Monday, July 30, 2012

Big Star

I have mentioned Paul Kahan before.  The man is like culinary royalty in Chicago.  He is a James Beard nominated and award-winning chef who owns five restaurants and a very fine bar (or four restaurants and two bars depending on how you want to count it) all of which are very different and all of which are very good.  While he is well known in the fine dining world with Blackbird and avec, his last two places, Big Star, and Publican Quality Meats, have been decidedly lower end (The other two places are The Publican and The Violet Hour).  Having said that these restaurants are decidedly lower end however, does not mean that they are any less good.  I went to Big Star recently for some tacos and beer.  Located in the heart of Wicker Park, actually located right next to Wicker Park, there really isn't much to say about the building.  It looks like an auto service garage, complete with two big garage doors.  The walls are cinder block and painted white and there is a big vintage Taco sign with blinking lights on the back wall.  The bar is very large nice and serves on all four sides.  There is a really nice selection of whiskey and tequilas and it has a turntable playing vintage vinyl.  The patio is very large as one might expect of a patio that occupies the former parking lot of a service garage.

The menu is fairly small and features tacos at a very nice price.  While the average person will eat three or four tacos, it is still fairly inexpensive.  While I said that I came for tacos, I also had to get some beans.  They weren't refried beans as you might find in most taquerias but it was really good anyway.  Besides the pinto beans, it had bacon, tomatoes, poblano peppers, onions, and was topped with queso fresco and cilantro.  It was also served with fresh corn tortillas.  It was kind of sloppy transferring it to the tortillas, and it was good eating it straight out of the bowl that it was served in, but tortillas and beans are a natural match.

Of the other things that I ordered in or on tortillas, I had two tacos and a tostada.  I started with the tostada because it was vegetarian and I thought I would start light.  I don't remember what it was called but it had huitlacoche, chihuahua cheese, onions, and arugula.  Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn and has a very short season.  It tastes like mushrooms obviously, but it also has a slight corn flavor.  The arugula was lemony and wasn't too peppery, so I assume it was a new cutting.  It was very good.  The first taco that I had was a Taco de Panza which is a crispy pork belly taco with tomato guajillo sauce, onions, queso fresco, and cilantro.  It was spicy, and crispy, and chewy, and the pork was nicely sweet.  As with any pork belly, it was great.  The other taco was a Taco Al Pastor which was a marinated and spit roasted pork shoulder with  grilled pineapple, grilled onions, and cilantro.  The marinade was kind of spicy but it went well with the tang of the pineapple.

Everything was very good and I really liked it here.  The decor was very low end and the food was cheap but it as very well prepared, and despite the fact that it was pretty loud, the music selection, mostly old country, was also very good.  While there are frequently long lines to get a seat, it is still a viable option for some very good tacos and a drink or three. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Smokey's BBQ

There are a lot of barbecue joints in Chicago, some very good, some not so much.  While I do have several very good barbecue places close to where I live, I am always happy to try something new.  There is the risk that I will run into one of the places that isn't so great, but honestly, I have never run into any barbecue that I could truly call bad.  I might find one that isn't as good as others, but not bad.  A while back, on my way home from work in the suburbs, I happened to notice Smokey's BBQ which is located, relative to other places, in the middle of nowhere.  While it is funny to refer to a place in the city of Chicago as being in the middle of nowhere, it is located in Gladstone Park, on the northwest side of the city.  While it is across the street from a factory and an infrequently used train station, I can't imagine that it gets a lot of foot traffic because there really isn't much business in the area.  In any case, it is on my way home from work and I recently decided to stop.  As with many other barbecue places, the decor is rather spartan.  From the door there is a half-wall forming an aisle that leads to the counter in the back.  There is a menu hanging above the counter but there are also takeout menus featuring the same things that were also on the counter.  After ordering, you seat yourself at one of the tables and someone would call your number when your order was ready.  The dining room also had a very large front window whichI ordered a half-rack of Baby Back Ribs which came with Cole Slaw, a Dinner Roll, and one side.  Most of the sides were potato-based and I had read good things about their Cheesy Potatoes, so that's what I ordered.  The meal came out on a metal tray with a paper placemat.  The slaw and potatoes were in disposable containers.  While it was a little disconcerting to be served with the tray being used as a plate, as I was going to be eating immediately, I guess it's acceptable.  I am also used to being served cornbread with ribs instead of a roll (although admittedly, it was better than the white bread that is served with the ribs at Honey 1).  While the roll wasn't bad, it also wasn't exciting.  It was something that you could find at any grocery store.  As well, the cole slaw was no different than any you could find at any number of places.  The cheesy potatoes however, were something special.  The potatoes seemed to have a sour cream sauce and were topped with a good amount of melted cheddar cheese.  The half-rack looked a little small, and really it only had five bones, but there was a lot of meat on those bones so I probably got at least as much meat as I have with other ribs that I have had.  The ribs were served with the sauce on and while it was a nice coating, it wasn't so heavy that you couldn't taste the meat.  The sauce itself was kind of interesting.  It was tomato based but was much more savory than sweet.  It was spicy with a slightly tart finish.  While most sauces can be classified by one of four major regions (Memphis, Texas, Kansas City, or Carolina) , the only time that I have ever had a sauce like this was at a rib fest with a place from Alabama.  The ribs themselves were also cooked well.  I did have to start separating them with a plastic knife but after they were started, they pulled apart easily.  This was a pretty good place and I really enjoyed it.  I am glad I stopped and know that even if it is well out of most people's way, I have an option on my way home.         

