Monday, August 31, 2009

Liver Punisher: War Journal Chicago

With a more traditional work schedule during installation at the museum I was able to sneak away to Chicago for a few days this past weekend. Likely the greatest city in the world, Chicago combines the gritty, urban quality requisite of any major metropolis with a certain heartland charm one finds only in the American Midwest. As a friend of mine once said during a visit to da home of da Bears, “I like Chicago; it’s the only big city where you can see fat people.”

And this is not without reason. A former center of the meat packing industry and situated in America’s ever expanding beltline, Chicago is a city with food in its blood. 24 hour eateries abound, as do 4am bars for those late night carb-load sessions. And for every upscale joint serving mini portions of micro-greens there’s some greasy spoon topping half the menu with bacon and the other half with cheese. Not saying one is better than the other, just saying there’s a lot to eat in Chicago, we just seemed to favor the latter.

Upon our arrival Nicole, my lovely travelling companion, and I were ushered off to Delilah’s. A dive-y little hole-in-the wall with graffiti’d walls, recycled art in the stairwell, and a steady stream of punk on the jukebox, Delilah’s is the kind of place at which I love to drink, but rarely find. Kind of loud, a little dirty, dimly lit, but definitely charming, we wetted our travel weary whistles with Pin-Head Pale Ale (I think), as well as Hop-Goblin and PBR, the old stand-by. As revelers began to disperse we made our way, via cab, to Underbar, a bit nicer, but still understated, Underbar boasted a solid tap and bottle selection, but I continued to drink on the cheap.

Having sufficiently self-medicated our travel aches Nicole and I realized we had neither of us eaten since lunch and it was now in the neighborhood of 3am. We departed Underbar on a mission for food, our destination: Arturo’s. Open 24 hours-a-day, Arturo’s serves simple, delicious Mexican fare low on frills but high on taste. The menu is simple enough, broken down into tacos, burritos, soups, platters, breakfast plates, and so on, even boasting an offal section, brains, tongue, and tripe are all available to fill your tortilla. We were, of course, given a basket of chips and some salsa to fuel our menu perusal; the chips were thick and hearty, at least by tortilla chip standards, accompanied by a chunky pico de gallo and a fiery salsa verde, all delicious. Our waitress, with the patience of a saint, finally took our orders after much hemming and hawing over the menu. Mine: one chorizo taco and a quesadilla, not on the menu, but a must-get if you’re ever there. Nicole’s: an avocado taco and one with barbacoa, a steamed beef with Mexican seasoning topped with cilantro and diced onion; think Mexican pot roast sandwich and you’re close. It was juicy, tender and the perfect mix of great beef flavor, spices, and toppings. All this delectable food came wrapped in some of the most delicious corn tortillas I’ve ever had. Arturo’s was a big win.

Getting some rest after the long drive and a night of carousing we met up with some more of Nicole’s Chicago friends for brunch at Bite. Cute and quirky, Bite seats about forty, max, and has menus hidden in the covers of old children’s books. We ordered coffee and the donut of the day while we waited for our dining companions. The coffee was excellent, rich, dark, flavorful, everything coffee should be, and so good, in fact, that I drank my second cup black and loved every sip as much as the first cup with cream. Oh, the donut of the day? A whole wheat donut. With maple glaze. Oh, and crumbled bacon. Awesome. The menu at bite is short but full of great choices, sure there are the traditional options: omelets, pancakes, egg sandwiches, etc., but when was the last time you had the option of seitan “chorizo” in grilled veggie hash or bacon laced, cornmeal griddlecakes with homemade applesauce and honey-cinnamon butter (hers and his choices respectively)? Hunger sated once again we opted for some mid-afternoon napping before another big night on the town.

Rested and showered, Nicole and I made our way out once again, this time on a search for gift wrap. We thought Quimby’s might have something that works, they didn’t, but the look was worth it. Next time you find yourself in Chicago with a dearth of reading material swing by this bookstore for an amazing selection of graphic novels, artist books, zines, indie mags, and political fare. Undaunted we continued our search for gift wrap with some coffee from a local shop that roasts its own beans on site. The quality and care was evident as our brews were hearty and delicious, as well as the much needed fuel for another long night on the town.

Our first stop was Cleo’s. Nicely appointed and on the classier side of things, Cleo’s certainly wasn’t the normal stop on our tour of Chicago, but as a former employer of Nicole’s it was well worth the stop. The bar boasts a solid draught and bottle selection and some excellent munchies. My first round was New Holland’s Ichabod, a seasonal offering from the Michigan brewery, Ichabod is a great fall choice, brewed with real pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg it was like Thanksgiving in a bottle. Round two: a Liberty Ale from the Anchor Brewing Co., a lightly colored, fully flavored beer, Liberty is always a great choice. Nicole’s libations were a combination of Beamish Stout and Lindeman’s Framboise lambic. I’d heard of this combination before but had never tried it before. It’s amazing! It’s beer and dessert all in one! To sop up some of the sauce we ordered fried cheese cubes which were as delicious as they sound: chunks of cheddar in cornmeal breading served with a side of ranch. Having taken a few steps in the right direction at Cleo’s we walked down the street to the Map Room. Its walls adorned with old maps and bookshelves filled with old National Geographics, the Map Room’s eye for the exotic complemented the bar’s impressive beer selection. I could barely pronounce the name of my beer, I’m pretty sure it was Belgian, so I can’t recall its name at this point and Nicole’s was made with dandelions. Once Sarah and Matt showed up we headed out for food, but with another bar appointment looming we opted for a bite that would be quick: Arturo’s!

