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Lou Malnati’s & Portillo’s

Before February hits and all of 2010 gets away from me, I must post a straggler from my New Year's Eve excursion to Chicago. I saved the quintessential regional items for last, mostly because I have the least to say about them.

I wasn't even intending to eat deep dish pizza on this trip. Out of duty, I tried Gino's on my last visit. It was perfectly likeable, but there are friends, and then there are acquaintances and I don't feel compelled to keep in touch with deep dish on a regular basis.

Lou malnati's

Yet within an hour of landing, a big ol' saucy pizza bubbling in a pan sounded like the best thing ever. Was it the chilly weather commanding my body to bulk up? Who knows, but instead of walking over to Xoco for tortas, as originally planned for first day lunch, I declared, "We're going to Lou Malnati's!"

Lou malnati's sausage deep dish pizza

A pitcher of beer and casserole masquerading a pizza (don't kill me—at least I didn't call it a lasagna with a crust) are good fun. We split a small sausage with a butter crust, two slices each. I love how the sausage isn't portioned out across the pie in blobs but comes as a solid disk the same circumference as the pizza. I have no idea if the 75-cent addition of butter slicked on the dough is wildly different from the original crust, but no expense can be spared on vacation. I will say that the crust was very flaky despite its heft. It may be chain pizza but it’s hardly a Pizza Hut (at least not the one I recall from my teenage stint as a dough maker there—though I doubt the formula has changed much since the '80s unless they decide to take a cue from Domino's) pan pizza, which is springy and bready.

In a perfect world, we would've ventured to a more acclaimed joint, but carless in the cold, I was only willing to travel so far. With that said, I still wouldn't try Burt's even if the pizza is amazing, just because I can't stand the rigmarole of a quirk overload place that gets on the cover of Saveur, shows up on No Reservations, only seats 30, runs out of dough unless you call an reserve a pie ahead of time. Whew, it’s a lot of effort. Maybe if I had more than a weekend.

Great Lake, however, was a 100% no go, no matter how many best-pizza-in-the-universe lists it makes. Lucali kills me and I can walk there in four minutes. I'm just not going to spend two-plus hours waiting for my pie to find its way into the single-batch oven. I don't begrudge the owners their craft and seriousness of purpose, and I'm certain the final product is delicious, I just don't have the patience to participate in it.

Portillo's italian beef sandwich

Now, the Italian roast beef I came to with some prejudice. Isn't it just a cheesesteak without cheese? I still kind of think so, and I missed the gooey orange cheese from a can. I like the pickled giardiniera you can add, though I can never see that word spelled out and not think giardia.

My main reason for going to Portillo's, literally wall-to-wall with tourists, was to see the indoor food court setup, akin to a hawker center but with pizza, hot dogs, Italian beef and spaghetti at different counters. You don’t really see the multiple counters with central seating arrangement outside of malls in the US.

Lou Malnati's * 439 N. Wells St., Chicago, IL

Portillo's * 100 W. Ontario, Chicago, IL

Chain Links: Backed Potatoes

Mr Who cares about the Olympics, Vancouver B.C. is getting three new foreign chains: New Zealand's Hell Pizza, Taiwan's Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle and Turkey's Mr. Kumpir. The latter sells "Backed Potato with Rich Antipasto Fillings."

Sbarro opened its first Japanese location next month and ultimately envisions 1,250 across the country.

Foreigners can't get enough faux Italian fare; California Pizza Kitchen is spreading throughout the Middle East. The "gourmet" chain already exists in Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico, South Korea, Guam and Indonesia.

Chains love the Middle East and Asia Pacific. FatBurger is going wild in both regions.



While McDonald's Japan saluted the US with its Big American Taste burgers, McDonald's in Italy is going all locavore. Yesterday, they launched a salad and two burgers using ingredients—artichoke spread, Parmesan, Asiago, lettuce, bresaola, beef and bread—all produced domestically.

