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1/2 I spent the past five months working one block from Margon and yet I never made it over until my final day. It’s wasn’t a laziness issue (though I did find myself in the ground floor Au Bon Pain more than I’d like to admit—hey, I had a discount).  I just try to go easy calorically during the day (after 6pm I go nuts). If I had a guy metabolism I swear I’d eat a cubano at least weekly. It’s not like roast pork, ham, swiss cheese, Margon_cubano mustard and pickles should kill you. Oh yeah, and the salami, Margon’s wild card touch. I would’ve liked to have tried the tripe steam table special but it wasn’t on Wednesday’s list (that’s Monday or Thursday), plus the office was populated by culinary joykills (I suspect my new office contains more of the same—where are the coworkers who appreciate a fine spleen or somesuch?). It’s for the best that I’m no longer employed near midtown because now that I’ve given in I doubt I could resist the little lunch counter’s pull.

Funny, I just looked at Midtown Lunch and their person on the street interview jumped out because there aren’t many news librarians in the world. Then I realized the woman being questioned had listed my old intersection, the Newscorp building, but didn’t work at the New York Post. Ah yes, Fox News. Those freaks put me through three interviews, three months apart for a weekend freelance job. I lost interest about half way through the process because I like my Sundays more than I like extra spending money. I’m so done with news librarianship. For real. But now I’m in the Financial District—and I thought midtown was bleak food-wise…

Margon * 176 W. 46th St., New York, NY


Frankly, I would’ve been fine sampling neither deep dish pizza nor Chicago style hotdogs, but if I had to choose one regional specialty it would be the pie. I envisioned a circular, super dense lasagna that would be bready rather than noodly, and that wasn’t too far off. Deep dish isn’t terribly different from Middle American thick crust though the layering is reversed with cheese on the bottom, a sausage strata (assuming you order that meat) and a slew of red sauce the crowning glory.

Ginos_deep_dishI became well acquainted with thick crusts during a summer stint between high school and college as dough maker at a takeout-only Pizza Hut. I wasn’t crazy about the style then either (at the time there were two other crust options: hand tossed and thin but we didn’t promote them because they were a pain in the ass to prep and couldn’t be made in advance). The 7am start time was a killer but working alone in wee hours I made a few adjustments like using two squirts of oil instead of three in the big metal pie pans. My brilliant health-inducing plan only succeeded in getting me into trouble when the pizzas all stuck that evening. I seriously don’t think I’ve touched a thick crust pizza since 1990.

Ginos_interiorTo be fair, I couldn’t give our large, which we were warned away from by our beefy ponytailed waiter, my full attention since I’d been on a Mexican food binge earlier in the day. One slice was all I could muster. Maybe I was distracted by all the Blues Brothers memorabilia, Thompson Twins tunes and writing on the wall (I couldn’t figure out if the reason why none of the graffiti predated 2006 was because the location was new or because they periodically paint over all the scribbling and start fresh). We’d intentionally over ordered so we could transport our leftovers back to NYC. Heck, they’re charging $26.97 plus $18 shipping for the same service. And I will say that Saturday evening after returning home, I really enjoyed the pizza. The hefty, buttery crust had held up well. The toppings also survived suitcase transit. Chicago makes one tough pie. A perfect New York slice would’ve been soggy, flimsy mess.

