Monday, August 1, 2011

Eating Chicago - Three Meals in 36 Hours In the City by the Lake

For all its supposed glamor, working in the food business often seems a particularly Promethean endeavor insofar as the topography of one's occasional agony is emphatically local.  A saute pan and a six-burner industrial range, a hostess station, a mahogany bar lined with prattling drunks, these are the proverbial rocks to which we food professionals seem forever lashed, and those diners, those drunks, they are the eagles which feast on our livers each and every day.  Okay, so it's never really that bad, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that food professionals, to the person, often dream of leaving their places of toil.  We dream of leaving it all behind.  We dream of escape.

So imagine my delight when I was offered the chance to escape D.C. for a short weekend of work in Chicago.  The gig itself was easy, a veritable no-brainer--overseeing a Chicago caterer's wedding rehearsal dinner at the Art Institute for an erstwhile Washington client--but it represented, in the short 36 hours I was allotted in the windy city, a chance to experience all that proletarian Chicago gastronomy had to offer in the slightly askew culinary triptych of dinner, followed by breakfast and lunch, in that order.

First, to dinner.

Simply put, the history of 20th-century American cuisine is the elevation of peasant foods to haute cuisine.  Cases in point:  lobster, grits, sweatbreads, headcheese; each once the daily sustenance of the poor, the proletariate, the unwashed working classes; now all culinary staples on fine dining menus across the country.  That those cold-water crustaceans once eaten by Northeastern button-makers purely for survival called lobster are now emblematic of the gastronomic entitlement of the chattering classes has been the typical culinary trajectory of offal, organs meats, and bottom feeders everywhere.  How truly strange that the rich would now pay such extravagant sums of money to eat what, for centuries, has been the working poor's dietary effluvium.

This upended-Marxian culinary paradigm offends only when the restauranteur intentionally subverts or denies the history of a particular dish (take what was once simply corn meal, now elevated to its present shrimp-and-grits infamy) or the particular protein in question (calf's brains, for instance, or beef tongue) with his menagerie of white linen table clothes, leather-bound wine lists, haughty serving staff, and stiff, Old World cooking practices.  Take what was once shit and make me pay a king's ransom for it?  Make me think you're an innovator for serving it?  That is culinary revisionism.  And it makes douchebags of its practitioners, to the person.  But when the restaurant somehow finds a way to celebrate the humble origins of its fare, when it somehow intimates, by trick of the font used on its menus, say, or some aesthetic or visual cue that perfectly suggests that, yes, what you're about to eat was once eaten by poor people, and yes, the food on the menu was once considered detritus and dross, but man, oh man, it sure is tasty, and man, oh man, have you been missing out--then and only then does the establishment succeed in its perceived culinary freethinking while simultaneously tipping its hat to the lowly beginnings of our shared and collective culinary pasts.  Only then does that restaurant get it right.

I found such a place.  In Chicago, naturally.  One place (of several I'm sure) that celebrates crustaceans, bivalve molluscs, and stomach and intestinal lining, while making you feel both hip and sexy for the sheer act of daring of putting such things in your mouth.

The place is Publican.  At 837 West Fulton Market in Chicago's West Loop.  Imagine a Beard-award-worthy eatery unassumingly situated in a still-vital and working warehouse district, near the El tracks, and situated among slaughter houses, fish mongers, and meat markets such as the famous Columbus Quality Meats.  Imagine a dining room decorated with portraiture of the porcine figure in profile.  It's pigs everywhere you look, and it makes the mouth water, if you are disposed to reveries involving bacon and pork belly.  Be that you, friend, and surly this place will not disappoint.

My dinner companion and I were seated at the end of a long, single table, shoulder to shoulder with our fellow patrons, be they hipsters in skinny jeans, or foodies intent on photographing their every bite.  (I'll plead the fifth on that one, daddy-o.)  Service successfully approximates family style, and dishes, once ordered, are set between or among guests, who serve themselves on small, six-inch plates.

Our aperitif were, respectively, a Vander Mill Cider from Lake Spring, Michigan, for madame, and a Dreadnaught IPA from Three Floyds Brewing Company, Munster, Indiana, which, at 9.5%, rang monsieur's head like a bell.

We ordered with the open-mouthed, squinty-eyed precision of two drunks throwing darts at a tavern wall, then sat back and smiled though the din (it's a noisy, even rawkus place) and waited.  First up were the Kusshi Oysters, which were, as advertised on the menu, precious and ultra-clean.  The six we had were a small triumph.  Next up were the spicy pork rinds from Becker Lane Organic Farm, Dyerson, Iowa, which arrived in a Belgium-style metal chip cone, and which tasted not unlike the culinary love-child of a drunken piece of popcorn and a lonely, if randy, Cheeto.  Crunchy.  Mildly spicy.  Pure cracklin' glory.  Then the shrimp arrived.  Four tails and two shrimp heads (which, admittedly, I was compelled to suck), on a bed of squid ink fettucine, corn, and calabrian chilis.  This was shrimp (read:  bottomfeeders, once and proudly the food of the poor) done in understated elegance.  No showing off here.  Just simple shrimpy goodness.  Take it or leave it, it seemed to say.  Following the shrimp was what I considered the triumph of the evening:  the marinated tripe from Swan Creek Farm of North Adams, Michigan.  Tripe, the red-headed stepchild, if you will, of priggish Anglo dining habits everywhere.  Even the lowly beef liver is held in higher esteem.  And yet, with its cherry tomatoes, caperberries (the largest I've ever seen if you're into that sort of thing--ehem), oregano and manchego.  Not the best tasting dish of the night by any means, mind you, but it's the most transcendent use of tripe I've yet experienced.  Think tripe transformed into a noodle dish and there you'll have it.  This was followed by the perfectly cooked country ribs from Slagel Family Farm of Fairbury, Illinois.  Spot on with it's unapologetic presentation:  meat on a plate.  The melons, radishes and sungold tomatoes were clearly an afterthought, and rightly so.  Who needs veggies when beholding such lovely, pure meat on a plate?  They would simply complicate the matter and compromise your mission of gnawing on bones and to wear mouth painted in animal blood.  And for dessert?  Why naturally it was another round of raw oysters on the halfshell, fresh as briny as the sea itself, however unlikely that might be in metropolitan middle-America.  I'll be back to Publican.  The blood sausage is calling as is the cucussu and the boudin blanc.  And that's not a promise, Publican.  That's a threat.  Your entire right side of the menu is going down next time, chump, it's going down I say.  I'm going to eat it all.  You can bet the ranch on it.

