04 June 2010

Raging the Windy City à la Wind God Gau

That's right, I went, I saw, I ate it all. Did I see the city? No, not really. Did I eat the city? You're GD right I did. I planned out where I wanted to eat and then we figured out the rest on the fly. My good friend M moved out there a little over a year ago and was happy to cart me around, sampling some really great foodses. From the moment I stepped off of the plane on Thursday to when we pulled out of the parking lot at Johnnies Beef on Sunday, we pretty much ate non-stop. We sampled everything from elk sausage and foie gras to to Fruto de Cacao and Thit Nuong with a detour into the Lair of the Minotaur. What the hell am I talking about you ask? Are you salivating with anticipation yet? Well then, let's get right to it.

You may find yourself asking yourself this: Did Mr. Micro have a planned food map and itinerary and did he carry it on his person at all times? Why yes, I most certainly did. No true food obsessive visits a city for the first time without researching where he wants to eat for hours on end. Slow days at work meant researching where I wanted to eat in Chicago.

My flight landed at O'Hare at 9:10pm and after finding M and (getting used to his frighteningly thick black beard that would make even the most backwoods lumberjack green with envy) giving him a hearty greeting we hopped in his car and sped off to our first destination, a place I've been dying to go to ever since I saw it on DD&D: Kuma's MFing Corner!

We approached the hostess and were told there was a 1.5 hour wait, which we were prepared for. I was surprised to see mostly metalheads and locals crowding the joint, but I'm assuming it's packed with tourists on the weekends. The soundtrack was right up my alley, deathcore, grindcore, death metal, and even some black metal I believe. My type of place. And I loved their logo splashed all over the walls "Die Emo Die". Definitely a family joint. Anyway, we put in our names and went to the bar to order a round of beers. When I'm just drinking beer I generally steer clear of pale ales because I feel the bitterness is a bit harsh on it's own, but when I'm about to embark on a big beefy burger, that's a different story altogether. I'd read that Three Floyds is one of the best breweries in the country and fortunately for me they're based out of nearby Indiana so I decided to try their flagship beer the Alpha King Pale Ale.

I loved it's creamy head and how it clung to the sides of the glass. It was definitely hoppy, it smelled bitter and tasted nice and piney. It went great with the smoky fatty greasy food we were shoving in our gullet. A couple right in front of us was paying their check so we secured our spot at the bar after a mere 10 minute wait. Our bartender/waitress was super nice and helpful and kept a great eye on us the whole night. We couldn't decide on what toppings we wanted for our "Make Your Own Mac & Cheese" so we asked her what she likes and she recommended bacon and scallions. This just so happened to be the topping combination I was pulling for so her recommendation sealed the deal.

I don't order M&C very often because I'm very picky about it and it's rare that I find a place that does it right. Luckily, this is exactly how I like my mac & cheese. It has a crumb topping that I'm usually not a fan of, but here it only added a very subtle textural contrast. The pasta was cooked perfectly and not dried out at all. That's one thing I hate about baked M&C is the hard crusty pasta bits. This was dish was creamier than a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man money shot. It had the perfect amount of stringy elasticity to it, clinging to ones chin while dribbling little dots onto ones chest if that helps with your mental picture. Add in a liberal dousing of Cholula and we have lift-off.

I loved the fact that the pasta had the little ridgeties that enabled the creamy sauce to cling to. As expected the bacon added a great crunchy smoky saltiness and the scallion added in it's usual scallionliness. This dish exceeded my expectations and got me super excited for our burgers. It required a significant amount of physical restraint to not Hoover this entire plate. I mean, we had huge softball sized burgers and mountains of fries coming our way, we had to save room. I was extremely pleased that just a few days prior to my visit Kuma's Corner added some new menu items, which included four new burgers which had previously been monthly specials. After much discussion and deliberation we decided to get the Lair of the Minotaur and the new Brujeria burger. Brace yourself, turn up the Carl Orff, and you may want to slip on some Oops I Crapped My Pants, for the burgers cometh:

Just look at the freakin' softballs 'o meat! Let me take this opportunity to fill you in (in case you haven't already soiled yourself) The Lair of the Minotaur is topped with caramelized onions, pancetta, brie, and bourbon soaked pears. The Brujeria features a cream cheese and chorizo stuffed jalapeno popper, cheddar cheese, and charred tomato salsa. Oh yeah, it also features a healthy dosing of Witchcraft.

