Monday, January 30, 2012

Big Bowl and Mercadito

When I last ate at Big Bowl a few years ago, I disliked the bland food and dubious claims about use of local ingredients. It's possible that my negative opinion was biased by the fact that the place had been touted by a prominent LTHForum poster and suburban food writer whose opinions have not often matched up with mine. That said, the tasteless stir fry and clueless staff spoke for themselves.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, and I start hearing more claims about natural or sustainable this or that - this time on Twitter from a different prominent food person (Ellen Malloy) - and once again I expressed my doubts. Big Bowl is a 5 minute walk from my office and it's not as if decent dumplings are easy to come by in the area, so it was with low expectations but little effort that I gave it another try.

This time I was wowed. Transluscent, tender dumplings with a flavorful minced pork and shrimp filling were better than any similar specimens I've had recently in Chinatown, and they simply blew away the miserable shumai down the street at The Slurping Turtle. They were served with a terrific black vineggary sauce studded with scallions. Even better than the dumplings was the hot and sour soup, which was neither particularly hot nor particularly sour, but was just enough of each to complement a rich, thick pork stock reminiscent of those elusive bowls of ramen that everyone seems to be trying to find in Chicago. Add in some tender slices of the twitter-advertised "herloom pork" which indeed tasted like real pig rather than chain meat, and this is a hell of a bowl of soup, which I have now had three times in the last 10 days.

Big Bowl wasn't the only chain I visited for lunch recently. I accidentally ate at Mercadito too, thinking when I walked by that it was the tapas place that Ryan Poli just helped open (That's apparently Taverneta, which I guess is owned by the same people. Who can keep track of this stuff?). By the time I figured it out I was already seated at the bar and making small talk with the staff, so I decided to stay.

I still want to try the Poli place, but lets just say I hope he wielded enough influence to distance that place from whatever the owners of Mercadito are going for. Mercadito is the Mexicanish version of a more expensive Applebees. Nicely fried plantains are served with a dipping sauce that advertises potent spices but delivers nothing but watered-down crema that's tinted light-green. A torta with tasty, shredded short ribs delivers little of the flavor from the advertised mole, and while the meat's good one can't help but note that it isn't half as beefy-tasting as the one around the corner at Xoco. And at Mercadito, the tortas are served with some Applebees-style seasoned fries, with a seasoning that's bright red in color but delivers nothing but a salt lick of flavor. Maybe this is better drinking food than lunch food, but it was inedible at noontime.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Lobster Rolls

Like other people with sense, I am a lobster roll purist. In the best lobster rolls, you notice 2 ingredients: the lobster and the roll. Everything else - like generously applied butter and any seasoning - darn well better be there for the sole purpose of bringing out the best of those two ingredients. One new place in town understands this truism very well, while another sort-of-new place needs the most remedial of lessons.

Starting with the ones who get it, we have New England Seafood Company, the long-time wholesaler that just opened a place on Lincoln Avenue, a few doors from Dinkel's. Here, large, meaty chunks of fresh, perfectly poached lobster are given a shake or two of mild paprika and Old Bay (they say the seasoning is a secret. I say it's Old Bay) before being generously piled into a simple, split bun classically slathered with butter and griddled. There's no mayo mixed in - just a smear placed on the roll itself. The lobster is cooked fresh daily, then served chilled with a drizzle of warm butter at service time to create a pleasing temperature contrast. This lobster roll is a thing of beauty. It's big, but you'll want to eat two.

I probably don't have to write anything about this next lobster roll. The picture tells the story. Here (Wellfleet, or The Fishguy - whatever they're calling it these days) we find nothing resembling the simple beauty above. Instead, we have a lobster "salad" which might as well be egg salad or chicken salad, it's main ingredient being so completely unrecognizable. The meat here is shredded finely, as if a food processor did the deadly deed, and mixed with too much mayo and too many herbs. The split, buttered and griddled bun is big and good, but at $20 this has to be the worst sandwich value northwest of the Tree Studios.

My feelings on these lobster rolls also epitomize my feelings about these two places overall. I love New England Seafood Company. The people running it have the warmest, most genuine smiles and clear passion about what they do. They don't strike me as cheffy at all - just good, honest people making good, honest food (including the best damned clam chowder I've had in a long time). Wellfleet, on the other hand, seems to think it has become Blackbird North in many ways. Prices are nutty for the neighborhood, and the food just doesn't measure up despite being cooked by what appear to be more "trained" professionals. The clam chowder at Wellfleet - assembled to order from a refrigerator-case mise en place that's thrown into a pan then topped with cream and given no time for the flavors to infuse - is utterly bland compared to New England's robustly clam-flavored soup. I look forward to trying New England's fish and chips, which have been widely praised elsewhere, and whatever other tasty-looking things they've got on the menu.

