New Restaurants in Chicago

I always come to Chicago to eat. I have a running list of places I’ve never been and really should try and then I  also look for what’s new and hot so I can try that too. It was a fair amount of eating this trip but even more time in transit since I stayed way north at my friend’s condo in Andersonville. Sometimes I forget how big this city really is.

But all that traveling was worth it and here are the two new restaurants that made an impression on me this week.

Dove’s Luncheonette

Dove's Luncheonette

The new tex-mex diner from the One Off Hospitality group that includes chef Paul Kahan and restaurants like Big Star, Blackbird and Avec.

Diners are my favorite places to eat uncomplicated food. Breakfast especially. I like sitting at a counter watching short order cooks do their business, the food always arrives hot and fast  and I can get in and get out in 30 minutes for $10. However, when famous chefs open diners they serve complicated expensive food and it usually takes forever to get it.  While I appreciate the homage, the anticipation and immediate popularity of such places combined with the menu prices eliminate all the great elements of the original concept (fast, cheap, unfussy), leaving only the visuals.

A couple of years ago I tried the Little Goat Diner right after it opened. The wait was SO LONG and the food was only ok because there’s hardly any food in the world worth a 2 hour wait. I haven’t been back to Little Goat and I’ve been leery of famous chef diners ever since.

So, imagine my pleasure when the wait at Dove’s Luncheonette was only about 20 minutes on a Saturday around 1pm and the food was really really good!

Dove's Luncheonette

I had the chili rellenos. They were super light, fried in tempura batter and filled with fresh farmer’s cheese, the texture of ricotta. I had a spicy bloody maria topped with pickled beans to wash it down and naturally fell into conversation with the friendly group of artists seated next to me. Lunch counter seating encourages conversation with strangers.

I’d recommend Dove’s Luncheonette because the food is carefully prepared and quite great, the window seating has a nice view of passing humanity and it’s literally right across the street from the train station. For visitors, I caution you to temper your expectations. It could be a long wait to sit on backless stools and it’s not a place for a big group. Don’t wait more than 30 minutes or you’ll be annoyed and hate the experience.

Up north in Andersonville is Little Bad Wolf, a new bar from the people that formerly owned The Burger Philisophy

Little Bad Wolf

It’s advertised as American food but the menu has a strongly Mexican influence

Little Bad Wolf

Like chips and salsa. Ok arguably, chips and salsa have been coopted by every sports bar in the US so they could conceivably be considered American. And these were good ones, fresh hot chips with great salsa options.

But Elote?

Little Bad Wolf

Creamy spicy corn? That’s Mexican through and through. The tempura battered avocado was a great touch and I loved everything about this, including the cast iron dish. I wasn’t impressed with the chopped salad we ordered, bland and disappointing (albeit gigantic), but I’ve never seen hard root beer on tap so I had to try it. Too sweet for me but quite an alcoholic kick so… beware.

I liked LBW. It’s a cute neighborhood bar and I enjoy the copper and cobalt

Little Bad Wolf

If you go, order the elote.

Tomorrow, a round up of the rest of my brief Chicago visit.

Tacos in Wicker Park

A conversation about the best taco in Chicago will likely end in a throw down. Tacos are popular all over the city from gourmet tacos by world renowned chefs (hi, Rick Bayless) to tiny taco stands attached to grocery stores that have no websites. A veritable wealth of taco options.

However, in any list of the best tacos in the city you’ll find these two places listed:

Antique Taco

Someone referred to Antique Taco as “pintrest-y.” It’s funny cuz it’s true. There’s a carefully cultured farm kitchen preciousness to the decor from the wide wooden tables and wooden stools to the jelly jar glasses and cloth dish towel napkins. For some of you, this is a draw. For the rest of you, just ignore it and order a taco:

Antique Taco

Whoever decided that bacon belonged on a carnitas taco is a genius and I love them, especially when they also added spinach, fresh cotija cheese and a few slices of creamy avocado.The plate was warm, the tortillas were bendy and slightly crunchy and the whole thing cost $8. $10 once I added the mouth puckering mango lemonade agua fresca. It actually took 15 minutes or so for me to get my tacos and the place wasn’t busy but I know that means that they started from scratch and made it to order.  Antique Taco deserves all their accolades. I can’t think of a better lunch in Wicker Park.

But if I want tacos for dinner, I go to Big Star:

Big Star ChicagoBecause this place is always a good time. Big Star is an established restaurant that acts like a food truck, referring to themselves as a “beer-focused, taco-slinging, late-night honky-tonk” offering a to-go window in nice weather and refusing to take credit cards.

Big Star ChicagoBut the food is the real deal because Big Star chefs go back to Old Mexico for their taco inspiration, offering pollo pibil steamed in banana leaves and carrots with mole sauce. Their tacos al pastor include pineapple, the guacamole is creamy with crispy chips and the honky tonk vibe invites groups of people to stay too long, eat too many tacos and perhaps sample a bit too much tequila. Big Star is a night all to itself.

There are a lot of great taco places in Chicago. These two are just the beginning.

