A few days ago, a good friend posted photos of rather appetizing barbecue dishes on her Facebook page. Come to find out that it was at a restaurant that her cousin owns. I was excited until I saw that it was in the far South Suburbs. That meant driving through downtown Chicago’s mixing bowl, which is a test of your patience and the soundproofing in your car to mute the screaming. But the food looked so good. So, I dashed through the mixing bowl and way off the map to get some sauce on my fingers.
Recently, an individual who has been following Chicago Alphabet Soup’s Facebook page sent a fantastic list of restaurants that would be a fit for the blog. There were several ethnic restaurants that are now on the list for sampling so that they may get press on the blog. And then there were a few like Lone Star BBQ Bar that left me hankering for a little Down South eating.
A friend who was in Chicago briefly and a mutual friend who jokingly inquires as to whether his plate is ready met with me at Lone Star BBQ Bar at 3350 N. Harlem Avenue. Completely devoid of pretense and fancy presentation, if the smell doesn’t win you over, I fear you may not be in the correct place. Since the three of us are individuals with amped-up appetites, we had a go of several menu items.
While snacking on the complimentary pickled pickles, peppers, carrots, and onions, the first small dish to land on the table was a platter of onion rings with a barbecue sauce and a spicy mayo sauce for dipping. Unlike the “essence of onion rings” purchased from the frozen section at the local market with nothing but crust and imitation onion flakes, these were real onions in a perfect batter. The dipping sauces were considerably better options than usual ketchup.
The second small plate was frito pie. This deep dish consisted of well-seasoned ground beef topped with fritos that were topped with healthy helpings of tomatoes, guacamole, and sour cream. Texas came to Chicago and three sets of teeth gnashed away at this dish until the server exclaimed, “I do declare,” when all she saw left were a smear of gravy and a few corn chip crumbs.
By now we figured we’d work our way into the barbecue part of the menu. We ordered barbecue wings. Now was our turn to say, “I do declare.” The wings were plump, bursting with each bite. Not only was the barbecue delicious in a tangy sense, but these were not just bland grilled chicken wings with sauce on them. These were well worth the barbecue sauce all over our fingers, on our chins, and dabs here and there on our cheeks.
One friend ordered a double-decker beef burger with a side of macaroni and cheese and a side of fries. The burger had been topped with onion rings and he applied a house made sauce to the sandwich before going to work on it. There was very little conversation from him after he put the napkin across the front of his shirt. That was code for “This is what’s going to happen.” Understood.
The remaining two of us at the table ordered half slabs of baby back ribs with sides of baked beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and buttermilk biscuits with honey butter. The ribs were grilled Texas style such that they didn’t fall off the bone, yet they weren’t tough either. They were just right, said Goldilocks. How we managed to finish all the food that we ate escapes me. Then again, we do become lumberjacks over plates of food after we leave our office jobs.
Anyone who wants a taste of Texas while in Chicago will enjoy the offerings at Lone Star BBQ Bar. The restaurant is not a gimmick. The preparation of the meat is one indicator. Listening to one of the restaurant staff members explain how they prepare the sausages also gave indication that they’re not buying meats from the grocery store and heating it up either. They’re getting it fresh from a butcher. If you want a laid back dining experience without the shame of getting barbecue sauce all over the place, make your way to Lone Star BBQ Bar. Yawl, hear?
My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 has been rather simplistic — get my weight up to 230 pounds. That may seem like a piece of cake for some people. But in my Disney show, my high metabolism does not allow for me to balloon that fast. The good thing is that my appetite from having started working out last year got me up to 215 pounds. My height has been a blessing in terms of distributing my weight gain, so I don’t look as though I weigh over 200 punds. The weight training I have been doing so far in 2013 is blowing up everything to the point where my wardrobe is fitting snug and the protein powders keep me in the refrigerator — even in the middle of the night — when I’m not at a restaurant ordering from a menu. I will be at my target weight in no time and then probably find myself wondering what a few additional pounds on top of 230 would look like. Needless to say, in my Disney show, I will enjoy getting there.
In keeping with my constant appetite frenzy, I had met with a friend at a Japanese barbecue restaurant that she and I had gone to a few times during the summer. To the casual pedestrian, Gyu-Kaku at 210 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood may look like a tourist trap. Only once you go in and hear all the Japanese being spoken do you realize that this restaurant is a haven of authenticity. For me, it also means a lot of food and me diligently working towards fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution quite possibly well in advance of the year ending. As frosty as it was outside and being only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan where the wind was whipping back and forth between the skyscrapers, sitting down at a table with a hot barbecue grill in the middle was a splendid option.
