Monday, October 8, 2012

Back to Pure Michigan

                  After a tumulus year in Chicago I am back living in Michigan.  What finally convinced me or rather what forced the decision to move, was that my health tanked and I began losing weight and barely could get out of bed some days. I needed to be in a low-stress environment instead of constantly fretting about money, finding another job to keep me afloat, and where my next meal was coming from.  I moved back to Michigan so I could live with my sister and her husband so I could at least remove rent from my list of stressors and focus on getting healthy again, and also finding a job to save up for a new life.  While Chicago was a fun, vibrant, and lively city I don’t think that it was the right place for me at the moment and I don’t think that I was quite ready for it just yet.  If I could find a stable and hopefully full time job I could make it but I am not far enough in my career path for that yet. I will probably return soon enough but I need to take a couple years building up a life and a career so I can move smoothly into the city rather than move already struggling like I did.   While I will miss the dozen-a-day activities that Chicago always had going on, the cultural centers that were only a red line ride away and the variety of cuisines and uniquely Chicago dishes just waiting to be discovered.  While I will miss waking up and running by the lake or spending the day strolling the galleries at the museums or the streets of a new neighborhood  this move will be good for me I know, and Chicago is always just a train ride away.
 After my health started to come back  after a couple weeks I realized that this move will be a blessing for me and my writing.  I have always been a huge advocate for Michigan and Detroit, challenging nay-sayers who dismiss Michigan as a dying state with nothing important to offer besides heartache and bloodshed.  Being back in Michigan will allow me to explore and expose others to the wonders and treasures that this great state has to offer and I hope people will begin to see that this state is far removed from the sorrid state which people place it.  I am revamping this food blog (again) and shifting the focus heavily toward Michigan food and food culture.  I explored some of the unique places in Ann Arbor during my college years but now I will have a more specific socio-cultural focus to what and how I write in both the metro Detroit area as well as Ann Arbor when I move back in 2013.  I will even attempt to explore the different areas of the state as the opportunities arise and my life permits. While Chicago had a great culinary scene I think Michigan is greatly underestimated when it comes to the food scene and even can hold its own to places like Chicago if given the chance.  Even more exciting to me is that there are even a few things that I sorely missed while I was in Chicago that I am excited to have at my fingertips again: locally brewed beers that can go toe-to-toe with any import beer, cheap locally-sourced farm goods, and Faygo over ice cream. 
            I want to breathe new life into my blog and this move and my attempt at a new life is just the excuse that I need to rekindle my passion and my interest.  I am still working on getting healthy again though I am nearly there already, overcoming personal issues, and finding stable employment to fund my culinary adventures.  As part of my commitments I want to make in my new life  becoming more consistent and focused on this blog is high on the list, especially since I love writing and it will be a great way to pass my days as I keep looking for a job and carving out my life back here in Michigan.  I will take every chance I get to explore the culture of wherever I am.  If I happen to find myself outside of the mitten for holiday or happenstance I will do my best to find the local culture and report what I can find, but the regular focus will be on Michigan and what exactly Michigan has to offer the food world and what impact it plays on my life.  So look forward to the revamped blog and all the adventures and misadventures that I will have over the coming months and probably years back in the place of my birth and the place I most consider my home.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Adventures at Home: Gyros at The Parthenon

While there is no doubt that food like Chicago dogs, Italian beef, and deep dish pizza were created here in Chicago, there is at least one food that has its roots here in Chicago but has lost its connection to Chicago when it spread across the United States.  This dish is unique also because their history goes way beyond Chicago.  You will find similar shaved rotisserie meat dishes across the globe.  The Middle East has shwarmas, you will find doner kebabs across Europe, Mexico has tacos al pastor, and in the US and Greece you have the gyro.  When I was travelling through Europe I found doner kebabs in almost every back alley and side street in Germany, Italy, and Prague.  State-side you can not go much farther without running into a mom and pop store, a hot dog cart, or sandwich shop that sells gyros.  The best gyros you will find are hand sliced off the vertical spit where lamb and beef meat is stacked while the worst are the shavings of meat are pulled from heated trays after being frozen and reheated.  Gyros were revolutionized when the horizontal spit was turned on its side and the fat was allowed to drip down to moisten the meat instead of falling on the coals to disappear. 