Gino’s * 633 N. Wells St., Chicago, IL

Chao Thai

Read my review.
Phew, I was finally able to squeeze in some non-Latin food (I was getting a little plaintained-out). Thai is my go-to happy cuisine (I really want to delve into Korean food because what I know of it I like but I just can’t figure out where to jump in. I need to find a place that wouldn’t be intimidating to newcomers but goes beyond basic kalbi and bibimbob) but there was no way I was going to attempt Sripraphai on a Friday night. I’d only been once before but recalled tiny Chao Thai having serious potential.
There was an empty table amongst the five or so on offer (unfortunately, it was closest to the frequently opened front door. Even though they had a space heater whirring, by the end of our meal we were practically frost bitten from our knees down) so it started well. It didn’t kill me but I was freaked out the vanilla scented Glade candle sitting in front of me, next to the napkin dispenser. James loves those artificial smelly things so I kept sticking it on his side of the table and he’d torment me my putting it back in its original spot. I find air fresheners to be headache-inducing, I’d much rather smell fried fish, cigarette smoke, wet dogs (ok, maybe not the canines) and the like. Luckily, this was low on the offensive scale. If it were one of those Thomas Kinkade monstrosities (two of which reside in my home), I might’ve lost my shit.
I was immediately agog over a dish on the specials list called Three Buddies Crispy Salad. They already had me at crispy because I can’t resist that fatty style of pork coming from any ethnicity. But buddies? That was the cutest thing I’d ever heard. I’m not sure what the three edible pals were exactly. The pig and the fish were the only two living components—could they be buddies with vegetables? The ingredients were fish maw, crispy pork, cashews, red onions and kind of Chinesey scallions and celery leaves. There weren’t expected herbs like mint of cilantro, though the dressing was explosively Thai with roughly chopped orange, green and red bird chiles peeping out from the pile of mysterious buddies.
A basil chile duck we ordered was also very Chinese in flavor, with a prominent star anise perfume. We had pad prik king with chicken (I got irked over James ordering a second poultry dish, but the other two items were my doing so I had to relent control, plus it was good).
It’s easy to forget about Chao Thai, and if you’re on that stretch of Whitney Avenue you might be tempted to try one of the two Indonesian restaurants across the street instead. But it’s worth a stop. The food is way better than typical Ameri-Thai, very close to Sripraphai’s caliber with a lot of different dishes. I gave it 2 1/2 shovels last time and I'm nearly inclined to bump that to 3 (if you haven't already noticed, my shovels tend to be fairly arbitrary). My only complaint would be no dessert case. Just like last time I picked up some galub jamun from Bappy Sweets up the street. Buddies and Bappy are a great combo. (2/23/07)

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Frontera Grill

1/2 Just this month I started catching Rick Bayless reruns on one of the public broadcasting channels. I don’t know what his deal is but his breathless, sing-songy stoner mannerisms are kind of distressing yet impossible to ignore. He almost sounds like he’s speaking to children, as if Mr. Rogers wore a dude necklace instead of a cardigan. I don’t usually laugh out loud when watching cooking shows (besides, he seems to know his craft) so we added Mexico: One Plate at a Time to our DVR queue.

Frontera_grill_cocktailsI hadn’t considered trying his restaurants at all while in Chicago but what I feared might happen did. It was too bitterly cold for traipsing about on multiple subways and trudging through snow. We did that on Friday for hole-in-the-wall Mexican and by Saturday didn’t have the wherewithal to scout out the Lithuanian restaurant, Healthy Food, which I’d intended to visit. I’d heard about kugilis and bacon buns and was intrigued. I never ever eat Slavic, so Eastern European fare is exotic enough to go out of my way for on vacation.

Frontera_grill_sopes_rancherosWalkable (well, we cabbed it there and hoofed it back) plan B became brunch at Frontera Grill. I’m scared of the whole celebrity chef, memorabilia for sale in the foyer thing. But prejudices aside, the food was really pretty good, as were the cocktails, which are shaken tableside. Service is well informed and friendly, though I would say that they clearly pander to a certain audience. Or maybe it’s Chicago in general.

Frontera_grill_pozole_rojoI don’t want to be an NYC know-it-all, but at Moto I didn’t really need an explanation of what shiso is. At Frontera we were told that a tamale was corn masa wrapped in a banana leaf. Does their typical diner not know what the heck a tamale is? Maybe our waiter was explaining their tamale since it could come in a corn husk. No biggie, I’m probably overly sensitive about over explaining.

We shared an order of sopes rancheros, which were crispy masa disks topped with shredded beef, roasted tomatoes, avocado and fresh cheese. The accompanying red and green salsas matched well. We were bummed when they took away the tiny dish of spiced pepitas and peanuts when are entrees arrived.