Friday, July 20, 2012


It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to write about this.  Sawtooth is a Vietnamese restaurant on Randolph St.  Because of this, there is an expectation of quality and style that comes with the location.  What I had seen of the restaurant as I was biking by bolstered that impression.  It has a nice outdoor lounge located beside and in front of the restaurant.  The restaurant itself is antique brick with a glass wall between the lounge and the bar inside and there is a stylized S (with sawteeth) above the entrance.  When I entered the restaurant, I was met quickly and asked whether I wanted to sit indoors or out.  As it was a nice day, I decided it would be a good day to sit outside so that is where I sat.  The problems began almost immediately.  While I was seated quickly and I had a nice seat, I didn't receive water or a menu for a few minutes.  I looked at the menu, and while they had some interesting cocktails, I thought a beer would be safer.  They had a Sawtooth Ale so I decided to have that.  Unfortunately, they didn't have it.  My next choice was a local beer, Three Floyds Pride & Joy.  With this one, I was told it was replaced by Domaine Dupage.  While I didn't say it at the time, it did bother me a little, the way the bartender stated it sounded like Domaine Dupage was a 3 Floyds beer.  It is not, it is a Two Brothers beer which is another big local brewery.  I decided to avoid all of that and went with a New Holland Mad Hatter which arrived relatively quickly.  I had to wait a little while again before someone showed up to ask if I wanted anything to eat.  I made my order and waited...  Another waiter eventually came out with my appetizer and it looked really good.  I had Bo Bia which were essentially Vietnamese spring rolls.  They had grilled pork and chicken sausage, a strip of scrambled eggs, jicama, lettuce, and carrots that was all wrapped in rice paper.  It was served with a peanut and red pepper sauce on the side.  The rolls were crisp and very fresh tasting and were an explosion of flavor.  I really enjoyed this and brushed off the wait that it took for me to receive them.
 My table was cleared relatively quickly but then the wait began again.  For the main course, I actually ordered two separate dishes, the entree and a separate vegetable dish.  I would have been fine if the dishes arrived separately but they brought them together.  For my vegetable dish, I ordered what they called Basil Tofu which had the tofu, broccoli, red peppers, baby corn, and pea pods in a dark soy sauce.  I am generally not a huge fan of tofu but I like basil, broccoli, and soy sauce, so I thought I would try it out.  It was amazing!  The tofu had been fried crispy and the flavor of fresh basil suffused through the dish.  The vegetables had been stir-fried and the soy sauce was also very good.

My entree was Seafood Glass Noodles which had shrimp and crab stir-fried with glass noodles and mixed vegetables which included broccoli, carrots, celery, red pepper.  This was also very good and much drier than were the vegetables.  It did take a little mixing to get everything mixed together well but I didn't mind.  I will admit that while I am not an expert with chopsticks, when they are offered to me, I will try to use them. Using them with the Bo Bia was easy but other than with the crispy tofu, I didn't really try with the vegetable dish.  With this dish, it was easy.  I just wound a bite up with the glass noodles and had my way with it.  The crab was shredded, the shrimp were small, and the vegetables were firm and bite-sized.  It tasted good and was fun to eat.

