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Posts from the ‘Illinois’ Category

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

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

Trader Vic’s

So, tiki bars (Painkiller) and restaurants (Hurricane Club) will be the new hotness in 2010? Oh really? (My fingers don’t want to type o rlly.) Because I ushered in the new year at Chicago's Trader Vic’s thinking I was indulging in retro kitsch when I was really being very forward looking. Hopefully, I can maintain this edge till at least 2011.

Trader vic's interior

This location at the base of a condo building (with availability—could you imagine a tiki bar in your lobby? The promotional video calls the neighborhood “Little Manhattan” so you know it’s great)  is only a little over a year old, reinvented tiki. The original Chicago Trader Vic's in the Parker Hilton served its last zombie New Year’s Eve 2006 after nearly 50 years in business. There are the requisite bamboo flourishes, fishing nets and Menehune swizzle sticks, yet there is a clean, smoothness to everything, upscale muted and corporate like a Hyatt (I am more Sofitel or Le Meridien as far as chains go).

My main mission was to eat crab rangoon, plain and simple. I am still mad at myself for never trying Elettaria's happy hour version because the restaurant no longer exists and because I don't feel right claming to be an aficionado having never tried theirs. It has become a lonely, sorry-for-myself Christmas Eve tradition to order cardboardy, oil-saturated cheese wontons from Wing Hua at the north end of the same Court Street block where the more attention-grabbing Buttermilk Channel resides. This year rangoons didn't happen because a gift of soft, washed rind cheeses from Murray's and a loaf of lard bread from Mazzola filled that holiday fat-and-carb void.

Dana hotel room service menuI got an extra surprise at our hotel (the so-so Dana Hotel—I should’ve just stuck with the Sofitel) when I noticed that crab rangoon appeared on our room service menu, a sure sign that Chicago was the right New Year's Eve choice despite the single-digit temperatures. I vowed to order the novelty along with the "Japanese ranch dressing" poutine, but never ended up being hungry enough in the middle of the night to warrant such snacking. 

Trader vic's scorpian

Drinks. This is a scorpion (rum, brandy, orange juice and I think Amaretto). Next to crab rangoon, cocktails are the most important item at Trader Vic's. I expected the food, particularly the entrees, to middling and pricey, and so they were. As long as you know what you're getting into, it's fine. I expect to overpay for fun on New Year’s Eve. (Originally, I had 6pm reservations at the bizarrely booked-months-in-advance Topolobampo—Bayless has insane star power and Twitter savvy. He even DM'd me to say hi to him when I tweeted my NYE plans. When it came down to it, though, crab rangoon trumped the $125 per person early dinner.)

Trader vic's crab rangoon

Here are my little crisp-fried dumplings, served on a silver, light-radiating pedestal, almost angelic.  It certainly beats a waxed paper bag. The texture was more delicate than Brooklyn takeout, though the filling was still predominantly cream cheese, despite Dungeness being invoked on the menu. I’ve never had a particularly crabby crab rangoon. However, I do cling to the notion that they contain a trace of crab or crab-like product unlike lobster sauce, which is only crustacean in name.

Trader vic's appetizers

They are served with traditional Chinese-American ketchup and hot mustard in a dish shaped like a butterfly. We also had a plate of tender bbq spareribs.

Trader vic's queens park swizzle

I was steered away from non-sweet libations and was even given an unsolicited rock sugar stick with my crushed ice Queens Park Swizzle (made with dark rums not the light ones I see at more modern bars) and the explanation that it might be too strong. I can only guess the warning stemmed from face to face market research. I picture an after work crowd looking for happy hour bargains not cocktail mavens consumed by mixology.

I wasn't sitting at the bar, but I would be very surprised if fresh juice and ingredients were being used. After all, the city really only has one we'll-call-you-when-we-have-a-table, vodka-shaming den, Violet Hour (and it was just way too smooshed on my Saturday night attempt to gain entry—clearly there is a need waiting to be filled). The serious cocktail is still gaining traction. Trader Vic’s would really steam Rick Bayless (I swear I am not obsessed with him) who was recently Twitter-distraught over a fruit punchy Singapore Sling at Raffles. Syrupy and pre- mixed, sure, but worth doing once (I did it) just like Trader Vic's.

I've always wanted to try one of those mid-century curries you often see in old cookbooks. Madras curry powder is always called for, as well as a whole slew of nonsensical accompaniments like peanuts, shredded coconut, bananas, apples and raisins. More like vaguely healthy sundae toppings. And Trader Vic's had this! With your choice of meat. Er, but they were out of lamb and I got the distinct impression that they didn't want us ordering any rendition period. Like I said, this isn't fine dining. In fact, everywhere we ate in Chicago (even The Publican with great food and gracious service) had inexplicable gaps between courses.

