Saturday, October 20, 2018

Swinging For the Fence With Chef Robin Choi - Chicago

Accidents happen.  This we know.  Houses catch on fire.  Planes crash.  Men like Donald J. Trump are elected President of the United States.  Accidents are part of the integral calculous of modernity and the differential geometry of occasional bad luck to which we are all inevitably consigned and which, on better days, we are able to accept with the implacable what-me-worry shrugs of Hindu cows.  Like when the door of your shiny new car catches its first ding.  Or when you trip over a shoe lace and skin your knee.

Not all accidents are bad or ruinous, of course.  Among our everyday lives there transpire the happy accidents of serendipity and kismet.  Like the purchase of a winning lottery ticket. The chance meeting of a future lover. The discovery of a newly-made acquaintance’s forgotten phone number on a matchbook inside the pocket of a newly washed pair of blue jeans.  And while these strokes of good fortune often appear, at first glance, to be inconsequential, experience teaches us they can be agents of transformation and epiphany secreted inside yawns of the seemingly mundane.  Like the day I took my eleven-year-old son to our local batting cages to work on his swing, only to encounter some of the most honest, genuine, and forward-thinking food purveyance I’ve yet experienced in a year of eating across my new hometown of Chicago.

That’s right, boy-o:  some of the best streetfood I’ve yet encountered in the Chicago area was found at my local batting cages.  Batting cages, dude.

To imagine Stella’s Batting Cages and Pro Shop as a mothership of gastronomic good works does require, on the part of the casual observer, exquisite powers of invention—that much I’ll grant you.  Situated next to the perennially porous banks of the Des Planes River on what is euphemistically known—in the patois of unscrupulous real estate agents, at least—as “bottomland” (re:  flood prone) at the periphery of the none-too-remarkable township of Lyons, Illinois, just twelve miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Stella’s has, however, been the place since 1986 for girls and boys to perfect the sweetest science in all of sports:  to hit an 80-mile-per-hour fastball with a 32-inch aluminum bat.  Nothing—and I mean nothing—about Stella’s outwardly suggests culinary excellence. Nothing about Stella’s belies the fact that it stands as a shining gastronomic Brigadoon in a suburban food desert otherwise bereft of culinary excellence.  But that’s part of Stella’s quiet genius:  to have the extraordinary juxtaposed with the ordinary, and in plain sight for everyone to see.

My eleven-year-old son wanted a chili dog after some swing time in the cages; I wanted a beer. We quit the cages and entered the adjoining restaurant space, happily resigned, as we were, boy and man, to our certain and respective culinary fates of a dirty water dog indifferently topped with canned chili, and warm, cut-rate, piss-colored beer in a plastic cup.  What we found in Stella’s, instead, was a veritable wonderland of self-described “ballpark-centric” Korean-American-themed streetfoods.  Oh, sure, the hand-lettered menu above the counter offered—then as now—all the obligatory ballpark fare you’d ever want and expect at a sports complex: the nachos, the pizza puffs, and the cheese sticks of ho-hum middle-American culinary complacency.  But next to these tried-and-true culinary workhorses of sports-related cookery loomed an astonishing litany of what Stella’s calls “ballpark specials”:  an unlikely lineup of quasi-Korean-centric streetfoods representing various regional ballparks—and cuisines—from around the lower forty-eight, and beyond.  Representing Philadelphia, for instance, was a fried pork belly sandwich with gilled pineapple and Korean red-pepper paste mayo. From Montreal, a Quebecois poutine with jus-made-gravy and giardiniera.  Out of Houston: the crispy buttermilk fried chicken thighs with salted maple honey butter in a waffle cone.  And beer. Cans of the really good stuff. But it was the presence of sushi—made-to-order, no less—that sent me to my iPhone and down Google’s all-consuming rabbit hole of information to discover what kind fever-addled madman would so foolishly dare to offer this kind of cuisine in the middle of a fly-over, suburban wasteland, populated with gastronomic indifference and culinary mediocrity.

Texas Rangers Choomongous

Chef Robin Choi. That’s who.