While I had the vegetables and the seafood dish at the table at the same time and I did try both (I didn't eat them separately), I did finish the vegetables first.  After I finished the vegetables and while I was eating the noodles, my waiter came close and while he was waiting on the table next to me, he picked up my vegetable plate and my menu.  After I finished the noodles though, the plate sat at my table for about ten minutes and after it was picked up, it took a few minutes for the waiter to come to ask if I was interested in dessert.  It would have been convenient to have the menu at this time because the dessert menu was also on the main menu.  The waiter did remember what was on the dessert list and I ordered a Passionfruit Torte which was served with fresh fruit and topped with mint.  While this wasn't bad, it was probably the least successful dish of the meal.  It tasted good and the fresh fruit (except for the cantaloupe) was nice but it wasn't spectacular.  I finished my dish and again waited for my bill.

 By this time, I was a bit irritated and did actually think about leaving without paying.  I did have a discount coupon that they already had in their possession but it wouldn't have covered the entire bill.  While I was irritated and felt ignored, I did stick around for my bill.  While they did not overtly acknowledge their lack of service overtly, when I received my bill, the only thing that I had to pay was tax because everything else was covered.  Up until this point, there was no way that I was going to return to this restaurant despite the fact that I really liked the food and the decor.  The bill seemed to me to be a tacit acknowledgement that they screwed up.  With this, I would definitely consider coming again but they would have a very short leash.  If I again received the level of service that I had received, I would walk and not return.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Vanille Patisserie

I have said before that I have a bias toward French food.  Many of the techniques found in fine dining originated with the French and French Pastries are things of art and beauty (as well as tasting good).  There are actually two types of French bakeries, boulangeries where breads, croissants, and other baked goods like cakes are made and sold, and patisseries, bakeries that make pastries and sweets.  In France, patisserie is a controlled term and can only be used by bakeries that employ a master baker or patissier.  I went recently to Vanille Patisserie recently which is owned by 2008 World Pastry Champion, Dimitri Fayard, so it seems to follow that rule.  Walking into the shop reminded me of the patisseries in France.  There was a wide assortment of very beautiful pastries.  There were tarts, petits fours, entremets (mousse cakes), and brownies, but I was there for the Macarons.  Macarons are essentially meringue sandwich cookies that are brightly colored and come in a wide variety of flavors.  They are very light and delicate and it amazes me how much flavor they can contain.  I bought a dozen macarons, all of different flavors (and colors).  We had Strawberry Lemongrass (yellow airbrushed with red), Rose (light pink), Raspberry (dark pink), Earl Grey (blue), Lavender (purple), Chocolate Banana (yellow dusted with cocoa powder), Caramel (dark tan), Coffee (tan), and Nutella, Stout, Chocolate, and another that I don't remember that were all brown.  While they were all light, sweet, and delicate, they all had distinct flavors.  My favorites were Caramel, Coffee, Earl Grey, and Lavender.

These are a great treat and there were still some flavors that I haven not yet tried so I will definitely have to go back.  Luckily, they are pretty close to where I live.      

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Bento Box

In Japan, a home-packed or takeout lunch is called a bento.  It is served in a container that is divided into sections known in the US as a bento box.  A bento will typically contain rice, fish, or meat and at least one pickled vegetable.  There is a tiny restaurant (16 seats) in my neighborhood that serves bento boxes and is named (surprisingly enough) The Bento Box.  As it is close and it sounded interesting, I decided to go recently for lunch.  The place is done completely in dark wood with a row of seats against one wall and a few tables in the middle of the floor.  There is a small counter in the back of the dining area and in front of the door behind which is the kitchen.  A large cartoon mural of a samurai chef is on the wall between the door and the counter (above the door, the ceiling is pretty high.  The small menu changes daily and is listed on a chalkboard next to the the counter.  It is a BYOB place and there are generally 4 Appetizers, 3 or 4 entrees, and 3 sides.  While I did consider ordering something in addition to the entree, it was a good thing that I didn't because the entree, being a bento box, already came with several sides.  I ordered the Tempura Fried Oyster Mushrooms, which came with Chilled Soba Noodles, Kim Chi, and a small portion of Ginger Cole Slaw.  The mushrooms were great.  The tempura crust was very light and crispy.  The mushrooms themselves were very large and meaty textured.  There was also a light soy dressing on the mushrooms themselves besides the side compartment in the box that had soy sauce in it.  I had never had soba noodles before but from what I had gathered, they seemed to be the Japanese version of spaghetti.  This is true in that they are both long, narrow, and cylindrical noodles.  Soba though, at least the soba noodles that I had here, have a much more whole grain taste which I like.  The noodles had been soaked in soy sauce so were pretty dark.  Fresh cilantro was mixed with the noodles and, as the name implies, it was served cold.  While kim chi is the Asian version of sauerkraut, it isn't simply fermented cabbage as sauerkraut is.  While cabbage is a frequent contributor, it also may have carrots, peppers, radishes, onions, and a variety of spices.  I have had a variety of kim chis and while many are pungent, some are stronger than others.  The version I had here was pungent, had a lot of peppers, and was pretty spicy but was also pretty good.  I would expect fermented vegetables to be pretty soft, but there was something in this version that was still crisp and had a nice crunch.  The ginger coleslaw was exactly what it sounded like, coleslaw with a very healthy ginger flavor.  While the serving size was small, it did pack a punch.