Saganaki, after the flames subsided
                In Italy you can find the doner kebabs in the back alleys of Florence, sold in hole in the walls joints.  Doner kebabs are piled with meat, tomatoes, onions, tzatzki and a handful of French fries served in a warm pita bread.  In the US I had a gyro for the first time during a school trip to NYC when I was 12.  I would not have another one for 6 years and do not remember my first experience besides sitting on the street with friends chowing down as bits of meat and white sauce fell to the ground.  When I got to Ann Arbor for college I had the first one I remember, which like every other one I have had was from a fast food joint.  Gyros are street food for me, throw the filling in a pita and wrap it to go and I am a happy camper.   Especially on a night after I have had a few too many at the bars, I want something cheap, simple, and delicious.  My go-to meals are pizza, grilled cheese (From Cheezies on Belmont), or gyros.  This may make me sound like an alcoholic or at least strange but I like drunk food.  Not because it tastes good but because there is no pretention that comes with it.  When I order a gyro I do not expect anything more than what I am given.   While drunk food also carries a reputation of being less than stellar, much of which is deserved, I have found amazing food that might be dismissed because a thousand bar hoppers crave it after a few shots of Jager or vodka. A gyro might be the choice of drunk co-eds but done right, fresh off the spit and with fresh tzatski has no comparison. 
            Some people rally against fast food but with so many amazing examples of tasty fast food like gyros,  I have been having to rethink my hatred of fast food.  I still can not stand McDonalds or Taco Bell but Harold’s Chicken, hot dogs, Italian beef, and gyros have ruined my hatred for fast food.  So when I found out that gyros were brought to the United States through Chicago I had to try one for myself.  Like all things Chicago food the actual creator of the first Chicago gyro is controversial.  George Apostolou of Parkview Resturant, Johnny Garlic, Peter Parthenis at Gyros Inc, and Chris Liakouras of Parthenon Resturant all have been claimed as the one who brought the gyro to the United States.   I decided to make a trek down to S. Halstead, almost a straight shot from my house, and visited Greektown where Parthenon restaurant has been for 45 years.  The Parthenon has been touted as the birthplace of US gyros and saganaki, the flaming cheese dish that is the epitome of Greek-American restaurants.  I have only had saganaki once before so I was not too excited especially with the memory of the lackluster saganaki I have had before.  But I resolved to try both in the Parthenon since they were supposedly created here. 
                The Parthenon is definitely the nicest restaurant I have been to in Chicago, but its more of a condemning phrase rather than a compliment.   I feel very odd eating gyros, a wholly street food, in a place with waiters wearing bow ties.  To be fair I always feel odd eating in places with waiters wearing bowties.  I was expecting (or hoping for) the Parthenon to be like a mom and pop restaurant with booths and a bar not a place I feel underdressed.  Its almost wrong to eat a gyro in such a nice place, but I still managed to eat my fill.  I have never let my being out of place stop me from eating great food.  While waiting for my food to arrive, I overheard the cute couple who seemed to be on their second date.  The man was talking about the history of the place, how he had been dozens of times, and how supposedly Parthenon created the gyro.  It seemed every conversation I had overheard was about pretty much the same thing.  By the way, no judging what else is there to do when you are eating alone?    Every few minutes the dining room would flash with the waiters bringing out plate after plate of saganaki, sometimes stacked 5 or 6 on a single arm.  With a pour of a little brandy, the flick of a lighter and then a squeeze of lemon it was over in a few seconds but the spectacle is only half the story.  You are still left with a square of molten cheese and I can think of nothing wrong with that half either.  The cheese was creamy with the right amount of caramelization, way better than the dried up cheese I was given the first time I had ever tried it. 
                The gyros were the next to come, and the three components were laid out seperately in front of me as if I was delivered several courses.  I like my gyros wrapped in pita bread, properly sauced, and held together by a sleeve of tin foil.  I appreciate construct your own dishes but this seemed more like needless showiness, not playing with your food like I like.  Just as the hostess promised, she seemed to take great pride in the fact that the gyros were fresh made, in house. The gyro spit was prominently displayed in the window next to the roasting lamb, and you can see the stacks of delicious meat rotating and caramelizing.  A plate of sliced gyro over crisp onions, fresh made pita, and a bowl of thick tzatziki.  It still felt strange being served this separately but it was nice being able to throw on a little extra tzatziki since I am a huge fan of it, and then stuff the pita beyond its limit with meat.  And I have to say it was quite good, I have been spoiled though because I have never had a gyro that was from a frozen cone.  
