Category Archives: Chicago Eats

Where to find the very best food in Chicago

Folklore Argentine Grill

Unique Wine Pairings at Folklore Argentine Grill

Folklore is the latest concept by the team behind Tango Sur in Lakeview, a Chicago institution that to this day boasts two-hour waits for tables fifteen years after its launch. Known for its authentic Argentina cuisine, the original concept evolved from the butcher shop next door, El Mercado Meat Market, which expanded into a restaurant once the son of its immigrant owners came of age. The owners, now mentors to the family restaurant group run mostly by their children, brought their knowledge of Argentina traditions to Chicago through their restaurants, which became known not just for their grilled meats, but for a BYOB policy that allowed generations of steak and red wine lovers to indulge freely without breaking the bank.

The newest incarnation of the dining group brings wine and cocktails to the multi-unit operation, but keeps the spirit of free-flowing drinking still going by serving the affordable and drinkable wines their youthful clientele seem to prefer. At the same time, as their customers become more sophisticated, so does the wine list, which bar manager Pablo Javier continues to evolve, in keeping with the newer styles and varietals coming from the emerging wine markets of Argentina and Chile.

The wine list is limited to Argentina, Chilean, Spanish and Portuguese wine selections, a rare focus that allows for a wide range of selections in its categories. Because of its specialized nature, the list can afford to include multiple selections of the most popular varietals growing in those countries – there are seven Malbec offerings alone. And while the big fruit bombs beloved by Folklore’s faithful clientele remain ever popular, the newer inclusions on the menu veer in the direction of Bordeaux-Style blends.

The restaurant itself looks like Argentina suspended in a certain era in time and sensibility. Full of leather, wood, natural artifacts and fall foliage, a single white candle glows from each of the thick wooden tables. Loud with the boisterous sounds of a mostly young and South American clientele, the place bustles with the dream of old-time Argentina haunts. Staffed almost exclusively by Latino employees, servers are knowledgeable in Argentina wine and cuisine, and hospitable and accommodating to a fault. Everything about the place supports a vision of Argentina, flanked by a wine list with unusual varietal selections and a breadth of offerings.

The original list was conceived by Jason Norman, owner of now-shuttered Telegraph notoriety, and is now run by Pablo Javier, an industry veteran who worked alongside Norman since Folklore’s opening. Some of Norman’s strongest picks remain on the list – the Mendel, the Tikal, La Posta and the Cocina Blend—wines Javier believes are indicative of the region and what it shows best. At the same time, he continues to evolve the list in keeping with some of the newer expressions emerging in the region, yet stays close to the original spirit of the wine program, one that continually seeks out new wines and varietals that show great quality at truly affordable prices.

One of the other changes instituted by Javier was putting more descriptive language on the menu. As Javier puts it, “People can’t always relate to talks about winemakers and how long they’ve been around. What they want to know is what the wine tastes like. Not everyone has a vocabulary for wine.”

The list Javier put together reflects the dual challenge of keeping customers happy who are in love with a particular grape or a fruity style, while introducing them to what else South America has to offer. “I think people have this idea of what Argentina and Chilean wines are about, because of what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years (as in Malbec). I don’t think they realize that there’s a shift in the wine culture coming out of South America,” he says. The wine list at Folklore showcases a number of wines that pair well with the broad range of offerings on the menu.

Check out some suggested wine pairings

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Terroir of Tofu

Known for its bland taste, the last thing I’d ever associate with tofu would be an aroma. Yet, that’s exactly what drew Jenny Yang into the storefront location of Phoenix Bean Tofu for the first time, a company she later bought and grew. You see, Jenny grew up in Taiwan, a place where tofu was common at all meals, especially at breakfast in the form of a tofu shake. Each morning, as she took her morning stroll, the aroma of tofu hung in the air, drifting from morning stalls in the manner that coffee does in America’s streets.

