Visiting family in Chicago, I gave my savvy brother marching orders to plot a day of eating in his adopted city. He wanted to tour the south side and eat every animal found in a Midwestern barnyard. But living in a hot dog-deprived portion of the country, I insisted on returning first to Hot Doug’s, the kitschy hot dog joint famous for defying Chicago’s now discarded ban on foie gras. However, the Hot Doug’s that I encountered was effectively closed until further notice while it attempted to feed Chicago’s massive population of hipsters who became acquainted with Doug Sohn’s hot dog funhouse only after watching the recent Tony Bourdain excursion to Chicago. (In the Department of Irony, I find it hugely entertaining that a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker had to instruct the Second City hipsters about where to get a quality Chicago hot dog.) Despite my two pre-noon attempts to go to Hot Doug’s, the hordes of mustachioed, bespectacled Caucasians waiting for hours in single-digit weather for a hot dog prevented a visit.
On the bright side, I was spared the indignity of paying $7.50 for such a Wonka-esque creation as “a mandarin orange and teriyaki chicken sausage with chili-garlic mustard and valfrais chili-paprika cheese.” Or $4.50 for the so-called “Cinci Dog,” which consists of a quarter-pound hot dog with yellow mustard, Cincinnati Skyline Chili, and what I can only imagine must be a blizzard of grated cheddar cheese. As any Clevelander knows, it is an absolute blasphemy to spread yellow mustard on a hot dog, which is nearly as revolting as putting ketchup on a frankfurter. (A hot dog, preferably from Miles Farmers Market, is perfected by Bertman’s Ball Park Mustard and sauerkraut.) Speaking of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, there is a reason that Ruhlman turned up his nose at the doubly repulsive outpost of Skyline Chili on Mayfield Road in the Cleveland episode. (Skyline never caught on in the Cleve, as Clevelanders have extremely refined palates, for Ohioans. Perhaps this is one reason why my very wise former supervisor at the CCPO used to say he lived in the State of Cuyahoga, which tactic has the added benefit of shielding the personal shame of being otherwise associated with the dullardry formally known as Ohio State University.) How Cincinnati “chili” turned up at Hot Doug’s cannot be explained on culinary grounds and remains an enduring mystery. As it were, my quest for a hot dog would be postponed until a visit to the Weiner Circle the following afternoon where I enjoyed a most succulent chardog in the company of a few noisome men lacking adequate shelter, yet preternaturally skilled at the art of self-conversation. That is why Weiner Circle might be the most solid place in Chicago. Ok, onward.
So we began our day with some appetizings at Calumet Fisheries, another Bourdain selection that is so deep in the Chicago sprawl that it is somehow closer to Gary, Indiana, than it is to Wrigley Field, such is the size of the City of Chicago. Located in a dreary shack on top of the Calumet River, Calumet Fisheries is a traditional smokehouse no different than those famed temples of barbeque in Texas, except that Calumet focuses on shrimp, salmon, and trout; and it has no seating. The smoked fish and shrimp, which were served in their shells, were a revelation for their rusticity and the history they represent. In the bygone era of U.S. supremacy in the steel industry, Calumet’s customer base consisted of local mill workers of Eastern European stock who had an affinity for smoked fish. Decades later, it is self-evident how Calumet’s straight-ahead style of smoked fish would be hearty enough to satisfy even a non-unionized steel worker on lunch break. The fish and shrimp have a robust smokiness and an appealing rugged texture. This is food that should be eaten with the hands, just like the beef and pork at Kreuz’s Market. Russ’s daughters would find Calumet completely foreign. The dozen or so deep fried offerings should be avoided, however.
We moved on to another traditionalist, Birrieria Zaragoza, an establishment that shows how much Chicago has changed in recent decades. (It is located on Pulaski Road, a major thoroughfare; if the road were to be renamed today, my hunch is that any new name’s ending vowel would be an “a” or an “o.”) Zaragoza is a lunch counter that serves only birria tatemada, a specialty from the owner’s hometown of La Barca in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The Zaragoza family’s warmth and painstaking devotion to the preparation of (and for the gringos, an education on) birria make the counter a perfect place to watch and converse. Birria tatemada, as conceived by Juan Zaragoza, is young goat slowly steamed for up to six hours. (According to the Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula, Mr. Zaragoza is searching for a wood-burning oven for this stage of the process, which will allow him to incorporate red oak and agave leaves and thus remain more closely yoked to tradition.) Then Zaragoza applies a mole sauce that he makes from ancho chiles, which are effectively dried poblanos. Finally, the goat is roasted in the oven. The Zaragozas serve the goat with a tomato-based consommé that is made without goat drippings and, of course, with the de rigueur homemade tortillas and salsa, as well as toasted chiles for anyone desiring extra heat.