We started with drinks, one thing that bartenders at Asian restaurants do to complete satisfaction. My friend had an Asian pear martini. I had a lychee mojito. Martinis and mojitos are as popular as or more popular than beer in Chicago. And bartenders get martinis and mojitos right. Along with our drinks came miso soup. Noting from an off-the-shelf carton, I can attest. There was no salt in it. Any time a dish comes heavy with salt, that is a huge indication of something not being homemade. All you get with the miso soup at Gyu-Kaku is flavour, not the risk of high blood pressure. I turned my cup up and slurped it true Japanese style. The soup was delicious and it warmed me up on the inside. There was no need to be a prude about it. After we had finished our cups of happiness then came a cup of pure bliss. If you have ever had salad at a Japanese restaurant, then you know what it is like to be in good favour. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, fresh lettuce, eggs, cheese, ginger dressing, and smiles are all you get. It was exactly what we wanted, as we had anticipated devouring some of the salad ever since we had decided to meet at Gyu-Kaku for dinner.
We had ordered the Geisha course, which was enough for two people. Just as the first round of meat and vegetables arrived for us to put on the barbecue, there was some sashimi salmon brought to the table. Served raw, we employed our chopsticks and worked them on the salmon without dropping anything. Well, whatever we did drop ended up on our tongues where it eventually disappeared down our throats. The sashimi salmon was the last bit of raw meat that we had. It was then time for us to begin grilling our own meat and continuing with our moment of food happiness.
With the Geisha course, my friend and I were presented with a few marinated meats that we had to grill ourselves. Prime rib eye stead. Bara kalbi. Chuck kalbi. Bistro harami. Shrimp. Vegetables consisting of corn, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. Smiles. Since we are regulars at Gyu-Kaku, we knew the routine as far as how long each meat was to remain on the grill and whether to place the items in the middle or on the sides. We were quite efficient and even slick enough to pluck some of the meat from the grill with our chopsticks. With amazing agility, we grilled, ate, had conversation, and nodded with appreciation for all the good things that had been seasoned well, cooked to our satisfaction, and gobbled to completion. Move over Korean barbecue. Hello, Gyu-Kaku.
Now, of all the menu items to come with the Geisha course, the one that I love the most is the bibimbap. Queue scene with me walking like the Frankenstein monster, arms outstretched, and moaning. What do you want? Bibimbap. What do you like to eat? Bibimbap. What can you not get enough of? Bibimbap. You’re a zombie, so now what do you want? Bibimbap. Prepared tableside in a hot concrete bowl, my friend and I requested to have our bibimbap spicy. We are not adverse to having the flavour of our food pop by the addition of peppers. Bibimbap is not meant to be served like baby food. It is meant to make the scalp exhale heat. And on what was very much a frosty Friday night, we were zombies that groaned, grunted, and applied our chopsticks to our bowls of bibimbap. Have you ever known the Frankenstein monster to derive any pleasure before the townspeople torched to tower to which he fled? He should have been granted a taste of bibimbap. He may have become a welcomed part of the community.
After polishing off all the delectable meats, vegetables, and further making ourselves bibimbap-satisfied zombies, we sat for a moment before indulging a sweet. We were always accustomed to sitting downstairs and had never paid attention to the area beyond the upstairs bar where we often wait before getting our table. Well, this evening, we sat in the upstairs part of the restaurant, which is past the upstairs bar. Same cozy ambience and still filled with other Japanese who were no doubt happy to have a restaurant in the city reminiscent of what they had in Japan, we took it all in as we let our stomachs settle. And then came the dessert option. Marshmallows, dark chocolate, and Graham crackers sat on a plate before my friend and I got our skewers and sang our own brand of a campfire song while roasting our marshmallows. Nothing spectacular and no presentation with a wow factor, as it was just us preparing our own dessert. If you ever engage the notion of making samores in the future, I highly recommend dark chocolate and if it is bittersweet chocolate, all the better. For an after-dinner drink, it was loose leaf green tea for us. None of that what-not in the bag, especially with us being tea snobs. And we drank it without any sugar, which was an indication that it was a very, very good leaf. When we were done, we banged our glasses on the table and yelled “arigato” to our server. Well done.
Gyu-Kaku is whistling distance from the Magnificent Mile. For those with milder palates, there are numerous restaurant options to satisfy your appetite. But for those who love a good adventure, Gyu-Kaku is certainly an option I would entertain every time the chance comes up. It is a great place to go with friends who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking part in the cooking process of the food. Everything is marinated to perfection, if not beyond idyllic. All you have to do is engage, enjoy, and appreciate the package. Perhaps in your very own Disney, you too will walk around like the Frankenstein monster, grunting, growling, and gobbling all good things Gyu-Kaku can put in front of you. And would you look at that. I am now a little over 215 pounds, per the scale. I’m well on my way.
Earlier this week I went to one of the Cuban restaurants where I had gone in January — Cafecito. This time a colleague who had recommended the restaurant accompanied me on my visit. Upon entry, the owner greeted me by name and I greeted him by name. We chatted at length and when I introduced my colleague, he asked if she was the one who had told me about the restaurant. He had read the journal entry I had written about my experience at Cafecito and his recollection of the statement I had given about my colleague recommending the place was very telling. His brand of authenticity will be missed greatly.