One morning, a few years back, the distinct taste memory of fresh tofu popped into her head as she pushed her stroller through a Chicago neighborhood, having long ago emigrated. Following her nose, she landed in the nondescript storefront of Phoenix Tofu, a place where she found a team of workers clustered behind a thick plastic curtain, hard at work producing the fresh tofu that was to be delivered to surrounding restaurants that day.

What led Jenny to buy the business, ultimately, was her belief in the craft of fresh tofu. Usually only available in restaurants, Jenny believes people will come to want the fresh stuff as soon as they taste the difference. What makes Phoenix tofu different from supermarket varieties is not just the flavor, but also the lack of preservatives and the quality of the beans, which are locally sourced and non-GMO.

I asked Jenny, who I met the Good Food festival in Chicago, why the previous owners of Phoenix tofu didn’t use preservatives. “They don’t even know what preservatives are,” she laughed. “They just deliver it fresh to the restaurants each day, which order more of it when they run out.” To that point, Jenny is hesitant to sell tofu to any retail grocer not able to sell its products fresh. She dreams of tofu bars in the not too distant future, akin to today’s mozzarella bars, where customers order fresh tofu in different formats and flavors.

In an effort to take tofu mainstream, Jenny’s team sets up shop at local farmers markets and food festivals, preaching the gospel of tofu through sampling and educational demos. Curious onlookers happily chow on the assortment of toothpick-spea

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Ropa Vieja – The Classic Cuban Dish

Ropa Vieja, the classic Cuban dish of shredded beef, peppers and tomatoes, is Spanish for “old clothes.” As legend goes, the dish got its name from an era when food was so scarce, women shredded clothes and turned them into stew.  A kind of Cuban pot roast, Ropa Vieja’s most distinguishing feature is the shredded nature of its beef, which could resemble braised rags, if you use your imagination.

I’ve loved this dish so long I don’t remember where I discovered it, but now its the dish I can’t not order on a Cuban menu. Having long dreamed of adding it to my cooking repertoire, I decided to make it the star of my Cuban-themed dinner party. As I put together a menu of traditional Cuban dishes, I did some cursory research, seeking to understand the origin, technique and variations of this dish. Opinions differed, but a consensus emerged that flank steak was the traditional cut of beef for the dish, and the most authentic versions entailed a two-part cooking process similar to the one used for a corned beef and cabbage or boiled New England dinner.

Seeking to validate this theory by a resident Cuban expert,  it occurred to me I  live within spitting distance of one, namely the chef from one of the best Cuban places in town. Tucked into the back room of a Cuban food market, La Unica Food Mart is a mecca for all things Cuban–restaurant, butcher and a grocery store featuring Cuban products.

After verifying that Ropa Vieja was on the menu , I proceeded to the butcher counter in the adjoining room,  theorizing that the meat must be sourced from it. Seeing no flank steak in the case, I asked the butcher which cut to use for the Ropa Vieja. “Flank steak,” he answered in a blink and asked “how much do you want?”

“Enough for six people,” I replied. With that, he smiled and scurried into the walk-in, emerging a few seconds later with two large cuts of beef amounting to three pounds.

“Do you know how to make it?” I asked.

“Oh, no, but the chef does,” he replied, gesturing towards the restaurant with a friendly smile. Luckily for me, he spoke English, since the chef did not, I was soon to discover.

The butcher followed me back there and introduced me to Chef Jose, who was only too happy to share his knowledge of the craft, pantomiming the makings of a dish that clearly made him proud. He gesticulated the long simmer in aromatics low and slow, the subsequent removal of the meat from the broth, the cooling and shredding, and finally the merge of the shredded meat with a sofrito of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. With my rudimentary knowledge of Spanish combined with snippets of translation from the butcher, the chef  confirmed the two-part cooking theory.

Afterwards, the chef noticed the fresh yucca in my basket, intended for a Yucca con mojo and shook his head with displeasure. He marched over to the frozen bin, pulled out a bag of the frozen variety, and replaced my fresh yucca,  murmuring something about the ease of plopping the frozen yucca into boiled water and serving it with a sauce of mojo on a platter.