And then there's the delicate matter of breakfast.

Where does one eat in Chicago the morning following such a glorious and unexpected dinner?  Why, Wishbone on 1001 West Washington Boulevard, also in the West Loop.  Billed as Southern Reconstruction Cooking, Wishbone delivers exactly that.  Humble, familiar breakfast favorites delivered with understated southern panache in this most northern of cities.  So maybe it wasn't the best southern breakfast I've ever had (my eggs were slightly overpoached, and well, yeah, I deserved it for being the only douchebag in the place with the arrogance to order poached--not fried--eggs during a very busy Saturday morning rush) but it was one of my most unexpected breakfasts I've had outside of the South.  I ordered the Catfish.  That's right, catfish.  The favored fish protein of generations of my Missouri-farmer forebears.  For breakfast, no less.  Pan-seared, then blackened and finished in the oven.  It came out hot and perfectly cooked.  Initially, I had had my doubts when ordering.  A frozen-cum-highly perishable piece of fish protein for breakfast during the weekend rush.  I expressed these doubts to our server, Anthony, who hailed from Louisiana, and who assured me that yes, I should order the fish, and that yes, good things were about to happen in my mouth.  Bless you, Saint Anthony, and may the breakfast gods of Southern cooking always be with you.

And then came lunch.  This was to be my last meal in Chicago this trip, so I went alone, without local guidance or insider intelligence.  I simply took the El to Lawrence Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood and starting walking south towards the Loop, looking for perfect Mexican cuisine, and, if luck would have it, the perfect taco.  This would have been a very different expedition here in my native D.C.  There are few Mexicans nationals here.  Our Latino population is largely composed of Central American immigrants and their contributions to the culinary scene here are naturally, even necessarily, devoid of the storied taco.  But the Latino population of Chicago is decidedly Mexican.  So much so, in fact, that El Presidente de Mexico will often visit Chicago before stopping off at the White House, so vital and populous is the Mexican-American population of Chicago.  So I wish I might chalk it up to something other than sheer dumb luck that I should walk into what surly must be one of the finest taquerias on the North Side of the city.  You might be forgiven if you mistook Los 3 Panchos Place at 1155 West Diversey Parkway for a coin-laundry, so unassuming and seemingly provincial is this humble culinary power house.  Walk inside and you'll find a counter and five booths in a space half the size of the typical dentist's waiting room.  A T.V. with Telemundo on it.  A crazy Mexican prostitute laughing at the cars passing by.  And she even louder than the T.V.  That's all.  Oh, and a picture of the Pope taped to the back wall.  My order was decidedly simple; I gave the cook a one-in-three chance of getting it right:  tres carne asada tacos con todo (that's three steak tacos with everything to all you pinche gringos out there) and an order of horchata, which, if you've never had the keen pleasure of throwing the stuff back, is rice-milk flavored with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla.  It's like waiting ice for the fire about to rage in your mouth.  A dip in the proverbial pool of shady sweetness.  A respite from the coming heat.  Three steak tacos are given to me with a large, clear bottle of salsa verde, a puree likely made of tomatillos and jalapenos (think tangy and hot), on a hard plastic plate.  And I get a fork.  But the tacos are minor masterpieces of culinary compression.  A small amount of grilled meat, iceberg lettuce, tomato, and queso blanco laid over two corn tortillas and dashed, by me, with green sauce.  This should not have been all that good.  It most certainly should not even approached great.  And yet, what I put in my mouth exploded with flavor.  It stunned me.  Overwhelmed me.  I found it extraordinary.  Transcendent.  I simply could not believe what I was tasting.  So I tried to isolate the component parts.  I tasted the cheese.  Good, fresh, with slight acidity to it.  The cheese bit back.  Good.  Then to the iceberg lettuce:  just your average lettuce, nothing remarkable here.  The sour cream did as sour cream does.  Cool.  But when I had isolated the steak, I knew I had found the little man behind the curtain, so to speak, for there, there was a perfectly tender, perfectly seasoned, perfectly charred piece of skirt steak.  We are talking meaty perfection here, folks.  Meat as good as meat gets.  Like ever.  In any shape, cut or form.  So I restored the taco to its former architecture, meat and lettuce and cheese stacked in that perfect order, and resumed its quiet, if ferocious, destruction.  When I had dispatched all three tacos and looked up, the Mexican hooker was staring at me, afraid to laugh, it seemed, and my arms were wet to the elbows with tomatillo sauce.

Chicago.  Three meals in thirty-six hours and not an inglorious bite of food in all that time.  Is there a better city for the proletariate palate in America?  I'll try to find one.  Believe me.  But in the meantime, I think not.  I shall return Chicago.  And I'll be bringing my appetite.

I'm coming.

Be ready.

You know who you are.