              I can not say for sure if Parthenon resturant and Liakouras brothers were the first ones to bring  gyros to the United States and hoards of drunkards seeking relief after a little too much while out and about, but its one of the best I have had.  To be completely fair I have only had gyros from 4 different places but if you ignore my discomfort at the setting it was a really good gyro. The saganaki was good, and flashy like it should be. This also gave me an excuse to go down to Greektown where I have never been, and also Parthenon is the only still existing resturant that lays claim to the first American gyro.  The others are now defunct or are factories that makes frozen cones for mass sale so Parthenon was the obvious choice, and def should be added to everyone's to-do list here in Chicago. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Adventures at Home: Aquarium-Smoked BBQ at Lem's BBQ

             I am not going to lie, I second guess some of my life choices, especially my obsession with food and the lengths I will go through to get it. This time the damage was an hour on the red line, some anxiety, and a ruined pair of work pants.  All in all it was not that bad of a day, though I still need to figure out how to get barbeque sauce out of my khakis.  Since my move to Chicago I have had a craving for good soul food and barbeque is always at the top of my list of soul food that I crave.  No matter where I am good barbeque or even the smell instantly elevates my mood at least 3 degrees. 
I have had Memphis bbq in Memphis, and have tried  some of the other kinds like Carolina vinegar-sauces, Texas briskets, and Kansas City burnt ends throughout my life but I had never even heard about Chicago bbq.  As I was looking into Chicago food I stumbled across the most curious phrase I had ever seen “Aquarium smoked bbq”.  I had the funniest image in my head when I saw that phrase and was intrigued what the hell this thing that apparently made Chicago BBQ unique.  Make the image in my head the size of a kitchen table and stacked with every which cut of smoky pig and you have a pretty good idea honestly.  Its walled on all sides by Plexiglas slide doors and a fume hood over that lets all the excess smoke escape. 
            I was anxious about trying aquarium bbq, but not because the aquarium smoker.  The aquarium smoker was quite intriguing actually; it was because all the best bbq spots were in the Southside and the things I have heard about the southside have not been flattering. So even while my mouth was watering hoping for smoky, charred bits of meat I always had a sneaking fear because of everything I had heard.  As with most things I decided to ignore everything I heard and try it for myself before I made any decisions.  People talk and things are said all the time but I withhold judgment until I get the chance to try it myself. 
            As usual I headed out after work and hopped the redline train to the Southside to see the curiosity that was aquarium smokers. It was only after much debate about if I was better off staying close to home and going to Honey 1 BBQ but where is the fun in that.  Food is about trying things I would normally try and go to place I might not normally go.  An hour later I found myself on 75th street walking the cracked and unfortunately trash strewn sidewalks. I was headed to Lem’s BBQ on 75th, founded almost 60 years ago, and everything has changed very little since then.  The building I imagine looks exactly the same, the aquarium smoker stacked with the same meats as back then, and the history and the entrance seems to hold the stories of decades of new and of loyal customers. 
            Even if it does not have the recognition that Memphis BBQ or Kansas City BBQ has, Chicago BBQ shares the same roots.  During Reconstruction, after the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves, a large number of now-free blacks moved up the Mississippi to the centers of industry in the north like Detroit and Chicago.  With them they brought the wealth of culture that was often times ignored or silenced in the post-bellum south.  Blues came to Chicago via the Mississippi as well as one of the great food traditions they brought with them was BBQ.  Bronzeville, on the other side of Washington Park from Lem’s, was the site of the first incarnation of BBQ in Chicago taking place in halved steel barrels with an industrial grate over, using the industrial parts available and constructing the first Chicago BBQs.  As the 1950’s came, the assembly line took a greater hold on factories after its success during WWII .  Leo Davis, a sheet metal company owner, is said to have created the first aquarium smoker in the 1950s.  The reason is a product of need and convenience, taking a hint from the assembly line and the famed Chicago Marshall Fields, the aquarium smoker was easy to disassemble for cleaning and replacing of parts while also being able to put all the cuts of meat on display for the hungry waiting patrons to see and drool over.  Other smokers are opague and notoriously hard to clean and replace so the ease of updating and cleaning aquarium smokers made them unique and desirable.
The Aquarium smoker, caked with years of smoke and grease.