I went for the Lair of the Minotaur first, as it was the one I had been anticipating the most. I practically had to unhinge my jaw in order to take a bite of this thing, I mean just look at it fully assembled:

This was probably the biggest burger I've ever eaten. This is also a flavor profile I've never even come close to. The creaminess of the brie, the smoky pancetta, yeah those are both pretty tame, but then this damned pear comes out of left field and kicks you in the nuts with sweet tenderness. And I could definitely taste the bourbon, it was like I took a shot. A burger that both fills you up and gets you drunk. I tip my hat to you Kuma's. The pretzel roll wasn't sweet like I was expecting but it was more like a street cart soft pretzel sans the salt.

One complaint I had was the flavors weren't evenly layered so my first few bites were all onions, of which there were a crapload, and I didn't get any pear until the fourth or fifth bite. The patty, ordered medium rare, was properly cooked but since they were so thick the center was straight mush. I wouldnt've minded this so much if there were more of an outer crust to the patty, but unfortunately it was mostly much, albeit delicious mush. The meat to bun ratio was severely skewed in favor of the meat, but luckily the outer shell of the pretzel roll was substantial enough therefor retaining it's structure.

At this point it was time for another round of beers. M and I both had our eye on Left Hand's Milk Stout so we ordered two as if our stomach actually had room for a stout at this point.

This turned out to be one of my favorite beers of the weekend. It's basically an alcoholic milkshake which poured the color of motor oil. Very drinkable and smooth. It's 9am as I'm writing this, but damn it if one wouldn't hit the spot right now. Ah well, onto the Brujeria.

Just look at that meat. This burger pretty much tasted exactly like you would think it would taste, and that is in no way a bad thing. Take a fantastic burger and slap on a stuffed jalapeno popper and some salsa and there you have it. This burger had a more familiar taste and the flavors were evenly layered throughout. It was cheddar, chorizo, jalapeno, and beef. I don't remember tasting the salsa so I would assume that the flavor was lost in the mix.

The waffle fries were surprisingly addictive when paired with their pepper-laced ketchup. They were fat and tender and thankfully not dried out. Overall, I was a little underwhelmed by the burgers. If I were to choose between the two it would definitely be the LotM simply due to the unique combination of flavors. M liked the Brujeria for the exact opposite reason, it was just a good simple burger. The highlight of the meal was by far the Mac. I will say that food of this quality combined with such a kick ass atmosphere really made for a fantastic eating experience. M declared that the food could've been half as good and it still would've been just as packed due to the atmosphere. While I agree with him about the local crowd, I don't think it would have nearly the amount of tourist traffic if the food weren't as good as it is, warranting a visit by Guy Fieri which sent Kuma's into another stratosphere of popularity. We both quickly hit "the wall" and really regretted deciding on such a heavy meal so late at night. We both walked out feeling like we were 8 months pregnant. Falling asleep that night didn't come easily as I felt like I was sleeping on a volleyball.

We anticipated we would be skipping breakfast the next day, so we got ready and headed back a few blocks from Kuma's to Hot Doug's the Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium.

Earlier that week he had posted he would be closing for vacation for the weekend so I was glad we were able to hit it up on Friday. We arrived at 10:30am and, as expected, there was a line but it wasn't too bad so we happily waited, all the while restraining in the urge to strangle the two tattooed girls in front of us who's loud conversation could be summed up as: "And like, he was like, and I was like, and like, but like, like, like, like..." Urge to kill rising...