Wicker Park, Mindy’s HotChocolate, the Flat Iron Project and Ukranians

It’s always a challenge to come back to a city where I used to live and try to see it differently. I lived in or near Chicago for almost 7 years and have great memories of my old neighborhoods. I frequently revisit my favorite places in Wrigleyville, Boy’s Town and Lincoln Park because I love them, but today I wanted to see a different neighborhood so I went to:

Back in the early 90’s, Wicker Park was an under-the-radar cool place to live. Artists and musicians gravitated there, the rent was cheap, the music venues were plentiful and hosted great local bands and everything was a little scroungy and “underground.” You know, where the cool kids can be coolest because no one knows how cool it is, except them. And then some local musicians achieved national prominence (Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins, for instance) and then it got used as a location to shoot High Fidelity and suddenly you couldn’t get into shows at the Double Door and then American Apparel moved in.

Isn’t that always the way it goes? If I go to a cool neighborhood with great coffee shops and tattoo parlors and music venues (see also, Queen Street West in Toronto), I know gentrification is happening when American Apparel and Urban Outfitters show up. They’re the vanguard of the encroaching mainstream.

I picked Wicker Park today primarily because I wanted to eat at Mindy’s HotChocolate:

I know it’s hard to believe that I would pick a neighborhood strictly for a restaurant, but it’s true. The pastry chef, Mindy Segal, got a James Beard nomination in 2007 and I read about her restaurant in Travel and Leisure a year or so ago so this place has been on my radar for a while. I dragged my friend, T, with me and we had the greatest lunch.

That’s Lamb Krema Casa, lamb sausage, krema casa cheese and arugula wrapped in grilled sourdough flatbread and served with grainy mustard and pickled beets. In.cred.i.ble. Filling and hearty on a grey day (Overcast! Foggy! Raining! Again!!), any heaviness perfectly offset with the vinegary accoutrements. Is that all? Of course not! It’s Mindy’s HOT CHOCOLATE and I would be remiss not to try dessert. So I picked the Mexican hot chocolate:

Dense rich liquid chocolate with a kick of cinnamon, poured into a cup and then into my mouth, accompanied by a fluffy homemade marshmallow and further accompanied by “warm brioche donuts and hot fudge sauce.”

Also caramel corn, because you can’t have too much sweet/salty deliciousness on one plate. Seriously, so much sugar. Delectable luscious chocolatey sugar, but still. I could have stopped at the hot chocolate. Almost too much. Overall the food was fantastic and the service was only ok – non-smiling reluctant waitstaff are no fun, but the food made up for their lack of enthusiasm.

We spent the afternoon walking it off.

T recommended the art studios from the Flat Iron Project so we started there. SUCH a cool building. 3 floors of art galleries and studios, all different mediums:

each room a different artist with the art spilling out onto the hallway walls and floors:

Chicago based artists rent these studios to work and display their art. On the first Friday night of the month, as well as the weekends, every gallery is open, artists are there and you can wander, chat, buy and hang out. Prices range from cheap to expensive and artists range from beginners just out of school to well established career artists with thriving businesses. Today the building was open but the galleries were largely closed so we just poked around and looked through windows. I found a couple pieces I really liked and might go back on Saturday to purchase if I’m still thinking about them.

From there we walked down Milwaukee wandered in and out of shops, got a photo strip taken at the old school photo booth in Reckless Records, bought a pair of retro sunglasses

Took lots of pictures of street art:

And finally made our way to the Ukranian Village. I wanted to see their Modern Art museum and round out the day with something more structured and curated. Two Ukranian students from the Art Institute of Chicago opened the Ukranian Institute of Modern Art in the early 70’s with other older Ukranian artists who immigrated to Chicago to escape oppression during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The  art collection is small but beautiful. I loved this stained glass piece called Baden

And this one called Traffic

We then walked around the Ukranian Village and T, who is German, was especially ecstatic to find his favorite sausages at this European deli.

The bakery smelled so deliciously of bread and meat that I wanted to eat something right then but I was still full from lunch (hard to believe, I know) and I had yoga. So, I passed it up. See, it happens!! I finished the afternoon with yoga at the Wicker Park studio, a sister studio to the Lincoln Park studio I visited yesterday.

Between the two, I’d choose the LP studio because the facilities are bigger and more complete, inclusive of actual locker rooms and a shower. However, the Wicker Park studio has a great neighborhood feel in a third floor walk up building with a vast open loft around the enclosed studio and plenty of space to hang out and cool down after class.

I took class with Kathryn, who, like Mike, said something at the very beginning of class that stuck with me the whole class:

Bikram thought of the day: There are no shortcuts.

I think this is the hardest lesson in life, especially in American life. We want shortcuts. We think we can find a way to do anything faster and better and still get the results without doing all the work. In Bikram, and in many other things, you have to do the work. You only get there by doing the work. It reminds me of an old Bally’s commercial: “If a better body came in a can or a book or a pill, you’d already have it.” It can be a grind, but you have to keep showing up, sweating buckets, pushing yourself beyond your flexibility and then going back (WAY back) and doing it all again.

In other words (a 1000 words, or so they say), there are no shortcuts to get here:

But that’s good. If there were shortcuts, everyone could do it and what’s the fun of that?

Tomorrow: more of this. But different. And equally as cool. So come back.

See you then.