Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chicago, Chicago, a Tuberous Town

I've been meaning to post my Chicago finds for a while now, but an inquiry from a fellow potato lover there has spurred me forward.

First, I've got to say that this is an amazing public transportation town - way better than NYC for getting around. I did all chowhounding via buses and subways, and my iphone, with its maps and schedules, totally ruled.

Ok, on to the spuds.

Hash Browns Cafe (731 W Maxwell St.; 312-226-8000) makes tons of different types of hashbrowns: House hashbrowns (with sweet potato), rosemary hashbrowns (with red potatoes, rosemary, and garlic), regular idaho potato hashbrowns, combo hashbrowns (idaho and swweet potatoes sauteed with chopped garlic and toppped with Romano cheese), Killer Hashbrowns (idaho potatoes with cheddar, onions, and sour cream, topped with crushed corn flakes and baked until "bubbly")....and the $7.25 platter of assorted hashbrowns. Which, of course, I ordered. And ate, all by myself:

It was a spud-lover's dream come true, though near the end it felt like a wish granted by a particularly devious genie. The kitchen staff peered out of a window to watch me try to tackle it (those are not small portions).

Here are closeups:

Best were the cheesey hashbrowns topped with ground corn flakes. Click if you dare (NSFW):

Marrakech (1413 North Ashland; 773-227-6451) is an authentic but tragically neglected Moroccan, conveniently close to the metro. Sipping my mint tea, I felt like I was really back in Morocco.

Here is their very good bastilla (a great Moroccan dish that only classier kitchens make; basically a sweet and savory pastry pie with ground chicken or squab, lots of aromatic spices, and dustings of sugar and cinnamon:

They also carry some nice hand-woven items, like this bag:

Right near Marrakech: Podhalanka (1549 West Division Street, 773-486-6655) is a mega-dreary delight where the white borscht and potato pancakes will slay you.

Those pancakes are, obviously, splendidly and unrepentedly greasy. I think they start with grease, then fry the things in grease, then finally dab extra grease on them. They are best thought of as delivery vehicles for grease. If you're willing to suspend your feelings of shock and disgust, and to compromise a little on any desire you might have to live to a ripe old age, you will thrill to these things. Not every day. Not even every year. But once, to lodge in your sense memory (not to mention gall bladder) for the rest of your life, such as it is. Wait, one more shot:
Are you clicking for larger view? If not, you're missing the full effect!

Materialistic foodies always underestimate the critical importance of really crappy - and, preferably, stale - black pepper in preparing this sort of thing. Podhalanka leaves boxes of the stuff right on your table. Here you go:

More spuds. More! But, first, speaking of potatoes, have you taken my Three Foods Personality Test?

Berghoff Café (17 W. Adams Street; 312-427-7399) hosts a shuffling lunch line of downcast blue collar workers seeking cheap eats in a heavy, hazy fin de siècle cafeteria/bar. If we weren't in the midst of a depression, this all might seem quaintly retro. But one does what one must (including the ingestion of perfectly fine, and, in fact, somewhat transportive, roast turkey sandwiches and creamed spinach) to get to these incredible fried potatoes:

The seemingly bleak nether regions of Chicago sport vast unsung wonderment, and Birrieria Ocotlan (3011 W Cermak, 773-277-0189) is the one pearl I had time to suss out, but I'd think lifetimes could be spent excavating out here.

I'm not sure birria (incendiary stewed goat, best from the state of Jalisco, and better still from the town of Ocotlan in Jalisco) can get better than this. And that's all this place makes, aside from a few tacos of things like tongue or brains. No frigging chicken nachos at all. And the birria's absolutely slamming, as is the horchata. But best of all is the bowl of salted chili peppers on each table for snacking. Chips-and-salsa can kiss my ass!

As I nibbled chilis, a colossal Mexican dude at the next table kept glancing over and cringing. Finally he asked, in Spanish, if I was Mexican. "Casi" (almost), I responded, and he scratched his head and returned to his goat.

