Saturday, July 24, 2010

Liver Punisher: Chicago War Journal: Operation Pitchfork Part 1

It was Pitchfork season again last weekend so with tickets in hand and bags packed, Nicole and I made that not-at-all-short-but-not-too-long drive to Chicago for three days of out door music, sun, and, of course, binge eating!

We left late Wednesday night and arrived early Thursday morning. Despite the late hour of the drive we made excellent time and encountered no traffic on any of the turnpikes, the Sky Way, or the Dan Ryan Expressway. Not ideal driving time, I know, but not having to deal with anyone else on the road was nice. Of course this trek required fuel for both drive and car so we slurped down coffee and noshed on sandwiches, everything bagels with horseradish cheese, salami, and stadium mustard—yum!—and Planter’s salt-n-pepper cashews, tasty but nothing notable (try s+p pistachios for a delicious nut that will knock a new ass in your taste hole!)

Exhausted but glad to be there, we both crashed upon arrival in the City of Big Shoulders—due to a dearth of breeze this past weekend I will reserve all “Windy City” references for later, cooler posts. After some serious sleeping in, at least on my part, and a relaxing morning of reading Jeffery Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything, which is probably the best book ever written about food, we made our first of many dining excursions.

We kicked things off right in Chicago by visiting one of the most esteemed culinary outposts in a city crammed to the gills with good eats: Hot Doug’s. Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium has been a dream food destination of mine for several years now, ever since Justin began extolling the merits of their countless varieties of house made sausages. In fact I’d heard so much about how great Hot Doug’s was that I, briefly, began to doubt weather it could be that good. Any doubt I had was obliterated when we arrived and took our places in line. I understand that on some days, especially Fridays and Saturdays when fries cooked in the culinary gold known as duck fat are on the menu, the wait for some encased meat can reach the two-hour mark, but we made it out of the heat and into the a/c in about half an hour. Not a bad wait, all things considered. But the wait was the easy part. Once we were inside I had to figure out what I wanted to eat. I’d been thinking about this moment for so long I felt like Ralphy when he finally gets to see Santa in A Christmas Story. I was blanking! Here I was about to face Doug himself and I had no idea what I was even doing there! I took a few deep breaths and asked Nicole what she would be having while I took a more composed glance at the menus. At first I was focused mainly on the special menu which features items like the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, and Fleur de Sel, or a “Damn Spicy” pork sausage with Chipotle Dijonnaise and Habenero Jack Cheese called the Atomic Bomb. Where else in the world could you ever hope to find sausages so esoterically designed and lovingly created? Surely they must be mine! But then there was the standard menu chock full of simpler, but no less delicious sounding, encased meat fare. The Keira Knightly Fire Dog and Salma Hayek andouille sausage each sounded appealing for a variety of reasons. As did the Elvis, a smoked Polish sausage and maybe the only Elvis referencing food item in the world that does not feature peanut butter and banana. The Marty Allen, beef, pork and garlic was tempting for sure, so was the Pete Shelley if for no other reason than a veggie dog in a self-described “Encased Meat Emporium” has to be something worth trying once. In the end I think I chose wisely, opting for: The Paul Kelly: a beer soaked bratwurst that is grilled and split bilaterally. I had it topped with tangy mustard and caramelized onions. As well as the smoked and spicy alligator sausage topped with shrimp remoulade and fontina cheese.

Nicole also chose from the special menu and picked up a Sonoran Dog: a jalapeno and cheddar beef dog with jalapeno mayo, jalapeno bacon, pinto beans, tomatoes, and onions with a small order of HD’s hand-cut fries and a dish of cheese sauce for dipping.

I can only describe this dining experience as incredible. The food is perfect. The Paul Kelly was flavorful, tender with a good crunchy casing and the mustard/onion combo provided a little sweetness and a little spice. Everything a brat should be, and more. My gator sausage was huge, dangling off the ends of the bun. It was spicy and smokey with a delicious garlic and wild-game funk. The spice and game was beautifully foiled by the creamy, fishiness of the remoulade and chunks of fontina. The flavor would best be described as gyro-like, if gyros were made from wild game and had a nice fishy aftertaste. Absolutely wonderful, and it filled me with strength and animal energy eating something that could easily kill and eat me! Nicole’s Sonoran was fantasic as well. It was bright and flavorful despite being so cramjammed with jalapeno. Spicy to be sure, but not overwhelming, it left me wondering: where can I get my own jalapeno bacon? The house made fries were great as well, perfectly cooked with crisp outsides and soft flakey insides, tasting equally of fry-o-later magic and earthy goodness.

Prior to this visit I couldn’t wait to have my Hot Doug’s craving sated and be done with it. But now it’s even stronger! I want to try all the dogs in Doug’s bag of meat tricks as well as the legendary Duck Fat Fries, although I do not feel that my visit was in any way shape or form tarnished by their absence.

Having gorged on Hot Doug’s as a late afternoon lunch Nicole and I returned to Shorties, our unofficial Chicago flop-house, for a little post meal r’n’r. We napped and lounged for a few hours before rinsing off the day’s heat and the previous night’s car ride in preparation for Maureen’s birthday extravaganza. According to Mo, on her last visit to Cleveland, the only time she eats Mexican is on her birthday so I guess it was kind of an honor to be there for this annual occasion. The site of this fiesta was Jose’s, a modest BYOB spot on North Winchester in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. We were told to come prepared so just about every other person in attendance had a bottle of tequila tagging along for the meal as Jose’s will make you a margarita if you bring the hard stuff. We were handed a few Tecate’s on our arrival and ordered a pair of margaritas while settling in with some chips and salsa. The chips were delicious and more than likely homemade, and the salsa had a fres, spicy kick. Things were off to a good start. We put in a few table wide orders for appetizers, a couple plates of guacamole and some queso fundido loaded with roasted Mexican peppers, all excellent. I guess at this point I should come clean on the fact that I was still stuffed from Hot Doug’s and the idea of eating more, even that manna from the gods that is Mexican, seemed like a reasonably to terribly bad idea. But I thought I should at least have something other than chips and dips so when the waiter came around I selected one barbacoa and one al patstor taco. Actually, I originally picked those two meats to fill some soft and tender tamales, but the menu fails to mention that tamales are only available on the weekends, boo-urns. So I checked the taco box on my order instead and waited very patiently to see what kind of room I had left in my food vault. In turned out there was just enough for these two excellent specimens. The barbacoa was tender and beefy with a little spice, a little onion, and a healthy handful of cilantro. The al pastor was porky and delicious but a little over done. While the charred bits on the edges added some great smokey flavor to my “Mexican gyro” the inside was a tad dry. The onion/cilantro/salsa on top helped this matter immensely. The rest of the food on the table looked delicious and huge, so I felt less guilty about not ordering something I probably wouldn’t have finished more than a third of, plus I was still running on Doug’s and gator so I didn’t need much anyways.

Having plied ourselves with Mexican goodies and a handful of margaritas we moved the party just around the block to the High Dive. Located on West Chicago Avenue, between Winchester and Wolcott, the High Dive is an understated little bar with a handful of 4-6 person high-tops, several expansive booths, and a gorgeous bar that is either an antique or a very reasonable facsimile. Every one ordered a round and we toasted Maureen again. Not knowing what the High Dive had to offer I watched another partygoers order that Champagne of Beers and followed suit, just moments before noticing the weekly specials posted way above the bar. Thursday night at the High Dive is $4 Absolut drinks, if only I’d seen that sooner! I contentedly sipped my High Life before switching to the 3 Floyds IPA they had on tap, and what a world of difference! 3 Floyds’ IPA is a strong entry into the category, full of aromatic and bitter hops that lend it that floral bouquet and citrusy aftertaste sought after in most IPAs, rank it right in there with Sierra Nevada for a excellent and fully competent IPA, yardsticks to measure all others against. From there on out I was Moscow Mules for the rest of the night, the sumptuous blend of ginger ale, vodka, and lime is perfectly refreshing on a hot summer night after a long day of eating heavily. I should also note in here that while at High Dive I chanced to try a few swigs of a friend’s New Castle Summer Ale. Tasting somewhere between regular New Castle and a watery IPA, New Castle’s summer ale is tasteless and alternately bland sweet, soggy, and bitter. Avoid this beer at all costs.

Having properly rung in Mo’s b-day on Thursday and with Pitchfork not getting revved up until later on its first day we decided to sleep in for a bit before fueling up for a long day of rocking and quite possibly rolling. When we finally roused ourselves from slumber we wandered around the corner from Shortie’s to Small Bar. There are actually three Small Bars in Chicago, we visited the Division location. Charming and ramshackle, Small Bar exists in a limbo between actual dive-iness and affected dive-iness. Regardless of its actual status as a dive it was welcoming, offered a great beer selection, and is apparently the place to watch soccer in that neighborhood; the walls decorated with Arsenal and United scarves and a huge banner baring a logo similar to that of the Ramones with the word “SOCCER” emblazoned in that blocky, san-serif font. While scanning the menu we discussed the need for some dog hair that morning and finally decided on 3 Floyds Gumballhead for Nicole and I and an Allagash White for Shortie. You may judge if you like, but Gumballhead is so good I offer that it should be nationally instituted as the official beer of breakfast. Wheaty, hoppy, citrusy, and just a little bitter, Gumballhead is as delicious and refreshing as any juice you might slug down in the morning, plus it’s filled with the beer goodness your Q-zone requires so much of. Also, it was about 12:30 or 1:00 when we got there and we were on vacation so, yeah. At any rate, if you’re a fan of Bell’s Oberon and feel it’s unreasonable that such a tasty draught is only available in the summer I recommend moving to 3 Floyds’ distribution area or stock piling 3 Floyds for those long, cold winter months.

With a splash of beer to revive body and soul we were ready to eat. Small Bar offers a brief but solid menu of bar standards: burgers, sandwiches, assorted sides and snacks. Nothing wild and crazy, just good food that tastes better with beer and possibly sports. Having been told to by most everyone I’d encountered the night before, I ordered the pulled pork nachos. For breakfast. Well, brunch I guess given the timing of our meal, but it seemed an odd choice for my first meal of the day. While I got my own order, Shortie and our dining companion Adam opted to split theirs. When they finally arrived I could see why. The nachos arrived in a bowl most restaurants would use to serve a family style pasta dish with a pile of crisp, delicious tortilla chips piled high above the rim. On top was a mound of steamy hot barbequed pork, several generous handfuls of cheese, and a healthy dollop of sour cream. It was big, but I was hungry. Before diving in mouth first I needed to test the waters and so took a healthy bite of nothing but pork. It was good, real good. Slow cooked beautifully, although not smoked, and slathered in a sweet barbeque sauce, a tasty counterpoint to the spicy pork that makes up the Pig Destoyer, Led Zeppelin, and pulled pork fries over at Kuma’s Corner. Kuma’s sauce is a bright, bold, and daring dressing, while Small Bar’s is unctuous and inviting. Coupled with zesty jack and cheddar and supplemented with daubs of sour cream, Small Bar’s pulled pork nachos are a great way to start a long day of outdoor music festival attending. Continuing the theme of appetizer-for-brunch Nicole ordered some of Small Bar’s other infamous app: fried cheese curds. Dipped in a stout based batter and fried, these cheddar curds are as hearty and fun as any mozzarella stick, with the bonus of that sharp cheddar zing. The tangy honey mustard dipping sauce that accompanies the curds was excellent, but I found a few dots of sriracha to be just as tasty an accompaniment.

More than well fed, we departed Small Bar so that Nicole and Shortie could get hair cuts from their favorite trimmer and I roamed the streets of Chicago in search of danger. And by danger I mean comic shops, book stores, and record retailers. My first stop at Brainstorm, a comic book shop and video rental spot that boasts a respectable selection of both despite its limited retail space; I picked up a copy of Doom Patrol volume 2: The Painting That Ate Paris. From there I wandered down the street checking out the local stores as I wandered. When I came to Gallery Café I couldn’t help but venture in. For coffee lovers the world round freshly and expertly roasted beans are a must. Cleveland’s Phoenix Coffee has its own roaster in the city, as does Bowling Green’s Grounds for Thought. But Gallery takes this demand for freshness one step further and roasts their beans on site as they need them, while you might smell more like the inside of a coffee pot after a few minutes in Gallery than you might at other cafés, the funk is well worth it as this is some of the finest coffee I’ve ever sipped. With the mercury speeding ever northward in Chicago I opted for Gallery’s iced coffee. Rich and bold with a splash of cream for color and a reduction in acidity, this was exactly the thing I needed to survive such a heat wave with such a full stomach. My last stop, I never did make it to Reckless, was Quimby’s. One of the finest bookstores in the world, specializing in all the weird and eccentric books other stores tuck away or simply refuse to stock. This is an excellent spot to find everything from the newest graphic novels to local and national `zines to The Anarchist’s Cookbook. There’s a whole section dedicated to the printed materials from and related to McSweeney’s, the art books have their own graffiti subsection, and they proudly sell “gay smut,” their words not mine, in the front section of the store; no beaded curtains or hushed whispers for something behind the counter. I perused their aisles for a long time but was ultimately overcome by choices; I wanted it all, but I got none.

I was soon whisked away for an afternoon of rock’n’roll fun at Pitchfork where I managed to digest away all the pork and chips while enjoying the abrasive post-everything jamz of Liars, the comedy melt-down of Michael Showalter, and the competent execution of Modest Mouse. But all this loud music and a few beers had left me feeling mighty hungry. Post fest we boarded a blue-line bus and made for that beacon of late-night Mexican goodness: Arturo’s. A perennial Chicago favorite of mine, I was introduced to Arturo’s by Nicole on our first visit to the city last September. We’ve been many times since and I knew what I wanted before we even got there. Arturo’s was busy when we arrived but we managed to find two tables to accommodate our eight hungry companions. A double check of the menu showed that they did indeed still serve tacos both barbacoa and al pastor. The quesadilla was not on the menu, but it never is. I overhead some rumbling concerning the al pastor come from our sister table and was struck by a cold sweat. Might I not be able to have my al pastor? Was the spit layered with slabs of seasoned pork and slowly roasted as it spins, like a Mexican gyro, really scraped bare? When the waitress came to take our order my worst fears were confirmed. Yes, they have no al pastor. I scrambled over the menu again looking for a replacement. There is no real replacement for a good taco al pastor, but I decided on a taco carnitas. Spiced, slow cooked pork shoulder that is shredded and tossed in a hot pan for crispy edges and soft, savory centers. Arturo’s does it right and the taco carnitas was excellent. As was the barbacoa, natch, both are served in homemade corn tortillas and garnished simply with a sprinkle of raw onion and cilantro. Arturo’s quesadilla is simplicity and deliciousness defined. Just two of their fantastic corn tortillas filled with soft, white Mexican cheese (queso blanco? Chihuahua? Oaxaca?) and grilled until melty. The perfect late night pick-me-up, Arturo’s gave us the strength for a night cap across the street at the Green Eye Lounge. Dark and loud like a bar should be, the Green Eye Lounge on West Homer seemed a perfect final destination on this long first day of the fest. We sipped a few PBRs while check out the place and its clientele and noticed that from Sunday to Thursday Green Eye offers $5 bourbon and PBR boilermakers, an excellent deal if I do say so myself. Well fed, well beer’d, and all kinds of tired we made for home base to rest up for another long day of fun.

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

Arturo's Tacos on Urbanspoon


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