We served both of these dishes as part of the Cuban dinner party menu below, which includes some links for recipes, and my own version of Ropa Vieja, adapted loosely from Island Bites, the closest thing I found to the two-part cooking approach I had in mind. My version replaces the round steak with flank steak, uses more vegetables and aromatics and incorporates pickled jalapenos and dry Sherry for some Spanish-inspired acidity. There’s also loads of recipes out there for using slow cookers, if that’s more your style.

Ropa Vieja is a great dish for dinner parties, Sunday suppers, and Latin-themed events. Leftovers also make for some fine tacos, very similar to the meltingly tender shredded beef tacos you’ll find at Mexican joints, driven into popularity in recent years by the emergence of Chipotle’s famed Beef Barbacoa.

The Ultimate Cuban Dinner Party

Mojito Cocktail Bar
Mojito Cocktail Bar

Cocktail Hour

 Dinner Menu

Dessert

Cuban Ropa Vieja with Flank Steak and Peppers

My take on this dish is cooked in the oven, instead of the stovetop, as many do, but it could also be cooked that way. I prefer to not worry about whether its simmering too low or high, so I just put it in the oven and forget about it.  Either way is fine.

Ingredients

  • Flank Steak, 3 pounds
  • Large onion, 1 each, cut in quarters
  • Large onions, 2 each, sliced
  • Red bell peppers, 2 each, sliced,  ends reserved
  • Green bell peppers, 2 each,  sliced, ends reserved
  • Cubanelle pepper, 1 each, sliced
  • Garlic cloves, 10 each, 6 whole, 4 minced
  • Peppercorns, 6 each
  • Bay Leaf, 1 each
  • Ground cumin, 2 tsp, divided
  • Dried oregano, 2 T, crumbled, divided
  • Kosher salt, 1 tsp for broth, more to taste
  • Goya (Spanish-Style) Tomato sauce, 1  8 oz can*
  • Dry Sherry, ½ cup
  • Pickled Jalapeno, chopped, ¼ cup
  • Olive oil, 2 T

Part 1 – Cooking the Meat, Making the Broth

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F
  • Place meat in an 4-quart Dutch oven, add the quartered onion, reserved pepper ends, 6 cloves of garlic, 6 peppercorns, 1 tsp cumin, 1 T oregano, 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp salt
  • Add enough water to cover—there should be about 1 inch of water above the meat
  • Bring the mixture to boil on the stovetop, cover with a lid, and place in the oven
  • Cook until the meat is fork tender, about 2-3 hours
  • Remove from the oven,  and let it cool a few minutes
  • Remove the meat, strain, and reserve the broth
  • When the meat cools, tear it into shreds, discarding any fatty pieces or sinew
  • Meanwhile, proceed to Part 2, once the meat is out of the oven

Part 2 –Making the Sofrito and Final Dish

  • Heat oil in a large skillet
  • Add the onions and sliced peppers, add a pinch of Kosher salt, and sauté at medium heat until soft, about 15 minutes
  • Add minced garlic, 1 tsp. cumin, 1 tsp oregano and cook 2-3 minutes more
  • Add Sherry and cook until the pan is nearly dry, about 5 minutes
  • Add shredded meat, tomato sauce and pickled jalapenos
  • Stir and cook until all ingredients are mixed together
  • Add enough of the reserved broth to barely cover the ingredients, about 2 cups, and stir
  • Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed
  • Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook until the oil begins to separate from the sauce, about 20-30 minutes, adding more broth if the mixture becomes too dry
Edible Alchemy Underground Dinner

A True Underground Dinner Experience

Underground dinners have always held a certain allure – that sense of mystery and exclusiveness that makes you feel lucky to get “in.” Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve attended have not lived up the hype. I remember going to one a few years ago that sounded great on paper, but failed to deliver the great food, sense of community and just plain fun that I had imagined.