We eventually made it in the doors and were greeted by none other than the man himself Doug Sohn. I asked if I could take a picture of him and he happily replied "Only if you get in it with me!" and proceeded to pose with me for this shot:

He was the nicest guy in the world and immediately I knew that he loves what he does. It was about 11:05 when we threw down our order: Brown Ale and Chipotle Buffalo Sausage with Half Acre Beer Mustard and Irish Whiskey Cheese, Uber Garlic Pork Sausage with Bacon-Garlic Mayonnaise and Horseradish Cheddar Cheese, Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Fleur de Sel, Pear-Infused Elk Sausage with Foie Gras Dijonnaise and Mustard-Seed Gouda Cheese, and a traditional Chicago dog. Doug replied that they offer them grilled and steamed. I asked what the traditional preparation was and he replied "That's the wrong question to ask. The question you should've asked is which is more delicious!" He recommended grilled so we went with that. We also ordered the essential duck-fat fries. We snagged a table in the back and grabbed drinks and plasticware.

There you can see M's uber-beard. That thing eats worlds à la Unicron. We marveled at all of the awesome hot dog-themed memorabilia. The place smelled utterly fantastic. Take all of the most delicious animals on the planet and throw them on a huge grill, that's what it smelled like. Yeah, all you vegetarians out there are really loving that mental picture, aren't you? Animals are delicious.

Now you will have to bear with me here as you can only eat so many hot dogs at once before the flavors all sort of run together so the subtleties of all of the sauces and cheeses were kind of lost on me. So my notes will be short and sweet.

The first one I tried was the buffalo which was fantastically spicy. The mustard sauce was great and the cheese was nice and smoky. Didn't pick up on the beer or whiskey, but damn it was good.

My favorite part about the elk was the fact that the dog itself was well done and had a great crispy black crust. The flavor profile of the elk itself was strange and my notes say that I couldn't really describe it. I loved the crunchy texture the mustard seeds gave the cheese. This one was going to be hard to top.

The duck-fat fries were definitely the richest fries I've ever had. They're basically potato crisps infused with ducky fatty goodness. They were served unsalted and we didn't really feel like they needed additional salt. M made a good point that if these fries weren't cooked in duck fat, they would probably be sub-par. They were limp and slightly crispy but for the most part they were just serviceable. M would've liked to try the regular fries to see if them being cooked in duck-fat was the sole reason for their popularity.

The foie gras dog was definitely the one with the least amount of textural contrast. It was uniformly soft all the way through, with no real snap to the casing. As I like squishy soft mushy goo-type things this really didn't bother me but I could see it being a turn off for some people. The flavor can be summed up as richness with a slight hint of richness. This thing was rich to the nth power, where n is the number of duck-fat fries you've consumed. This dog was freakin' ridiculous. M had one bite and had had enough, but I plowed through the rest of it. Give me the squishy soft indulgence. Puree it and I'd glady eat it with a spoon.

Next up was the uber garlic bacon. Tons of smoke and tons of garlic, but not much else. I didn't get any horseradish flavor at all from the cheese. A damn fine dog, but not quite on the same level as the first three.

The Chicago dog unfortunately paled in comparison to the others. This was my first Chicago dog and, while I really enjoyed it, I didn't quite get what all the fuss was about. One mistake we made is we missed the sign saying we had to add our own sport peppers so that may have been the problem. Another complaint I had with it was that it completely blew up after my first bite. Surprisingly, what I did like was the tomato which added a slight bitterness and a ton of juice. I also would've like a more liberal dusting of celery salt and we both agreed that it probably would've been just as good with half as much crap on it. Again, the sport peppers may have vastly improved the dog, but I'll have to wait until my next trip to Chicago to test that theory.