I really enjoyed my lunch here and will definitely be back.  While the lunch that I had was vegetarian, I didn't miss the meat.  They do have several meat options on their rotating menu.  On the day that I was there, there was a fish and a chicken dish, and I frequently see a pork belly dish pop up.  The food was very good, and the staff was very friendly. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Honey 1 BBQ

There are a lot of barbecue restaurants in Chicago covering a lot of styles.  Admittedly, many of the places that serve barbecue really aren't that good and don't serve barbecue as it's supposed to be served, there are a growing number are actually smoking their meat and adding the sauce at the end as it's supposed to be done.  Honey 1 BBQ is one of the places that is doing things right.  It really doesn't look like much; you enter the restaurant into a long hallway which leads to an order window on the right and the dining room on the left.  The menu is on a board to the right of the window.  The way it works is similar to a fast food restaurant.  You make your order and wait for it there.  If you will be eating there, you will get a tray, if taking out, you will get a bag (although in both, your order is put into a styrofoam tray).  I decided this time to eat in the dining room.  As with most barbecue places, there isn't much to talk about.  The walls are red with a few pig wall hangings and the furniture looks like something you would see in a hospital cafeteria (small four top tables and plastic chairs).  When you are going to a barbecue place though, you are not going for a high class dining experience.

The major barbecue styles are generally recognized as Carolina Style, Memphis Style, Kansas City Style, and Texas Style.  Honey 1 bills itself as Arkansas style.  I am not sure exactly what that means but there were a few things different that I noted about it so that's what it might be.  This place has been lauded for many years and people talk about their tips and smoky links.  The first time that I came hear, I decided to try what everyone talked about.  I can honestly say that I really wasn't that impressed.  The smoky links, while they were smoky, were also pretty dry and the rib tips were tough.  When I decided to come back, I decided to try what I have been trying at other barbecue places in order to compare them, the Baby Back Ribs.  When I opened up my tray, I saw that I had what I thought was a pretty large half rack that was served with cole slaw, french fries, and two slices of white bread.  While Honey 1 does have several sides and does offer one side with the ribs (plus cole slaw), unless you specifically say that you want something else, the default side will be french fries.  I will say that I didn't really understand the point of the white bread.  The cole slaw wasn't bad but it was also nothing to write home about and the french fries were thick cut.  Other than the ribs, there was really nothing to talk about so I will talk about the ribs.  As I said, while I ordered a half rack, it was a large half rack with 8 bones.  It was also liberally slathered with the barbecue sauce.  The meat was smoky and while it didn't slide off the bone, I was able to pull it apart by hand.  The meat wasn't exceptionally juicy, but it also wasn't dry.  It did have a nice chew to it.  The barbecue sauce was liberally applied and had a spicy sweet flavor to it.  There isn't much tang to it but it was pretty good and, as you might expect, with a lot of barbecue sauce, it was very messy.  I was very happy for the wet naps.

While Honey 1 did redeem themselves with their ribs and I will come back, it is definitely a no frills place.  I can say that while the sides don't offer a reason to come back, the ribs do a pretty good job on their own.  While there are other places that I might like better, this place is worthy of consideration when barbecue is talked about.