Category Archives: New Haunts

The skinny on the latest “hot” restaurant?

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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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