            This trip taught me I should give up any expectations I have about places in Chicago because I am always wrong.  I did not expect much from Lem’s because BBQ is not fussy and usually the best can be found in the most hole-in-the-wall joints but once again Lem’s defied my expectations.  As I walked up I saw the sign and a  small building that was no bigger than most ice cream stands, though thankfully there was an inside because it was cold outside.  A solid steel entry door behind a metal screen door is what greets patrons and behind it is an entry way one and a half people wide and  8 people long.  You inch your way to the counter to place your order, standing shoulder to shoulder with the other people waiting to do the same, and when its in hand you have to squeeze past the line unavoidably bumping into everyone on your way out.  All cash and food is traded between a  one way door.  Between the guests and the cooks is a thick sheet of Plexiglass which sadly is a common sight on the Southside.  Behind that is stacks after stacks of white bread, a staple in any good BBQ joint.  The bread is to soak up the rest of the BBQ that might happen to be left after you finish the meat.
            With BBQ in hand I made my way past the line accidently bumping everyone on the way out, but everyone simply smiled as I said excuse me and a few  of them threw in a few words of encouragement and well wishes.  I think they knew I felt out of place, because not only was I the youngest person in the crowd by far but also I was the only white person I had seen since I got onto the red line.  A 20-something white boy traveling alone might not have been a common sight at Lem’s.  As I made my way through the crowd and out the door I was faced with a dilemma: where to eat?   There is absolutely no space to eat inside, and no tables outside.  Most people either eat in their cars or take the food home to enjoy but with no car and home an hour away I was stuck in the parking lot bag in hand.  I saw stuck on the side of Lem’s is a long metal shelf that I thought was merely used for decoration but it makes a handy counter for eating.  So I unpacked the bbq and despite the strong winds started eating.  The wind was blowing hard so I had to keep hold of the bag, napkins, and white bread in one hand while eating with the other hand.
            I ordered the rib tips because rib tips are Chicago, along with Hot links which I will have to get on a return visit.  Rib tips are usually thrown away by butchers because of the amount of cartilage, but because of their affordability have become quite popular.  Even when Lem’s first opened rib tips were not offered but after countless requests they have become the most popular item on their menu according to one of the people waiting in line with me.  They are tough to eat, especially while fighting wind and cold, but the bits of meat between the white cartilage were fantastic.  The meat was cooked spectacularly, with a nice bark (the crunchy outside of properly smoked and cooked meats) and moist meat.  Every once in a while a chunk inedibleness would find its way into the bite and I would have to spit it out in what must have been my most attractive moments.  The meat was drowned in the mild BBQ sauce which was spicy with a big hit of vinegar.  It was a mix of Carolina and Kansas City styles, thick tomato sauce with a spicy vinegar kick.  Piled under the meat was the French fries which were soaked through with sauce and smoky drippings.   The BBQ was great  but I hardly got to enjoy it because my fingers grew numb from cold and I had to eat as fast as possible so I could get back home and warm up.  The only other complaint would be there was far too much sauce, it was pooled at the bottom of the container and dripped everywhere: the ground, the shelf, and my pants.  There were not enough napkins to clean it all and while it was exceptional a little less would have been great. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Adventures at home: Jibaritos at Borinquen

      While Chicago pizza has been around for nearly 70 years, and many other Chicago staples have decades of history and years of fanatical obsession, there is a relative newcomer on the Chicago food scene that has found its way into the hearts of Chicagoans, especially the large Puerto Rican/Latino community.   As of 2010, 26% of Chicago self-identified as Latino or Hispanic so as you would expect you can find amazing Latin food in the city, especially on the west side .  In 1993 Peter Figueroa of Borinquen restaurant in Humboldt Park was inspired by a sandwich he read about that used plantains instead of bread.  Inspired by this revelation he created the Jibarito (Little Yokel) and the popularity of this new take on the sandwich has skyrocketed in the past couple decades. It has found it way on the menus of dozens of latin restaurants and has become a staple of Chicago and has inspired almost as much dedication and devotion as Chicago dogs or Chicago pizza.
       Since moving I have been trying to trek to destinations across Chicago to find foods that were invented in Chicago.  I have been to Harold’s Chicken, tried Maxwell Street Polishs at Original Jim’s, and have enjoyed slice after slice of Chicago-style pizza. I am slowly crossing off these foods off my list and next was Jibaritos from Borinquen.   I use this food blog basically as an excuse to try new foods and also as a way to explore Chicago, a lot of the places that you can find this amazing food are in places that I would never find reason to go to otherwise like Humboldt Park.  So after work one day I hoped on a bus on found my way to Humboldt Park, which unfortunately was lined with discarded wrappers, papers, and broken beer bottles. 