Frontera_grill_flanI should’ve stuck to my original guns and chose something eggy but I’ve been on a pozole kick lately and couldn’t resist their red version filled with pork chunks and hominy. The stew was satisfying but about ¾ of the way through I grew tired of the heavy, slightly salty flavors. I would’ve preferred a smaller portion, which is something I never thought I’d say.

At least I still had room for a cup of  rich, tequila-spiked hot chocolate and chamomile and lime leaf infused flan with candied orange peel.

Frontera Grill * 445 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL


When describing what I did for Valentine’s Day, the words Moto or Homaro Cantu don’t always register much recognition but if I say, “you know, the laser and ink jet guy from Iron Chef” the response is generally better. “Oh, that guy. Cool.”

Yeah, it was cool. I get the sense that Moto is less serious (or taken less seriously) than the other experimental game in town, Alinea, and that was what I was in the mood for. Surprises without stuffiness. Despite hardly being a thrifty meal, I liked the general informality and sense of whimsy.

I’m not sure if it’s a NYC vs. Chicago thing or Moto vs. comparable local restaurants but the servers seemed young in a way you don’t find here. Maybe it’s because they’re not aspiring models, stylists or actors (maybe they are—that’s not the type of thing I ask). I liked our doughy guy who had a slight Capote lilt to his speech. There was another waiter with floppy blonde hair who made me nervous because he could never quite get his descriptions out right and had a spazzy, surfer-inflected delivery. A general feeling of bright-eyed proud-ness was present, though. 

Minus all the molecular bells and whistles, I was surprised at how American the food actually was. I appreciated the takes on nachos, mac and cheese, rib eye, popcorn and cotton candy. I’m not sure if that’s the Midwestern influence at work or what. Tweaking familiar favorites, evoking nostalgia. It works for Brit, Heston Blumenthal, right? There is a lot of texture and temperature play, crunchy and soft, cold and hot, sometimes it’s brilliant and occasionally it’s unsettling.

Moto was most definitely fun, though it’s not the type of food that you crave when you simply want something good to eat. Sometimes you’re just hungry and don’t want to think too hard or need to be delighted by unorthodox plating and presentation. It’s certainly not an emperor’s new clothes situation but I wouldn’t feel the need to dine this way on a frequent basis. Of course there’s middle ground between grubbin’ and avant-garde and the whole range is exciting to me.

Random Aside: I’m the one who’s usually annoyed by strangers’ antics but James was losing his shit with the male half of the couple on my left. I couldn’t really see him because we were seated on the same side of the table. During the middle of our meal he confidently explained to his date, a mousy, brunet Reese Witherspoon lookalike in a charcoal gray skirt suit, “I have one word for you: MO TO” while chopping the air for emphasis. (My internal voice changed his proclamation to MO ROCCA.) He also took credit for the metal suspended spoon contraption used on Iron Chef. I don’t know what his deal was; he didn’t work at the restaurant but seemed to know everyone and appeared to be getting special treatment. His bravado didn’t appear to put off anyone except us, though, so perhaps we’re crybabies. I’ve yet to encounter a female taking this same gourmand show off approach at an upscale restaurant though I frequently find myself seated near the reverse.


Initially, you’re presented with an edible menu with the GTM parade listed on one side and the ten and five course options on the flip side. We thought ten courses seemed about right. Five would be sadly lacking and the grand tasting menu seemed a shade over the top. We chose well, and stayed sharp until two sweet courses arrived. The menu on this occasion was Mexican themed and tasted like chile-cheese frico. There was a spicy dip beneath the readable cracker.

