I just had a meal so bad it made me re-download Yelp to my phone before I left the restaurant. I wanted to angrily tap something out while I was in the moment.
Once Yelp showed up on the screen, I got to work. I was quickly reminded that I’m just not that great at typing on the phone (many of the bad things in my life have been ducking awful), so I waited until I got home. And then I decided to just write my thoughts here.
The offending restaurant was El Sol, in Morton Grove. Since leaving, I’ve also called it “Hell Sol,” “No Soul,” and “El Hole” (my favorite of the bunch).
First, I’d like to publicly say that I never should’ve referred to it as a “festering craphole” on the car ride home. It amused my 12 year-old to no end, but at the same time shattered his illusion that I never use inappropriate language.
Second, I take full blame for choosing to go there. I had a craving for chips and salsa, and it became so intense I was willing to walk into any Mexican restaurant in my path.
We went after my son’s little league game. My wife and daughter went to see an evening show of Maleficent, which meant… MAN NIGHT. My son and I love trying new restaurants, especially dive-y ones. As we pulled into El Sol’s tiny strip mall lot, I said to him, “how bad could this be?” Had I been looking for red flags (or, banderas rojas), there were plenty:
- The restaurant was empty at 6:45 on a Saturday night.
- The Yelp reviews included bons mots like “If I could give this restaurant 0 stars I would,” and “Service: Worst (sic) than anywhere else.”
- The interior is a dingy, depressing disaster. There’s a lot of empty space at the front-of-house that’s not for standing, dining or any plainly-obvious purpose. It looks like 15 tables were removed from there and never replaced.
Bullet points aside, the restaurant’s been there for at least 10 years; I figured there had to be something behind its staying power.
The meal started with complementary chips and salsa, which is one of the easiest ways to my heart. The chips were stale and the salsa was flesh-searingly hot. I like spicy food, as long as there’s flavor behind it. El Sol’s salsa was all heat and no taste.
We started by ordering a queso fundido appetizer and horchata (the drinks were generously-sized, and easily the best thing we had).
The horchata came quick, and then we waited 15 minutes for our next table visit. We burned through the chips fairly fast, and I chugged my water because the salsa was so hot. I also used my one napkin (I tend to spill a lot), which left me needing a new one. Once I realized no one was going to come by, I gave up on standing on ceremony. I grabbed napkin roll-ups from the booth behind us, and downed my horchata as I waited for a water refill.
The next time we saw our server, she was bringing our entrees to the table. “No queso fundido?” I asked. “Oh, sorry,” she said, and started to walk back to the kitchen. As she turned, I said, “No worries, we don’t need it at this point.” She didn’t acknowledge me, and kept walking. It was our last interaction of the night. Meanwhile, I would’ve killed for another glass of water.
My chicken flautas were flavorless. The meat was tough and bland; the corn tortillas over-fried. To punch up the taste, I had two options: smear around the also-bland avocado-sour cream topping, or spoon on some of the ultramafic lava-like salsa. Neither was particularly satisfying. The rice was also sin sabor, and the refried beans tasted store-bought.
With our half-finished plates and empty glasses piling up, no one came back to the table. I waited for about 10 minutes until I asked the bartender for a check.
It was brought to the table, no questions asked, no dialog exchanged.
$27.50 for two drinks and two entrees.
A Taco Bell dinner would’ve been half the price and ten times better.
I just made what had to be my 20th trip for barbecue this winter, and I’m pretty sure I need a break. I have pulled pork where muscle should be, and sauce pumping where blood once circulated.
My plan is to try to eat vegetables again, if only for a little while, before again throwing myself at the mercy of brisket and baked beans.
Chicago never used to be a barbecue town; at least not when I was growing up. The only place I remember from my youth is Russell’s in Elmwood Park; my grandparents used to take me there all the time. After making a few nostalgia-driven trips there over the past year or so, I discovered that the food doesn’t really live up to the memories (the sauce, while tasty, is thinner than water).
It’s crazy to me that there are now dozens of barbecue choices in the Chicago area. It’s as if the city finally came to its senses and said, “Hey, we’re a fat city, and this style of cooking involves lots of meat slathered in sauce, accompanied by high-calorie side dishes. How could have we ignored this for so long?”
The best barbecue discovery I’ve made over the past year is Real Urban Barbecue in Highland Park. It’s been worth the trip up 41 for burnt ends and sides that are as good as, or better than, what you’ll find at most of the BBQ joints in the city.
I still like Smoque, though I haven’t been enjoying the sauce as much lately. Too much of it can kill a meal.