M's favorite was the elk because the cheese had a great texture to it from the mustard seeds, which I completely agree with, and he felt the casing had the most snap, probably due to the fact that it had been cooked longer. Here's a second look at that action:

At first I proclaimed my favorite to be the buffalo due to the mustard sauce, but after we went back in for our second round of bites, my favorite kept changing to whichever dog I had last taken a bite of. The elk, bufflo, and duck were all amazing for different reasons and I couldn't pick a favorite between the three. We had eaten 5 hotdogs and an order of duck-fat fries and were comfortably full. Just look at how long the line had gotten as we were leaving:

I'm glad we got there when we did. Our next destination was pretty much the only non-food-related activity we did all weekend: The Field Museum!

I'm not going to get into a really long description of the museum but it was really awesome. My favorite exhibit was the Ancient Americas and we got really lucky as Lyuba was on display. Here are some random pics from our wanderings:

Lyuba! Ain't she cute in a horrific sunken zombie-like way?

Two lions that love to eat people.

Why are walruses so popular? I'll give you a hint:

Moving right along... Let's keep this really high-brow shall we?

My wife loves that game. Let's end this part of the show with two of the most badass creatures to ever walk the earth:

The Giant Sloth!

And the Cassowary!

Sometimes when I don't clip my toenails for a while, my wife swears mine could do the same. It's just me embracing my inner-Cassowary. Everyone should! Don't deny it, embrace it!

After spending pretty much all day at the Fields Museum finally the moment was upon us. We had 6:30 reservations at Rick Bayless' upscale Mexican restaurant Topolobampo.

M and I walked into the bar side and waited for M's lady friend MG to arrive as they wouldn't seat us until our fully party was present. The decor was typical for this type of place, with bold and bright colors and authentic Mexican artwork and knick knacks.

MG arrived shortly thereafter and the three of us were led by a wonderfully accommodating maître d' to our table. I'd been salivating over the menu and already knew that I wanted the Celebration tasting menu. M opted to go for the same and MG ordered a regular dish off the menu. I perused the seasonal beverage menu and laid my eyes on a Mango Mojito: sweet Honey Manila mango, lime juice, fresh mint, and D'Aristi Yucatecan rum. Yes, I'd like one of those please. Let the feasting begin.

Unfortunately, the mojito wasn't the best way to start the meal. There was tons of freshly muddled mint in the glass, so much that it drowned out any subtleties the drink may have had. I love mint, but I could barely taste the mango. My favorite part of the beverage was the skewered piece of chile dusted fresh mango. A bowl of those would've been lovely. The first edible thing to hit our table was a complimentary bowl of guacamole with ramps and bacon served with jicama and cucumber chips.

Throughout our meal, our waitress was a treat, taking the time to really describe our dishes to the extent of her abilities, which was quite vast indeed. I always listened intently, but was unable to take notes on all she said. She was hip to my schemes, but didn't mind me recording notes and taking pictures. The guac was super creamy, a nice smokey crunch from the bacon, a little spicy, crunchy ramps as well.

Now this is what I'm talking about. A simple dish made with the highest possible quality of ingredients. It was a little hard to eat with the cucumber slices because they were so soft but the jicama was a perfect vehicle, slightly sweet and crispy crunchy. This got the whole table excited for what was to come.

Our first course, Pescado Crudo "al Pastor" was a play on the traditional preparation of tacos al Pastor deconstructed. Sashimi-grade Hawaiian day-boat catch with La Quercia prosciutto crust, lime pudding, three-chile salsa, grilled pineapple, a red chile cracker, cilantro, and nubs of grilled green onions.

Unfortunately, none of us could recall what type of fish this was, but the dish really worked. I'm not even sure if I've ever had authentic tacos al Pastor, but at least now my palette has a nice baseline for what to expect. Albeit an extremely high baseline, hehe. This was a fun playful presentation that had me quite aroused. Something about the combination of the sweetness from the lime pudding and pinapple-jicama slaw and the salty heat from the prosciutto and chile-dusted fish. Add in a sprig of cilantro and a piece grilled green onion and the essence of tacos al Pastor is achieved. This course was fun and while I definitely had no complaints about it, the following course definitely stole some of it's thunder.