               At 1720 N California, near Wabansia Ave, is Borinquen restaurant the home of the original Jibarito.   It sits across the street from an elementary school and is very unassuming for anyone that might just be walking past.  It is definitely not the place for haute cuisine, or even the first place you think of for a date night, but it does have good honest food.  The interior matches the exterior, its very simple and not at all what you would assume to be the epicenter of a food legacy.  Borinquen on California has two parts. The front looks like a cafeteria with warmer trays filled with rices, meats, and vegetables all behind a  glass front.  In the rear were stoves, fryers, and a pilon which is used to make the mofongo.  The rear is an eclectically decorated dining room, with brightly colored paintings, a fish tank, and a table carved in the shape of Puerto Rico in the entry way.  In the rear, as is on their sign, was a big painting of a jibarito.
    When I walked up to the counter I was struck by two things: the large pile of plaintians being hand sliced and then pressed in the back and the wooden mortar and pestle (pilon) used for the mofongo sitting on the service counter.  I decided to order the original jibarito (steak)  and a lechon (pork) along with a side of mofongo since I have never had it. I watched as the plaintain was pressed, deep fried, and topped with the meats, tomato, American cheese, lettuce, garlic mayo, and mojo (garlic sauce).  It was wrapped in tinfoil along with the ball of mofongo that was pounded in the pilon: chicharron, green plantains, and  garlic all mashed by hand to order.  With all jibaritos a side of arroz con grandules (rice with pigeon peas) a very typical accompaniment in Puerto Rico. 
          I took my bag and went to the dining section where a solitary woman was waiting all dozen tables, a couple local high schoolers were eating next to a couple, and a family was in the far corner.  I sat down next to the Puerto Rico-shaped table and unpacked the sandwiches and mofongo.  The mofongo was the size of a baseball and the sandwiches were long and skinny like a Cuban sandwich.   While I am usually a huge fan of latin pork this was far too dry for my likings.   The steak was much better and paired well with the garlic and American cheese.   The steak was by far my favorite but if the pork was juicier it could have won me over.  The plantains gave a decent crunch to the sandwich but also a creamy smoothness that was slightly sweet and starchy.  I think adapting a Cuban with fried plantains would be quite good, though I will have to attempt that myself someday. 
   The mofongo was quite good and tasted heavily of pork rinds and starch with a bite of garlic occasionally.  It was also studded occasionally with bits of the crunchy chicaron which add texture to the otherwise starchy mush.  It was a little one-dimensonal though so it they had topped it with sauces or added other meats, as is customary in Puerto Rico, it would have been wonderful. It was fine on its own but after a while it gets overly starchy and boring.  On the side was the arroz con grandules, which was quite good as far as side dishes go.  I would never order it by itself but it was flavorful and accompanied the sandwiches quite well, though fries or chips still win out.  The rice was orange, studded with the green pigeon peas and the occasional slice of sausage, though too little to tell what kind it was.  I could have ate 3 or so sides of the rice because it was well spiced and slightly salty which was reminiscent of the fries I was missing.
    Even though the original Borinquen is the one on California, there are two other locations: one in Lakeview on N. Western Ave, and the other near Portage park on N. Central.  The other two locations are more done up, the one in Lakeview is even a lounge, but the original is definitely worth visiting if only for the interesting and unique atmosphere and to get out of your comfort zone and travel to a place you might not otherwise go like Humboldt Park. 

Adventures at Home: Maxwell Street Polish at Jim's Original

          Pizza. Hot Dogs.  Italian Beef.  Those three foods are essential to Chicago’s identity, and I can bet are near the top of any words youwould associate with Chicago. A year ago those were the only Chicago foods I knew when I first visited and the same is probably true of a lot of Chicago visitors who flood Geno’s East, Portillo’s, and other flag bearers of Chicago’s food identity.  Chicagoans take great pride in their superiority over New York pizza and New York hot dogs so these staples hold an especially special place in the hearts of the people of Chicago.   Food is a point of pride and is part of what makes Chicago, Chicago. I love Chicago’s food scene not because of a few well done American staples, not because of the nearly unlimited access to haute and star-rated cuisine from top-notch chefs, but because of the inventiveness and pride Chicagoans take in even the simplest dishes.
