Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Very Liver Punisher New Year's

What better place to ring in the new year than a big exciting city, right? That’s exactly the reason Nicole and I headed to Chicago this New Year’s Eve. That and the Girl Talk concert. And the bars. Oh, and the food, too.

Having visited that windiest of cities—and believe me, it’s fucking windy there in late December—I’m well aware of the plethora of food and drink options available, so visiting as many as possible during the trip is of highest priority.

We arrived in Chicago around nine having dined on leftover Gallucci’s pizza in the car. Our first stop was a party a Sara’s apartment where guests had brought a variety of hors d’oeuvres; tastiest amongst them were sausage stuffed mushroom caps. A little spicy, a little cheesy, definitely meaty, and a very satisfying bite or two. After a drink or two, including a delicious Hendrick’s gin and tonic—if you have the opportunity to try Hendrick’s in a cocktail of your choosing, do it, it’s incredibly smooth and the juniper flavor is well matched by floral undertones—we departed by cab for the show.

Girl Talk at the Congress Theatre was a blast, starting about 11:30 we all danced and partied until he called it quits around 1:00 or 1:30am. The venue was great and a movie-set style house was built as a back drop, giving the whole shindig a house party feel. And what, you may ask, did we toast the new year with? Why that champagne of beers, Miller High-Life, of course!

Post show we left our fellow revelers and made for the Flat Iron, a bar a few train stops away. Best part about this was the free train fare on New Year’s Eve, thanks Chicago! Arriving at the Flat Iron around 2:30 we grabbed a few PBRs and found our fellow revelers from the first party. After a few late night rounds our hunger returned so Nicole and I, along with her friend Gavin, trekked what seemed like a million blocks in the cold and blowy Chicago weather for some of the tastiest Mexican food north of the border: Arturo’s. Regular readers of this blog will remember Arturo’s from our last journey to Chicago, but it’s so good it bears repeating.

Arturo’s in an unassuming little place, patrons seat themselves and may have to share some of the larger tables should the place become overly crowded, as it was at about 4am on New Year’s Eve/Day. Luckily we were able to find a table to ourselves in the back corner. Service was a little slow that evening, but it was completely filled and probably had been since earlier that evening so I can’t fault them for being delicious and busy as a result. Eventually we ordered and our food arrived, it was slow but well worth the wait. I ordered a taco barbacoa: tender, savory steamed beef (think Mexican pot roast); one taco al pastor: spit roasted, seasoned beef (the “Mexican Gyro”), and a quesadilla (not on the menu, but they seem happy to make it for you). Everything was so delicious and simple, there aren’t tons of layers of cheese or excessive amounts of lettuce and tomato, just the filler, some onion, and a bit of cilantro on a homemade corn tortilla (which I think is their secret). Sated and weary we wandered back into the cold and made for Gavin’s apartment, which was the closest crash pad.

The next morning we needed to excise the bit of hangover still hanging around, so the three of us walked to the Silver Could. A simple bar and restaurant, Silver Cloud offers delicious breakfast options and a tasty lunch/dinner menu. Looking for something simple and homey, I ordered the breakfast sandwich. Two eggs over medium, cheddar, and bacon on whole wheat was just what the doctor ordered, and the few bites I had of Nicole’s Salmon Benedict were pretty amazing, too. I think a mark of a good restaurant is the quality of their Hollandaise sauce. As a long time not-fan of the warm yellowy topping I believe that if a restaurant can make a Hollandaise that I can not only eat but enjoy then it must be good. Plus a little smoked salmon never hurt nothing.

Refueled and ready for action we hiked back to Sara’s for showers, mimosas, and relaxation. Champagne, orange juice, and The Hangover helped ease our transition from afternoon into evening when, surprise-surprise it was time to eat again. During our afternoon of laziness more friends and visitors arrived picking at the previous evening’s leftovers but we hungered for something more than snacks. Our first choice was more south-of-the-border fare at a popular new place called Big Star. The smells were delicious and the rumors of the queso fundido dip had certainly sparked our interest but when we arrived they were no longer seating parties looking to dine in. We drank a Tecate, one of my favorite Mexican beers, while we weighed our options. Finally Nicole suggested Handle Bar so we braved the elements again.

(Author’s aside: I don’t think I can accurately describe just how horribly cold it was the entire time we were in Chicago. It was like six degrees out most of the time, and that was before the wind chill factor was calculated in. Suffice it to say, it was fucking cold.)


