pictured above), the national dish of Malaysia consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk, garnished with small fried anchovies, toasted peanuts, sauteed greens, spicy sambal sauce, and a boiled tea egg (I was happy to pass this on to the missus). With all those components, each bite exhibited a varying level of spice, salt, soft, and crunch, sort of like playing with an equalizer for your tastebuds.
Tacos, Carnicerias Guanajuato, 3140 N. California Ave., Chicago
I have to hand it to my wife - not only did she find a great condo for us to stay in during our trip to Chicago, its location couldn't have been better for wandering gastronauts like ourselves. Just a few blocks up California Ave. from the condo and on the far side of the Kennedy Expressway sits Canicerias Guanajuato, a large Mexican grocery store that happens to have a taqueria tucked away in the corner, which I'm told is one of the better ones in the city, and not just because they have a glass case full of giant chicharron sheets as you pass through.
The customers are mostly Spanish-speakers and the menu is no frills. I was able to score a terrific trio of carnitas, lengua (beef tongue), and cecina (a sort-of Mexican beef jerky, air-dried marinated beef not unlike Italian prosciutto, my first time encountering this filling) tacos, and though we had some trouble telling them apart, they were a sublime counterpoint to the chaotic Asian rice dish we'd just eaten 30 minutes earlier. I wonder what my dear late Great-Aunt Evelyn (who once lamented about all the "Puerto Ricans" moving in) would think of her old neighborhood now, but I consider it taco nirvana.
Onion Rings and Fried Peach Pie, The Varsity, 61 North Ave., Atlanta
If you're willing to brave the Atlanta metro traffic on I-75 and somehow navigate the sinuous streets of downtown, you can swing by what's allegedly the world's largest drive-in for a nostalgic (and kid-friendly) lunch. The Varsity has been slinging burgers and chili dogs to hungry office workers and Georgia Tech football fans since 1928. The original operation has expanded several times over the years due to its immense popularity - they say they can accommodate 800 diners at once now and it seemed that all of them were in the ordering lines at the same time we were. Still, we persevered enough to try said burgers, chili dogs, and baby aspirin-flavored Frosted Orange drinks (served in cups large enough that they lasted all the way to Nashville), although I found the stars of the show to be the onion rings and fried peach pie, leading me to believe that the Varsity line cooks are true masters of the deep frying arts.
Maple Donuts, Nord's Bakery, 2118 S. Preston St., Louisville
Should you ever wake up early on a Sunday morning in Louisville and need to pick up some baked goods to bring to a holiday party hosted by your sister some 300 miles away in Chicago later that day, you should stop into Nord's Bakery. You should get there early before the fabulous donuts (like the maple-bacon yeast cruller and the maple cake donut pictured above) are sold out, and you should buy at least 4 of them and eat them all in the shop with no intention whatsoever of sharing them with your extended family at the party in just a few short hours (in a nod to politeness and civility, however, you should buy an apple kuchen and a butter kuchen, also fabulous, and share those instead). You should do all of these things.
Fried Chicken, Big City Chicken, Navy Pier, Chicago
In one of his last articles before departing the Chicago Tribune, food reporter Kevin Pang pointed out the unlikely existence of a top-shelf fried chicken stand mixed in amongst the food kiosks on Navy Pier, which is not exactly known for its distinctive grub. Big City Chicken is a Lettuce Entertain You venture that I had to try based on his recommendation, especially since I was already there with my brother-in-law Dan taking our respective sons to the children's museum. I appreciate that the server gave me a choice of white or dark meat chicken (of course, I don't waste any stomach space on white meat) and I also found the bird to be crispy-yet-not heavy or cloying (owing to its cooking in soybean oil), much like M. Pang did. I salute you, sir, and wish you Godspeed on your future food writing endeavors - you will continue to have my rapt attention.
Momotaro Tartare, Momotaro, 820 W. Lake St., Chicago
The now bursting-with-restaurants Fulton Market District in Chicago also sports a new temple of Japanese gastronomy called Momotaro (of the Boka Restaurant Group). The ambitious menu covers a lot of ground, dazzling diners with cold/hot dishes and robata grill specialties on one side, many sushi options on the other. Mrs. Hackknife and I indulged in bonito tataki, unagi don (bbq eel rice), washugyu (wagyu skirt steak with shishito peppers and foie gras), scallops with bacon, and curry udon noodles, but the best dish was all vegetarian. Following Phil Vettel's advice (the Tribune's still-employed head food critic, at least for the moment), we tried the house's sleight-of-hand version of beef tartare, an artfully-plated mixture of Japanese sweet tomato, crispy rice, Maui onion, and shiso leaf, mimicking almost perfectly the taste and texture of real beef tartare. If all vegetarian cuisine could be like this, I say send the cows on permanent holiday.