But I held out hope that the one I was planning to attend last weekend would fare better. I’d never heard of it before in the popular press, having  only found out about it after subscribing to the Edible Alchemy newsletter at the Good Food Festival in Chicago. It promised an “immersive vegetarian dinner experience focused on using local ingredients in traditional ways,” pretty much summing up my own philosophy of food. This particular monthly community gathering centered on the Persian New Year, or Nowruz. I was in.

The Altar of NowruzLocated in Pilsen, we arrived at a non-descript residential street and knew we’d found the right place when we spotted a few other curious-looking people hovering outside the building. We stepped inside and at once were immersed, as promised, in a Mid-Eastern feast. Friendly servers, chefs and hosts dressed in Mid-eastern garb swirled around us as we took seats at one of many long tables.  The menu explained the unusual décor we found at our tables, featuring the seven elements of the traditional table setting for the celebration, including fishbowls of live goldfish.

Edible Alchemy Mixologist
Pomegranate Rosewater Cocktail

The evening’s mixologist was hard at work with the first of the optional beverage pairings for the night, a vodka, pomegranate and rose water cocktail, garnished with drunken grapes. Mid-eastern music echoed through the lofted space, and we got to know our neighbors, friendly in the community way we’d always imagined.

Persian Appetizer Plate
Persian Appetizer Plate

Each course was introduced by the evening’s menu consultant, a Persian woman who shared the backstory on her mother’s recipes and the Nowruz traditions. The first course, a medley of salads and cold dishes, was akin to what you’d imagine Mid-Eastern food to be, but with interesting variations, such as the Koo Koo Sabzi, an insanely green quiche heavier on herbs and greens than eggs.

Vegan Kebab and Sweet Saffron Rice
Sweet Saffron Rice

One of the highlights of the evening was the Sweet Saffron rice, a sweet, chewy pilaf, highly aromatic from a long bath in Iranian-smuggled saffron, garnished with large bright strips of pickled carrots. It was served with a vegan kebab.

Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream
Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream

Finally, the night had to end, but not without a grand finale – dessert was the surprise hit of the evening. Described merely as “date nut cake + homemade saffron ice cream” it was way better than described.  More  fudge than cake, this utter slab of decadence was thick with dates and richly coated in pistachios. Cooling notes from the accompanying saffron ice cream  as dense as wet sand was the perfect complement.

At last, a true underground experience. But, shh! Don’t tell anyone. We’ll be back.

Rau Muong

Rau muống – the Spinach of Vietnam

Argyle Street is the bustling capital of Vietnamese food in Chicago, and I certainly go there whenever a good bowl of pho is in order, but I would venture to say that the best Vietnamese food in Chicago can be found at Hoanh Long, where the closest it comes to having an Asian neighbor is the Panda Express in the shopping mall across the street.

Despite the obscure location, Hoanh Long has plenty of admirers, many for its pho among other popular Vietnamese dishes, but I wouldn’t know anything about those, since I cannot get past ordering the two outrageously delicious dishes that are the reason I come here in the first place.

The first object of my admiration is the deceptively simply named “Chicken Salad” or  Goi Ga in Vietnamese, which is not at all like the one coming from the deli counter of a grocery store, although the name does conjure up those images. Thick with shredded chicken, this salad is a tumbleweed of carrots, cabbage and mild onions, dripping with the typical southeast Asian flavor profile of sweet, sour and spicy flavors. A shower of finely chopped peanuts, fried shallots and shrimp crackers crown the dish, adding depth, crunch and flavor.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad
Vietnamese Chicken Salad

This was my only go-to dish for the longest time, until one day I was joined by a friend who lived in Hawaii seventeen years. She requested the Rau Muong, translated as stir fried water spinach with minced garlic, a favorite of hers from the island days. It seemed pricy at $8.95 for just a vegetable but once I tasted it, I’ve never not ordered it again. And it’s a good deal anyway – the giant platter of leafy greens, including both the crunchy stems and wilted leaves, is satisfying in a way that’s unexpected. Since then, I’ve returned the favor and shared this dish with many a friend, and I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t both surprised and delighted.