I liked the entrees, but hated the sides, at Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse. It was recently and briefly shut down, but just reopened for business. Not a bad option for the far north side of the city, but the room fills up fast.
And what about Lillie’s Q? Holy crap, those homemade sauces are amazing (the “Smoky” is a killer, pleases-everybody-at-the-table, gotta-buy-some-for-home sauce).
To all the other places I’ve been in and out of, including Smokin’ Woodys, Smoke Daddy, Bub City and Hecky’s … it’s not you; it’s me. I just need a little break from barbecue. I swear I’ll be back.
(Update, 4/28/14-I don’t know who I was kidding. The break didn’t last long at all. I’ve probably had BBQ five times since I posted this last month.)
So, I published a book last Monday.
There’s no way to properly explain just how much work went into the book; furthermore, there’s no way to explain it in such a way that would make my efforts sympathetic enough to be blog-worthy. Simply put, the work was exhausting, and it’s nice to see daylight again.
Now that the clouds are breaking, I want to catch up on a few things I’ve been meaning to write about over the past month:
Skyfall – One of the best Bonds ever? Maybe? I don’t love-love Daniel Craig, but the story elements were fabulous, and mega-actors Javier Bardem and Judi Densch turned in a pair of unforgettable performances.
Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese – Courtesy of the always trendy, always busy, yet still somehow magnetic, Rockit Bar & Grill. I was so mad when I finished off all the “mac” that I had to soak up the remaining sauce with a friend’s french fry.
Andre Williams & the Sadies “Bored” – I just heard this for the first time on the Blues Magazine’s “Juke-Shakin’ Sounds” sampler. Dirty, sleazy, bluesy, and modern.
Rosemont – No longer an easy punchline, I must have missed when Rosemont completely overhauled their town. Suddenly and surprisingly, Rosemont’s looking like a great social destination. River Road is lined with beautifully-decorated holiday lights, and you can’t miss the eye-catching pocket of bars and restaurants calling out to passersby on 294. Oh, and there’s that casino there, too. Corruption, shmorruption.
Argo – The movie’s climax is one of the best nail-biters I’ve seen in years.
Fiscal Cliff – I’d be panicked about it if I didn’t think we were all destined to check out, Mayan-style, before we hit the deadline.
Back to the book–I’m donating 15% of all of this week’s (and last week’s) net proceeds to the combo of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Greater Chicago Food Depository. If you have any inclination to buy We Appreciate Your Enthusiasm, this would be a great week to do it.
Finally, I’ll be out and about this week: First, I’ll be at Monday Night FootDahl tomorrow night with copies of my book in tow. Then, to wrap up the week, the official book release party is happening at Challengers Comics in Chicago on Friday (12/7) from 7-9 p.m.
The food truck ordinance was approved yesterday.
If you’re looking to make a case for Chicago food trucks, look no further than the Tamale Spaceship. Dudes in luchadore masks and sombreros, handing over “space guacamole” curbside? There’s nothing more to discuss.
And then there are the cupcake trucks. Flirty Cupcakes, MORE, Cupcakes for Courage –I’ve given my money to all of them. In the immortal words of Dan Sinker’s @mayoremanuel, “Speech preview: ‘Because somehow this town has confused driving fucking cupcakes around with goddamn innovation.'” Food trucks aren’t innovation, per se, but I love having easy access to a red velvet after a full day of work.
The opposition to food trucks comes from brick and mortar restaurants, who feel as though their livelihood is threatened by the luchadores and cute girls selling cupcakes. The ordinance requires that trucks stay 200 feet from restaurants, “except in certain locations.” I have to assume that those certain locations include most of downtown, and especially the Loop. They would have to, right?
Food trucks and restaurants are similar in that they both provide a basic thing that people always want and need: food. The ways in which they’re used are much different. When I go to a food truck, it’s almost always on a whim. Perhaps I’ll notice a tweet from a truck, heralding a nearby arrival. Maybe a co-worker will mention that a group of us should visit a cupcake truck on a coffee break. In almost all of those situations, I haven’t chosen to get food from a truck over going to a restaurant; the two exist as distinctly different providers in my head.
That said, I fully support the food trucks; they’re the podcasters to brick-and-mortar dining’s traditional radio.
Further reading: Sun-Times
I first went to Kuma’s Corner in 2006. At the time, the place was empty during lunch, still months ahead of the packed-from-open-to-close buzz that defines it today. I was a devoted vegetarian back then, which meant that I wasn’t much interested in the restaurant’s signature, metal-bands-as-burgers, menu. While Kuma’s happily allows the substitution of a Garden Burger for any of the menu’s burger offerings, going to Kuma’s as a vegetarian is akin to flying solo for a “couples” baby shower–it’s perfectly acceptable on the surface, but you feel like an asshole for going in the first place.