Nearby Ocotlan (a bit east on W Cermak, and across the street), there's a pan dulce place with ordinary offerings but really good cinnamon cookies at the counter. I think it was called "Central Bakery", but am not sure. Not worth a special trip, but it hits the spot post-birria

For a nice South Loop evening, here's what you do. Get a takeout pie at Lou Malnati's Pizzeria 805 South State Street, and eat it at the bar at Kasey's Tavern (701 South Dearborn St; 312-427-7992), which has a small but exquisitely well-chosen tap list, no obnoxious beer geek vibe, and friendly bartenders (I've learned to never seek out a town's most famous beer geek bar, opting, instead, for friendlier and more low-key second-rung joints with the modest-but-lovingly-selected tap lists).
Then finish with a set of music at Jazz Showcase, which still maintains just enough Chicago jazz flavor not to take a pretentious attitude toward the music.

Also in South Loop, Three Peas Art Lounge (75 E. 16th St.; 312-624-9414) is a cool (maybe a bit too cool) nano art gallery with very good coffee and wonderful key lime pie:

There's a fairly off-radar weekend street fair on South Desplaines near Cabrini (lots of the best stuff is at Desplaines and Polk) with impressive regional Mexican cooking. Here is some wicked asada:

And nice sizzling yellow corn gorditas:

One of the stands even makes pambazos, a holy grail dish for me (a sandwich of chorizo and potatoes, with the filling fried along with the bun which grows red and crispy).
One particularly good-looking stand is called "Taqueria Manolo".

I should note that Rosa De Lima (2013-15 N. Western Ave; 773-342-4557) is a friendly, well-run Peruvian with very good food. I need to investigate further to determine if there's anything keenly awesome.

There's a terrifyingly huge McDonald's at 600 North Clark Street complete with fussy dessert bar, escalator, two-lane drive-in, and split-level booth seating with views.

Across the street is an equally enormous Rain Forest Cafe (605 N. Clark St.; 312-787-1501) with a cool animatronic crocodile inside:

Appropos of nothing, Block X looks like a real cool place to live.

Hot tip not tried: Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant (6120 North Broadway; 773-338-6100. I'm positive it's real good. Also, a Mexican place called Green House of Steak (2700 South Millard Ave.; 773-277-6684), and Fogo de Chao Brazilian Churrascaria (661 N La Salle Dr; 312-932-9330) which, I know, is a chain, but trumpeter Claudio Roditi, who was headlining at Jazz Showcase, said this location's slamming.

Finally, I'd made up this Google Map before I left, stocked with tips I'd read on Chowhound. As usual, I mostly ignored this data. The thing few people grok about Chowhound is that the idea behind the site was to encourage everyone to make their own fresh finds and then use Chowhound to announce them...rather than plan scavenger hunts to follow the finds of others. Alas, most people use Chowhound to grab tips so they can scavenge other people's finds. But it's so much more fun to intrepidly find your own finds!


JManning said...

I'm drooling. I will add these to my life list of spuds. I shared your post with two former students who go to Northwestern, I await their reports.

Kirk said...

Great survey of off-the-beaten path finds in a wonderful food city, Jim.

I used to (1982 - 85) live across the street from Kasey's Tavern. The area, at the time, was in the very early stages of a transition from a print-shop district to lofts and apartments. It wasn't the Yupscale place it is now. On my way north on Dearborn, I used to step over sleeping drunks who had been turned away the previous night from the Pacific Garden Mission, then located around the corner on State Street.

For the longest time, I thought Kasey's was out of business...lights were off at night, no one ever came in or out, as far as I could tell. The façade was not open like it is now, but boarded up and painted red. I am pretty sure they had Old Style and Schlitz signs in the clerestory windows above the boarded up front.

Then one morning, I realized that Kasey's catered to the second- and third-shift workers at the printing plants in the area. It opened at midnight and closed at noon, and since the patrons were quiet and there were never any problems, I had no idea they were open for business. I never went in ... had not reached my current levels of adventuresomeness. I imagined then that if I ordered anything but a Boilermaker they'd toss me out on my chin.

I am delighted to hear that the place continues to do well, even though the clientele -- and hours -- are apparently much different.

Jim Leff said...

Kirk, great story, thanks!

It's funny how everything's relative. Kesey's seemed like the very opposite, in terms of yuppie annoyingness, of The Map Room and some of the other real snotty beer geek bars. I found it an oasis of down-home reality. Yet compared to what you describe, yup, it's practically Starbucks now!

zim said...


just happened to stumble upon this

next time you are in town, look me up, seriously. i've got some places to show you

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