A tropical plant reputed to grow several inches in a day, rau moung is is staple vegetable of Vietnam cuisine. You can buy a bunch on Argyle Street at Tai Nam  for a few dollars, but ask for Ong Choy, its Chinese name, or look at this photo so you know what to buy.

greens in package no good
Rau Muong

 

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Leetle Eataly

I don’t remember exactly when the newly opened Chop Shop arrived on my radar, but somehow I got the idea that it was a smaller version of Eataly, the famed slow food market and restaurant emporium recently opened in the River North. While I could see some common elements – butchery, deli and restaurants all sharing the same space with emphasis placed on quality products, it felt more like a gastropub than an enoteca.

The lovely cuts displayed in the butcher case inspire visions of intimate dinners and candlelight, while the bar in the back is a draw for eaters and drinkers with more immediate needs.  A small demo station separates the two, with an apron-clad chef hard at work breaking down meat. I stopped for a few moments to watch, but felt it best to move on when he responded to my inquiry about whether he minded an audience with “whatever floats your boat” without looking up.

Undeterred, we headed to the bar to sample the wares. The menu is mostly a platform for its meats, which appear in multiple forms—deli sandwich, hot sandwich, and panini. The real star of show, however, is clearly the Meat and Cheese Board, an antipasto of Italian meats, cheeses and accoutrements that just about everyone in the bar was ordering.

Meat and Cheese Board at The Chop ShopOur very own wooden board arrived in due time, accompanied by a side of crusty charred bread. The meats themselves were delightful, but the lonely artichoke heart was clearly scooped straight from the can, doing nothing to improve its insipid flavor. My companion bit into it, flinched and remarked “If you’re going to take something out of a can, you better do something with it.”

On the other hand, the housemade porchetta was the best thing we ate all day and a truly a revelation. The chef and manager both seemed rather proud of how they’d made it, and I can’t say I blame them. Wrapped in pork belly to keep it moist, the pork tenderloin is stuffed with a blend of fennel, marmalade and other aromatics, giving it the kind of complexity that lingers long after you swallow. I’d heard of porchetta before, a traditional Italian roasted meat also featured as the sandwich of the day at Eataly on Thursdays, but I’d never actually tasted it. In one bite, the taste memory of porchetta and Chop Shop merged into one.

The Chop Shop is a great choice for a mixed crowd. Meat lovers will be giddy, but there is also an interesting assortment of salads, hand-tossed in bowls the size of the family-style salads served at popular pizza places. We spotted a lovely bowl of wild arugula on a nearby table, a billowy pile of feathery greens,  peppered with beets, goat cheese and nuts and hungrily anticipated its arrival. Unfortunately, our salad was flatter and wetter than that our neighbors and lacking the acidity it needed to balance the  arugula.

Surprising, amidst the sea of meat choices, there stands a lone ricotta gnocchi offering, perhaps an ode to Italy after all.

Citrus-infused Beet Tacos

No Bull at Bullhead

I love a simple menu with a clear focus. And that’s what you get at Bullhead Cantina, the Rogers Park incarnation of “Paco” Ruiz’s popular whisky and taco bar in Humboldt Park—tacos, more tacos and not a lot else. Not that you need more choices when so many tacos options abound, with equal billing given to both vegetarian and meaty fillings. Meat-lovers will enjoy fresh riffs on traditional standbys, such as carnitas cooked in banana leaves or brisket melted into tender shreds, while vegetarians will love such unusual combinations as braised kale with stone-corn grits, sweet potatoes with lime-avocado cream or citrus-infused roasted beet tacos.