Trader vic's peking duck

So, I went for the peking duck because I was certain the wood fired oven fusion-y mains with wasabi mashed potatoes and the like would be disappointing, plus their claim, “Our ovens can be traced to the Han Dynasty” made me wonder. I had to stop the tableside preparation half-way through because the meat shredding meant to be theatrical was more like mauling. I'm quite certain the staff had had more than a few celebratory swigs of hooch. And well, at this point, I too, had enough rum in my system to halt the presentation and not concern myself with the dryness of the dark meat. Nothing that a little hoisin, a pancake and another cocktail couldn't fix.

Trader vic's pino frio

Pino frio is a simple refreshing pineapple juice and rum (and sugar, duh) concoction.

Trader vic's fried rice

Fried rice is fried rice, though it made it up for a sad main. A sweet-glazed grilled pork chop topped with a pineapple ring, James' entrée, isn't pictured and it's for the best. Despite being told it would be medium, the thick opaque cut of meat was dense and devoid of any moisture. Must’ve been those old Han Dynasty ovens.

Trader vic's midnight

I’m not sure where all these people came from at midnight. Everyone moved to the bar for a champagne toast. The dining room crowd skewed older and more sequined (I was about to comment on the level of sparkle on middle aged women but was mildly guilty, myself) with the exception of the one rockabilly couple you knew would have to be there.

We moved on to Zebra Lounge, a tiny piano bar, not so much because we wanted to hear American Idol-esque belting-outs of Beatles tunes, but because it appeared to be the least scary place i.e. stumbling, screaming young men in doorways, in the immediate area.

One thing that struck me about the bars, or maybe just the bars I saw, in Chicago was their heterogeneous nature. Much age diversity, something I’ve become acutely aware that NYC lacks as I follow my sequined lady path. My half-baked theory is that educated New Yorkers tend to have kids well into their 30s and 40s, keeping them responsible and entertaining at home until they are senior citizens. Whereas if you’d had kids in your 20s like an average American, the children would already be teenagers by your late 30s and you’d be back out having fun by 40. Not that the grown children necessarily approve or that I would know this first-hand or anything. Ahem.

All my Trader Vic's photos.

Trader Vic's * 1030 N. State St., Chicago, IL

O’Hare Macaroni Grill

Macaroni grill pizza

According to Fortune, airport restaurants have been benefiting from longer waits and delayed flights. Bored passengers have been looking to time-killing activities like eating.

I know this first hand because just last Sunday I found myself at Macaroni Grill, a chain I’ve never frequented, inside O’Hare. Our airport van got us there way early and our flight was pushed back nearly an hour. The food court was packed solid and that wasn’t going to cut it anyway. I demanded a drink and er, atmosphere.


I loved the faux alfresco concourse view; if you have enough house chianti and squint you might imagine you’re glimpsing ruins of The Appian Way (which I just knew would have to be the name of a chain restaurant).

Behold the Sicilian: pepperoni, sausage, fontina and mozzarella. It wasn’t half-bad for an airport food diversion.

Romano’s Macaroni Grill * O’Hare Airport, Chicago, IL

Spoon Thai

Yes, women have been getting irrationally violent over food this week. First it was the McNugget puncher who was shortly upstaged by the burger rampager.

You might not understand that primal rage. I didn’t at first, but now I do. I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t eaten at Chicago’s Spoon Thai on Saturday. Of course there were no fisticuffs or verbal abuse; I was merely howling inside, trying to suppress the Hulk-like anger traveling up from my stomach into my neck when my ground pork and skin turned out to be cubes of chicken breast.

I should’ve known better than to try Thai food in Chicago when they do a million things better (if you want to go “ethnic,” Mexican and Eastern European will soothe not incense) but I was swayed by reviews and photos that seemed so convincing. The northern-style food did indeed look unique and shared many dishes in common with Lotus of Siam, the lauded Vegas strip mall restaurant I dined at twice in one weekend.

And it immediately hit me that Lincoln Park is the German-not-Italian Carroll Gardens of ten years ago; boutiques and cuteness amidst the working class stalwarts, both young couples and pompadour’d men with Cubs jackets covering paunches at nearby Hüettenbar where I had to down a drink (ok, three) to make things right again. But most Carroll Gardens-like were the Thai restaurants clustered on every single block. I spied at least five on the cab ride there. We’d subway’d it everywhere else up until this point but thought we’d save a little time and avoid the predicted six-degree temps, but it just wasn’t worth the $20. I’d rather just play Little Match Girl on the el platform and complain about it.