Despite my brother’s noble efforts, I’ll never be a convert to the pleasures of eating goat. But I will admit that Zaragoza’s tatemada was enjoyable and much less gamy than the goat platter served at fellow Jalisciense El Parian, whose once legendary tacos de carne asada have faded into mediocrity in recent years. In fact, it could be argued that Zaragoza’s birria was downright mild and needed the toasted chiles, especially since the mole rub was imperceptible. Nevertheless, Birrieria Zaragoza is a local gem because of the lovely family that runs it and their unwavering dedication to the traditional preparation of one item from the small town of La Barca. While authenticity as a culinary concept is either bereft of meaning or unhelpful in light of its strict constructionist overtones, integrity is crucial, and Birrieria Zaragoza is certainly its winsome votary.
We eventually found our way to central Chicago, the home of restaurateur Paul Kahan’s ambitious project, The Publican. Kahan developed his reputation in Chicago with haute Blackbird and, later on, avec Avec, which offers a hodgepodge of small plates inspired by several northern Mediterranean nations. Kahan is a ballsy and shameless fellow, very clever and a terrific operator. With Publican, he opened up the equivalent of a tragically hip banquet hall, appropriating dominant trends circulating through West Coast and East Coast restaurant circles in the process. Kahan understands what well-heeled Chicago diners want, which is either to be legitimately challenged, or, I speculate, to be in a restaurant that has all the trappings of sophistication. Famed New York chef Mario Batali has of course popularized the consumption of offal, and it is can be seen in some, albeit geeky, circles as a badge of honor to eat, e.g., guanciale, cabeza, or sweetbreads. Kahan understands this trend, almost flauntingly so; on his menu’s list of cooked meats, veal brain, beef heart, and pork belly appear first. If you’re wondering, the chicken is the list’s penultimate item.
Kahan also steals from the best restaurant on the West Coast (and the country), namely Chez Panisse. Accordingly, Kahan understands that restaurant patrons today want to know the source of dishes’ primary ingredients with the understanding that they are farm-fresh, so to speak -- even in the depths of a nasty, brutish, but not-so-short Chicago winter. As a consequence, Publican’s menu is littered with footnotes and citations, including farm name and location. If I wanted to re-read Infinite Jest, I would have stayed home, for four months. Of course Publican succumbs, like Gjelina before it, to the bizarrely irresistible temptation to employ communal seating.
But what of the food? As in any restaurant with a large menu of small plates, there were a few hits and a few misses. Overall the execution was solid, if sterile. I adored the Monterey sardines, which were roasted in olive oil and served with kumquats and celery. The sardines were plump and delicious, and I could tell that that Judy Rodgers's cookbook was somewhere in the building. The fried veal brains had a pleasingly creamy texture, though they never should have been served in a glop of mayonnaise. Much less successful was the grilled octopus in a viscid fava bean puree. It was obvious that the fava beans were not in season in mid-February because the puree’s shade of green was algal, not vernal. (I wasn't responsible for ordering the dish.) The grilled octopus was adequate at best.
The Publican had much greater success with its pork dishes, most of which were from—watch it Chicagoans, for a Smug Alert may now be in your forecast—“Becker Lane Organic Farm, Dyersville, Iowa,” including the pork in the potee, which technically may not have been a potée. According to Saveur, potée is a “French meat and vegetable stew” and “two essential ingredients for most authentic potées are salted pigs' ears and tails.” (Yes, I know.) Potée can be thought of as the pork companion to pot-au-feu, and the famous Alsatian dish, choucroute garni, is a typical potée. The Publican’s “version” consisted of pork tenderloin, boar, and crepinette, a sausage made of minced pork, lamb, and veal and wrapped in pig’s caul, which is the fat covering a pig’s intestine. With all this pork on a single plate, the dish was perforce good. But the “ham chop” was even better. It was a grand cut of pork that was brined and then smoked in hay, and GSG totally and justifiably buried it. I was lucky to snag a slice. The chop was the most flavorful and original item of the evening, and the hay preparation added an element of humor. It was obvious that Kahan’s staff was happiest and most comfortable serving Midwestern pork to its Midwestern clientele.
3259 East 95th Street
4852 South Pulaski Road
837 W. Fulton Market