Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Second City

I took my first trip to Chicago to accompany my sisters to Lollapalooza, a three-day festival held this past weekend in Grant Park. The food at this year's Lolla deserves a nod; local restaurants were asked to set up shop in the festival's two giant food courts, which made eating at the show less disgusting than usual. Graham Elliot served lobster corn dogs and truffled popcorn, but we skipped those decadences in favor of watermelon gazpacho, as good as you would expect from the tatted, roly-poly chef. At Blue 13, we grabbed perfectly decent pork belly sliders, which we followed with Mexican corn and a pork belly tostada from Big Star. There were plenty of choices, but nothing came cheap; a modest lunch for three rang in at over fifty bucks.

But nevermind. The weekend's most successful culinary adventures didn't begin or end on the concert grounds. Our first night, we trekked across the Chicago River to Blackbird, Paul Kahan's minimalist spot. An amuse bouche of smoked sturgeon left me breathless, as did my appetizer of pitch-perfect sweetbreads. They were at once crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, paired with an unexpectedly delicious (and not at all weird) combination of pickled lime and flash-fried chocolate. The suckling pig worked, too, as did the duck liver pate, smoky like good southern barbecue. Even an endive salad, presented with a runny egg in a potato gaufrette and then dissembled table side, showed the majesty of simple things done well.

We waited over an hour for our entrees, a misstep the kitchen acknowledged with a midcourse of seared halibut, a fine example of the fish in all its glory. When my entree finally did arrive, it was a tad disappointing; my quail was unexceptional and the duck my sister ordered was by the book. We all agreed that entrees had been the weakest aspect of the night. We ordered two desserts and received four for our trouble and these were savory, sweet, crunchy, soft, and everything in between. The best, a coconut cake with passion fruit, disappeared from my sister's plate before the rest of us had time to dig more than one spoon in.

The next afternoon, I convinced our group to take a cab to the outer reaches of Roscoe Village, where there's this hot dog joint that everyone agrees is a must-see: Hot Doug's. Must-wait is more like it; the line progressed at a snail's pace and we waited two hours for our dogs, Chicago-style. But it was worth the wait. Chicago-style means a poppy seed bun, celery salt, green relish, onion, a pickle spear, mustard, and probably other elements that I'm forgetting. The vienna standard was fine on its own, but we got fancy and ordered a bratwurst and some other types of sausage, which came grilled and split with all the same accoutrement. The sausages' flavor was top-notch and even the corn dog--never my favorite--was the best of its breed. Duck fat French fries are only served Fridays and Saturdays, so keep this in mind if you're thinking of doing the dog-waiting thing. It's worth the extra calories.

Saturday night found us in Chinatown at Lao Beijing. Chicago's Chinatown is tiny by comparison to other metropolitan enclaves, but it still boasts great eats. The back alley that is Archer Street is basically a Chinese mall, studded with bubble tea joints, dim sum restaurants, and novelty stores. Lao Beijing is the third in a restaurant trilogy owned and run by Chef Tony Hu, this one serving food from the Beijing province. We started with chewy homemade noodles and pork. The texture won me over, even if the notably bland sauce didn't. It was no match, however, for our beef in garlic sauce, which came next, covered in a spicy sauce and adorned with wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and peppers. Tony's special dumplings look more like giant pigs in blanket (and taste like them, too). The cylindrical tubes of pork came sheathed in delicious and addictive dough. And while we're on the topic of dough, there was fried dough, simply called, "Fried Dough, Northern Style." It was sheets upon sheets of crispy fried dough, savory and served with two different chili sauces. It put every American incarnation of the stuff to shame.

We had pork and cabbage dumplings, too, as well as a chive cake that failed to resonate. The Chinese couple sharing our table laughed at our gluttony, but we had enough food for another meal. We did, however, regret not ordering the gorgeous bok choy and mushrooms enjoyed by our tablemates. Alas. Next time.

Caught in the rain on Sunday afternoon, we braved the half-hour wait at Mindy's Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park (Chicago's version of Park Slope) and allowed our cheery server to upsell us donuts with raspberry compote while we awaited our meals. But wait--before the food came the hot chocolate. Hot Chocolate serves four varieties: milk, dark, Mexican, and Chai. I opted for dark, the closest to straight melted chocolate. My sisters ordered milk, which came with a heavy hand of caramel and was a notch too sweet for my palate. J's Mexican was spicy and sweet and gone before we looked twice. Each mug came with a homemade marshmallow on the side. By the time my open-faced BLT arrived, I could have called it a day, but I soldiered on, eating my way through heirloom tomatoes, market arugula, local bacon, two sunny-side-up eggs, homemade focaccia (Hot Chocolate makes all of their own breads) and aioli. Brunch isn't my thing, but this version won me over, albeit temporarily.

Our final culinary adventure was a trip to Pilsen, Chicago's Mexican neighborhood. In Pilsen, we stopped off at Nuevo Leon, an institution since 1962. Women in traditional costume brought pickled carrots and jalapenos, fresh chips and salsa, and tiny bowls of chicken soup with stewed drumsticks. An appetizer of taquitos proved heartier than advertised, five open-faced tacos topped with marinated skirt steak, onions, and cilantro. I didn't really need the chorizo tacos afterwards, but food isn't always about need. Those tacos--fatty and served with the traditional American set of tomato, iceberg lettuce, and onion--were equally tasty, though I couldn't finish my plate. Neither could my sister, who had opted for the chorizo tostadas, crispy corn shells with refried beans, meat, and the same set of veggies. We drank our Jarritos (lime, pineapple, and grapefruit) and then decamped for the El. I was impressed by the city's culinary breadth and depth. It's no wonder they call it the Second City.

Graham Elliot
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Blue 13 Restaurant
416 West Ontario Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Big Star
1531 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622

619 West Randolph
Chicago, IL 60661

Hot Doug's
3324 North California Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618

Lao Beijing
2138 South Archer Avenue
Chicago, IL 60616

Mindy's Hot Chocolate
1747 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647

Nuevo Leon
1515 West 18th Street
Chicago, IL 60616