Course two was Huevos Motu-freakin'-leños and it dry-humped my tastebuds into submission. Huevos motulenos is a traditional Mexican breakfast dish. This version featured a slow-poached egg and seared pork belly with roasted tomato-habanero sauce, black beans, orange-dressed pea shoot salad, and a rustic tostada.

I have a hard time describing fine dining as I'm pretty much a noob when it comes to white table cloths and tasting menus. This was another deconstruction of a dish I've never had, but have read extensively about. I tried all of the components individually and then had the time of my life mixing them altogether.

M piped in that he loved the fact that even after mixing them all together each component could still be tasted, and I agreed that the resulting flavor profile was very harmonious. The slow poached egg was a oozy yellow glob of richness that could've only been concocted with the use of a wizard's spellbook (caster lvl. 19). In my voice memo I proclaimed "this dish takes me back to the flavor of those frozen grocery store-bought burritos, but in the best way imaginable."

I loved the touch of citrus on the pea-shoot salad, and the pork belly was just as good as one would expect at a restaurant of this caliber. I'm being completely honest when I say that I had to hold back a tear when I finished cleaning plate of this lovely dish. I announced to my table that while this may be a fancy place, I was about 2 seconds away from walking back into the kitchen to lick all of the dirty dishes clean. A highlight of the meal to be sure.

By this point I had downed my mojito so I opted for the Cucapa "Chupacabras" - a Mexican craft beer new to the states. The menu describes it as an enticing orange color with subtle maltiness balanced by clean hops--in the style of an American pale ale.

As you can see, it was served in an awesome can. It was nice and bright and hoppy and helped in cutting the richness of the huevos, also pairing nicely with the seafood in our next course: Mariscos en Chilpachole.

This dish was yet another deconstruction of the popular Mexican seafood stew Chilpachole. The dish is described as grilled baby octopus, Viking Village sea scallop, soft-shell crawfish, PEI mussels, and tender squid in a velvety chilpachole broth of chipotle chiles, epazote and tomato and yuca "sand."

As you can see by the picture, the mussel was very very tiny as were the two microscopic pieces of squid. The grilled octopus was good, M really liked it, but the version I had at Pazo blew it out of the water. The highlights of this dish were without a doubt the scallop which was one of the sweetest I've had, and the spicy tomato broth. I loved how you could control how thick you wanted your sauce by incorporating the yucca "sand". The crawfish had a good texture but I didn't really taste the crawfish as much as I tasted the light breaded coating. The morel mushrooms that accompanied the dish were little salt bombs and after trying one I avoided them like the plague. Unfortunately, this dish was a miss for me.

I did get a chance to try MG's entree which came out at the same time and it was excellent. It came with fresh corn tortillas and, while I'm usually partial to flour, these definitely converted me to a lover of corn. Without a doubt the best tortillas I've ever had. I could eat a stack of these plain.

I didn't get the chance to record the components of MG's dish but it was mushroom on mushroom with a sauce composed of pistachios and serranos and fried goat cheese. It was a crazy balance of flavors, screaming earthiness, the fried goat cheese adding a great crunchy texture and of course a little gamey tang from the cheese itself. Being a lover of all things mushroom and goat cheese, how could I not love this dish?

Borrego en Mole Negro was our fourth course and the primary protein dish. Roasted Elysian Fields lamb "ribeye" in classic Oaxacan black mole (made from chilhuacle chiles and 28 other ingredients) accompanied by seared lamb belly, a black bean tamalon, huazontles, and jamaica whip.

This was another dish that floored me. I love lamb and I love pork belly, so my first taste of lamb belly blew my freakin' mind, man! I was a little confused on how to eat this but I quickly figured it out. Cut off a little sliver of lamb belly and dip it in the mole (which was most certainly amazing, but not leaps and bounds above the mole I've had at Miguel's in Baltimore) and then get a little bit of the huazontles (the flower buds from the Lamb's Quarters plant which I can only describe as having a texture similar to the buds of a broccoli floret, but with more bitterness) and a little dab of the whip (which I believe was made from cacao flowers, but I could be wrong) and achieve the second coming in your mouth.

