Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Tamale Man Cometh

I've recently been upset about all of the new places opening: Big Star, Belly Shack, and the like. Why am I upset? Because they are all opening way down in the Wicker Park area, which is no quick jump from Edgewater here in Chicago. And don't get me wrong, we have a few of the best food and drink spots in the city up here, what with Anteprima, The Hop Leaf, and Metropolis Coffee. But I just feel like recently, everything is opening up so far away!

Rejoice! For a tamale man has appeared on my corner. As seen in the surveilance-style photo above, his cart is parked in perfect proximity for me to devour his delicious tamales at whim. Filled with braised pork and green or red chile sauce, they were perfect when I discovered them, out and about on a chilly, misty, gray day. Not that good tamales are difficult to find in Chicago, but to have a guy on the corner is golden. Here's hoping he gets no grief from the dreaded food police. Nothing keeps you warm on a day like today in quite the same fashion as walking home with a bag full of warm tamales as you hastily unwrap one from it's corn husk, releasing a puff of spicy steam as you bring it to your mouth and dig in...

Yeah; this'll stave off my Wicker Park blues, even if only for a little while.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Grumpy Old Man

I went out this morning in search of something good to eat. I was already in a bit of a dour mood after noticing a glaring typo in the New York Times; the eighth word of the most prominent article, front page, upper left hand corner, was missing several important letters. If it happens in such an obvious place in a paper like the New York Times, with who-knows-how-many-eyes reading it before it goes to print, what does that say about where our standards are going? Does it matter that the word surprisingly was spelled surpringly, even though we can all figure out what the intended meaning was? You know; the whole "a rose by any other name" thing. To quote a reluctant William Safire, the late writer and authority on language, most notably for his On Language column in the Sunday magazine of the newspaper in question, “At a certain point, what people mean when they use a word becomes its meaning."


So, anyway, I had a supring moment of mood redemption this morning. Again, I was gloomy, which was amplified by my culinary equivalent of the tossing and turning of a privileged, bratty child: I couldn't seem to find something to eat in my neighborhood. I wanted something other than my usual cheesy eggy salt bomb; I just wanted to sit in peace and trudge, in the day's curmudgeonly fashion, through my New York Times, and drink some coffee and eat a bagel. But the waitress I can't stand was at the one place up here where I can do that at a table-service place (she, in all her 22 years, finds it necessary to call people "hon", and "sugar", and "sweetie"; to me, the charm of that is lost unless the speaker has several more grizzled miles under her life belt; it also doesn't help to sit at a table without silverware for 5 minutes after food has arrived, or to be misremembered as to whose bill is whose in a place with 2 occupied tables), so naturally, I moved my ornery self on, never to find that combination of good coffee and tasty bagel and table in which to spread out the paper and read.

It was in my gloom, then, that I came across a shady looking figure smoking a dirty cigarette on the sidewalk in front of me. I made a move to get around him, when I realized it was my buddy. We exchanged greetings; without knowing my "predicament", he pulled a bagel out of a paper bag he was holding. It was laden with cream cheese and cucumber. "Come up to the roasterie and sit down for a minute," he said. I did. He poured me some of his own coffee, surely roasted within the week; we sat at a table, I ate the bagel, we read the paper, we drank coffee, we talked; someone in the roasterie came over and told a fully-in-character story/joke. I explained the situation I was dealing with before running into my friend. His reply: "Sometimes, things work out."

Indeed they do.

Drinks with a Ploughman, or, This Sure Is A Picky Ghost

I spent a really nice day not too long ago walking around, and ended up walking from my neighborhood (Edgewater/Andersonville) over to Lincoln Square. A good couple of miles or so, and it was a gorgeous fall day. You know the type--blue, blue skies, so crisp; leaves of every color, cold enough to make you know what we're in for but not too cold as to keep us from enjoying it. And somewhere along the way, I ended up in The Book Cellar, reading a magnificent cookbook called Made In Italy by a fellow named Giorgio Locatelli, an Italian chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant in London called Locanda Locatelli. I love cookbooks like this--it's more prose than anything, and it's filled with Locatelli's reminiscences and anecdotes of his life as a boy in Italy through his chefdom in London. You can feel his passion on every page, and his recipes--though a bit cheffy and difficult at some points--come from a quite simple place, and really inspire the same simple passion in the reader.

Naturally, it drove me to eat. The first thing that came to mind was a bottle of prosecco; I love champagne and find it appropriate at any given moment in time, and for those of you saying "Hey, isn't this supposed to be the On The Dole guy?", rest easy knowing that decent bottles of sparkling wine, nay, any wine can be had for around ten clams these days. It's not going to be something you serve the Queen of England when she comes over, but it will serve the purpose and work wonderfully any other time.

So I beat it into the wine shop there on Lincoln. Weirdest window displays ever, but great staff who know their stuff and have a ton of it. And while in there, perusing, my thoughts turned to beer. And a nice big bottle. And I settled on the perfect one--between BIG HUGE beer and delicate champagne. And this was Rodenbach Grand Cru. Light and sour, with deeper flavors emerging soon after these as the first initial mist from opening the champagne-like cork dissipates; a really beautiful beer. And thus the muse carried me further and suggested thoughts of really nice sausages and cheese. You know, that simplest of meals: nice wine, a hunk of meat, a hunk of cheese, a hunk of bread. And I thought, I've got the time, I'm going to head down to Paulina Meat Market. After all, I was about to perform what I would tell myself was a good deed by pushing a stalled car down the road a bit. And never mind that I kind of cut out once the guy told me he was going down to Montrose Avenue (we were roughly at Lawrence, and we're talking like a half mile). I mean, he had some other guys helping him. So I slipped silently into the train station and waited for the brown line to come.

And I made it to Paulina in short time, basically closing my eyes and floating in on a wave of smoke, that wonderful Paulina smoke, the way Bugs Bunny would float through the air when smelling a roast or something like that. For those of you who don't know, Paulina Meat Market (aside from selling the best meat available in Chicago not sold at markets by the farmers themselves), smokes all kinds of meat and sausages in-house right there in their shop. And this illuminates the neighborhood with unthinkably wonderful smells. And so I floated right in, Bugs Bunny style, and ordered a pepperoni and a linguisa (a heavily spiced pork sausage), added on a hunk of stilton blue cheese, and made it out of there on the cheap. Stopped off at the market and picked up an apple, greens, and a shallot, and threw in a small demi-baguette.
Yes, you read right. I was making the Ploughman's Lunch.

Finally home, I opened that lovely beer and poured a glass; minced a shallot and whisked it with Dijon mustard, champagne vinegar and olive oil; washed my greens, rolled them gently in a dish towel to dry, and then dressed them; sliced my apple, broke off some cheese and cut up my sausages. Bread went in the oven for a quick few minutes and I was set...
...and it was great. It'd been a really long time since I had this; it was an old favorite at the haunted, now being remodeled Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park. And as I munched and sipped away, I asked myself why it had been so long. Ah well, nevermind, I said, as I poured more beer.