Let’s imagine you’re traveling through Chicago, and let’s imagine you’ve become stuck. Be it by the caprice of some always-sudden and unfailingly massive Midwestern thunderstorm, or the inevitable voyager’s travail of traveling through the world’s seventh busiest airport only to find that air traffic is tangled—yet again—with all the algebraic complexity of a Gordian knot, there you are, in some soul-crushing O’Hare International lounge area, seated directly under a television monitor, loud with that now-ubiquitous-in-airports CNN broadcast, and adjacent to that inexorable won’t-stop-crying newborn, with five hours of daylight to burn before the next available flight is able to carry you back home.
Were you elsewhere—Denver, Detroit, Dallas even—I’d declare your situation beyond remedy, without hope, and direct you to the nearest airport bar, where you might repair to a booth of worn Naugahyde, ply your doom with few warm, flat, and way overpriced pints of Sam Adams Light, and wallow in that unmistakably existential let’s-open-a-vein variety of despair endemic of any particularly suck-ass American airport.
But you’re not in Denver. You’re not in Detroit. You’re in Chicago, boy-o, a veritable wonderland of American gastronomy, where culinary greatness abounds in virtually every neighborhood the city over, and where a traveler exactly like you might hop on the El train, head downtown on the Blue Line, and eat two remarkably delicious meals in the span of a few hours.
Now let’s imagine this traveler is me.
Now let’s imagine this is exactly what I did.
Lunch One – Publican Quality Meats – West Loop
Anyone remotely familiar with Chicago’s dazzling food scene will undoubtedly be familiar with the culinary wizardry of Paul Kahan. Blackbird, Big Star, avec, and his latest brainchild, Nico Osteria, Kahan has long been at the vanguard of Chicago’s perennially white-hot food movement. My last trip to Chicago (an impossible-to-believe and way-too-long-ago three years) featured a glorious, deeply memorable meal (the food being as remarkable as the beauty of the woman with whom I shared that table) at Kahan’s fabulous Publican. So when that same long-time Chicago resident and all-time-favorite dining companion, with whom I dined that night at Publican, and whom I’ll now identify only as X (cuz I’m still mad-crazy-crushing on her, yo) suggested we return to Publican’s lunchier, and far more casual, charcuterie-obsessed sister restaurant, Publican Quality Meats (and just across the street from its flagship), I tossed an imaginary Lipitor and made haste, as they say, for a spike-a-vein kind of rendezvous with the really, really good stuff. [Reader’s note: that I was convinced, and bodily, that PQM would be good before I’d eaten there should be indicative of Kahan’s own greatness. Not to mention I’ve worked with the guy at an annual charity event here in D.C., so I’ve seen him work. And let me tell you friend-o, his slow-burn thing is something to behold].
And like its sister-restaurant, Publican Quality Meats seats guests at communal tables, picnic style, and elbow-to-elbow with their fellow meat-loving brethren, be they millennials, or nose-to-their-iPhone’s business professionals out for a midday meal. X and I were seated in the extreme rear of the restaurant and greeted by floor staff with the kind of warmth and hospitality that can’t be faked, ever. We took menus and decided to spelunk straight down into PQM’s carnivorous little heart: we ordered their much-lauded Butcher’s Cold Charcuterie Plate. What we received was a dazzling representation of everything glorious and good in Kahan’s work as chef and proselytizing Pied Piper of how to best eat the nasty bits: venison salami, whipped chicken liver pate, lamb neck terrine, head cheese pate en croute—a proverbial mix-tape of charcuterie’s greatest hits and all-time classics, each as robust and original as the next.
Following the charcuterie plate came a sandwich: Bildt’s Beef, an open-faced and pleasantly imposing edifice of slagel roast beef, farmer’s cheese, and marinated tomatoes on volkornbrot that X and I paired with a side of marinated kale, the sum of which left us deeply sated with that kind of culinary afterglow that charcuterie lovers and offal enthusiasts will well recognize when optimal levels of organ meats and entrails have been calibrated and consumed. It’s why we eat the stuff. For that feeling.
That Paul Kahan decided to leave an early career in computer science and, instead, become a chef, suggests, even to this culinary heathen, that the gods of gastronomy will long be smiling on Chicago. To have a chef like Kahan, so meticulous with his sourcing, so careful in his craft, whose restaurants are breathtakingly consistent in their achievement, and so effortlessly hip, leaves visiting eaters like me with bones of envy lodged in our throats. Kahan is a treasure, Chicago; take good care of him.