On that first visit to Kuma’s, I ordered the Mesclun Green salad. The salad was good enough, sure, but once my meal was finished, I never thought about Kuma’s again.
That is, until I walked away from vegetarianism and welcomed meat back into my life. Meat is murder? Sure it is. And my life had been empty without the delicious slaughter. I went back to Kuma’s on November 29, 2008. That visit led me to write in my blog, “The good: Anthrax played at an ear-splitting level over appetizers. The ‘Pantera’ burger. The vibe. The bad: Waiting 75 minutes for my burger after the order was placed…at 5:45 in the evening. Lame.”
Less than one month later, I wrote, “I had interminably slow service the last time I went to Kuma’s Corner, slow enough to keep me from ever returning. But that burger…that what-had-to-be one pound of beef on a pretzel bun, loaded with obscene amounts of over-the-top ingredients…lured me back there for lunch today.
“Though just as crowded as my last visit, Kuma’s was a bit more subdued–even comfortable–during the lunch rush. My party of five’s food came out fast and our waitress was great, though none of that really matters for this story. What matters is the burger I ordered.
“I had the Goblin Cock (did I mention that every burger is named after a metal band?), a burger topped with a split hot dog, bacon, cheddar, relish, sport peppers, and mustard. It was an orgy of meat (which you’d kind of expect from a Goblin Cock), a cardiac traumatizer on a plate. It was magnificent.”
I’ve been to Kuma’s a few times since then, and have watched the wait times go up as my enthusiasm for the food has gone down. Kuma’s kitchen is simply too small to effectively crank out food and turn tables in the face of the crowds it now draws. Beyond that, the cramped throngs of desperate-to-be-seen hipsters waiting to choke down Goblin Cocks is enough to turn my stomach before fried calamari ever hits my table.
In summary: The food at Kuma’s is great. It’s the waits and the too-cool-for-the-ridiculously-packed-room crowds that have kept me from returning.
So what options do fans of heart-weakening, ingredient-overloaded, burgers have, then?
Yes. Red. Robin.
Gourmet burgers are Red Robin’s raison d’etre. Like the Celtic Frost and Powerwolf-blaring team that runs Kuma’s, the Red Robin chain boasts a menu of hamburgers loaded with ingredients that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
And the truth is, they’re kind of awesome. Once one is willing to trade the sexiness of a standalone, death metal-friendly, “indie” burger joint for the mass appeal, cookie-cutter, approach of a family-friendly chain, the rest is easy.
Kuma’s delivers 10 oz. burgers, which I can only guess from experience are larger than Red Robin’s burgers (Red Robin offers no weight information anywhere on their website). That aside, the differences that separate the two restaurants are cosmetic. Put more plainly, one place names its items after metal bands like Lair of the Minotaur and Plague Bringer. The other place takes a more Bennigan’s approach, offering up sandwiches like the “Santa Fe” and “Banzai” burgers.
Let’s look at some of the burgers head to head:
KUMA’S: Famous Kuma Burger (bacon, cheddar cheese, fried egg)
RED ROBIN: Royal Red Robin Burger (bacon, American cheese, fried egg, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo)
I’d never eat a burger with a fried egg on it, but I’m calling this one a tie because cheddar beats American cheese (adv. Kuma’s), and lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo trump no condiments whatsoever (adv. Red Robin).
KUMA’S: Metallica (buffalo sauce, bacon, bleu cheese dressing)
RED ROBIN: Bleu Ribbon Burger (steak sauce, bleu cheese, onion straws, lettuce, tomatoes, Chipotle mayo)
Exit light, enter Blue Ribbon burger. Onion straws are a welcome enhancement to the Red Robin burger, and buffalo sauce on the Kuma’s burger overpowers the other ingredients.
KUMA’S: Mastodon (BBQ sauce, cheddar, bacon, frizzled onions)
RED ROBIN: Whiskey River BBQ Burger (BBQ sauce, cheddar, onion straws, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo)
The Whiskey River BBQ burger hits mostly the same notes, with the glaring omission of bacon. Bacon is its own food group; the Chuck Norris of pork, and shouldn’t be ignored when given the chance to be tossed into the same mouthful as BBQ sauce and cheddar.
KUMA’S: Pantera (roasted poblano, bacon, cheddar, Jack, Ranchero sauce, tortilla strips)
RED ROBIN: Santa Fe: (roasted poblano, guacamole, sautéed onions, tortilla strips, lettuce, pepper-Jack, Chipotle mayo)
I’ve tried both, and prefer Red Robin’s Santa Fe Burger. Guacamole FTW.