Unless I write as I eat, which I don’t do when I’m out for fun, I tend to forget finer details of the dishes. Their descriptions are obliquely simplistic so there’s a lot of filling in the blanks. I’ve copied wine pairings from the website. There’s no way I could remember any of that. I’m only moderately about wine, James not at all, but he loved the Bechtheimer Heiligkreuz Sheurebe, comparing it favorably to Vitamin Water (he thought our rose cava at Ureña tasted like “expensive soda”). He asked about it (we couldn’t remember the name to save our lives) and the nice wine stewardess gave us a second pour. I could understand why after looking all the wines up—it was the cheapest of the lot, only around $12 a bottle. I guess we’re easy to please.

salmon and sesame

larmandier lernier, 1er cru blanc de blancs, vertus, brut nv

If I’m correct, liquid nitrogen (which is stirred up in a copper pan tableside) is mixed with lime juice and drizzled atop the cubed salmon and sesame crisp. Little tangy white blobs form. Chilly, soft, crunchy, acidic all at once.

acorn with bacon

geil, bechtheimer heiligkreuz, scheurebe, kabinett, rheinhessen 2005

Maybe because our taste buds were still sharp but I really liked this one. The maple and squash cake is frozen but creamy on mouth contact like that astronaut ice cream you could get a science museum gift shops when you were a kid. The tiny squares of warm squash meld well and contained the world’s tiniest strip of bacon.

merluzzo and popcorn

waugh cellars, indindoli vineyard, chardonnay, russian river valley 2004

The chunk of fish is wrapped with noodles made from mango (no starch, just juice) and the mustardy swipes of sauce taste surprisingly like popcorn. The green blobs are crafted from shisho. I can’t recall what the white powdery substance is.

pomegranate and caped gooseberry

A sour palate cleanser. One husk contains a real gooseberry while the other holds a square of gooseberry gel which tastes nearly the same.

bbq pork with the fixin's

sutton cellars, trimble vineyard, carignane, mendocino county 2004

I think this was intended to mimic a pulled pork sandwich. The saucy meat sits on the right and on the left is a toasty but frozen square of squid ink covered bread sitting atop what I think was described as a praline sauce. We weren’t sure about the crumbs sitting next to it. I just know realized that the black chunk is meant to resemble a lump of charcoal.

pasta and ribeye
ramey, claret, napa valley 2004

The elbow macaroni looked like it came straight from the bag but it wasn’t tooth-shattering, just slightly crispy. The strange thing is that I took this title from their menu but I don’t remember meat being in this. Perhaps the wine had fuzzed my mind by this point but I thought the brownish blobs were savory cheese curds (that’s frightening if I can’t tell the difference between cheddar and beef). I’ve looked at photos of this dish on other websites and there appears to be steak strips in the glass and diners can pour the cheese sauce from a separate cup. Ours was self-contained. I might be the only American who’s not crazy about macaroni and cheese, but this dish was great.

lychee rigatoni fruit plate

meinklang, trokenbeerenauslese, bouvier, burgenland 2001

The pastas tubes are made of lychee and the sauce is a sweet, thick concoction containing white chocolate (which also struck me as very American—I love white chocolate but it has a lowbrow stigma, doesn’t it?). Beneath the crisp is a candied slice of fuji apple and a slice of a fruit that I’m forgetting.

two and three dimensional truffle

This was the cotton candy in orb and paper form. The truffle reminded me of iced circus cookie filled with cold water. I’m not sure if that was the intended effect. I liked the edible paper better than the bonbon.

graham cracker and quince
elio perrone, moscato d'Asti “sourgal” 2006

A strange but tantalizing malty, graham cracker-ish soup topped with fruity pellets.

kiwi, mango, mint and maize

I thought were done at this point. I didn’t realize that we were getting nachos (and some chocolate krispie doo dads) and my stomach capacity was at maximum. When describing this dish to a friend I found it hard to articulate how this was more than mere novelty. They use kiwi for chiles, grated mango as cheese, chocolate for ground beef and a lemon sauce for sour cream. In my head I kept picturing a Kraft Foods abomination. I assure yMe_in_moto_bathroom_4ou that there was nothing atrocious about these flavors.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to snap a photo of myself in the bathroom. So MySpacey. It was my one moment of calm, a buffer from the sensory overload on the other side of the door

Moto * 945 W. Fulton St., Chicago, IL

Emergen-C Isn’t Food


I have a very poor sense of portions and what’s normal, which is why I’ll never be wispy. I hate depravation. This morning I finally got around to skimming this week’s New York and became fixated on a few industry types’ eating diaries during Fashion Week (I was on the toilet while reading this, mind you, it was number one not number two. There was just something appropriate about expelling waste while reading such crap).