To read Chef Choi’s biography is to chart the course of a journeyman culinary auteur through the all-important stops of an already-remarkable career:  Ra Sushi. Kabocha.  Japonais By Morimoto.  Yusho.  Dukku. Furious Spoon.  The list of restaurants under his belt is dazzling.  Especially for a 38-year-old guy.  So why, then, would Choi walk away from it all?  Why would Choi forsake the loving (and often lucrative) embrace of the culinary establishment to instead set out on his own, in a woebegone kitchen space, contiguous to batting cages, and populated by a mostly-apathetic eating public, in a one-lunged suburban Chicago town?  

To know a chef, any chef—Choi and all his brethren cooks of a certain advanced age—is to know that the answer to this question is self-evident, because all chefs, the truly driven among them, at least, eventually require creative autonomy in their own kitchens and a greater—never lesser—degree of financial independence from the soul-sucking culinary compromises inherent in any venture funded by (and beholden to) restaurant groups and return-hungry investors.  Ownership is everything.  Independence is the whole game.  So Choi bought Stella’s to make his stand.  Just how—and where—Choi has chosen to express his hard-won and high-stakes freedom was (and remains) of abiding interest to me, so I did what I thought would reveal the greatest insight into this maverick chef’s soul: I put down my iPhone and ordered his food. 

Camden Yards Soft Shell Crab

I ordered three menu items of whose savor I was admittedly skeptical.  Not because I doubted Choi’s prowess as a culinarian, but because the regionality of the dishes seemed far too specific for Choi to pull off there, in that tiny Stella’s kitchen, next to those batting cages, with any real or accomplished degree of fidelity to the original versions to which they aspired, or with any real degree of uniformity of success among the three if Choi somehow managed to not screw them up.  The Kilimanjaro-like degree of difficulty of succeeding on all three dishes appeared far too high for Choi to surmount, I thought.  There was simply too much working against him.  And I wasn’t entirely convinced he had the juice or resources to pull any one of these dishes off.  But I ordered anyway.  Gleefully. I ordered the Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich, the Texas Rangers Choomongous (re: Korean-style steak, kimchee slaw), and the Camden Yards soft shell crab sandwich, then sat across from my son, across all that food, and ate.

To say Choi’s food was delicious would be an understatement. It was beyond delicious, actually; it was sublime, transcendent of context and limitation, deep in complexity of textures and layers of depth of flavor, and yet forthright in its deliverance of perfectly-balanced piquancy and goodness, while palpably devoid of all pretense.  And all of this served, without ceremony, by Choi himself, in Stella’s dining space, which is clearly and steadfastly a bullshit-free zone. Choi’s food is the perfect amalgam of haute and the ordinary, of fancy and plain, of the exotic and familiar.  It’s food for foodies.  Food for the masses.  Food for you and me.  And it’s exactly the kind of food I want to eat every time I go out to eat.

Nashville Hot Chicken 

But something else happened while I was eating Robin Choi’s food.  Something almost unique in my experience as an eater.  Something magical.  For after coming out from behind the counter to ask if my food was okay (my mouth was too full to lavish Choi with the much-deserved superlative of best soft-shell crab ever), I watched Chef Choi approach a nearby table, where sat two older adults and two young children.  And by the almost wordless intimacy and winking conviviality that passed among the five of them, I saw the adults were Choi’s parents, and that the two children were Choi’s kids, and that Choi’s entire enterprise at Stella’s—the batting cages, the pro shop, the exquisite ballpark food—has been built not just on the pursuit of culinary excellence—that seems merely a happy and inevitable result of Choi’s protean abilities as a cook—but on the idea of a family’s collective pursuit of prosperity (or some facsimile thereof) through the collaborative experience of hard work.  That is still the most beautiful and most American of ideas that I know, and to see its value similarly prized by the Choi family made me want Choi to succeed at this crazy endeavor in a way I rarely—if ever—feel for a chef in this most-Darwinian world of food purveyance.

I want Robin Choi to win at this.

Eat his food, and you will, too.

Your link:  Stella's Batting Cages & Pro Shop

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