New England Seafood Company
3341 North Lincoln Avenue
(773) 871-3474

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

La Casa del Pueblo

After expertly-crafted but not soul-satisfying recent meals at Blackbird and El, I felt the need for something more elementally fulfilling. Facing such situations I usually go for a burger at Owen & Engine, a bowl of Sul Lung Tang at Han Bat, or a Peruvian roast chicken at D' Candela. This time, though, I found myself in Pilsen without time to travel to any of those standbys. So I found what will become a new one.

La Casa del Pueblo calls itself a taqueria, but it's a cafeteria-style place with a huge menu where tacos seem a relatively minor component. I stood back for a few minutes to see how the locals approached the place, then I followed their lead by going up to the hot line where a smiling woman explained what each steaming pan contained, and I ordered a plate with barbacoa de res and a chile relleno de carne (they also had chiles stuffed with queso). Then I took my seat as instructed, and waited a few minutes for the same woman to bring me my food.

For me barbacoa is pretty much a can't-miss: slow cooked, juicy meat that seasoned mildly so as to let the meat's meatiness shine. That said, though I like just about all versions, they are not all created equal. Kitchens can choose to use various cuts: shoulder, shank, foot and more. When it comes to cow barbacoa, my favorites by a wide margin are those that use the head. Cow head has an unmistakable rich flavor and soft texture that separates it from other parts. I didn't ask any questions, but I would be surprised if the beef barbacoa at La Casa del Pueblo did not come from a cow's head. Some salt and maybe a bit of laurel in the seasoning was all I could detect. This was pure beef, as unctuous as it gets.

I also love chiles rellenos, but unlike with barbacoa, most of the chiles rellenos around town are dreadful: greasy specimens stuffed with cheap, gloppy cheese or unseasoned meat, then drowned in some sauce that attempts to hide just how bad they are. I order a chile relleno at Frontera whenever I'm there and it's available - not necessarily because I love it, but because - until now - it seemed the only place that served something halfway decent. The meat-filled chile at La Casa del Pueblo was wonderful: no sauce at all until I dabbed just a bit of pico de gallo onto each forkful, a light batter coating and wonderfully aromatic filling with plump raisins, braised carrots and potatoes, and coarsely chopped meat. Just fantastic.

This says nothing about Blackbird or El, which are fine restaurants, but memories of dishes there will have long faded while the aroma of La Casa del Pueblo's chile relleno and the unctuousness of its barbacoa continue to haunt me in the most pleasant way.

La Casa del Pueblo
1834 S Blue Island Ave
(between Loomis St & 19th St)
Chicago, IL 60608

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I just want a bowl of soup

I recently had meals at two much-talked-about restaurants at the higher end of Chicago dining. Both were interesting and included delicious bites, but I’ve struggled to write anything about them.

The first of these meals was at elIdeas, where chefs Phillip Foss and Kevin McMullen sweated over 12 artful courses, still managing to be gracious hosts in the kitchen. An especially delicious chestnut soup was brighter and refreshingly more acidic than the stodgy chestnut cream soups I’ve had at fancy French places over the years. A terrific lamb dish included surprisingly intense sausage, uber-tender loin and another cut I can’t remember now. The whole meal was good and I was impressed with what those guys were going.

Next came Blackbird, which has always been my favorite spendy place in town. As at el, soup was a highlight – in this case one made from Kohlrabi and watercress, where the intense vegetal flavors shined and the puree could not have been silkier. Also as at el, Blackbird’s soup started with a pristine white bowl that had a couple of tiny artful garnishes before the waiter decanted the liquid in slow, steady stream.

This is where the problems start for me. There were some golden seeds decorating the top of a ruby red piece of trout in the bottom of Blackbird’s big white bowl, if I recall correctly. At el, I think it was a carefully curated cube of cream colored rabbit topped with some lush brown cocoa nibs. After the soup at Blackbird came sturgeon and lamb dishes, each with symmetrically carved mounds of perfectly cooked protein adorned just-so by colorful garnishes of one kind or another. A pine nut mayonnaise, perhaps. Maybe something called Thai poppy seed jam. For dessert, Blackbird sat a wonderful espresso cake atop some kind of ash that tasted a bit too much like ash

It's all so beautiful and artfully constructed, and I just don't give a shit. Worse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It's the same feeling I used to have when my ex wife would take me to an opening at some Fulton market gallery where everyone took themselves, the artist, and - most importantly - their all-black wardrobe very seriously. Hanging out with people who have Phd's generally makes me feel this way. I like a good painting, but let me look at the thing without standing in a cavernous space where black heels echo against a concrete floor while hushed conversation takes place between sips of cheap sparkling wine. I like a late night conversation about the meaning of life, but I find it more satisfying without a contest over who can use the cite the most Latin phrases within Nietzsche quotes. And I'd love another bowl of steaming, fragrant chestnut or kohlrabi soup - but I'll find it even more enjoyable if the rabbit or trout cube has a slightly jagged edge.