            In my research and in the conversations I have had since moving here I have found at least 12 foods that are unique to Chicago including Chicago-style pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef among many others. These are foods that are not only products of Chicago’s diverse cultural background but also there are foods that have started in Chicago but spread across the United States but have lost their connection to Chicago.  Italian beef, for instance, was said to have started by Italian immigrants working in the train yards. Italian beef is unique to Chicago and it is hard to find outside of Chicago. Gyros, on the other hand, were said to have been introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair and now you can find them all across the United States which little thought or connection to Chicago. When I heard about Maxwell Street Polishes my mind automatically jumped to Polish immigrants but come to find out Jim Stefanovic, the supposed creator of Maxwell Street Polishes, is Macedonian.
            Jim took over his aunt and uncle’s restaurant on the corner of S Halstead and Maxwell Street in 1939.  He started serving Maxwell Street polishes, which are polish sausages topped with grilled onions, mustard, and sports peppers.  The stand next door, Maxwell Street Express, which is almost identical to Jim’s Original, is run by relatives of Jim Stefanovic and serves almost the exact same menu with the exact same walk-up counter format. Both places claim to be the originators of the Maxwell Street Polish, but most history tends to favor Jim Stefanovic,  though there is always room for debate. 
          Among Chicagoans there also seems to be a debate where you can find the best polish sausage, some are in the Original Jim’s camp while others are in the Maxwell Express camp.  In 2003, both Original Jim’s and Maxwell Street Express relocated a block over next to the highway There are some foods I have had bad experiences with, such as Polish sausages which were always the semi-dry discs that my mom buried under a pile of sauerkraut.  I love sauerkraut so I usually ate a lot but the sausage was just the protein but I do not remember much actually flavor besides smoky and meat coming from the sausage itself.  So I have never said to myself I want a polish sausage and do not think I have had one in probably 6 years to be honest. I walked from the lake to Jim’s Original, around 2 miles, because I was told this was one of the things I could not miss.  So I threw my past experience away and trekked to UIC and saw Jim’s Original sitting along the highway. I purposefully do not research the look of a place or usually reviews before I go somewhere because I do not want to have any expectations.
        So when I saw the service counter window at Jim’s Original I was intrigued.  I was not expecting only a grill and a window, especially with no seating anywhere near. Geno’s Cheesesteak in Philly is thesame format, with only an outdoor window and a grill but at least have seating for the visitors.  I was thinking more of a Coney Island with a short order cook and a counter and some booths but it was a grill and a window. With no seating I had to order the Maxwell street polish from both stands and then made my way toward UIC and found a bench to sit on and enjoy them both. The polish sausage with mustard, grilled onions and sports peppers and the free bag of fries set me back $3.50.  I was dumbfounded because I have paid $8.00 for an Italian beef and fries at some places so I was happy I could have bought dinner with the change in my pocket.         The polish from Jim’s Original was already seeping grease through the bag when I sat down.  As I unwrapped the paper what unfolded was a hot bun heaped over with grilled onions with a couple sports peppers tossed in as well.  I took a bite of the sandwich trying to get a bite of everything: mustard, peppers, onions, bun and meat.  And barely succeeded.  The sausage was quite good, and moist with hints of spices and the skin snapped when bite into which is the sign of a good casing.  The mustard and peppers worked very well with the sausage as well. Its common in Poland and Germany to eat sausage with mustard to accompany it. I was not a fan at all of the onions which were left in big hunks and really did nothing for the flavor for me. But it seems everything on the menu is covered with the sweet onions, sports peppers, and mustard including the hamburgers and chicken sandwich. So honestly without the onions I would have been a happy camper, though it could have just been that day or they had sat on the grill for too long or a variety of other reasons that made the onions bland and limp.  The fries, on the other hand, were nothing special though they were crispy in their defense which is exactly how I prefer mine. 
         Only in Chicago, with its history of blue-collar and its hardworking population, can a stand with no seats and only a service window be one of the places that Chicagoans look toward for their great love of food and the great pride they take in uniquely Chicago foods.
Original Location of Jim's Original
Express Grill, since its beginning, within a stone's throw of Jim's Original.