Intermezzo – Nick’s Beer Garden – Wicker Park
The digestif. That time-honored tradition developed long ago by the French, now sacrosanct ritual of industry careerists, food obsessives, and binge eaters alike, who invoke its charms to best regain metabolic equilibrium—with alcohol—and move one step closer to culinary nirvana. For my digestif, I returned to Wicker Park, to Nick’s Beer Garden, a place I had frequented twenty years ago, when I lived in Chicago, and would hang out with fellow rockabilly musicians from Hi Fi and the Roadburners and Three Blue Teardrops in their filthy, rat-infested, abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here rehearsal space in the dungeon-like basement of the Flat Iron Building. But those twenty years have changed Wicker Park in ways that on my most recent visit, made me want to throw up in my mouth. Gone were the hookers. The crack heads. The gang members throwing signs. Everything that made the neighborhood thrilling was gone. In its place: Starbucks, Lulu Lemon, Belly Dance Maternity, and sundry other harbingers of the fast-approaching zombie apocalypse of bo-bo economics.
Lucky for me, one place from the bad old days yet remains: Nick’s Beer Garden. When it opened in 1994, Nick’s was, for us broke-ass rockabilly musicians, a friendly (if non-descript) place to down a quick shot of rail whiskey, warm our bones, before moving on to Wicker Park’s occasionally-excellent Double Door, still very much extant, and back then, more our speed with musical lineups featuring bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, or local greats, the Riptones.
But seeing that Nick’s Beer Garden has managed—for now—to beat back the quickly-rising tide of douchbaggery that’s consumed Wicker Park compelled me to visit. I sat on a stool, alone (X had something to attend to at her place of business), and ordered the special: a PBR and shot of rail whiskey. Total cost: $5.
If there’s a more two-fisted drinking town in America than Chicago, I’ve yet to encounter it. I’ve thrown down any number of times in New Orleans and San Francisco, and while my fellow inebriants there might get all the ink and attention on their drinking habits, Chicago, Chicago, dude, with its nearly around-the-clock bar scene and ability for local motorists to purchase, say, liters of Jim Beam while gassing up at the BP, is the tipsiest of these megalopoli. These Chi-Town tipplers mean business. They do it hard.
Of my can of PBR and a shot of blindness-is-a-possibility whiskey, there’s sadly little to report that hasn’t been written before on the subject of drinking in low places. Suffice it to say that in a life graced with far, far more than my fair share of Willett and Pappy Van, it’s always nice to come home to one’s own humble beginnings and revel in that from whence one first came. The burn-inducing hooch performed exactly as intended. It cleared my head, piqued my appetite, and readied me for more.
Lunch Two – Freddy’s Pizza & Grocery – Cicero
This was X’s idea. This place. Beyond glorious. Beyond good. Freddy’s Pizza & Grocery: the apotheosis of neighborhood eating in Chicago and precisely the kind of establishment whose very existence locals will covet and protect with awe-inspiring ferocity lest that variety of must-photograph-my-food-before-I-eat-it eater ever descend, plague-like, with their white belts, their ironic beards, their snarky Yelp posts poised like knives at the ready.
It is the kind of place, rather, that begs deployment of that most dangerous word in all of food writing: authentic. Italian-American authentic. Chicago authentic. Whatever authentic. It’s insistently and demonstrably the real deal. Totally legit. The good folks at Freddy’s are not fucking around, friend-o. They are not playing “restaurant.” What they are doing is delivering dino-era, Italian-American classics that are almost without peer in their ability to deliver the kind food seen in the films of Martin Scorsese (think Paul Sorvino cutting garlic with a razor blade in prison; think a bugging-out Ray Liota chopping basil with coke powdering his nose) and that leaves you wondering why you don’t eat red sauce and Italian bread more often.
Stand in line. And prepare. Because when it’s your time to order, you best be ready to swing for the fence. Because hesitation of any kind will out you, reveal you as the interloper you are. Not to worry. Do what I did. Confess. Ask for guidance. They will take pity. They will take you by the hand and lead you, Virgil like, through an astonishing variety of in-house, just-made masterpieces in the Goodfella’s-esque gastronomic milieu.
X and I ordered: Ricotta-stuffed ravioli in red sauce; Italian sausage with red peppers and rosemary potatoes; an uber-Chicago-like take on cioppino (purists, though, best look away). All of it dished onto paper plates by the Italian mother you always wanted and never had. All of it carried outside to the patio and consumed al fresco with the kind of primal, moaning pleasures heard in such non-culinary, non-Scorsese classics as, say, Deepthroat and Behind the Green Door. Such pleasures were these. To undertake description of each individual dish would be foolhardy on my part, for the mysteries shrouding the all-too-rare successes of red-sauce gastronomy elude me, profoundly, and often exceed my capacity for culinary comprehension. Just know that eating food this “local,” this good, with a woman as beautiful as X, and under a highly non-ironic portrait of Sylvester Stallone is, in fact, my idea of this side of heaven.
(Good call, X. You rock.)
So. Chicago. Go there. Get stuck there. Eat there. But you already knew to do this, didn’t you?