I discovered this place as part of my morning walk. Like many other like-minded winter hibernators, hordes of us walkers, joggers and shorts-wearing rebels were on the streets paying homage to the call of “spring forward” announced by our atomic clocks. Busting my boots through the stubborn slivers of thin ice still clinging to the remnants of winter puddles scattered on the sidewalks, I noticed a fresh restaurant occupying the ever-changing tenancy of the corner just northwest of the Red line Morse stop. Quickly, hopefully, I glanced at the menu. While perusing its contents, it dawned on me that I was realizing a dream I didn’t even know I had, one of a local taco joint appearing in my neighborhood where one could peacefully drink margaritas made from fresh limes and munch on artful tacos wrapped in homemade tortillas.

Bullhead Cantina, I discovered, is the second location of Chef/owner Francisco “Paco” Ruiz, Kendall College alum, who apprenticed in Italy and ran a tequila bar in Bucktown before shifting gears to whisky, tacos, craft beers and cocktails. Still, there are plenty of margarita options on the menu. We tried the original version, always a good starting point—a thirst-quenching mug of fresh-lime mix and tequila, and look forward to trying the smoky mescal and pomegranate varieties on future neighborhood “walks.”

My reason to return was the Kale and Grits

Hands down, my favorite taco and reason to return was the kale and grits, and I say that with an entirely straight face. Bullhead also seems to do a great job with braised meats – we liked the carnitas, brisket and pulled pork tacos, all lovingly braised low and slow and bathed in flavorful sauces and rubs. But more than anything, I’d say we just liked the variety. There are frequent taco specials planned– such as the corned beef and pickled cabbage taco rumored to debut on St. Patrick’s day and fish and chip tacos for Lenten Fridays during the coming weeks.

Bullhead Cantina, 1406 W Morse Ave, Chicago, IL, Cash only.

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Flageolet, Feta and Arugula Salad

Flageolet, Feta and Arugula Salad

It was time for beans – yes beans once again. Part duty, part pleasure, my healthy eating regimen prods me at least once a week to peer into my pantry, choose a bean, and make something healthy out of it.

“What in the heck are flageolets?”

This time, I peaked in and found a bag of flageolets, stamped with the reassuring label from the bulk bin section at Whole Foods. “What in the heck are flageolets?” I wondered, having no memory of why I bought them. A quick Internet search revealed that they are a type of white bean, prized by the French in a manner similar to the reverence held for Le Puy lentils. Sounds goods, I thought, and then immediately recalled the baby arugula in my fridge and how those two could pair together in my attempt to duplicate the wonderful arugula and white bean salad they sell at the Sopraffina Marketcafe in Chicago as part of their lunchtime antipasto trio selection.

Sopraffina Marketcafe’s Killer Dish

Flavor memories of the dish flooded my mind –the zing of the lemon, crunch and herbaceous notes from the celery, and the salty tang from the occasional fleck of feta. With these thoughts in mind I cooked the beans, set them aside and later quickly tossed a bean salad that come out even better than my memory of that famed Soprafinna version.

Here’s my take on a Flageolet, Feta and Arugula Salad

You can substitute Cannellini or Great Northern or any other white beans for the Flageolets.

Ingredients

  • Flageolet Beans, 1.5 cup cooked (1/2 cup dried)
  • Lemon zest, minced, 1 tsp.
  • Lemon juice, 2 T
  • Red pepper flakes, pinch, to taste
  • EVOO, 2 T
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
  • Red onion, finely diced, ¼ cup
  • Celery, finely diced, ¼ cup
  • Celery leaves, chopped, 2 T
  • Arugula, small handful, about ½ cup, loosely packed
  • Feta, 1 T, small dice

Method

  • Cook the beans, use some from a can
  • When beans are cool, add to a bowl and toss with lemon zest, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, extra-virgin olive oil, red onion, celery and celery leaves
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper
  • Right before serving, add arugula and toss until it wilts slightly
  • Toss with feta and serve