Let me break this down for you as I hyper-analyzed the S outta this dish: The bitterness from the green accentuates the bitterness in the mole, the sweetness from the whip accentuates the sweetness of the mole, and the fattiness of the belly rounds out the bite. But wait, there's more! Combine the lamb loin with the mole and the tamal. The tamal had the most tender masa I've had to date. After all of this analysis I came to the realization that anything on the plate combined with anything else on the plate resulted in mega-delicousness. Another bonus was that my beer paired wonderfully with this dish. But we're still not done!! Can you handle any more? This dish also came with a stack of fresh corn tortillas so even after all of the components are gone, you can still sop up the remaining mole with the best tortillas on the planet. And I'm spent. Almost. Can you believe the best dish is still to come? We must press onward, dear friends, for time is of the essence.

Our final course was our dessert Cafe con Leche y Chocolate which was very chocolatey chocolate ganache cake with espresso pudding, bittersweet chocolate swirl ice cream, and cookie crunch.

The ice cream was fantastic, the cake was fantastic, the... you get the point. My favorite component had to be the bittersweet chocolate swirl ice cream. It's hard to describe this dish because it stood in the awesome shadow of MG's dessert, the Fruto de Cacao, which was without question the best dessert any of us had ever tasted. Bittersweet "Single Origin" Mexican chocolate cake with silky cacao fruit espuma and milk chocolate ice cream (scented with Oaxacan flor de cacao).

We should've been expecting greatness when the waitress recommended it without hesitation. Just listen to my babblingly hilarious voice memo: "The Fruto de Cacao was... Oh my god! While our dessert was amazing, this dish was downright transcendent. Every component is mind-blowingly good. The dried fruit cake-thing, the dulce de leche ice cream, the white puffy thing, the ribbon thing... Ehhuuohmigod. This dish speaks volumes." I'm not even sure what I meant by that last one, but I feel that clearly illustrates the mental state this dish had put me in. Give me a bib and a bedpan and put me in the corner, this dish forced my mind into cruise control. Not too sweet, it had a touch of smokiness, it was floral but not overpoweringly so. We all agreed that the sensation even went up into our brains and somehow fired all of our sences. Even my spidey-sense was tingling. I'm not going to butcher this review any further, just go try this dish while it's still on the menu!

Our meal concluded with petit fours of black cherry and some sort of truffle. I liked the black cherry one because it tasted like a condensed fruit roll-up. MG loved the truffle but I felt like it was a bit too salty for me. What a ridiculously amazing meal. It lived up to my expectations, and since Rick Bayless is one of my favorite celebrity chefs, that really says a lot. I can't wait to get back to Chicago so I can try Frontera and Xoco.

A thought came to me while I was trying to fall asleep that night: Just how many animals did I eat today? I made a list, checked it twice, and came up with 12: Buffalo, elk, duck, pig, lamb, chicken, mussels, scallops, octopus, squid, crawfish, and some sort of white fish. Did I miss any? I didn't count cow because while I did eat a lot of cheese and ice cream, I didn't actually consume any part of the cow itself. It amazes me that our body is built to process so many different species. MMMmmmm species. Thus part one of my journey comes to an end. As always thanks for being my friends.
Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon
Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

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Xani said...

Great write ups! Chicago is a bad-ass food city. My first trip there I hit Kumas and Hot Doug's as well. I go back to Doug's EVERY TIME, along with my other Chicago fave, MORE cupcakes-- did you get a chance to try those?

Mr. Micro said...

No, unfortunately not. We did hit up a few bakeries, both of which were disappointing.

Patience my friend, I'll get to them. These posts don't write themselves!

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