Alex's First Maxwell Street Polish

Greasy Greasy Glory.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Food Issues: High Fructose Corn Syrup

                We eat a lot of corn, America.  I am not just talking corn on the cob rubbed with a little butter, salt and pepper, or even popcorn in huge tubs at the movie theater.  Corn sneaks into our diet in very unexpected ways and in very surprising amounts.  I was alarmed by how much corn is in our diet.  I have attempted to cut out added sugar (including high fructose corn syrup which is derived from corn) and so I have taken an interest in how much corn and corn syrup I actually eat.  I am a soda and candy junkie, at any given time I will have one or both in my hands.  Mt. Dew and sour patch kids, Dr. Pepper and gummy worms, or Cherry Coke and skittles. I decided that it was going to be easier on my wallet and easier on my health if I eliminated my addiction to those two.
         Take for instance your average cow used for hamburger meat: it’s fed a steady diet of grains while it’s on the farm, and according to a study by Hope Jahren at the University of Hawaii when that cow ends up on your table 93% of the meat is derived from corn.  Or if you have read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Delimma you will read how a McDonald’s chicken nugget is derived from 56% corn.  That is not straight corn, kernel corn straight off the cob, but corn and corn products: like corn-based animal feed, corn starch, and high fructose corn syrup.  There is a reason why corn is in everything:  there are large subsidies for farmers to grow corn and those subsidies mean that corn is incredibly cheap to produce and sell.
High fructose corn syrup is now an infamous corn product, and is being blamed for many of the US’s health issues including diabetes, obesity, and poor oral health.  High fructose corn syrup is really only  corn and enzymes.  Corn is turned to corn starch, then to corn syrup.  The corn syrup is then bombarded with enzymes which turn the glucose into fructose.  While many people are against high fructose corn syrup because its chemically-altered and factory-processed, actual science has not made up its mind on the health risks of high fructose corn syrup.  There have been countless studies that have tried to study its health effects but for every study, saying its bad for you there is another one that says there are no real adverse health effects. 
If you had been in a grocery store or gas station in the past few years you will have seen the push back against high fructose corn syrup.  Pepsi, Mountian Dew, and Dr. Pepper all released “throwback” editions of their pops.  Throwback was really the same pop but with real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup circa the 1970s. The switch from sugar to HFCS occurred after 1977 when large tariffs were placed on imported sugar, and a cheap corn alternative was already started to be used in small numbers.  High fructose corn syrup came into vogue and real sugar was replaced in whatever ways possible by corn syrup.  I have been attempting to replace my candy with healthy alternatives like yogurt, nuts, or fruits.
I have even learned that Yoplait, the brand of yogurt I usually eat, uses HFCS.  It is not in every flavor but make sure to check before you dig in. Other surprising things I eat frequently, that have HFCS are crackers, some breads, salad dressings (like ranch) and ketchup.  So its not just my soda and candy but seemingly healthy things like bread and the dressing for my salads are guilty of having HFCS.  The only way to be sure your food doesn’t have HFCS is to check the labels.  The higher tier brands of bread, dressings, candies, and yogurts should all have eliminated HFCS, using natural ingredients instead.  Once again, check the label to double check because HFCS sneak into food, even unexpected ones.
I do not know what health effects high fructose corn syrup is having on us, our kids, and our families but I am all for eating food that tastes and is made the way it is supposed to be. Regardless where science comes down on the subject of HFCS, that is not my main concern.  If I want apple sauce (which many times contains HFCS believe it or not) I want it to taste like apples and real sugar, not apples and HFCS.  Ketchup is the same way, I have grown accustomed to the Heinz ketchup from the squeeze bottle that when I try other brands of it does not taste right.  The only ketchup besides Heinz that I actually like are the house-made ketchups you can get at higher end restaurants.  There is a reason why you never see HFCS called for in recipes, or on the shelves in the stores.  HFCS does not taste good and only makes things sweet, by sticking with foods without HFCS you get better tasting and more interesting foods, albeit will probably be more expensive than their HFCS filled counterparts. So there is a trade off: If I want to cut out HFCS from my diet I will have to shell out a little extra money for the higher quality foods.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My Adventures at Home: Harold's Chicken Shack

My favorite meal has been ,and probably will always be, fried chicken with mac and cheese.  There is something very comforting and also very homey about the combo.  My grandma and grandpa would fill a 30 quart pot with rice oil, and fry 5 or 6 chickens worth of legs and breasts for family gatherings.  Arkansas is the leading producer of rice in the US and rice oil can be found on the store shelves, and makes the best chicken I have ever had.  I can not seem to find it in stores in the north so I am stuck to ordering it online.  I usually make mine soaked in buttermilk overnight and a spicy breading.  Otherwise I can always pick up a bucket from the Colonel, Popeyes, or Church’s.  There is no shortage of fast food joints selling some form of fried chicken but they really do not hit the spot like my grandparent’s.  While I like KFC’s mashed potatoes and gravy and Popeye’s spicy chicken, I still am on the look out for a delicious plate of chicken. 