I was kind of appalled by the Elle editor’s regimen, but then I was like well, maybe that’s typical. I don’t really know, that’s not my world (though even the model ate some onion rings and rice krispie treat), I guess that’s how you stay thin. But only eating two ounces of ceviche (and knowing that you’d consumed two ounces) completely creeped me out.

I eat ceviche when I’m trying to be restrained and it’s lime-marinated fish instead of something fried, breaded or starchy. Like last night I was at Sofrito and skipped empanadas (which I might normally lean towards but I’d already eaten half a Margon cubano for lunch) in lieu of octopus salad. But I know I downed more than two ounces of the chopped cephalopod and I wasn’t bothered in the least. I proceeded to drink four glasses of Pinot Noir and then I cared even less.

So, I was very relieved when this afternoon I noticed Gawker and Gothamist had both called out this woman’s minimalist approach to dining. I can’t believe I’m relying on  blogs as a window onto acceptable eating habits. Ok, so this style of eating is weird?

I actually do record (almost) everything I eat and drink because I’m one of those nasty point counters. Today was atypical because I stayed at home (since I start a new job Monday I thought I’d take off Thursday and Friday and be lazy and take care of odds and ends around the apt.) and I eat differently than if I was in an office. But so far I’ve had the other half of my leftover cubano from yesterday (I swear, it wasn’t as huge as a standard style Cuban sandwich so I didn’t feel so bad), ¼ cup white rice topped with chile radish, a handful of wasabi peas, two corn tortillas with a couple avocado and tomato slices and lots of black coffee and water. I guess I would call that a day if I were in the fashion industry but it’s only 6pm.

Around 9pm I’ll make Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork (using ribs instead of belly) the cover star from my new Hunan cookbook and eat that with more white rice and leftover black bean chile Chinese broccoli from Tuesday night, while watching DVR’d Ugly Betty and The Office. And believe it or not, if I keep the pork to about six ounces I’m still within my point limit (I spent an hour on an elliptical trainer and lifted a few free weights so I could eat fatty pork). So there. If I’m lucky I’ll shed .25 pounds this week. No, the pound a month approach isn’t ideal.

Billy Goat Tavern

1/2 Billy_goat_exteriorYou know you’ve entered strange territory when a double cheeseburger starts sounding like light fare. My original itinerary placed us at touristy Gino’s for a deep-dish pizza lunch but our flight was delayed slightly and I became concerned about such a heavy item ruining our 8pm Moto meal. There’s something about Chicago that allowed me to feel uncharacteristically shameless about cheesy venues. Since I was on the tourist track and scouting walkable options, Billy Goat Tavern (made famous from the ‘70s Saturday Night Live cheezborger, cheezborger sketch.) seemed as good a choice as any.

Billy_goat_counterWe liked how one second you’re on shopping central, Magnificent Mile, then after descending a staircase you’re in a spooky subterranean enclave like Batman’s Gotham City. After opening the front door festooned with a goat painting (the first of two I’d find in 24 hours), you travel down another level of stairs into a barebones, wood paneled, resolutely lowbrow joint, the kind of place people might think still exists in NYC but sorely doesn’t. The bar that occupies a good portion of the right half of the room is as prominent as the center grill. 

Billy_goat_double_cheeseburgerI hate crowds, but I also get nervous when a place is empty. We were practically the only occupants at 4pm on a Wednesday but that was soon rectified. By the time we were ready to leave they were doing brisk business with baffled vegetarian tourists (they got the grilled cheese) and batches of Chicago Tribune employees from across the street, some nursing whiskeys and chain smoking, others conducing business meetings.