Praline Pecan Terrine and, Like, a Thousand Other Ingredients, Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago,
Longman & Eagle is another restaurant I was able to cross off my Chicago hit list by virtue of staying in a condo just a few blocks away. We were never able to visit this hipster whiskey tavern when we lived up North, but I can tell you the kitchen is still kicking ass and taking names (as evidenced by the Michelin Star hanging on the wall). The missus and I deliberately skipped dessert at Momotaro in favor of a nightcap here and were bewitched by their sweet offerings, especially the praline pecan terrine (pictured above). I had to take a photo of the dessert menu so I could recall all the components of the dish (caramel, bourbon, espresso, honey foam, chocolate oil, malted ice cream, molasses syrup, chocolate powder), the kind of multi-faceted indulgence that makes my eyes roll back into my skull. I can put up with a lot of Mumford and Sons on the jukebox for some of this nirvana.
Cheese and Sausage Pan Pizza, Pequod's Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn Ave., Chicago
The great Burt's Place may be gone now, but you can still consume part of its legacy. Our rental condo was conveniently perched right on the edge of Pequod's delivery area, so we were able to partake in Burt Katz's famous pan pizza one night (although you won't find his name anywhere on the website - ungrateful bastards), right down to the burnt cheese ring on the crust. Here's hoping Pequod's owners will come to their senses one day and rightfully credit the man who originally conceived their star dish.
Hook Breakfast Sandwich, Reno, 2607 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago
Just down the street from the hispster Longman & Eagle is the hipster coffee bar and pizzeria, Reno. If you like good bagels, show up when the doors open at 9am (better to serve their customers who've been out drinking the night before) and get the Hook breakfast sandwich, an amalgam of togarashi-cured lox, a schmear of artichoke cream cheese, cucumber, avocado, and red onion on a poppyseed bagel, a slightly-modern take on the ubiquitous lox and bagel combo that can be found on every convenience store counter in New York City - messy (don't try to take it on the subway), but tasty.
Pecan Sticky Bun and Belgian Buttermilk/Rye Waffle, Milktooth, 534 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis
We discovered on our ride back to Florida that hipsterism isn't limited to Chicago - apparently, the scourge has spread full force into the surrounding states as seen at Milktooth, which may very well be the Midwest's trendiest cafe in the trendy Fletcher Place neighborhood just south of downtown Indianapolis. Sure, the restaurant is in an old garage and, of course, our waitress had a yellow ski cap, and, yes, there was a pithy, confusing saying about tigers on a letter board in the foyer, and is that tatooed patron really wearing a bathrobe? (I half expected Zooey Deschanel to wander out of the kitchen playing a trombone), but here's the thing: Milktooth is also quite possibly the best breakfast place in the Midwest now that Ina Pinkney is retired. Chef Jonathan Brooks (one of Food & Wine's Top 10 Best New Chefs in 2015) has taken the diner concept of old and elevated it into the stratosphere, serving a pecan sticky bun (fuzzily pictured above) so gooey and supercharged that it must certainly contain some radioactive material, while the Belgian buttermilk and rye waffle (not pictured, with maple persimmon coulis, whipped marscapone, salted chocolate caramel, and macadamia nuts) belongs in the Breakfast Hall of Fame, although my kids still wouldn't touch it. For good measure, I included a photo of the local apple Dutch baby pancake topped with vanilla-rum parsnip puree, powdered sugar, and brown butter hazelnut dukkah, and I can say that if Chef Jonathan keeps this up, we'll be staying in Indy next Christmas and commuting the 3 hours to Chicago for family gatherings so we can get more sticky buns (I'll be sure to bring my bathrobe).
Slaw Dog, Nu-Way Weiners, Macon, GA
No trip through Georgia is complete without stopping in Macon for a Nu-Way Hot Dog Combo. The original diner in downtown Macon is still rebuilding from last year's fire, but you can swing by one of the other 8 locations in the greater Macon area (as we did) to get your fix. Now that we've had a couple of times to try them, I find myself partial to the slaw dog over the chili dog - either way, you'll leave the place satisfied and rarin' to go for another 6 hours in the car.
In case you're curious, I gained 8 pounds consuming this glorious bounty over a 10-day period and I'm currently working it off in January. Kickboxing, here I come...