In mid-May, I had to fly to CHICAGO for a couple days of work, which means I had two nights to eat out as well. Sadly, Alinea and L20 remain unchecked on my list, because I just didn’t have the time for a five-hour dinner each night. In fact, my first night there, I only had about 30 minutes since I was on deadline for tablehopper. So I figured it was time to finally experience the infamous “Chicago beef.” And after a little interneting, I discovered one of the better examples was just a five-block walk from my hotel (The James, by the way, is a fab place to stay).
Al’s #1 Italian Beef
I wasn’t at the original location—this one actually had tables and chairs. You gotta love a place where the first thing out of the counter guy’s mouth is, “What can I get for you, young lady?” (Mind you, he was my age. I heart Chicago.) Anyway, I ordered as I was instructed by a native Chicagoan: “I’d like a beef, wet, hot, and sweet, for here.” Yeah, it sounded filthy. Which is exactly what I got: a filthy, dirty sandwich. It was a soft roll stuffed with the most thinly sliced (and spiced) beef, topped with a mix of sweet peppers and a finely diced giardiniera in a chili flake-studded hot oil. And the whole thing was just dripping with roasting juices—you can order it wet or, for the full experience, dipped.
Sure, it’s been a while since I ate a dinner off a tray (the counter guy talked me into a combo meal with their skin-on hand-cut fries and a soda). But man, that messy-ass sandwich was crazy delicious. It definitely tapped into the reptililan part of my brain—I managed to wolf that puppy down, and practically had to unhinge my jaw in a python-like fashion to do so. I almost killed a forest with all the napkins I used. The tender meat was so juicy and relatively lean—I was way into the subtle spicing, and the acidity and crunch of the peppers and the “hot” giardiniera. While I won’t be craving a beef for a long while, it’s the kind of sandwich I’d love to see a San Francisco sandwich-maker do a twist on.
And in case you’re hankering for a Chicago beef right now, you can head to the Da Beef cart in SoMa and they will hook you up—although their Twitter feed is best for learning if they’re open or not. (Phat Philly in the Mission makes a good one as well.)
All aboard the meat train! Well, I was in Chicago, what did I expect? Vegetables? Riiiight. The next night I went out for a proper meal (with silverware) with a friend at:
837 W. Fulton Market at N. Green St.
This Fulton Market tavern (the area feels very warehouse-y/Meatpacking District) is from the team behind my other Chicago favorites, Blackbird and avec restaurants. As soon as we walked in, I was like, well hello there—I’ve never seen a restaurant like this one. There were three long communal walnut tables in a U-shape in the center of the room, with tall-backed wood chairs, and a soft glow from the suspended brasserie-like globe lights hanging overhead. I cracked up over the “veal pen” private tables along the wall, contained by a tall wooden fence of sorts—just like opening a pen door to get to your table. There were also some standing-room tables near the bar where folks could easily gather for a pint and a plate of aged ham with the wonderful crusty bread and goat butter. And my favorite: the three large canvases of big, fat, roly poly pigs on the walls. Here pig!
Executive chef Paul Kahan and chef de cuisine Brian Huston’s menu reads like a love letter to meat and all its various and sundry cuts; its offerings include cones of spicy pork rinds from Becker Lane pigs (chicharrones to us Cali-types), charcuterie plates, bollito misto, duck heart, and whoa, calf’s brain sausage. Whole animal in effect. There are also eight kinds of oysters, fried clams, a crudo… and fortunately about six seasonal vegetable side dishes (although some contain meaty items like, oh, ham crumbs). A vegetarian would just dissolve into tears here.
We started with the little gem salad ($8), topped with crunchy strips of pig’s ears, plus the kick of radish, the twang of basil, and a creamy buttermilk vinaigrette. It was a beautiful salad—such fantastic texture and flavor. Next was the lightly smoked char ($15) with fingerling potatoes, giardiniera (hey, we’re in Chi-town!), and fromage blanc, simultaneously rustic yet elegant—and rich. Everything is meant to be eaten family style, and I was digging the mismatched style of the large plates and silver (such big forks!)—the American-meets-European elements all conspired to have you feel like you were in a Boston tavern back in the 1800s—with, perhaps, a Belgian tavern-keeper (which is actually what a “publican” is, a tavern keeper).
Let’s pause a moment here for the BEERS. Oh lordy, what a list. I’m not even going to begin to count, but it looked like at least 70, with 12 on tap, most from Germany and Belgium (and with the biggest sticks I’ve ever seen). As for the bottles, you could take your pick from Trappist to abbey to lambics to Flemish reds to micro-Belgians to Italian, even Swedish beers. We stuck with the saison section, putting back bottles of the Brasserie Dupont and Brasserie à Vapeur. (You can geek out on the list here.) The wine list was also full of some unique and quirky picks, but we were all about the suds.
So back to the food: truth be told, the sweetbreads almost put me over the edge; they came as two very large lobes, with barely any breading. Just too much gland for me. Our hands-down fave was the juicy and pink lamb saddle ($32) with bright English peas, shoots, and a nest of grits. Staggeringly tender meat—the dish was the essence of springtime. Oh, and the side of ramps ($10) with a super-garlicky romesco—hell, who are we to turn down some ramps while we’re in the Midwest? (Next time, and there will be a next time, I am so going to try the amazing-looking farm chicken, and the ham chop “in hay.”) We finished with the lemon tart with graham cracker, coconut, and brown butter ice cream—even though we were deathly full, we needed a fresh note to finish on.
More than anything, what I loved most was the sense of humor of this place, whether you wanted to “buy a six-pack for the kitchen” ($10) off the beer list, or the jaunty waitstaff uniforms, to the bathroom that made me feel like I was shakin’ the dew off my lily (as my cowboy country pal used to say) at the OK Corral—the wood restroom doors were tall and rancho-like, and you wash your hands at a faucet fountain in the center of the room. For once, a unisex bathroom that ended up amusing me rather than annoying me.
There isn’t a single place in San Francisco that pushes the envelope design- and concept-wise like this restaurant. I tip my cap to the entire team, and architect and interior designer Thomas Schlesser. It’s no mistake that it won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design in 2009.
We finished the evening with cocktails at:
The Violet Hour
1520 N. Damen Ave. at N. Wicker Park Ave.
It was about a ten-minute cab ride away in Wicker Park. Fortunately, the bar is affiliated with The Publican, so we had the host call ahead for us. Yeah, it’s one of those no standing room (but no reservations) and slightly speakeasy-ish bars, but boy, is it a beaut. Once you enter through what looks like a plywood/under construction façade, and check in for a table with the hostess, you will have a glimpse of the breathtaking room. The décor is so glamorous, with a salon style that features a few separate rooms, tall-backed leather chairs, hardwood floors, crystal chandeliers, and dramatic floor-to-ceiling curtains. No old-timey music here—it seemed more like a Stanley Kubrick movie set. And yes, I was ready to move in.
We scored seats at the bar, where our barman extraordinaire, Henry Prendergrast (yes, his real name), proceeded to blow doors with his beverages (all drinks on the menu are $12). The back bar is full of vials and house bitters and a staggering selection of liquors. I requested he shake or stir up some custom drinks for me (“bourbon and refreshing” is how I usually call it), and it was like he had been making drinks for me for years—they were exactly my heart’s desire. No, I didn’t take notes—I was just having a good time. And at this place, you will. Until we meet again… And when we do, I want to try some of the snacks on the menu as well (hello country-fried pork sandwich on a buttermilk biscuit with hot pepper jelly—that’ll fix any damage you do with too many Spring Sidecars).