No Margharita burger?

Unchained Melody

Regular readers (all ten of you?) might've noticed that I've started bulking up on the chain restaurant coverage here. I've tried twice now to make Chains of Love a reality, but single-minded blogging isn't for me even if that's the oft-cited key to success. Success is for losers.

It's just too much to ask strangers, even friends, to follow two food blogs from the same person. Attention spans are short, skimming is the norm–I’m the same way.

So, don't be surprised to see more Cheesecake Factory creeping into your world.

In Other Words: Chains Are For Ladies, Cheap, Lonely Ladies

Olive garden lunch David Zinczenko is the new Hungry Girl. But instead of recreating Chili’s Onion String & Crispy Jalapeno Stack with Jalapeno-Ranch Dressing using Fiber One bran cereal, Egg Beaters liquid egg substitute and fat-free ranch dressing and sour cream, the Men’s Health editor shaves 1,000 calories from T.G.I Friday’s Potato Skins…somehow.

Who knows because the recipes are hidden away in Cook This, Not That! Kitchen Survival Guide, a best-selling cookbook that spurred Alex Witchell of The New York Times to recreate Olive Garden’s spaghetti and meatballs at home.

But first she had to acquaint herself with this thing called an Olive Garden. I didn’t need a 101 but this observation was enlightening, “At the bar, every customer was a woman, some alone, some in pairs.”

Ladies love their unlimited $8.95 soup/salad/breadsticks lunch combos? (Only $6.95 in NJ.) Chain food or not, I imagine it beats those 80-calorie soups Campbell’s has been foisting onto eating disordered gals.

Carnitas Don Pedro

I will always associate Pilsen, Chicago’s heavily Mexican neighborhood, with arctic temperatures and a brutally cold walk from the pink line despite bundling up to the best of my abilities. That’s what you get for only visiting the city in January and February.

Carnitas don pedro sign

And awesome carnitas, of course. I’m deeply envious of Chicago’s Mexican food offerings. New York isn’t even close to the urban desert that Californians and others who never eat outside of Manhattan would lead you to believe. But we’re mostly Pueblan. Chicago’s immigrants reflect other regions, tasty regions like Michoacán, famous for their slow lard-simmered chunks of pork.

Carnitas don pedro interior

On my first and last trip I tried Carnitas Uruapan. This time I vowed to branch out, good as their offerings were (plus, they have a lot of suicide food signage). This is daytime food. We arrived after 2pm and things were winding down, only the pork was available, none of the brain tacos, menudo or nopales salad listed on the chalkboard menu in front near the door.

Carnitas don pedro namesake

This is a pound, more than enough for two, and the default order. We had no trouble cleaning the plate, though (never getting up early enough for breakfast on vacation, this was our brunch. I would’ve eaten more if I’d known how disappointing our Thai food dinner would be). At first glance, I would’ve preferred more skin and odd fatty bits. I still did even after digging in, but the white meat I feared would be desiccated was absolutely moist and rich. I guess I’ve been served some lame pork in the past.

Carnitas don pedro accompaniments

In addition to these condiments and warm corn tortillas, squeeze bottles of both green and red salsas are on the table. I preferred the green; it was spicier. Taking a cue from the father at the table next to us, I cut open a pickled jalapeno and dribbled its hot, vinegary liquid over my tacos. Add a squeeze of lime and some cilantro and onions and you have a perfect taco.

You would think I was from a tropical climate, how strongly the single-digit temps stymied me (I kept thinking about being told how elderly die of cold every year during Hong Kong's 60-degree winters). I actually had to stop in a café, sit and drink a coffee and warm up, before I could brave the ten blocks back to the subway.

Carnitas Don Pedro * 1113 W 18th St., Chicago, IL

The Publican

The Publican is a restaurant that’s very now: no part of the animal goes to waste, and while the emphasis is on pork, produce and seafood from name-checked farms and bodies of water get near equal billing. It’s raucous, busting at the seams, and yet it’s completely un-New York in ways that I imagine The Breslin being even though I haven’t been there yet.