Billy_goat_barYou order from the brief wall menu at the counter and a bartender comes around to take your drink order. The animated qualities of the counter guys (yes, they’ll do the SNL shtick) were balanced by the flat surliness of the Scatman Crothers-looking bar keep (though after we lingered over six Billy Goat lagers and tipping probably a little generously by local standards he warmed up and began encouraging us to stay and drink more).

The simple double cheeseburger on a roll is the way to go. It comes on a paper plate and you can dress it up with typical condiments like mustard, ketchup, pickles, onions and relish. This meat sandwich tempered with three beers was my healthy lunch. At least I was saved from caloric fries because they don’t serve them. The only available side is a bag of potato chips, plain or bbq, and I’ve never been a chip eater. I still say it was less filling than Chicago-style pizza.

Billy Goat Tavern * 430 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL

Sunday Night Special: General Tso’s Chicken

Ok, this isn’t technically a Sunday Night Special, but I didn’t cook on the day of rest because I had a huge late lunch at Pio Pio. Tonight I made what I would’ve wanted to cook on Sunday night if I'd been hungrier.

I’m sure I’m not the first to discover what a deal Amazon’s free super saver shipping is. You’re entitled if you spend over $25 and they warn that it will take 5-9 days just to scare you off but it never takes that long. Just Sunday I ordered Fuchsia Dunlop’s brand new Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province (as well as Memories of Philippine Kitchens and Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs [I'm trying to learn more about the Bronx]). I was inspired after killing time in the airport the day before, reading her recent General Tso’s chicken article off a handheld device from a copyright violating website. I couldn't believe that an Amazon box was sitting in the hall when I left for work this morning. Very impressive.

I must not get out much because I’d never heard of this popular chicken dish referred to anything other than Tso’s or possibly Tsao’s, and I grew up in a city completely lacking in authentic Chinese food. This Gau’s and George’s business is nuts (but then, I’ve also heard that you can get white bread with Chinese take out in Boston)

General_tsos_chickenI’m all about the dark meat, despite always having a stash of listless Costco chicken breasts in the freezer. Thighs are so much tastier, so I followed this suggestion in the recipe. Unfortunately, we didn’t scrutinize the cooking instructions before shopping on Sunday afternoon and only picked up a pack of three thighs. To make up the difference, I tossed in a sliced chicken breast. There was no contest between the two cuts. Funny that General Tso has recently prompted a light vs. dark discussion elsewhere.

The only thing we had to pick up was potato flour and some gai lan as a side (I realize American broccoli would’ve been truer to take out form). Loosely based on a water spinach recipe in the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, I stir-fried garlic, black beans and sliced red chile, then added the broccoli and covered for a few minutes to steam. I finished the dish with a splash of rice vinegar and a drizzle of sesame oil.

Gai_lanThis Hunan by way of Taiwan recipe isn’t sweet as typical General Tso’s is, and that’s fine by me. (I just noticed that the recipe floating around on the internet is a copy of what was in The Times and has been edited differently than what's in the book. ) There is a Changsha version on the following page of the cookbook that looks nearly the same yet uses white sugar, more ginger and no garlic. I stuck with the more savory approach even though I will admit to enjoying the crispy, candied, hyper-battered, American-Chinese meat chunks. Lightly sauced, velvety slices of moderately spiced chicken aren’t so bad either.