Throughout the week, I finally experienced the bittersweet moment that I knew would come eventually, with me soon to depart Chicago. I got a chance to meet with a few past co-workers, great friends, family, a past supervisor, and several others who have become significant parts of my circle. They jokingly rubbed in the fact that my constant appetite will keep me in some eatery in DC stuffing my jaws and that I will perhaps gain weight. They gave me names of cafés, restaurants, and holes in the wall that will certainly please the palate. A few paid for my Chicago Symphony Orchestra tickets and one volunteered to take my Chicago Lyric Opera subscription. And they all blocked my time for the remainder of my stay so that we could fellowship. Their brand of authenticity will be missed greatly.
On Friday night, I returned to a certain Korean barbecue restaurant in Chicago’s North Side named San Soo Gab San. Teeming with people, this house of all good eats was perfect for escaping wet, dreary weather. Rainy on the outside, warm and toasty on the inside, one of my great friends and I had decided to meet to get our fill of countless little bowls of edibles, and entrée of a savoury noodle dish, and meat on a hibachi. With cameras in hand and a camcorder, too, this time, I was ready. And my great friend was equally as ready as he brought his fantastic camera to capture the impressions left on the table for us to address and the final snapshots of how aggressive we were with the treats set before us.
For anyone who has gone to any Korean barbecue restaurant, you are well aware that nothing comes to the table ala American fare. Little bowls of this, that, and the other are stacked on the table in whatever spot available. When you think that there is no more room because an entrée has arrived at the table and plates of raw meat so that you can grill yourself have been brought, the servers figure out how to move things around to make more room for additional small bowls. Aye, aye, aye! Kimchee, potato salad, potatoes, lettuce, spiced pickles, bean sprouts, spiced tofu, water vegetables, peanut sauce, and things that you simply eat so that you can make space are there for the sampling. Although I am primarily vegetarian, albeit not one leading a crusade against eating meat, I had some chop chae. This plate of happiness — clear noodles, chopped beef, onions, and scallions — went down the gullet with no complaint and no wicked side effects. Well, that is unless you count being sleepy afterwards a side effect. There was bulgolgi, which is well-seasoned beef, shredded nicely, and doctored with a splendid amount of spices that went on the grill and cooked to bliss. Same was the case with the lip-smacking chicken. Gobbled up with all of the small side dishes, my great friend and I did one of the most awful things afterwards: we went and had gelato at Paciugo in Lakeview. I am not talking about a manageable scoop of one flavour either. No, there were four scoops stuffed into our individual cups and tended to with utmost diligence. Oh the shame of it all.
Saturday I spent a moment downtown taking in some architectural photography. Most of it was inside because the wind that whipped back and forth from Lake Michigan was a bit more nippy than I had anticipated. I visited the Chicago Cultural Centre and kicked my self, literally, for having not gone before now. The architecture, the attention to detail, the glass dome, the Tiffany dome, and the moment of relaxation that gave such ideal escape were exactly what I needed. After a few hours had passed, my belly started growling. Haha. Another great friend from Phuket, Thailand, met me downtown at a Thai restaurant after my photography session. Having gone to the restaurant, My Thai, it was great being able to see the manager and constant wait staff one last time. Where it became a quiet moment was when it dawned on my Thai friend and me is that we both are leaving Chicago, he to return to Thailand, me to go to DC. He was one of the first people I had met when I moved to Chicago seventeen years ago, an authentic friend who taught me how to speak in Thai in exchange for me giving him enough in French. Saying lacone, which means good-bye, sounded so final and it left me quiet for far longer than I could manage.
This weekend ended with me catching up with the aforementioned colleague — who really is more like family — who had suggested the Cuban restaurant to me. We met at Eggsperience, one of the American breakfast, brunch, and lunch restaurants in Chicago’s River North. We had fluffy pancakes, crisp waffles, scrambled eggs with cream cheese, freshly squeezed orange juice, a banana smoothie, and plenty of laughter. A quick walk over to Intelligencia, we watched the barrister prepare our coffee through some brewing process that looked more like a science experiment than mere percolating-and-pour. We took in a free concert at Chicago Cultural Centre, given by Chicago Chamber Orchestra. And a brilliant finish to the day was dinner at Tamarind, which is a Pan-Asian restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop, where we had chicken masala, spicy salmon maki, and another maki that was incredibly catchy to the eye and filling to the tummy. Of all days, I left home sans my camera. The food was journal-worthy.
The upcoming week will come and go in the twinkling of a moment. As I look back over the restaurants that I have visited over the past several years, I am amazed truly at how many I have covered. I never had any intention of putting a restaurant on the blog site that had food unsatisfactory to my palate or service that was not pleasing to my sensibilities. To date, there was not one that failed. There were the magnetism of flavours, outstanding service, and authenticity — there is that word again — that kept me returning. I cannot bottle my moments and place them on a shelf, but I still have records of my adventures. My dining experiences and my relationships have been constants that have kept me smiling. As I go into this final week, I will savour the precious memories and a little thing that the world could use more of: authenticity. Until the last supper…