For one, reservations are taken. Fuddy duddy? I don’t mind the label. We did have to wait at 9pm on a Friday, but not more than ten minutes and we had a freestanding two-tiered table to ourselves, no jostling or jockeying for attention. Our beer order was taken and brought to us on a tray.

The publican interior

The neutral-toned room with two communal tables long enough to house a good 40 diners, gives off a modern beer hall (emphasis is on beer rather than cocktails or wine) vibe but with a bare wood, minimal ethos that is more mid-century Scandinavian than Bavarian. A huge amount of space is left unused, the individual tables for two (like we had) were not close to touching their neighbors and the booths along the far side had swinging doors so that once seated, patrons were in a private box with four walls.

The service was reassuringly Midwestern. When James asked about two seafood dishes, one was described as being “Like a Friday night fish fry” as if that were a universal frame of reference. I am only aware of such a regional meal-events from magazines like Saveur and Jane and Michael Stern. You may as well say, “Tuesday night cheese wonton fry,” a tradition I would like to see instated.

The publican charcuterie plate

The charcuterie plate made me very happy, certainly the pink gingham plate helped. Pork pie, head cheese, terrine and morteau sausage (which I didn’t realize was that rare in the US until I started looking into its origins). Two mustards, both grainy, were served on the side as well as a raisin-heavy chutney. Picked carrots, cornichons and caper berries added tartness and crunch.

The publican little gem salad

The obligatory non-meat dish, a Little Gem salad, was far from vegetarian, of course. Fried pig’s ears made a nice crouton substitute with the romaine and radish coated in a buttermilk dressing.

The publican frites with organic eggs

We’d ordered the frites topped with eggs to go along with our mains so we nibbled at first waiting. An intangible amount of time passed and I started wondering if our food wouldn’t come unless we finished our fried potatoes. I didn’t want to fill up on a whole pile of fries, good as they were. We then let them sit, hoping our fish and beef heart would show up quicker.

Our affable server, who reminded me of a more substantial Peter Krause, distracted us by bringing over three small glasses of beer (I couldn’t even begin to remember the names) lining them up in order of strength and letting us do a tasting. It worked. I wasn’t in any particular hurry and the fact that a lull in courses was acknowledged and apologized for made a big difference. Waiting thirty minutes between starters and mains would’ve made me insane in NYC but that also would’ve likely been due to a cumulative effect, a series of annoyances with slowness being the final insult. Being tipsy does help temper a wait.

The publican beef heart

I was stuffed by the time my beef heart arrived. I wasn’t sure how I had pictured it, but this was better, lighter, the meat itself, rich, minerally and chewy without toughness and elevated into a meal by peppery vinaigrette, dried cherries and bulgur. I ended up taking home about 75% of the dish, though.

Leftover beef heart in nature's fridge

Despite a hotel room with no fridge, nature’s cooler did its work and froze my beef heart solid after a night on our balcony. And yes, I ate the cold, ice-shellacked leftovers for breakfast.

The biggest boon was really the bill. I’m not one who claims that New York dining is wildly expensive. There is tons of value to be had here, and compared to many parts of the world, ok, mostly in Europe, it’s a bargain. But $110 including tax and tip for dinner for two with drinks at a relative hot spot? Beer instead of wine will do that, we didn’t have a dessert, but there was a skate wing that I didn’t mention outright. My main dish was only $9, reflecting what beef heart truly costs. I could easily see the same dish selling for $17 here, maybe $14 in Brooklyn.

It’s Saturday night as I’m typing this, starving, thinking of a good restaurant nearby. I would go to Brooklyn’s version of The Publican in a (beef) heartbeat, but it doesn’t exist.