Back in what I think was the same table and plied with chips and salsa, the same pico, but partnered with a smokey salsa roja this time, I scoured the menu for something new. Remember how amazing the barbacoa was I knew that was definitely mine, but I needed something else. One of the other taco options was al pastor and was briefly described by the menu as: “Mexican gyros.” This seemed familiar to me and I eventually remembered that a recent viewing for No Reservations had Tony nomming on some tacos al pastor while in la Ciudad de Mexico, D.F. With the Bourdain seal of approval my order was set, this tasty pairing was complimented by another quesadilla—yes, they’re that good! Nicole and Sarah chose pozole and nachos respectively. The nachos looked amazing, a huge pile of chips with melty cheese, avocado hunks, and refried beans. The Pozole, however, was quite impressive! First of all it was a vat of soup. The salad bowl we use at dinner most nights was smaller than the vessel this came in. But luckily it was delicious! A rich, spicy pork broth full of slow cooked chunks of pork and hominy (corn soaked in lye) is presented with limes, avocado, and cabbage for garnish. It was fantastic, the broth was intense and flavorful with lots of garlic and cayenne, the pork was fork tender, with the hominy adding a lot of body and texture.

A firm foundation in place, we were back to the bars. First stop: the California Clipper. When our cab posited us out front we were greeted by about fifty cyclists saddling up for the ride home or to the next bar, Fridays seem to be some sort of bike night. Inside the bar’s décor was sparse but with a vintage flair, catering to a younger, hip crown and leaning towards a country/rockabilly aesthetic, this made sense. There was a solid live band, banging out tunes Carl Perkins and Patsy Cline would’ve dug we tossed back PBRs, chatted with friends that showed up and, of course, cut a rug. As last call neared we considered our options and the decision was made, by the Chicagoans not me, to wander down to the Continental, a 4am bar not far away. My opinion on the place still isn’t clear. On the one hand I walked through the door to the Future of the Left and enjoyed a few PBRs with some more (mostly) great music. On the other hand, it’s a 4am bar, and the parade of desperation was long and miserable. Combining the drunks with the sexually desperate was tragic-comically delicious for a while, but became just plain, old tragic after a while. Fun nonetheless.

Having consumed a sufficient amount of beer for the night we decided to walk it off on the way home. Helping us on our quest for a hangover-less tomorrow was Village Pizza whose massive slices rival the small pizzas at other places. We dined on a stoop and washed it all down with that finest of fizzy lifting drinks, Cherry Coke.

Morning, well afternoon technically, arrived and we found ourselves in further need of sustenance. Brunch was agreed upon; the location was simply called Jam. A new eatery gaining a swell of good press lately, we were asked to wait half-an-hour before sitting. To kill time we walked next door to a little bakery called Sweet Cakes and surveyed their cases. There wasn’t a thing there I didn’t want to eat, but standouts include: carrot-cup-cakes with white chocolate/cream cheese frosting, orange cupcakes with vanilla frosting and candied orange peel, and corn muffins with a hard boiled egg baked into the middle (if anyone out there in the blogosphere knows how to pull this trick off, let me know!). We ordered a few drinks and walked back outside to wait for our table, my lemonade and iced Earl Grey concoction—henceforth known as a Nick Faldo—was just what I needed. Our names were called and Nicole, Julie, Sarah, and I took our seats. The menu at Jam is short in length, but long in ideas. How does malted French toast with macerated stone fruit and whipped cream sound? Maybe an egg sandwich with fried pig cheeks? Or skirt steak with poached eggs? And that’s just the breakfast menu! My dining companions ordered the French toast and steak and eggs, I however, opted for a lunch menu item, the eponymous Jamburger! A Ridiculous Eats contender, the Jamburger is a double cheese burger topped with a fried egg and smokey tomato sauce. The burgers were rich, flavorful slabs of quality beef cooked medium rare and topped with two slices of butterkase cheese—a rich, flavorful white cheese that tastes like cheese mixed with butter—and the homemade tomato sauce they pour on top was phenomenal! Mix in a little cream and you’d have a hell of a tomato soup! Plus the fattiness of the cheese and burger mixed with the sauce’s great sweet/smoked flavor gave the illusion of the burger also having bacon on it. With a side of slightly sweet seasoned fries, lots of cayenne and cinnamon in the mix, this was more than just brunch; it was my meal for the day!

Filled to maximum capacity we decided to walk off our brunch for a bit and set our sites on the Bucktown Arts Fair, we wended our path there by way of yard (stoop?) sales and quirky stores we passed along the way. We wandered around the fair for a bit stopping in and out of stalls as we saw fit, before making our way down the midway of food stalls. Not your grandpa’s fair food, the Bucktown Arts Fair Boasted Indian wraps, gyros, and gourmet pizza. I gulped down a lemonade—of the half lemon, cup of sugar, and hose water variety available at just about ever outdoor event—and shared some fried-in-front-of-us potato chips topped with cheese sauce and bacon bits with the rest of the team.

With sun setting, legs tiring, and a work day looming ahead of one of us, Nicole and I parted ways and made for the land of Moses, Cleaveland that is. Unfortunately the Indiana/Ohio turnpike system is devoid of anything worth eating, or mentioning at least, so our drinking and dining tour of the Windy City ended with fair food, but there are certainly worse ways to end a vacation.


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