General Tso’s Chicken (Taiwan Version)
Zuo Zong Tang Ji

4 boned chicken thighs with skin (about 12 oz. total)
6-10 dried red chiles
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tsp. sesame oil
Peanut oil for deep-frying
For the marinade:
2 tsp. light soy sauce
½ tsp. dark soy sauce
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp. potato flour
2 tsp. peanut oil

For the sauce:
1 tbsp. double-concentrate tomato paste mixed with 1 tbsp. water
½ tsp. potato flour
½ tsp. dark soy sauce
1 ½ tsp. light soy sauce
1 tbsp. clear rice vinegar
3 tbsp. stock or water

Thinly sliced scallion greens to garnish

1. Make the sauce by combining all the ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. To prepare the chicken, unfold the chicken thighs and lay them on a cutting board. Remove as much of the sinew as possible. (If some parts are very thick, cut them in half horizontally.) Slice a few shallow crosshatches into the meat. Cut each thigh into roughly 1/4 -inch slices and place in a large bowl. Add the soy sauces and egg yolk and mix well. Stir in the potato flour and 2 teaspoons peanut oil and set aside. Using scissors, snip the chilies into 3/4 -inch pieces, discarding the seeds. Set aside.

3. Pour 3 1/2 cups peanut oil into a large wok, or enough oil to rise 1 1/2 inches from the bottom. Set over high heat until the oil reaches 350 to 400 degrees. Add half the chicken and fry until crisp and deep gold, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a plate. Repeat with the second batch. Pour the oil into a heatproof container and wipe the wok clean.

4. Place the wok over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons peanut oil. When hot, add the chilies and stir-fry for a few seconds, until they just start to change color. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for a few seconds longer, until fragrant. Add the sauce, stirring as it thickens. Return the chicken to the wok and stir vigorously to coat. Remove from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and top with scallions.

Serves 2 to 3

Adapted from “The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” by Fuchsia Dunlop. W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Carnitas Uruapan & Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlán

1/2 There’s a tendency to believe that shops focusing on one item must be masters. Like you don’t want to buy banh mi where you get your pho, and the same goes for sushi and ramen. Of course there are tons of bad pizzerias, which kind of ruins this theory.

Uruapan_cannibalsWhile on mini-vacation I did some single-minded sampling in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Clueless whiners eat at Benny’s Burritos and Señor Swanky's, then complain that there’s no good Mexican food in NYC. That’s completely untrue, but the good stuff congregates in pockets and our immigrants tend to come from only a few regions, Puebla in particular. Chicago seems to have a little of everything, geographically, and treats we definitely don’t have. Since I only had two days in the city and my stomach is only so iron-clad, I decided to just try two dishes: Michoacán carnitas and Jalisco-style birria.

Uruapan_cartoon_pigsFirst we stopped at Carnitas Uruapan. It’s on the same block as the 18th Street el stop and you can spy the red white and green storefront from the air. If you didn’t know what carnitas were, you’d quickly get a rough idea based on the pig paraphernalia decorating the otherwise spartan room. It’s hard not to chuckle at the horrors portrayed comically: pigs cooking each other in a caldron, an angry knife-wielding chef chasing talking piglets and a bas relief sculpture of pigs nuzzling each other…so sweet…never mind the ribbons of fried pork rinds encased in glass inches behind my head.

Uruapan_carnitasYear of the pig aside, pork is having its foodie heyday. Though anyone who’s ever eaten Filipino lechon, Latin American chicharrones or Chinese pork belly or my favorite, Thai crispy pork with chiles and basil, is well acquainted with the crackly, fatty appeal.

There are variations, but essentially carnitas are chunks of pork that have been simmered in fat until meltingly tender, then crisped up through roasting. They’re a typical taco filling but I’d never been to an establishment wholly devoted to the fruits of this oily labor. At Uruapan you can get them in tacos or buy them by the pound. We split a pound of mixed bits. They ask if you only want meat. Not exclusively wanting meat means you also get skin, snouts, ears and heaven’s knows what else. Whole hog, for sure. 

Uruapan_extrasI seriously could’ve eaten the whole plateful myself but then I would’ve been useless for our second stop. Whole pickled jalapeños, red salsa and tortillas are the only accompaniments. We could’ve stood for a little chopped white onion and cilantro, though our self-made rollups didn’t suffer without. Our plate of meat easily yielded ten tacos. I hate mints and love caramel so the after-meal cajeta lollipop made me like Carnitas Uruapan even more.