We made it to Handle Bar in one frozen piece hungry and excited to eat. Handle Bar, for my Cleveland readers, is kind of like having Tommy’s relocate to the Grog Shop, serving up delicious vegan, vegetarian, and seafood dishes in a punk atmosphere—we dined to the entirety of the Ramones’ eponymous debut and then a solid chunk of the Nugets collection. Despite our chilly exteriors we chose to warm our insides with a pint each of Three Floyds’ Pride & Joy. A “mild ale” according to their website, Pride & Joy as a wonderful floral nose with a nice hop punch up front and smooth citrusy finish. Much like Tommy’s, Handle Bar’s menu is pretty simple featuring lots of sandwiches. Having had little vegetable matter in us in the last 48 hours or so Nicole chose the Green Meanie: avocado, herbed goat cheese, spinach, sprouts, tomato, and honey mustard on whole grain bread. The tomato-less bite I had was delicious! Also feeling the need for green I chose the Grilled Tofu sandwich: spice rubbed tofu, spinach, sprouts, and avocado spread on wholegrain bread. The spice crust on the tofu was excellent and didn’t mind the hot sauce boost I gave it, this was completed by the creamy avocado spread, and all this soft palate food was counter pointed by the crisp greens. But, as good as the beer and sandwiches were the real star of the show that night was the smoked gouda mac-n-cheese. Oh. My. Fucking. God. This was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever been fortunate to put in my eat hole. Perfectly prepared the noodles were still a little al dente, the sauce was thick and creamy, and the smokiness of the Gouda provided excellent balance to the rich sauce it helped create. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ll say it: best mac-n-cheese, ever.

With beer and (mostly) healthy, (totally) delicious food to steel ourselves against the cold we journeyed out into the arctic winds once more. Our ultimate destination was Inner Town Pub where our friends were continuing the weekend’s festivities, but we had another stop to make along the way. I’ve been lucky to have Nicole with my on these last few trips to Chicago. Having lived there for several years she knows a lot more interesting places to eat and drink than I could ever hope to stumble on or Google search for. Her suggestion for a digestif was The Violet Hour. Stashed away in a relatively unmarked building on North Damen, Violet Hour seeks to recreate the atmosphere of prohibition era speakeasies. The serve sophisticated, classic cocktails sometimes with a modern twist in a sprawling, mostly candle lit dining room and bar, with booths and tables masked from one another by curtains and high backs. Adding to atmosphere and mystery, Violet Hour concocts a large portion of their drink components, going so far as to brew their own bitters and steep their own flavored liqueurs. What does this all mean? Amazing cocktails well worth the $12 price tag, served in a bar the likes of which are rarely seen these days. I ordered the Daisy 17, assembled thusly: Wild Turkey 101 Rye, lemon, house Grenadine, and house orange bitters. As a flourish before serving, the drink is also showered by flaming orange oil. Sha, and might I add Zam! Not only did this taste amazing, sweet from the grenadine, sour from the lemon, bitter from the bitters and rye; but it packs quite a whallop. Despite the mixers the Daisy 17 is still mostly rye, and 101 proof at that. Top three mixed drinks of all time? I’d say so. Nicole’s drink was equally complex and delicious, and though the name escapes me at the moment, it was along the lines of a dry Manhattan spiked with the Violet Hour’s house made coffee bitters. If you’re looking to impress that special someone on your next trip to Chicago, Violet Hour is a must, just be patient trying to find it.

The Cadillacs of cocktails fueling our engines and stoking our furnaces we continued our icy walk to the Inner Town Pub. A dim, dirty, dive of a bar where I felt a little more comfortable, or certainly not under dressed, at the Inner Town. We found our friends and discussed the night’s adventures over pints of Pinhead Pale Ale. One of the lighter entries in the pale ale family, Pinhead is fully but not overwhelmingly hoppy, yielding floral and light citrus tastes from its bouquet. A great jumping off point for people interested in pale ales but wary of too much hops. Having lost track of time and arriving later in the evening we had time for only a beer before last call. It was at this point that a decision had to be made: continue the party elsewhere or call it a night. The call to party on was made. The new question was: where?