From what I understand there is a regular Thai menu and a special Thai menu, both are now laminated and official-looking. At some point in 2003 the Thai-only menu was translated by an ambitious Chowhoundy type. I’m not sure how it came to its current form dated 2005. I appreciate such efforts, though I’m starting to wonder if the translations, getting lost in them, was part of the disconnect I experienced (I should’ve taken a photo because I can’t seem to find the Thai menu online anywhere and I’m going to look like a liar with no evidence). You would think that if people were getting different things from what they had ordered it would’ve been detected in the past five years. Maybe I shouldn’t have free-styled it and stuck strictly to what I had seen written about online. I just had faith that everything on the authentic menu would be good.

Spoon thai mussel omelet

And the mussel omelet was. Greasy and puffy, lacy and eggy with bean sprouts for crunch, I was confident we were in for more greatness. Hawy thawt is made for drinking, and I had my big BYOP bottle of Stella.

Spoon thai salad

While nibbling on the pancake, our salad was brought out. I was pretty sure the beige blobs were chicken, and even if it was pork, it certainly wasn’t minced as described in the menu and there was definitely no pork skin to be seen. This worried me. We both took a bite; the flavor was right on: sour and hot with a fish sauce undertone. No complaints there. But I didn’t order chicken and started getting anxious when I remembered our curry also would contain chicken. I’m not opposed to chicken if it’s what I ordered but I can’t stand two bland white meat dishes in one sitting.

We stopped after a bite each so that we could correct the mistake and get the salad we’d ordered. I eventually flagged down our waitress and asked about the pork. She brought out the menu and pointed to what I had ordered, no confusion, and insisted it was what we had on the table. Um, no. This wasn’t going anywhere. I am guessing that she could read the Thai but not the English description and the mix-up lied in the translation. To her eyes, we got what we asked for. Attempting to right the wrong felt futile. But like I said above, wouldn’t someone have noticed before that when they ordered ground pork they got chicken breast?

I was disappointed that this would be my final meal in Chicago. It wasn’t what I had imagined at all and a waste of my limited time. I had used up a valuable slot for this and considered just paying up and leaving to try Big Star, The Bristol or Kuma’s Corner, all who didn’t make it into my schedule. But that frangry feeling really enveloped me when our curry showed up.

Spoon thai curry remains

I was picturing something brothy and spicy akin to a jungle curry, it wasn’t like I was imagining anything creamy and coconut milky since this was northern Thai food. But the menu promised Thai eggplant and bamboo shoots. This bowl was swimming with straw mushrooms, snow peas and carrots. Ugh. Totally Chinesey and not at all what I wanted to eat. The photo doesn’t convey much of anything, I’m afraid, I forgot to take it until the very end of the meal.

I tried a few spoonfuls and gave up. Just not destination Thai food. I’ve never left behind Thai food before (well, maybe at Joya) and our waitress seemed mildly surprised that we hadn’t eaten it all. But I’m such a pussy that I said I was full. I’ve never really had to deal with a situation like this before and was completely baffled how to deal since it started feeling like a joke was being played on me. James at least asked, “Was this supposed to have Thai eggplant?”

“It could,” our waitresses responded.

Er, or it could not. WTF? I’ve always taken menu listings to be more than just guidelines. If you ordered something that was supposed to come with bamboo shoots and Thai eggplant or ground pork and pork skin, isn’t that what should appear on your table?

Spoon thai check

Like I said, I can’t find the Thai menu online anywhere, but this is our bill. I wonder how two of these three dishes translate because they’re not at all what we thought we were ordering.

Chicago diner cake

Nearly a week has passed and I’m still confused and unhappy about this place. Of course it’s not like I went hungry; a piece of chocolate cake was consumed at a diner near the Belmont stop (unintentionally, something about the shocking cold weather made me unable to hold my pee and while waiting for the red train back to the loop I had to run downstairs and find a bathroom at the nearest place, which happened to be this diner) followed by a double cheeseburger at Billy Goat Tavern.

Billy goat tavern double cheeseburger

Touristy, sure, and we’d been there before but Spoon Thai had been my bright idea so I had to go along with James’ Billy Goat choice to be fair. I’d rather eat a cheeseburger than blech chicken breast, any day.

Spoon Thai * 4608 N. Western Ave., Chicago, IL


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

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

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