The Publican * 845 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL

In Other Words: Chains Are Unsafe for Orange Goblins

Snooki eating

It is not all fun and games for the cast of The Jersey Shore. According to Page Six:

“Snooki said she was hiring a bodyguard to keep fans at bay. The
22-year-old ‘Princess of Poughkeepsie’ explained, ‘When we try to go to
TGI Friday's or Applebee's, we can't eat because people go crazy

I'm genuinely surprised there was no mention of Olive Garden. 

Photo from My Favorite Shows

No More Tears

Life is good in the suburbs, especially if you’re privy to a Wegmans.  Everything comes ready made for you…at a price, of course.

Wegmans onions

You don’t even need to chop your own onions anymore; guacamole is sold in snack packs.

Wegmans gravy

Gravy comes in single serving cartons.

Wegmans sliders

Hamburger patties are not only pre-formed into sliders, the meat is blended with bacon and cheddar.

Spanish sweethearts

They even have Sweethearts in Spanish. Como se dice “Tweet Me” en Español?

Arby’s Brooklyn

twoshovelWhat? So soon. I can’t believe an Arby’s couldn’t make it on the Fulton Mall. (8/12/10)

Some restaurant openings garner more fanfare than others. This week we had Colicchio & Sons, Carteles and Village Tart. But Brooklyn’s first Arby’s was the only newcomer that spurred me into action.

Arby's exterior

Their decision to take over the Gage & Tollner space (previously occupied by a short lived T.G.I. Friday’s) brought out Brooklyn’s finest NIMBYism even though Arby’s had to hew to historical preservation standards. No such considerations were given in 2005 when Niederstein’s, Queens’ oldest restaurant, was flat out razed for an Arby’s, oddly enough. Brooklyn has higher sense of self worth it seems.

Arby's counter

The end result being what might be the world’s classiest Arby’s. Spacious, with enough detailed dark wood, patina’d mirrors and near-steampunky light fixtures to be the envy every prefab speakeasy in the city. On day four, everything was still tidy, the staff uncharacteristically upbeat and polite for any fast food joint, suspiciously so for one in Brooklyn. If you do as directed by the sign behind the bell at the original revolving doors, “If your service was GREAT, please ring the bell,” the workers break into a song-cheer. This is so totally ripe for abuse.

Arby's great service bell

I’m fairly certain that I have not eaten at an Arby’s since I was in high school. Freshman year I’d get a Beef ‘n Cheddar and a Jamocha shake multiple times per week. The menu now includes salads, gyros, deli sandwiches and “Sidekickers” like southwestern egg rolls and mozzarella sticks. The core roast beef sandwiches now come in three sizes.

Arby's beef & cheddar

This was a regular. Ok, the Beef ‘n Cheddar fills a similar void as Taco Bell, a fun facsimile that can become crave-worthy in its own right. If you want a real roast beef sandwich (I’m picturing Baltimore-style  pit beef) Arby’s will not please you. The meat is thin and salty like Land ‘O Frost (I don’t think that brand exists in NYC) and the cheddar is orange and warm like nacho cheese. I happen to love processed cheese in all forms: plastic-wrapped, in a jar, spray can or foil-covered block.

Arby's condiments

In my day we had Horsey Sauce and Arby’s Sauce, a.k.a. sweet bbq in packets. That was all. Like someone who awakes from a twenty-year coma to givens like cell phones and thongs being standard underwear for women, I was dazzled by the condiment bar with self-pump service. Spicy Three Pepper Sauce? What else have I been missing out on?

Arby's jalapeno bits

Jalapeno Bites were new to me in this venue, but not new in the scheme of things. Poppers are right up there with crab Rangoon in my fried snack pantheon. These are served with a gooey candy apple red sauce called Bronco Berry. It’s like sweet and sour.

Arby's shake

Blogging has its privileges; a man who I suspect was the manager (green polo rather than red) brought me a vanilla shake when he saw me taking photos. My loyalties can absolutely be bought, and they come cheap.

Arby’s * 372 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY