Sunday, July 25, 2010

Liver Punisher: Chicago War Journal: Operation Pitchfork Part 2

We awoke Saturday morning reasonably well rested and ready for action. We decided that the best course of action would be to make our way to the festival via breakfast. We began our trek with a vague idea of where we were headed. When we arrived at the corner of West Chicago and North Damen it was decided that breakfast would be had at the Sunrise Café. Simply decorated to the point of non-décor, the Sunrise is every café, diner, or greasy spoon you’ve ever been to. The menu is simple and to the point, focusing on burgers, sandwiches, and breakfasts served all day. Shortie ordered a BL, a BLT minus the T, while Nicole and I opted for breakfast. Figuring I probably wouldn’t be eating again until at least 10pm I knew it had to be a solid meal. At the same time I didn’t want to spend the whole day, lumbering around in the sun with a belly full of lead. Therefore I opted out of the Smokey Mountain Eggs, a Barnyard Buster of sorts that piles all that is good and right about breakfast on a plate and then douses it in sausage gravy. Plus bonus bacon! It sounded as delicious as it was a bad idea for the coming day. Instead I chose an omelet and filled it with Gouda and sausage. The Gouda was rich and buttery, the sausage lightly spiced, but the eggs were a little over cooked. I guess better over than under, but not by much. Still, generally tasty and good fuel for the coming day. My dish also came with a side of hash browns and wheat toast. The has browns were golden crispy on the outside, soft and potato-y inside, just like they should be, and a perfect vehicle for a little ketchup and hot sauce. Nicole’s breakfast was less satisfactory, so I’m told. I tend to believe it was as the eggs in her Florentine were mostly over poached, still a little runny gold in the center, but the yolks look mostly set. I didn’t try any of it, but reports indicated a fair-at-best Hollandaise, as well. I doff my cap to Sunrise for attempting to class things up with a dish like Eggs Florentine, A-for-effort, but it seemed like the follow through was in the C to C- neighborhood. Of course, maybe I’m just a spoiled brat during breakfast since I’ve been dining on Vine and Bean and Inn on Coventry these past few months.

Fed and ready for action we walked the rest of the way to the fest and wandered about. We caught the closing tracks from Spanish electro marvels Delorean and most of the Bright-Eyes-meets-Hold-Steady anthems of Titus Andronicus before moseying over to the Flatstock poster fair. A village of tents had been erected just outside the vendors’ area for Flatstock merchants to display their wares. Their offerings? Just some of the coolest concert posters ever created. There were art styles to meet every taste and just about every band imaginable. Highlights from Flatstock: the adorable minimalism of Stackmatic, the sketchy abstraction of Landland, and the brilliant simplicity of the Small Stakes. My big score, and (small) boost to the local economy, was a foam beer cozy from the Cleveland/NYC collaboration the Bubble Process, hot pink ghosts on black foam kept my drinks cold and me looking cool (photo to come soon!). Already feeling hot and parched having guzzled our water on arrival we scored a few Arnold Palmers in the “Big-Ass” size from the Chicago Diner food stand. A little sweet, a little sour, and a lot refreshing, AP hits the spot, every time. A few among us also took this opportunity to grab a bite, which included Julie’s veggie corndog, the Chicago Diner is known for its vegetarian and vegan interpretations of classic diner fare, and Brooke’s soy ice cream. The corndog, topped with a vegan cheese-like sauce was tepidly received, while the faux ice cream was more popular amongst those who accepted the offer for a taste. Me, I’ve never had a pleasant experience with soy ice cream so I passed, Nicole said it tasted like frozen butter. Sufficiently rehydrated we investigated the grungy glam of the Smith Westerns and the crowd murdering Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, still awesome after all these years. Wolf Parade would later jam eclectic and Panda Bear provided the perfect hazy soundtrack to the muggy evening. Finally LCD Soundsystem grabbed the reins on the main stage and brought the crowd to rolling boil before closing the night with a gorgeous, blaring version of Sound of Silver closer, “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” We considered our asses rocked.

Next stop on this balmy Saturday evening was the Bottom Lounge for yet another birthday celebration. The walk to West Lake, near North Ogden, was relatively quick and Bottom Lounge, as well as Mark’s birthday area, was well stocked with patrons and well wishers. While waiting for a much desired seat I forged my way to the bar and eventually got the attention of the bartender. I placed my order and coughed up only to watch her deposit my change directly into the tip jar. What. The. Fuck! In no time or place or world or ever is this an even remotely acceptable practice. I was gladly going to tip her when she brought my change, it was, essentially hers, but to just take it? To assume that it was hers? It’s tantamount to theft, albeit petty, but theft is theft. For the rest of the night I opted to not order beers from the bar, lord knows what else might’ve been stolen from me, and ordered instead from our waitress and the lady selling beers out of a large bin upstairs, but we’ll get to that. Once we found some stools to park our weary bodies in we ordered some food from Bottom Lounge’s small menu. Julie and Nicole decided to share a grilled cheese sandwich and some fries, I got some pita and hummus. Despite the hurried atmosphere in the bar our food arrived quickly. Unfortunately it wasn’t fantastic. My pita was soft and tender, a plus, but the hummus was overly lemony, with citrus obliterating any of the nuttiness of the chick peas, creaminess of the tahini, or any trace of herb or spice, while the cucumbers that arrived in the basket were lifeless and limp. The bite I had of Nicole’s grilled cheese half was filled with bland, soggy bread and chemically cheese. The only bright spot was the fries. Perfectly fried and seasoned with garlic and parmesan it gave me hope that at lease one person in the Bottom Lounge kitchen knew what they were doing. With a little food in us we were able to try to enjoy our company, but it was difficult due to the throngs of people in the bar. This was due in part to its proximity to the festival as well as the fact that it was hosting the big post-Pitchfork concert which was a rare Cap’n Jazz reunion. All these factors considered it was still just too crowded, so we decided to get some air on Bottom Lounge’s rooftop patio. On our way out we stopped a bought a round from a lady sitting on a stool in front of what must surely have been an animal watering trough full of ice selling beers and trading Pitchfork drink tickets for shots, not a bad idea. Out on the patio things weren’t much better, instead of being surrounded on all sides in the air conditioned bar, we were surrounded and back in the evening heat. Despite the crowd we were able to enjoy a little fresh air and a stunning view of the city skyline. When we’d had enough we wandered back down to the first floor bar and bid farewell to the birthday boy.

The night was young yet and while we were walking back to Shortie’s we decided to take a brief detour to meet her and Maureen at the High Dive. What began as something I thought to be a reasonable walk turned what felt like an epic hike across this city, however this might have just been my exhaustion talking. When we arrived we discovered no Saturday drink specials to match Thursday’s and grabbed a round of bourbon and gingerales. Seeking rest our weary feet again we sat down with Mo and Shorite and a few others when suddenly food arrived. Shortie had ordered some of High Dive’s chicken wings and a basket of fries. Once again, the fries were beautifully executed, crisp outsides and flakey delicious centers, perfectly fried by someone who knows their way around a frymatic. The wings on the other hand were… interesting. I was told that High Dive Starts their wings by par-frying them then tossing them in sauce and finishing them on the grill for that smokey char and some sexy grill lines. The resulting meat is tasty, fried fattiness, smoked grilly-ness, and tangy sauciness. But the multi stage cooking process, especially something as dry as the grill, wrung most of the moisture from the already dry wings. Good flavor and bad texture do not great wings make. The bright side to this, however, was the triumphant, albeit somewhat misplaced, side sauce. A soy and wasabi mayo came with the wings and, when I dipped a fry in, revealed itself to be wonderfully rich and perfectly salty with just the right amount of tingle in the sinus from the wasabi. Like the man said: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

After three days of hard eating and hard partying we were starting to feel the wear and tear, so a little extra sleeping in was in store. Eventually rousing from our slumber, Nicole and I set out on a search for brunch. We originally planned on meeting some friends at a restaurant, but were cut short when they texted us letting us know that said restaurant no longer serves breakfast. Bummer. Undaunted and across the street from our second choice spot we crossed the street and put our names on the wait list for Earwax. This oddly named, carnival side-show themed eatery was busy enough for a Sunday morning but we were seated quickly. We parsed the menu while sipping some of their delicious, fresh brewed coffee. One of the better cups I had on this outing, Earwax boasts a strong, full bodied joe with smokey aftertastes, and a pleasantly bitter twang. A little cream and just a touch of sugar and it was just about the best thing a body can drink first thing in the morning. Earwax’s menu is smallish, but strong, with plenty of great sandwiches and breakfast served all day. Being a dyed-in-the-wool breakfast aficionado I was all over their bevy of choices finally selecting their breakfast burrito. Nicole was also feeling the burrito vibe and ordered the barbequed seitan burrito. Earwax’s menu skews towards the veggie/healthy end of the spectrum and, in fact, the menu reminded a bit of Cleveland’s own Tommy’s. Anyways, food arrived in good time despite the fact that they were constantly busy and we tucked in. My burrito was massive, filled with scrambled eggs, cheddar, refried beans and avocado. With a side of potatoes, salsa, and sour cream, this was a champ-worthy breakfast for sure. The eggs were perfectly cooked, light and fluffy, but firm enough to stay in place while eating. The beans and cheese added some meatiness and body to the wrap, but the avocados were oddly scattered. I’d eaten about a quarter before I found even a hint of green and then bam, a huge pocket, my only real complaint with my breakfast and it’s a minor one. The potatoes were well seasoned and beautifully fried and extra tasty with some hot sauce mixed with the sour cream and salsa. Come to think of it that mixture was a bit of alright on the burrito, too. Nicole’s “barbequed” seitan burrito was pretty tasty as well, but Earwax seems to be playing pretty loose with the term “barbeque.” In my mind barbeque means one of three things: (1) meat that’s cooked low and slow in order to enhance texture and flavor, (2) more loosely, anything that’s been cooked on a grill, or (3) something with barbeque sauce on it. Earwax’s burrito fell into none of these categories. The seitan had more of a southwest/Mexican flavor; the beans and rice inside certainly backed this up, as did the chips, salsa, and sour cream that accompanied her brunch. While I am wasting too much time on the semantics of nomenclature here, I am not saying it wasn’t delicious which it was, just improperly marked.

With some serious gut fuel to get us through the last day of the festival we made a short detour to Shortie’s before heading to the park as we had been soaked in a sudden downpour on the way to brunch. Dryly attired and amply sun screened we wandered over to the park. We arrived in time to catch a portion of Lightning Bolt’s set. Unfortunately the Brians’ blown-out sonic extremism didn’t translate from skuzzy house show to massive P.A. A lot of Gibson’s calculated racket was translated into a bland din post-mixing board, and all but one of Chippendale’s drums and cymbals were making any sort of impact. Surfer Blood and St. Vincent, on the other hand, sounded perfectly crisp and clear. Vincent especially shone on the middle stage combining her perfectly crafted pop with live guitar shredding and noisy, arrhythmic breakdowns that, as if by magic, reshaped into her shimmery, esoteric jamz. After the long, dreary, dancehall pastiche of Major Lazer, we forged our way into the fray to snag a decent locale for the impending Pavement-ing. Just a few yards right of the main stage sound booth and about 100 from the stage we felt pretty confident in our vantage. After a thoroughly rousing performance from Out Kast’s Big Boi, a couple Heineken Lights—the surprisingly drinkable sponsor beer at Pitchfork this year, not fantastic, but as easy drinking as any other major brand light beer— and soft pretzels with tangy beer cheese from the Berghoff food stand—totally awesome!—it was Pavement time. The band took the stage in a properly shambolic way that brought to mind Bevis and Butthead’s infamous Pavement jab that these guys aren’t trying hard enough. The power quintet ripped their way through an excellent set of mid-album rockers and a few slow jamz, reaching back to Slanted and Enchanted just twice—“Two States” and “Fame Throwa”—with “Spit on a Stranger” the only representative of Terror Twilight. But the set list mattered little as I would’ve been happy to hear them play Wowee Zowee b-sides for the hour.

We and the other thousands of lucky souls trudged out of the park and towards some destination or another. Ours was the quest for a bus and food. Packed like sardines in what I’m sure was a safety violation of some sort on the blue line, we headed back towards Bucktown and Ukranian Village in the hopes of scoring pizza and beer from Piece Pizzeria and Brewery. But our dreams were dashed upon arrival when we were informed that the kitchen was closed. The pizza place next door had recently been cleaned out, presumably by throngs of hungry concert goers, so we moved on to plan “C.” Appropriate since our third option was Cleo’s. A ten minute walk brought us to our destination and a large table where we tried our best to devour all the cheese in the joint. Cheese cubes and fried mac’n’cheese appetizers were the opening salvo followed by a full cheese blitzkrieg. There were pizzas of all flavor and stripe, a few quesadillas, and, of course, cheese burgers. Nicole and I kept things simple with a pepperoni pizza and some fried cheddar cheese cubes. The cubes were excellent--how could battered, fried cheese not be--and the pizza was, well, pizza. Homemade dough, a zesty tomato sauce, good cheese, and a healthy sprinkle of pepperoni; all well executed and delicious, but nothing terribly new or mind blowing. Other dining companions were a little more adventurous, the buffalo chicken pizza smelled amazing and the bite or two I had from the barbeque chicken quesadilla was excellent. The real food winner of the night, however, was the bacon bleu pizza. Homemade dough again served as the base, but instead of regular tomato sauce Cleo’s subs in a tangier, heavily herbed tomato sauce. The whole thing is then covered in bacon and smothered in sweet, funky bleu cheese. I only had a small piece, but wow. Wow.

Feeling sufficiently refueled those of us that didn’t have to work the next morning, or simply didn’t care, walked across the street to the Map Room. Map Room is one of my favorite Chicago watering holes. The walls are covered with, you guessed it, maps; maps of all types, variety, and age, as well as numerous shelves of National Geographic. The beer selection is ample as it is impressive, more than two dozen draughts, a huge bottle list, and a hand pumped, casked beer. The selection leans towards the fruitier, more malty Belgian beers and domestic sympathizers, but there’s plenty of room for hops in the Map Room rotation, too. I opted for the hand pulled Arcadia IPA and received and imperial pint, 20oz, of hoppy, smooth beer goodness. Not as bitter or robust as say a Sierra Nevada or its ilk, the Arcadia variation had a nutty, brown color and at times was reminiscent of New Castle. At least when it first hits the tongue, the after taste is pure IPA citrus/pine goodness. Hand pulling from the cask gives the beer a smoother mouth feel, not as carbonated as a bottled or traditionally drafted beer, the beer engine makes for a creamy texture which is fantastic, but creates a strange disconnect between taste and texture when drinking hand pulled IPAs. Nicole’s choice was the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye. Dark and hoppy the Hop Rod tastes of IPA when if first goes in, but has a wonderful dry, spicy finish from the rye with which it is made. And at 8% ABV it packs a pretty good kick. After round one we discussed another and decided that we were on vacation, damnit, and we would drink beer all night if we so chose. And we did! Round two found me with a Boulder Beer Company Cold Hop English Style Ale. Golden, wheaty in color this interesting brew boasts a great floral nose and some serious fruity flavors followed by a great hoppy sting and an oddly buttery/fatty aftertaste and mouth feel. Delicious and refreshing, like a more complex variation on Boddington’s Pub Ale. Nicole, perhaps at the recommendation of the beer list, Chose the Goldbräu by Stiegl, due to it being “perfect for warmer weather.” A light, crisp German lager this would be an ideal beer to sip before, during, and/or after mowing the lawn or most any other summer activity. Refreshing to max and served in one of the coolest pilsners I’ve ever seen. The one curious aspect of this otherwise simple beer was the aftertaste. While we both agreed it was quite literally corny, Nicole felt it tasted of Fritos while I thought it was more along the lines of corn tortillas. Tasty but odd. Our cravings for late night food and drink well sated we departed the Map Room at last call and staggered back to Shortie’s one last time.

It was a bittersweet morning when we woke on Monday. On one hand glad to be headed for home, on the other sad to leave so many wonderful people and places behind. We packed up our, now very sweaty, belongings and loaded up the car. But the six hour drive ahead of us demanded a solid farewell brunch. After a little debate over where to eat and what may or may not be open on a Monday afternoon we decided on late-night Lakeview beacon, the Pick Me Up Café. Just a few blocks stumbling distance from MLB’s most iconic stadium, the Pick Me Up is a 24 hour espresso bar and diner serving up a variety of traditional diner fare with veggie and vegan twists—if you find yourself in Lakeview in need of some serious late night munchables I can’t recommend the veggie chili and vegan, that’s right, mac’n’cheeze! We drifted the few blocks from Bucktown to Lakeview with Nicole offering her one-woman tour of Chicago along the way and found an amazing, albeit expensive, parking spot in front of our diner. We seated ourselves at a table decorated with images of the Sesame Street crew made from food. For starters I grabbed a huge mug of PMU’s excellent coffee. Strong, flavorful, scorching hot, this cuppa was a fitting farewell to all the great coffee that can be had in Chi-tonw ( Nicole’s Americano, espresso and hot water, was also excellent. I suppose none of this should be surprising since it is an espresso bar, but still good coffee is good coffee and I believe in giving credit where credit is due. The menu at Pick Me Up is a well curated selection of breakfast/lunch/dinner options in, as I said, the diner vein with a healthy/meat free twist. In what is an occasional twist for me I strayed from the egg route and ordered a plate of PMU’s “famous” Kahlua pancakes and a side of home fries. For Nicole: the New Yorker, a base of potatoes, peppers, onions, pesto and goat cheese topped with two eggs of your choosing. She chose scrambled. We lazily worked the Chicago Reader’s crossword puzzle and sipped our drinks while waiting for our food. Pick Me Up takes a pretty relaxed approach to most things so it wasn’t a surprise that we had a bit of wait, but it was well worth it when food arrived. My pancakes’ dark brown hue reflected the rich, dark liqueur that flavored them and were dusted with powdered sugar and (too much) cinnamon. Smeared with a little butter and a splash of syrup, they were delicious. Perfectly cooked on the griddle, the pancakes had a firm outer ring and a soft cake-like interior. They were perfectly sweet on their own and boasted an essence or hint of Kahlua, like a memory of the drink, thankfully, and not a shot in every bite. The potatoes were a little on the soft side but well seasoned and cooked with red and green pepper bits and a few onions, much improved with a few shakes of hot sauce and some of Heinz’ finest. Nicole seemed to have won the breakfast lottery this time, her plate was heaped with firm, well cooked potatoes, bright hunks of pepper and onion, creamy mounds of goat cheese, and a vibrant green pesto, bursting with the flavor of fresh basil, and topped with some perfectly scrambled eggs. For whatever reason her potatoes were cooked better than mine, with a much better texture, and I’m filing away the idea of a goat cheese and caramelized onion omelet topped with fresh pesto for later. Yum to the maxxx!

With the crossword mostly completed, our third of forth cuppa polished off, stomachs well plied we got some gas and water before getting back on the road. The drive home on a Monday afternoon was also pretty easy, a little more traffic than a late Wednesday evening, but no traffic jams or long lines on the expressway, just smooth sailing. We stopped a few times for coffee and other pit stops, but basically made it home without issue. Road weary and famished upon our arrival we bandied around some dinner ideas, the short walk to Aladdin’s at Surrey and Cedar was a front runner before settling on an overlooked gem in Cleveland’s ever expanding food crown: Richie Chan’s. Located just west of the Cedar/Lee intersection, Chan’s is easy to miss with all the glitz and glamour just up the road, but it shouldn’t be missed. Primarily a carry out, there are a few tables available, Chan’s is run by a middle aged couple we’ve dubbed “Mr. and Mrs. Chan.” She takes the orders then barks them at him, he cooks them up, she packs them and dishes out the goods. While the menu at Richie Chan’s appears at first/second/hundredth glance to be pretty standard, the food is vastly superior to almost any I’ve ever had, save for maybe a few meals in New York’s Chinatown and the always surprising Yangtze on Chardon’s square. Chan’s General Tso’s Chicken is unlike any I’ve ever had, sweet, spicy, and loaded with ginger. Their wonton soup should be the standard to which all others are held, buttery, meaty broth, delicate wontons, and sumptuous roast pork; it’s a rare visit that we don’t leave without a quart. And the egg rolls are not to be missed, crisp and fresh tasting in both veggie and shrimp incarnations. My order that night, and my “usual” is the cashew pork. Loaded with carrots, peas, corn, and mushrooms and peppered with savory thin sliced pork it is utterly simple and wildly delicious on its own but doesn’t mind being perked up with some spicy mustard or sriracha. Nicole scored some veggie lo mein which was so straight forward and compact that it belied its simple intrinsic deliciousness; also excellent with a few dashes of the spicy stuff.

An epically entertaining trip to and from the Midway, full of great food, excellent drink, and, most importantly, wonderful people. I can’t wait for my next opportunity to eat and drink my way through one of my favorite cities on the planet.

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