Because of our location and the time of night a few of us—Nicole, Maureen, Sara, and me—ventured on to The Continental. Another dive-y bar that keeps its doors open until 4am. Among the first of the late night crowd to arrive we had no problem ordering a few PBRs and finding a seat. Within a half-hour or so the place began to fill up with other folks looking to keep the night alive. We drank our beers and talked a while until the DJs started playing really fantastic music. Mostly obscure 60’s funk/soul/R&B so we all decided to get up and cut a rug. We danced and drank cheap beer until getting the boot at 4:00 when we finally decided to call it a night. Although in not-unreasonable walking distance, it was certainly no warmer at 4am that it had been at 2, midnight, or 10 so we were eternally grateful for the grouchy cab driver who picked us up.
After a good night’s sleep we awoke with one last mission before leaving Chicago: best lunch ever. It was determined that the place offering best odds on this endeavor was the now infamous Kuma’s Corner. What had started out as a not-so-quiet little bar and restaurant has become the heavy metal hang out for hipsters, foodies, and families alike. However, our first attempt to dine in was foiled by the enormous line for tables, like 3 hours or so. We left, investigated some local vintage stores, and picked up Maureen before heading back to Kuma’s. This time we were, as they say, “in it to win it,” so we hunkered down for the 2-3 hour wait. The wait was interesting as we got to see the vast array of Kuma’s clientele. There were, of course, the requisite metal dudes sporting their favorite black tee shirts emblazoned with increasingly inscrutable metal fonts and gory imagery. There were also the cool kids, investigating some place that’s been recently recognized as “hip enough.” But the strangest groups of people waiting for tables were the families. Kuma’s décor is pretty minimal, simple tables and chairs, a nicely carved bar, fairly well lit, but the music was primarily metal and the art on the walls was comprised largely of prints of partially naked women in bondage gear, some covered in Technicolor-red blood. No skin off my back, really, but it did make me wonder what the parents of the tweens waiting for burgers were thinking when they noticed. Anyways, we waited and waited before finally deciding that a beer might help the waiting process so Nicole and I split a pint of Three Floyds’ Gumball Head, the brewery’s wheat beer offering that drinks like an ale. Gumball Head is less cloudy than most wheat beers and way hoppier, too, but the hops and the wheat balance out making for a seriously enjoyable brew with bitter-sweet citrus notes. Unfortunately Three Floyds doesn’t distribute here in Ohio but if you’re ever in the greater Chicago metropolitan area pick up a case or two! We continued waiting, and waiting and finally decided that the second hour of waiting deserved another beer, this round: Three Floyds’ Alpha King. An amber colored American pale ale, Alpha King was definitely the most intense of the Three Floyds beers I tried on this trip. Just a hint of malt on the tip of the tongue then it’s all hops. Bracingly bitter with a grapefruit finish and a kiss of pine aftertaste, perfection in a glass. And our wait wore on and on, we watched all sorts of people come and go, drooling over the amazing food that was being hurried past us but a wait staff that no doubt saw the hunger and desperation in our eyes. And then, finally, just as we began to give up hope they called our names.
Seated, we poured over the menu trying to figure what to eat and what we’d seen served during our wait. There was the mountainous Slayer a burger served atop a plate of fries and topped with anger! There were the pulled pork fries, barbequed pork and cheese draped atop Kuma’s waffle fries. And, of course, there was the build-your-own mac-n-cheese. So many options but only one stomach. It was agreed before we were seated that our repast would consist of, at least in part, the pulled pork fries. This was a great decision. The pork is perfectly slow-cooked and drenched in one of the best barbeque sauces I’ve ever tasted. Spicy and sweet like a good barbeque sauce should be, but there was something else to it that pushed it past good and way into great. What that was, though, I’m not sure. And as if amazing pulled pork and waffle fries weren’t enough the whole thing is topped with melted jack cheese! The cheese provides just enough saltiness to counterbalance the sweet (but not too sweet) barbeque sauce. This is a must for any/all visits to Kuma’s. Round two brought us Kuma’s famous customizable mac-n-cheese; we added bacon and caramelized onions. There have been some mighty high praises of Kuma’s mac-n-cheese sung on this blog, and make no mistake it is really good, but it still places second to Handle Bar’s smoked gouda variation. Bacon and caramelized onions were definitely good adds.
Finally, the reason we came. Round three arrived and we were not disappointed by the monstrous mounded before us. In my corner: Neurosis with cheddar, Swiss, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, and horseradish mayo. Cooked a perfect medium, this burger is hearty and mouthwatering with the sweet onions providing counterpoint to the salty cheese, the mushrooms adding to the meatiness of the 10oz patty, and enough horseradish in the mayo to alert the sinuses. I chose well. Nicole chose the eponymous Kuma Burger. Topped with cheddar, bacon, and a fried egg it was our skipped breakfast and dinner all in one. It should also be noted that while we all know about the magic of bacon, Kuma’s bacon is in a league of its own, incredibly rich pork flavor and perfectly smoked; it should be a side dish. On the opposite side of the table Sara ordered the Kaijo topped with more of this amazing bacon, bleu cheese, and “frizzled” onions. Long, thin strands of fried onion, the frizzled onions were mounded on top her burger like some delicious bird’s nest. And finally Maureen tried the Plague Bringer. Kuma’s spicy burger, the Plague Bringer is Kuma’s 10oz burger topped with roasted garlic mayo, tortilla strips, Chicago CO-OP hot sauce, fresh garlic, pepper jack, and sliced jalapenos. According to her it was more than a little spicy, but judging by the looks of it the tongue pain was probably well worth it.

And so it seemed the hype and fanfare and waiting was all worth it. Kuma’s is definitely a Chicago food destination whether you’re a metal fan or not. Although it wouldn’t hurt anything. With our bellies swelling past full and the check paid we braved the cold once more to retrieve Sara’s car before making the long journey back to Cleveland. And if the events of New Year’s Eve suggest things to come in the new year then this year, this decade even, are off to great starts!
And stay tuned! Coming soon: real actual pictures from the big New Year's trip!


Lucé said...

the food pictures are beautiful! it sounds like you had an amazing NYE, wish i could have shared it with you guys!

Jon said...

next year we will ring in the new year in proper fashion. but until then i stole all those pictures off the internet. my camera's busted.

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