Reyes_de_ocotln_signIt was only half a mile in a straight line to get to Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlán but we almost froze to death on the icy journey–remind me not to complain about brutal NYC weather. I would’ve been more excited about the prospect of warming goaty consommé strewn with meat, scattered onion and cilantro and a squeeze of lime if I hadn’t just loaded up on the other white meat. I ordered a small bowl to share with James but he hardly touched it because we only had one spoon and he was preoccupied with his BlackBerry (I couldn’t really complain because he was subsidizing most of this 48-hour excursion and hadn’t taken time off work. I guess his office assumed he was working from home).

Reyes_de_ocotln_birria_1I’ve only eaten goat a couple times in my life but that’s more of a scarcity than a scared issue. I’m not sure why Americans are so grossed out by goat meat, we don’t even really eat lamb—it’s too gamey, I suppose. But purportedly, it’s low fat (on a recent F-Word, Janet Street Porter showed up with goat at a Weight Watchers meeting to convince British dieters of its charms) so I told myself that I was balancing out the badness of the previous pork fest.

Orange-brothed birria is soothing and fortifying. There’s nothing offensive about the flavor, which is slightly sweet and not really lamb-y in the least. I’d love a bowl for breakfast and that would most definitely bug out coworkers (this Times piece about eating at your desk irritated the hell out of me, and this quote in particular “‘When I’m interviewing someone and I see their bones protruding, I know it’s a good hire,’ he said. ‘They’re extremely disciplined.’” Er, or have emotional problems.  Eating habits aren’t anyone else’s business in the workplace, though I will admit to being dismayed at my current soon-to-end job where no ones takes lunches at all. Seriously, no one eats or takes breaks. I bring yogurt, granola bars and apples from home to eat at my desk because they’re inoffensive and inexpensive. I’m going to get smelly, greasy Cuban food tomorrow–see ya, suckers).

Reyes_de_ocotln_toothpick_goatI’d like to figure out tortilla eating etiquette. I was trying to watch how two women seated across the room were consuming their flattened corn disks. With a soupy dish it seems like you might dip pieces in the broth or maybe tuck some shreds of meat into a substantial torn off wedge. Even so, I might use three tortillas total. Four if I was making an effort. But you’re brought a stack of eight or so and halfway through your meal you’re asked if you want more. No más, gracias, I’m going to explode. Is one person really supposed to consume eight-plus tortillas? I love my starch, but that seems excessive.

Both Carnitas Uruapan and Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlán tickled me with devotion to few items done well and their sense of humor about the animals being served as food. A taxidermied goat head with a toothpick in its mouth and pigs stewing each other are the best anthropomorphic antics I’ve seen beyond southern barbecue signage.

Carnitas Uruapan * 1725 W. 18th St., Chicago, IL

Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlán * 1322 W. 18th St., Chicago, IL

Is There an M&M Inside of You?

MandmIn the junk email realm, PBTeen, Ann Taylor LOFT, Macy’s, Newport News and Spiegel all implored me to shop their Presidents’ Day sales. There does seem to be considerable leeway on the proper name of today’s holiday, but I’m convinced that it’s Presidents Day, plain and simple, no apostrophe before or after the s. Wikipedia backs me up on this, though they’re not the most definitive source in the world (and they include an apostrophe in the URL). George Washington and Abraham Lincoln do not own Feb. 19, there’s no possession. It’s just a day for presidents.

Phew, I had to get rankled about something today. I’ve been trying to come to terms with old songs, indie songs, whatever being used willy-nilly in ads. A friend mentioned that she’s more upset by old song misappropriation, loathing M&M’s recent use of The The’s “This is the Day.” I’m more offended by the notion that we all have an M&M inside of us. I most definitely do not.

But I finally found an example of repurposing a lightly obscure song from the past in a genius way. Juxtaposing The Buzzcocks’s "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" with fogey-ish AARP was a brilliant move. Instead of focusing on aging they’ve put the spotlight on birthdays and make getting older seem downright fun.