It can probably be safely argued that Kuma’s food is, on the whole, more adventurous; and in many cases, better. Even so, Red Robin can take care of many of the same cravings that a burger fan might have. Here’s what tips Red Robin over the top:
Wait time. Even at the peak of Saturday night “family fun time,” I’ve never waited more than 20 minutes for a table at Red Robin. As you read this, there are people who’ve been waiting for a table at Kuma’s since this time yesterday.
Location. Kuma’s is but one tiny restaurant. Red Robin’s freaking everywhere.
Balloons. At Red Robin, you can choose your favorite color of balloon and take it home. Kuma’s has no balloons.
Bottomless fries. When I’m deep into my burger, I don’t ever want the fried food tap to turn off. Keep ‘em comin’, sweetcheeks. I’m working on my first heart attack here.
Hipsters vs. children. Tables turn frequently at Red Robin, meaning that surly children don’t overstay their welcome. Once hipsters are in the door at Kuma’s, they never leave.
I love the food truck concept: well-made food gets placed into a moving target whose whereabouts are broadcast across social networks and socialized among the hungry masses.
Generally speaking, I “brown bag it” for lunch, but this week I chose to ignore that healthier (and cheaper) option in order to chase down some of Chicago’s meals on wheels. My effort netted me four encounters with three trucks.
On Wednesday, I hoofed it over to Madison and Wells to meet up with The Southern Mac & Cheese truck. Their model reinforces what I understand to be the secret to food truck (and business, I suppose) success: find one thing and do it exceedingly well. In The Southern’s case, they gourmet the bejesus out of one of America’s most treasured comfort foods, (duh) mac and cheese. Their truck menu changes daily, and Wednesday’s offerings were:
- Sun Dried Tomatoes and Carmelized Onions
- White Truffle infused Smoked Gouda
- Italian Sausage, Giardinaira and Mozzarella
- Bacon, Mushroom, and Blue Cheese
By the time I spotted the truck, the line was easily 20 deep and two of the day’s offerings (Sun Dried Tomatoes and White Truffle) had already sold out. That didn’t bother me; my heart had been set on Italian Sausage all along. Two of my friends were less enthusiastic. One opted to instead buy a salad at a brick-and-mortar fast food place, and the other grudgingly bought the Blue Cheese mac & cheese.
Walking back to the office, and no more than one block away from The Southern Mac & Cheese truck, was the Flirty Cupcakes truck. I’ve surrendered to the siren song of the Flirty girls a few times over the past year. Their cupcakes are light to the point of not making me feel tooguilty, and their wide variety of flavor offerings taps on every known sweet tooth (e.g. strawberry with strawberry buttercream frosting, banana chocolate with salted buttercream frosting, pineapple rum with coconut cream cheese frosting).I bought six cupcakes (two butterscotch, two strawberry, and two pineapple), using the excuse that they were “for the family.” Only four cupcakes made it home.
Yesterday, my friend Mike suggested that we get food from an empanadas truck that was going to be parked by the Willis Tower at noon. Despite the raw, cold, windiness outside, we gathered up two more friends and walked over. Not knowing where exactly to wait for the truck (their Twitter account offered no help), we waited at the northeast corner of Jackson and Franklin. We were way off with our guess; the truck landed at Wacker, just north of Van Buren.
Apparently there were a lot more people in the know about the empanadas truck; there were already 40 people in line when we got there. As tasty as we know empanadas to be, we decided they couldn’t possibly be worth the wait, so we excused ourselves from the line.
We decided to instead go to Wow Bao on Van Buren, arguably the best fast food option on the south side of the Loop. Lettuce Entertain You restaurants are always a safe, consistent, bet.
Back to buying food on the street: The Southern Mac truck landed closer to my office today, using the corner of Van Buren and Wabash as its base of operations.
Today’s menu was almost identical to Wednesday’s, only the Blue Cheese Mac had been replaced with Grilled Vienna Beef Hot Dogs & Cheddar. And heavy cream.
What’s the harm in having one more unhealthy meal this week? I reasoned as I handed over $9 to the Southern guys. I went with the Hot Dogs & Cheddar; how could I not? I was stuffed before I was halfway finished, but the first rule of Clean Plate Club is that you always finish what’s on your plate.
As I type this, it’s 8:15 p.m., and I’m still bloated and full. My belly is distended so as to suggest pregnancy or horrible deformity. Sigh. The second rule of Clean Plate Club is that you don’t talk about Clean Plate Club.