            I had an interview on the south side of Chicago and while looking at google maps realized that Harold’s Chicken was only a few blocks from my interview.  Being new and apparently foolish I asked a co-worker who lived on the south side if she knew what Harold’s was, her reaction was the same if I asked her if she knew what McDonald’s was.  Harold’s is a Chicago born fast food restaurant that is iconic in the south side of Chicago.  Chicago residents, Obama, Dwayne Wade, and Common  included, talk about Harold’s Chicken with reverence and it has been mention in more than a few rap songs.
            This Chicago icon is also one of the only black owned fast food restaurants that serves mainly a black clientele. Harold Pierce started it in 1950, 2 years before the Colonel started serving out his Kentucky-fried wares, and it has exploded since then from the first one at 47th and Rosen, it is up to 62 locations throughout the southside, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Houston among other cities.  Most fast food joints of the era refused to go into the historically black areas so Harold started his own restaurant to fill that need in the community.
From what I had heard from friends and co-workers for the best soul food/southern food, the southside was my best bet and I am not one to scoff at advice like that.  Since I have not been on the southside short of the one time I went to the Museum of Science and Industry, I jumped on this chance to try what the southside has to offer but I can promise this will not be the last.  Places like Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea, or any other Michelin star restaurant juggernaut are in the loop or on the northside, the southside tends to get ignored but the food culture is anything but ignorable.
            Harold’s is unique for many reasons:  Harold Pierce wanted his restaurants to be unique so he allowed each of his restaurants to develop their own personalities. Every one has the iconic king chasing a chicken logo but the menus and the restaurants all vary considerably.  Some are take-out only, while some you can dine in.  All the chicken is also deep fried in a half beef fat/ half veggie oil mixture.  Harold also wanted all his chicken to be served fresh so he insisted that every restaurant fry the chickens on the spot, but the 15 minute wait seemed too much, so the current owners decided to par-fry the chicken then fry it to completion upon order.  
            I was elated when I found out that there was a Harold's Chicken on the northside.  It is located across from Truman College, on W. Wilson Ave.  I will someday make the trek down to the southside to try the Harold's Chicken there but for this day I had to get to work so I walked to Uptown and got Harold's Chicken there.  Harold's Chicken was not fancy, and was nothing more than a counter and a few benches for the waiting patrons. It is a relatively new location, only being at its location in Uptown for the past year, compared to the 60 year history in the southside, it has no where near the history that other locations do.  I ordered the 1/2 dark chicken dinner with mild sauce.  A co-worker told me that if nothing else I had to try the mild sauce.  And if you look on facebook and google there are sites after sites that are dedicated to mild sauce and even a rap song by Kenlo Key (Do not know who that is but the craze over mild sauce is the point) dedicated to it.  
             The worst part about Harold's is that there is no sitting area so I had to walk 15 minutes home to actually enjoy the food.  What made it almost unbearable was every couple blocks I would catch a waft of the mild sauce and was tempted to simply find a empty wall and plop down and start eating in an alley. After what seemed like forever I finally made my way back to my apartment when I ripped open the bag. It was soaked through with the steam of the chicken and everything underneath was slathered with the mild sauce: chicken, fries, and white bread.  The chicken skin was soaked through with the mild sauce, and the bits that were left untouched were crispy.  
              The chicken legs were extremely moist and the mild sauce was incredible.  A sweet and rich tomato sauce with only the most sneaking hints of spiciness.  The fries were slathered with the sauce as well and I will never need ketchup again.  I will swear off Heinz forever if I can dip all my fries in the mild sauce.  The sauce was incredible but the chicken was even more so, usually sauce is meant to cover less-than-great food but not at Harold's.  The sauce only makes the chicken and fries even better.  The fries were simple crinkle cuts, nothing special and not even that good but the sauce improved those immensely.  Harold's Chicken Shack is a Chicago icon and has been expanding to countless other cities across the US.  I am not a fan of fast food but I will make an exception for a Chicago-born joint with such a rich and important history, especially when I have so many people around me praising Harold's Chicken.