Food trucks remind me of the “old days” of radio van hits, when listeners had to tune in to find out where the station van was going to be in order to win a valuable prize, like concert tickets or even t-shirts. There’s a certain thrill to participating in the food truck frenzy, and the food is likely better than the fast food options on the streets that the trucks park on.
Gaztro Wagon and Meatyballs, you’re next on my list.
Four months ago, my son started taking guitar lessons here. We’d been renting a guitar for him to use, not willing to commit to a full purchase until we were convinced that he was going to stick with it. Months of enthusiasm and daily practices later, we became convinced.
For MANCATION Day Two, my son and I went to the Guitar Center on Halsted. I think the last time I set foot in a Guitar Center was to emcee a sad and underattended in-store performance by Sponge. It had been a while.
Just walking into Guitar Center made me wish that I could play an instrument–any instrument, really. I walked up and down every aisle of every room, wondering how I could justify the purchase of an electric bass, or even ukulele (which they happen to sell there).
Buying an electric guitar for a new player isn’t as simple as buying the guitar, of course. We also had to buy:
-10-pack of picks
-Gig bag to carry the guitar to lessons from home
-Tiny (and I mean tiny) Marshall practice amp
-10′ mono cable
Regarding the latter, technology is an incredible thing. With absolutely no musical aptitude, I perfectly tuned my son’s guitar with the metronome/tuner. I was totally full of myself after that.
As for the guitar, I wanted it to be practical but ultimately affordable. After salivating in the designated Fender room, we stumbled upon a clearance/floor model Squier Stratocaster. Squier Strats are dependable “first guitars,” and they look cool, too.
After some inquiry, I learned that the guitar was marked down for having a few nicks and dings. The store clerk plugged it in, tested the pickups, checked the neck and body, and found it all to be in perfect working order.
The price was a very reasonable $119 (though I did add on the extra $25 warranty, just to be safe).
GUITAR CENTER (2633 N. Halsted)
I asked the clerk if we should buy strings, and he said, “It’s a given that a kid will break a few strings within the first 30 days of owning a guitar. When that happens, bring the guitar in, and I’ll show him how to string his guitar.”
“Really?” I said.
“Sure. It’ll only take 20-30 minutes, and it’s easier to show him how to do it when there’s an actual need for it.”
I was impressed that he made the commitment to help my son learn how to string his guitar. That single gesture totally sold me on Guitar Center.
Since the guitar came home, I’ve been treated to stirring renditions of “Hot Cross Buns,” “Twinkle Twinkle,” and “Tom Dooley.” It’s not “Spirit of the Radio,” but it’s a great start.
One of my son’s favorite foods is ribs. I’m sure that part of the appeal is the mess that ribs make. The other part, obviously, is their delicious awesomeness.
I bought a Groupon for Carson’s in River North a few months back, and MANCATION: DAY THREE was the perfect time to redeem it.
The room was empty during the lunch rush, which wasn’t surprising, given the economy and the going price for a slab of ribs.
I’ve always appreciated Carson’s for its history and “Chicago” vibe. The walls are adorned by local and national autographed celebrity 8x10s (we were underneath Chicago the band and Mark Buehrle; go Sox).
I ordered rib tips, forgetting how totally gross they are to look at. I ate around the twin pieces of cartilage and then devoted the majority of my focus to potatoes au gratin.
My bib-wearing son finished his half slab in the amount of time it took you to read this far.
Here’s the lunch breakdown:
Half slab of ribs
Minus the Groupon amount:
Add 20% to the total bill:
And we found street parking on Grand, too. Totally affordable lunch visit for two.
CARSON’S (612 N. Wells)
JOHN HANCOCK OBSERVATORY
From Carson’s, we drove over to the Hancock. It was a clear day out, and I thought it would be fun for both of us to see the city from high above.
Just as with the Carson’s trip, I had no problem finding a street spot one block away (I’m not sure if this means Chicago’s outsourced, credit card-friendly, meters are a win or not).
The last time I went to the proverbial “top of the ‘cock” was when I was in high school (lo, those many years ago). Since then, the Hancock building operation has been enhanced to be even more of a tourist trap (photos taken before you hit the elevator, exclusive “skywalk” access, overpriced cafe, souvenir shop). It was all just noise; we just wanted to see the view. And the view was as jawdropping as I’d remembered:
Factory smoke from Gary could be seen to the south, Wisconsin could be seen on the horizon to the north. To the west, we saw O’Hare and what seemed like half the planet.
Sure, the JHO is a tourist trap, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the enormity of this mighty city and everything around it.
Furthermore, it’s hard not to be impressed by the fastest elevator in North America. 40 seconds to the top!
Back to MANCATION I go…